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Leaning In and Coming Out: A Historic Week for LGBT People

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The confluence of the call to "lean in" (Sheryl Sandberg's admonition to women to not opt out of any opportunity prematurely) and the Supreme Court's historic review this week of the Prop 8 and DOMA cases (originally passed in 1996 during my tenure as head of the Human Rights Campaign) inspired me to provide my "lean" in story with a big gay twist. (Plus I could not meet the 500-word requirement of the lean in site.)

I would grow up to haggle with presidents, senators, and CEOs over basic rights for gay (LGBT) people, but I got my start as a dragon slayer in the forests of Vancouver Island, Canada, where I grew up.

It was there that I conquered my first dragon, saved lives in peril and sailed the seas, peering out from my crow's nest at the tippy top of a young Douglas fir tree. I was a tomboy (aka fierce little lesbian), and this tree was my ship and my lookout -- until I was old enough to slip the crow's nest forever. This tree, like me, had survived the dark shadows cast by the old thick adult stand of trees looming above, but was not yet old enough to suffocate others. It existed just for me -- to swing and sway -- for comfort and adventure. I was six6years old and I rocked -- leaning in and out -- like a baby on the treetop.

Unlike any other tree, I could rely on its perfectly placed branches -- spaced especially for a girl adventurer -- to hold all of my tiny frame, even in full top tilt. I would climb to the top and swing way down and then spring back up to heaven, both comforted and thrilled. And later, when evening would descent on the woods, I would reluctantly come down, and drop to the ground -- having swayed and dipped for a timeless expanse.

With my wits alone (there were five children and not much money), knowing I was gay, I conspired with the universe to leave home young. I figured out a way to depart in my mid-teens and finish high school in a student program. I lived in in 10 countries in Europe, North Africa and the United States for my final year. It was that year, living in every setting from the medinas of Casa Blanca to an ancient nunnery in Italy, and everything in between, I learned there were gay and lesbian people everywhere. We could see each other, even in the shadows -- passing, surviving, waiting for a time when we might find a community -- our own tribe. Some even dared to imagine a family one day.

When I returned after the "great journey," having now finished high school, I did not last long before I took off again. Knowing my young LGBT spirit would be crushed if I stayed, I ran off to Hawai'i to be with my first girlhood love, a Hawaiian rock 'n' roll singer I had fallen hard for in Europe. I was barely 18. (Although I did not know him, a young boy named Barack Obama was just up the road attending a school called Punahou in those years.)

I put myself through undergraduate school in Hawai'i in oceanography and political science. I was always drawn to the sea and spent a few years studying its treasures. There is something built into my constitution that allows me to flourish on the highest of seas, even as everyone around me has turned green. Along with other escaped lesbians from the islands and around the world, we passed the time riding big waves on boards and reading Simone de Beauvoir, wondering what she saw in Jean-Paul Sartre.

Eventually adulthood set in, in large part because I was penniless. I cobbled together applications, loans and grants so I could put myself through law school in northern California. I was lucky. I did so just as sapling computer startups began springing up to replace cherry trees a mythical place that became known as Silicon Valley. Apple was one of those young companies. Very early I admired the spirit of Steve Jobs -- not the stomping, frustrated brat -- but the beautiful, restless boy-man who insisted on precision performance inside of exquisite design. To me, the Apple IIc had perfect lines and embodied youth, hope and revolution. I studied for my bar exam on an Apple IIc. To me, it was gay (in an insanely great way).

I eventually got my dream and worked for Apple. But, before that was possible, I had to put in some years at a big San Francisco law firm. I lived in the Castro and AIDs was pulverizing our people. We all amassed hundreds of pro bono hours mounting test case litigation to stop insurance companies from redlining as we wrote wills for 22-year-olds. We did what we could to care for the beautiful young gay men dying all around us. So not that long after I had ditched the boogie board and dreams of being a merchant marine (think Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall), for a long time, I lived a plague-filled life.

Apple was a ray of light. I had a law degree, and that was enough to qualify me as an adult in a sea of young brilliant programmers. They let me run litigation and it was like living in a digital renaissance.

By the mid 1990s, something started to happen. The dark, plague-filled clouds began to part, however slightly, and there seemed to be an awakening -- a ray of light emerging in Washington. It represented a kind of hope we desperately needed in those years.

