Cathy Renna Interview TRANSCRIPT

Henry: Tell us a little about yourself and what you do as an activist?

Cathy: A little bit about myself. I’ve been an LGBTQ activist, particularly in areas of media and communications, for almost thirty years. I started by volunteering at GLAAD which was then the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamantion, obviously they have added some letters since then, but I volunteered for GLAAD for several years, about five years, in Washington DC and then I was put on the staff in the mid 90s, and stayed with GLAAD until about the early 2000s. So, I have really been in the trenches as far as LGBT activism through some of the middle to latter parts of the AIDs epidemic, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Marriage Equality, and, of course, as we saw in the late 90s when I was at GLAAD particularly Ellen coming out, the Mathew Shepard murder. After I left GLAAD I worked at a public relations firm for a couple years. It was a progressive firm. We did some LGBT work. Probably the most visible thing we did was the organizing of over 100 LGBT families at the White House for the Easter egg roll, which is a huge event. It’s about 25,000, 30,000 people over the course of the day, and it was the first time we ever had LGBT families go as a group. It was 2006. We were not a very visible part of the community so that was huge, and then actually, after I became a parent I decided I wanted to see my daughter grow up so we went as a family. And began working independently with my partner at the time on the first firm, Renna Communications. She is 14 now, almost 15. She was about 6 months old when we started my first PR firm. And I’ve been doing consulting ever since with all sorts of LGBTQ and HIV related organizations.

Olivia: Although we have met you before in the blessed production of Newark Academy’s Laramie Project, in our research we found that you were often involved in broadcast media, as you said, and you spoke on LGBTQ issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the murder of Matthew Shepard. So, haven you found support in the media and how has the media’s support of the LGBTQ+ community changed over time?

Cathy: I work primarily in news, so I’m talking mostly about journalists now, not really entertainment representations, but it really has been extraordinary to see the shift in not just the amount of coverage, but the quality of coverage and the diversity of coverage. And better understanding of our community as a diverse community. For a long time, if you had any topic related to LGBT issues, whether it was on MSNBC or whether it was in the Washington Post, there was always this idea that you had to talk to “the other side”. There was some sort of balance that needed to be adhered to for journalistic ethics, and, over time, much like they did with women’s issues and issues around race. You know, I would ask reporters what’s the other side of me being treated as an equal citizen, or what’s the other side of me being a parent, or wanting to get married? On the other side of that, there is someone who doesn’t want me to exist. If you were doing an article on biracial families, would you call up the Ku Klux Klan to see what they thought about it? And, so, we had these conversations about fairness. And, you know, as the community evolved and people became more educated on LGBTQ issues it became a very different kind of thing, but it was always interesting, you talk about broadcast, it was always interesting on television. The whole idea of television is that you don’t want someone to change the channel, so you want to keep it lively, and you want to have a debate, and one of the things we had to educate people about a lot was this whole gay versus God dichotomy that was created, that anybody who was religious was going to be, of course, anti-gay. And what we started to do, this was when I was at GLAAD in the 90s to the early 2000s, we were finding people in our own community who were people of faith and religious leaders who were supported of LGBTQ individuals and the LGBTQ community whether they were LGBTQ or not, and, so, it became a really interested conversation to have with producers. So, if you are debating a civil rights issue, why are you having an anti-gay pastor on? Find a lawyer. Find a policy person. If you want to debate religion, I’m not an expert in theology, I’m talking about civil rights. So, those distinctions over time, I think, have created the climate that we have now which is really fascinating to me. I know that a big part of what we do is not just being a source for journalists, but being a resource and educating them. And so the days in the late 90s to the early 2000s GLAAD did a ton of campaigns for super homophobic television hosts like Micheal Savage, and Dr. Laura, and even when Eminem came out with some really anti-gay lyrics, and we got a lot of attention for it, but it was also very controversial. We were “censoring them”, “they had their free speech” etc. etc. One, only the government can censor and two, we never said they didn’t have the right the free speech, but we had the right to use our free speech to object. And no one has a constitutional right to a national talk show. One of the shows I went on constantly was a show on MSNBC called Equal Time. The name says it all, right? So, the hosts were Paul Bagala, who you may know. He is a political consultant now, but he worked for Bill Clinton and many other Democrats politicians. And Oliver North, who you may have read about in history books, you know, Iran contra, he worked for Reagan, he was ultra-conservative. So, the would have me on and they would debate whether or not Dr. Laura should have a show, what GLAAD was doing, etc. etc. and after every interview he would send me a thank you card in the mail, this was pre-internet, saying thanks for disagreeing without being disagreeable. And then he would sign it, semper fidelis, because he was a Marine. And, so, I would send him a note back saying that I was happy to come on anytime, and the whole point was that I wasn’t going to change his opinion, but he had a big audience. So, I was going to disagree with him, but I wanted the audience to get my message. And then I would always sign them “Semper Homo”. Which was meant to be funny, but journalists and pundits are people, right? I’ve been doing this work for all these years and I’ve developed relationships with journalists who are LGBT, with journalists who are decidedly anti-LGBT, and I always approach them as people, and try and educate them about our community and about our issues in a way that makes us less abstract because that’s when the coverage goes bad. When they start generalizing or stereotyping, they need to remember we are a community of people.

