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Making LGBT Great: Cathy Renna

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Over the past 20 years there has been a steady increase in the number of positive and accurate portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the media and popular culture. These positive images have gone a long way toward helping achieve equality and promoting pride in the LGBT community.

Cathy Renna has been on the front lines of this movement as a nationally recognized media relations expert and leader within the LGBT community. As a major force behind the success and growth of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), where she worked for 14 years, Cathy served as a primary spokesperson for GLAAD, as well as its first National News Media Director.

Cathy played a central role in shaping media coverage of both the beating death of Matthew Shepard in 1998, a tragedy that became a cultural marker for a shift in the level of media visibility of LGBT issues, and the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, during which her efforts contributed to thwarting church officials' attempts to link the dynamic of abuse to sexual orientation.

Since leaving GLAAD and founding her independent, New York-based PR firm, Renna Communications, in 2006, Cathy has worked to increase the visibility of clients such as the Williams Institute, OutServe, the Ali Forney Center, The Fenway Institute and more.

Over the past few years Cathy has been instrumental in:
  • Playing a crucial role in the successful 2009 DC for Marriage campaign in the District of Columbia, implementing a communications strategy that put LGBT people of color front and center
  • Working with The Palm Center to take a leading role in coordinating the media strategy around the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in late 2010
  • Elevating the profile of transgender issues, including transgender and gender-nonconforming children, as a vital component of the broader movement for LGBT equality
  • Raising the issue of LGBT youth homelessness to national prominence through media coverage of the work of clients the Ali Forney Center and the Ruth Ellis Center
  • Publicizing the groundbreaking research of Dr. Caitlin Ryan's Family Acceptance Project, which proves that parents can save their LGBT children's lives by accepting them for who they are

What personal or professional accomplishment are you the more proud of?

Renna: The personal and professional blend so much for me, making this so difficult. But I think I am personally most proud of my relationship with my daughter, who has taught me a lot about life and always will. Professionally, there are many things I have felt so fortunate to find myself a part of: helping shape the media coverage of hate crimes, especially Matt Shepard and Fred Martinez; combating the homophobia of the Catholic Church; speaking out against the anti-LGBT sentiments of all the of Dr. Lauras and Michael Savages of the world; and, most importantly, working with parts of our community who are less visible, from transgender children to bisexual people to families. So I think what I am most proud of is sticking to my principles even when it was not popular or easily related to the diversity and complexity of our community and the need for visibility for all of us.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the LGBT community?

Renna: Our greatest challenge is, in my opinion, also our greatest strength: our diversity. Who we are as LGBT people cuts across all the other parts of our identity -- age, race, ethnicity, faith beliefs, economic status, etc. -- making our "community" a microcosm of society. With that come all the challenges faced by society: racism, classism, ageism, sexism and all the other "-isms." Add the burden of the impact that homophobia (internalized and external) has on our health and lives and it creates a tremendous challenge to working together well and not having to deal with very difficult conflicts within our community.

What two or three things can individuals do to help make LGBT great?

Renna: First and foremost, get your own house in order. Internalized homophobia/transphobia eats you out from the inside. We rarely talk about this, but it is the core of so many challenges we face unnecessarily, and it is bad for your health (physical and mental). If you learn to accept and love yourself, the rest will come much more easily. Second, come out as much as you can safely. Don't underestimate the ability of people to grow and learn and not only come to accept but celebrate who you are as an LGBT person. And be patient with them; change and education take time. We need allies. As Matt Shepard's mother Judy says all the time, "there are not enough of you -- you need us allies to really make the change we want to see." Finally, educate yourself as much as you can, and get involved in whatever way feels comfortable and is accessible to you.

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Cathy continues to be highly sought after by the media as a spokesperson on LGBT issues and has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Good Morning America and numerous local affiliate shows throughout the country. Additionally, she contributes frequently to The Huffington Post and recently wrote a moving essay for National Coming Out Day that shows how fabulous she is. Cathy Renna is someone who makes LGBT great.

Note: This is part of a series of profiles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight individuals who are working to improve the lives of LGBT residents and their thoughts on how to make LGBT great. To find out more about this project, visit Facebook.com/makeLGBTgreat.