In 1995, I left my corporate position at Apple to head the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization in Washington, D.C. I took a small team from Silicon Valley, and together with the wise lobby that had already been built; we exploded HRC into a mighty force for change. We established new programs that touched LGBT people in their everyday lives. We transformed corporate America with a simple instrument called the Corporate Equality Index.
We worked hard to gain more power on Capitol Hill. We took care with every communication and every communicator to build the esteem of every LGBT kid out there. We reached them with media, old and new, and we made sure that every communication could also be fully absorbed by the Mom in Iowa and the Dad in Kentucky. We attracted beautiful hearts and voices like those of Judy and Dennis Shepard, and Betty DeGeneres -- all of who started healing kids on behalf of their own.

In 1996, we were off -- effectively defending every attack on Capitol Hill and growing our numbers rapidly. We were focused on gaining protections in employment, equal benefits, equal opportunity in the military and we were still very focused on maintaining and gaining funding for AIDS research, housing and care. We emblazoned our efforts with a fresh new symbol, a simple Equal Sign.

And then in 1996 -- like a tsunami from a land to which I had once escaped (Hawai'i), came a huge political wave known as marriage for gay people. For a lesbian of my age and experience, (again, being out in 1974 meant no marriage and a heady sense of pure freedom) I had to do a double take. Having not even achieved employment protection -- a federal protection that still eludes us today -- we were now all going to jump on the marriage bandwagon? It was crystal clear at the time that in its research the Republican National Committee had hit on "gay marriage" as the new eureka wedge issue. That is, an issue that could be used to separate progressive democrats from their LGBT supporters. Karl Rove would come to call it: "the gift that keeps on giving."

And so, under my leadership, HRC was at a crossroads. Would we invest heavily (which is what the marriage issue required) or stay the course with a primary focus on passing employment, hate crimes and other protections? We ended up diverting resources to the marriage issue for two reasons. The most potent reason was simple: seeing the faces of gay and lesbian couples lined up around the country, children in tow, to get their marriage license. This happened in towns large and small across the land and this ended up being the most populist and compelling set of images I had ever witnessed in the movement for LGBT equality. The second reason was a purely practical one. For couples and their children to have access to the 1,100 federal benefits of marriage, you had to have a state marriage license.

The Republican Party turned out to be more nimble that the Democrats, and soon the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in the Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.

And so it was stunning to sit in the Supreme Court this past week, watching my whole life pass before me. There were the lawyers I first practiced law with in the mid-1980s in San Francisco, now fierce powerful advocates for justice. There were my colleagues from various LGBT organizations making and witnessing history. There was the team led by Chad Griffin (my successor at HRC following Joe Solmonese) at the Human Rights Campaign. And there was my friend Roberta (Robby) Kaplan representing Edie Windsor. And, best of all, the great Mary Bonauto and Evan Wolfson who in their respective ways have brought us to this place.
Even the Justices seem unequal to the task of slowing down history.

I also came to understand I was uniquely positioned to make a contribution (as are all gay people in these historic times) because I appreciated the unique gift of being born gay. I always "leaned in" by coming out and staying out. Even I am stunned at the pace at which the American people have moved to support marriage equality. It is a testament to the basic DNA of our nation that opts for fairness as a value.

In 1999, while still heading the HRC, I began the hardest job of all: that of a parent. Suddenly, my partner (there was no legal marriage then) became mothers of tiny twins, Jacob born one minute before Anna, and Anna born one pound bigger than her 3-pound brother. Now they are 14, beautiful and inspiring -- and, yes, teenagers.

As I left for the Supreme Court in the early hours of the morning both days, my children slept. But on both days, they just headed out to regular lives: a science fair project, a Spanish quiz, a math test, lacrosse, and hanging with their friends in the hallway. I kind of like that. They were like any other 14-year-old kids those days. And I like that. But in June, when the Supreme Court rules, nothing will be regular about the outcome.

Those decisions will affect real families. The Supreme Court does not get to act wimpy when it comes to my kids. The buck stops with them. If denying gay people the right to seek and obtain a marriage license on an equal basis with others is wrong -- no one should have to wait one more minute than is necessary for the court to make it the law of the land. It will take a little courage, but that is their job.

Throughout my life, I always straddled two worlds: LGBT activist and corporate executive/consultant. I was always out in every setting. Even as a child running through forests, I knew I was different. I instinctively knew that difference would set me off on an odyssey for the rest of my life.

I was not afraid of being gay. I embraced it and saw it as a unique, colorful variation on the species. And now I know, that with all the change that has already occurred that basic equality is inevitable for every child, gay or straight, tree climber or not.