Olivia: True. So, I also saw that you recently worked on a committee that organized World Pride, and Stonewall’s 50th anniversary. So, can you describe a little bit of what you did on that committee?

Cathy: Sure, How much time do you have? Working with New York City pride on Stonewall 50 World Pride last year was the most rewarding and exhausting thing I think I have ever done in my career, which is saying a lot. I’ve been doing this a long time. It was amazing. There were literally three of us coordinating the media. We had a staff person who handled the social media, and a lot of the behind the scenes work and the marketing stuff, she was super talented, and I was the communications consultant and a spokesperson sometimes as well which was very interesting. And we had a phenomenal board member who was a volunteer and the Media Director. And it was really just a team of three of us with some volunteers. It was extraordinary. We had over a thousand credentialed media over the course of the Spring and we obviously started working the year before. We did many many prep meetings, including an editorial board with the New York Times, who ended up doing a special pull out section for Stonewall50/WorldPride, documentaries with MSNBC. Such a tremendous amount of LGBT media, international media, it was absolutely historic and unprecedented. But what I thought was the most meaningful was that when NYC pride hired me, they said, look, here is what we need you to do. We don’t really need you to sell tickets to our events for the most part, we are probably going to have Madonna! They didn’t need PR just for Pride. We are having 5 million people come to this city.. What they really wanted me to focus on which was really what I love to do and, for me, my mission - good journalism. My job was was to make sure they got the history right. In other words, I had to go find the folks who really were at the Stonewall uprising and make sure they got visibility with as many people as we could find, as to make sure that the history was told right and respectfully and accurately as possible by experts. The other important priority was to make sure that the coverage was diverse. To make sure that we push the envelope in terms of advocating - and helping- the media to cover issues with Pride that were more substantive that were newer and emerging issues in our community. Whether it was around gender fluidity or whether it was around the bi community or whether it was around communities of color or young people, all of the parts of the community that I work with the most, and so that was really the most exciting thing. To be able to open up that New York Times special section and see two full pages on reflections on where we are now and where we need to go, and to see an incredibly diverse array of people who are trans, women and men, non-binary, people of all different races and classes, economic statuses andd poltical views. There were so many different voices, and that, to me, was the most incredible part of working on that.

Henry: So, can you tell us about your most recent organization called Target Cue as well as Renna Communications?

Cathy: Sure. So Target Cue was founded about 6 or 7 years ago. Target Cue and Renna Communications have the same mission. So, in terms of mission and goals, as many of my colleagues like to say, “you take the girl out of GLAAD but you can’t take GLAAD out of the girl,” right? My work is very mission focused. I am not interested in selling gay toothpaste. There is nothing wrong with that. I have friends who are marketers and that’s fine, but it’s not me. I am an activist at heart. I care about visibility and media coverage, particularly in news media, that moves our community forward and that makes people think differently about us, and that shines a light on parts of our community that we don’t usually see. Whether it’s the epidemic of violence against trans women of color we are seeing now. Whether it is queer youth homelessness which is hugely disproportionate to the number of young people on the streets right now. So, it’s very mission focused, and it’s very much like GLAAD. I want to work with organizations that are doing the kind of work that help our community move forward, and through their stories because, at the end of the day, I really see myself as a storyteller, or someone who helps other people tell their stories, I get those stories out there to get folks to think differently. Everyone jokes that on my headstone it's going to say “oh I never thought about it that way” because that to me, that’s the success. Whether I’m talking to a journalist, or I’m on tv and I’ll get an email after from someone who takes one look at me and thinks “ooooh angry lesbian” and thenthey listen to what I say, and I talk about having a child and I talk about why we really are fighting for equal rights. Then I get all these emails that say “huh, I never thought about it that way”. Even if that’s the first time for them, it is the beginning of a journey to thinking differently about the LGBTQ community.

Henry: Yeah! So, your primary passion within advocacy is communications and media, as seen with your work with GLAAD in news and media for over 14 years, so what is it about news and events that intrigued you so much as to create an entire career out of it

Cathy: I went to a panel about lesbian invisibility in the media with my girlfirend at the time because we wanted to get involved in the community. I don’t really drink, so I don’t really go to bars. I go dancing, but it was just to get involved in the community in a substantive way. My background was science. I have a biology degree, and a minor in Italian, but it’s something that always drew me in. I’ve always been sort of a culture vulture, you know, kind of a nerd. I love comicon, I love all these things. I love watching the news and staying informed. I love media, period.

And then it dawned on me after awhile, I come from a family of teachers, and if you want to educate someone about the gay community, and, at the time, it really was the gay community not the LGBTQ community, short of me having a conversation with you over a cup of coffee and talking about life and to understand what it’s like to come out and be openly gay.

Clearly in our culture, the media is very powerful. Obviously media representation shaped people’s opinions so strongly in this country, and there is entertainment media and there is news media. I am a New Yorker and I enjoy working with journalists. I feel like it’s very ironic and fitting. My dad passed away a very long time ago, the same year that Matthew Shepard died. That was a really rough year. But I remember, years later, talking to my Mom, and, as I said, I come from a family of all teachers. My partner is an art teacher, I’m surrounded by teachers and social workers, but my Mom said “your Dad would have been really proud” because what you do is you teach people stuff. You can call yourself whatever you want. PR, publicist, a spin doctor, flack, people have not nice words for folks who do what I do [laughter], but, for me, why I do what I do, is to be an educator.

Olivia: So, in the past, you have been an ardent activist for people living with HIV/AIDS as we talked a little bit about earlier. So how have you seen the inclusion of HIV positive figures change throughout time?

Cathy: Well, it’s certainly changed a lot. It is certainly to the point where what we are dealing with now is a visibility issue. One of the things that I have had the chance to do in the last few years is to work with folks who are long term survivors of HIV who have been living with HIV for 25 or 30 years now, and who were there in the early days. I think that it’s interesting in this time of COVID that a lot of people are coming to us and saying “What are the things that you did and learned in the early days of the AIDs epidemic because the government was not doing all it should” which is kind of happening now as well. I mean, there are definitely huge differences between HIV and COVID, but there are also some similarities in how we address it. How we decide. We are seeing the disparities in treatment, and the folks who are being affected more by COVID, communities of color, in a way that is eerily similar to the way that gay men and IV drug abusers were primarily impacted by HIV, and the government didn’t pay attention because they didn’t care, and so we had to stand up. ACT UP was founded. Another famous New Jersey born and bred activist Vito Russo, who grew up in Lodi, founded GLAAD, and is one of the founders of ACT UP was one of the most famous not only AIDs activist, but also in founding GLAAD he wrote several books one called the Celluloid Closet about representations of gay and lesbian people and why it was so important to advocated for better and more diverse and fiar and accurate representation. It’s still a big part of my life. It has certainly shifted some, but, like I said, just the other day I got a call from the associated press because a reporter wanted to know if I could connect them with some people who were activists and spoke up and worked with ACT UP and other groups during the AIDs crisis in the early years, and to talk to them about what we should be doing now around COVID. So, it’s something that has never really gone away, it’s just, with the new medications, we deal with different issues related to HIV. And we don;t see nearly enough attention paid to marginalized communities still impacted by HIV, particularly communities of color and trans people.

Olivia: So, how has your work in New York and New Jersey area been different than it has been elsewhere as you have done work with Matthew Shepard which is obviously not here, so how has your work been different in the New York/ New Jersey area versus other places in the country or worldwide?

Cathy: There are only two states that I haven’t been to. Three maybe? It’s interesting because I have traveled all over and for the differences among us there are also so many similarities, and I think the key to being here in the North East, particularly now as I am perfectly situated between New York City and Washington. You have the media capital of the world, New York City, and then the Nation’s Capital, it’s really where much of the policy oriented activism is happening on the national level, and of course there is so much happening across the country on the local leve and then entertainment happening on the West Coast. But given what I do, I’m a born and bred New Yorker, I’ve lived in New Jersey for six years, so I’m in the right place for what I want to do. I did live in Washington for many years so I am super familiar with DC and work with many DC based groups and media. These are really the places where most of our national organizations are housed and for me, to be able to get on the train and be able to go to Rockefeller center, NBC building, and the New York Times main office - or the Washington Post for that matter - makes sense to be where I am!

Henry: So, after doing some research, we came upon an interview that you did with Georgetown where you refuted a claim saying that LGBTQ+ should be seen as the same as straight people, as it limits the celebration of diversity. So, this is more abstract, but how do we celebrate diversity in the face of those who don’t recognize us?

Cathy: Well I remember that, and I say that a lot, and I think it’s said in the context that… I understand the model of incremental progress and convince the moveable middle and all of that, I totally get that. You know, I’m smart. But, I also don’t feel like we should relinquish who we really are. It feels a little disingenuous, because I feel like we leave people behind. The whole idea is that “we’re normal too”. Well what does normal even mean? Increasingly we see this, thankfully your generation gets it much better than mine, this kind of heteronormative, cookie-cutter, everyone has to be the same. I don’t buy that. I don’t think that that’s an authentic way to talk about our community. We’re super diverse. I remember when “Will and Grace” came out, and I’m sure you’ve probably seen the newer iteration of “Will and Grace”, right? But when it first came out, the first time, it was very controversial. It was history makingl, the first primetime sitcom with an openly gay character, a title character. But there was always this discussion, this debate, around Will’s character, who was good-looking and a lawyer and had a nice apartment in New York City, never had a boyfriend. Then Jack was the other stereotypical gay guy. He was super flaming, and running around, and all the stereotypical things of being gay. I would have journalists ask me all the time, “well how does the community feel about this show?”. You could say this about almost any kind of representation. I would say, “If you talked to ten gay men, four would love Jack, four would hate Jack, and two would be just like Jack, if not more”. The reality of it is that we are different, that there is something. The thing that makes us different has nothing to do with any of the other parts of our identity, so we’re actually like a microcosm of the culture in some ways when it comes to race, or age, or ethnicity, economic status, all of those things. That whole like “we are the same”, I feel like it just waters down the argument. What’s wrong with being different? I love meeting people that are different. I would not want to hang around with a bunch of people who are just like me. I would be bored out of my mind. I want to meet different kinds of people. This is what I would always say in interviews: I would always say “the reality is...” I would start sentences with that constantly, because that’s really what it’s about. Let’s just look at what’s real. Look at the reality of who we are as a community, and how diverse we are. We won battles around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and marriage in part because they were issues that we could get people who were not part of the community to wrap their minds around. They understand serving our country. They understand what a marriage is. And we all have multiple identities and to not acknowledge the intersectionality of those identities is inexcusable . What’s interesting is if you look at the issues we’re dealing with still. We still don’t have job discrimination protection, which is unbelievable, right? The only federal legislation we have is the Matthew Shephard James Byrd Hate Crimes Bill, and even that’s kind of toothless in many ways. There are no federal protections for LGBTQ+ people. So, you really have to think about how are we moving forward?

We can’t just say we’re like everybody else, because you know what, we’re not. We’re not in terms of who we are, we’re not in terms of how we’re treated, and we’re certainly not in terms of our status as essentially second-class citizens, still.

Olivia: So how have you been able to support high school or advocacy? For example, when you came to our school and helped us with The Laramie Project.

Cathy: Well, I feel it’s really important. This used to alway happen at GLAAD, whenever somebody would call and said they were working on a school project or something, I was of of the few people who would talk to them. I used to always joke and say “be nice to your interns”. My favorite story is that I had an intern when I was working at the PR firm that I worked at right after GLAAD, and she was an intern at the Village Voice. She ended up at Time Magazine, and now she’s an editor at the New York Times. I was really nice to her as an intern,and now we have a relationship that is very mutually beneficial. So this is why you should always be really nice to young people, because you never know where they’re gonna end up [laughter]. But seriously, I feel like it may not be part of my job description, but I feel like it’s part of my responsibility. I know I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who did a lot of work before I came along. A lot of them helped me, whether it was Barbara Giddings, or Lilli Vincenz, or Frank Kameny. I am blessed that I know a lot of the folks who were at the Stonewall Riots. I got to spend time with them last year, but I’ve known people my whole career who have been doing this far longer than I, and taught me a lot of things. I feel like I’m just paying it forward. I love being connected. It’s through the work, of course with what happened to Matt and my work with Tectonic and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. But The Laramie Project, and this new piece, Considering Matthew Shephard, has actually been a wonderful way to connect with high schools and colleges. I get the opportunity to help them in the production, and talk about my experience in dealing with Matt’s murder and the aftermath and the ensuing twenty years. But even if it’s a totally different topic, like last week I did virtual Zoom dinner with a communications school in North Carolina. I was supposed to actually go down there, but we obviously had to reschedule it. But we talked about what’s it like being openly queer in the PR world, and how do you get involved with nonprofits. These were a lot of young communications majors who are interested in doing this kind of work. So I basically never say no, unless it’s totally impossible and that’s rare. I will always find time. I think I owe it to you all, and I hope that you all will then pay it forward to the kids that are coming up. My daughter is fourteen and she came out to me a year and a half ago as bi. She helped start the LGBT Student Group at their middle school in Houston, Texas, and she goes to an LGBT youth group that is just phenomenal at the LGBT Center in Houston, her best friend is trans. Somebody recently asked me “what are you most proud of in all of your career, and I could say a kajillion things that I’ve done with my clients, and then I could just look at my daughter and say “she’s who she is, and she’s totally comfortable being who she is, and in fact advocates for her friends, who may have parents who are not the most accepting, and advocates in her school, which is not a great climate.” I mean it’s Houston, but it’s still Texas. That’s why I did all this work, at the end of the day, I now realize. I didn’t realize when she was little and running around, but it’s really interesting to think about the impact you can have. I’ll get an email from somebody I met who was a student ten years ago who’ll say “I remember when you came to my school and talked about this”, and it just put them on a different path. Who knows how many people like that you, all of us, can impact in that kind of way. That’s why I do it.

Olivia: I was hoping that you could share a little tidbit of advice for the younger generation on how we can be effective advocates for the LGBTQ+ community.

Cathy: I think for me, the most important thing I could say is, well it’s a totally different world. When I think back to when I was your age, I was very lucky. I had a very accepting family, they knew I was gay from when I was like five, it’s like no surprise, it wasn’t a shock. The first people I came out to were my lesbian aunts, and they weren’t surprised. But I know the struggles that young people face, and the most important thing for me is to know that you’re not alone, and to find community. Whether you can find community in person, whether you can find community online, and to get engaged someway. I mean you don’t have to be an activist with a capital A. If you can make change within your own community, within your family, within your church or synagogue if that’s the case, within your school. I used to say this to my old boss at GLAAD, cause she wasn’t really that involved in activism, she was from the corporate world, and she came to GLAAD and she was kind of taken back by the change in culture. At one point I said to her “Us just breathing pisses off the evangelical anti-LGBT folks, just our very existence. So anything you’re doing, just being you and being out, is an act in it of itself, it’s an act of activism. You want to do more than that? Find something that you’re interested in, get engaged. Find an issue that you can connect with, and find the people that you can connect with”. There’s just such a huge world out there that was unimaginable to me when I was a teenager. I’d just say that the possibilities are endless if you really want to be engaged.

Henry: So that’s about where we’re gonna end. If you have anything else you want to say, like you feel like you haven’t said, you can go ahead.

Cathy: In media trainings I always say you get that question, have something ready, and I don’t know, we talked about a ton of stuff. At the end of the day, to me, this work comes down to not being a job, but more of a vocation. It’s a responsibility. I appreciate that, so many of the people I work with understand that responsibility. One of the things that we didn’t talk about is that, increasingly you’re seeing people come out younger and younger and younger. Particularly trans kids, trans kids come out at 2, 3, and 4. Some of them socially transition before they start kindergarten. I work with families with small children that are coming out and transitioning. The courage of this current generation is inspiring. I talk about this quite a bit, it’s almost impossible to be in the closet now. Everybody picks up on everything because everybody’s so much more educated and knows so much more about LGBT issues. If you’re a guy and you're not dating any girls, and once you get into middle school everybody starts dating, people notice stuff a whole lot more than they used to. I mean I coasted through into high school as a tomboy and I made it. Everybody kind of thought something was off, but it was very different thirty years ago. I feel like we really need to focus on and think about how fast things are changing, and the things we can do to support not just these young people but their families, because a lot of their families are struggling. I work with an amazing organization called GenderCool. They have no staff, they’re a small organization, but they do incredible stuff, and they’ve been all over the place. If you go on there, their website is It was founded by parents who have trans and nonbinary kids, and they started telling their kids stories because their kids were super: they were thriving, they were successful, they were doing great, they had all these hopes and dreams because they had really supportive families. When they went online to see what it was like to have a trans kid, all they saw was negativity, and doom and gloom and suicide. They wanted to not negate that, because that is a reality, that rejection is very common, but they wanted to also give people hope. So, they started this organization called GenderCool, and on the website are these stories of these amazing young people who are thriving, and they talk about why and their parents talk about why. Actually, most of the work we do is going to corporations. We were in silicon valley at Intuit for a full day with hundreds of people, from Facebook and Uber and all these other tech companies, and their trans and gender nonbinary staff were there, and these people were in tears, because you have 12 and 13 year olds up there with their parents, talking about being completely accepted as who they are. The ripple effect of that is incalculable, the number of lives and minds that these kids are changing. That to me is where we need to be focusing a lot of our energy now.

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