Peter Yacobellis TRANSCRIPT

Henry: Just tell us a little bit about yourself and why you’re running for Montclair Councilor-At-Large?

Peter: I came out of the closet in 1998 by admitting to my training instructor in basic training in the Air Force in Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio Texas that I was gay. So that’s how I came out, and I was immediately discharged. It started a lifetime of service for me. I was put with people who had tried to commit suicide, people who had mental disabilities, undisclosed drug problems, things that they were struggling with in basic training. They considered being gay in the same category with all those things I just said. They put us all together and paraded us around base to shame us for a good five or six days, in our own little special group, before putting us on planes and sending us home. I got back and was just reassessing my whole life and what life was going to be about. I decided to go work for the Gap, and went back to college, and decided to switch gears and started to study political science in addition to business, and started to figure out how I can make change in society. I think you’re going to get to this stuff in some of your questions, but essentially I went to work for Hillary Clinton in my final semester of college in her press office. I came out to her and she embraced me and gave me the most encouraging words and hug I needed. Here was the most admired woman in the world telling me that it was okay to be who I was, and that she was going to fight for me. That was more inspiration for me to go on. I know we’re going to get into it, but I’ve had this really long (I think) interesting journey, with my own personal struggle sitting alongside the broader civil rights movement for our community over the last twenty years, but more accelerated I think for the last ten to fifteen. All along working for different governors in New York, different elected officials, and then private sector businesses like American Express for example where we did a lot of good stuff for LGBT equality.

Henry: So, you touched on this a little bit, but just to go a little bit deeper: As someone who was discharged from the U.S. Air Force basic training because of your sexuality, why is equal access to the ability to serve one's country so important?

Peter: First of all it telegraphs what our values are, not just to our country but to the whole world. Our military is the largest organization in the United States, by budget, by size. It’s the largest employer, and I think it’s really important that the largest employer in the United States, if not the world, is open to have anybody serve. I think it’s heinous and disgusting and abismal what President Trump did a few years ago in terms of tweeting that he was going to be banning transgender people from serving in the military, without any nuance to if that meant the people who were currently serving or deployed around the world. He immediately put people’s lives at risk with that tweet. That day (because that tweet happened in the morning) I joined a rally in Times Square that was broadcast on ABC and many other channels, joined many of my friends in the broader movement, and spoke out against the president for doing something so incredibly harmful, mean-spirited, and I think disruptive. It was actually disruptive to military logistics. Commanders, generals were caught off guard that the tweet was going to come down and if it was an order to be followed by the Commander-in-chief or not. Nobody understood what it meant, if it was to be immediate. We later found out that it would be implemented over time. That is something that they have now unfortunately carried out. In the year 2020, we are saying to a very select group of people that you are not allowed to serve your country because of who you are. Most Americans aren’t even paying attention to that unfortunately, but if most Americans knew that, I think they would be outraged. So that’s why it’s important.

Olivia: Off of your work with LGBTQ people in the military, you helped lead the 2009 March on Washington for LGBTQ+ rights, a march which was fundamental in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. How did you help organize this infamous march, and why do you believe it had the success that it had?

Peter: So we created the very first fundraiser in New York City. We took a friend's townhouse in Greenwich village and pulled a bunch of people together. I was working for Governor Patterson at the time, and used my position unofficially to call people and bring a bunch of folks together, reaching out to prominent leaders. I found that there was just this groundswell of support. This was David Mixner and Cleve Jones’ idea to get this going. Michelle Clunie, the actress from Teen Wolf and Queer as Folk, and I worked tirelessly to produce a successful first event and then on the efforts to organize thereafter. We had to quickly raise money so that you could pay for buses to bring people down. The most important component was the coordination and the communication. A group got started called Get Equal, which was a national organization of activists, so people who were doing activist activities all over America, coming around and recruiting people to descend on Washington. All of the organizations all signed on, so you had the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD and the Task Force and all these organizations signing up to support it and promote it as well. Then you had just a lot of organic participation. The timing, if you think about it, was just about nine months from when President Obama took office. He was obviously coming after the Bush administration and a lot of years of the LGBTQ+ community being marginalized. You guys are probably too young to remember but in 2004, George Bush ran for reelection on a platform of banning same sex marriage, I believe it was (you’d have to check the facts on this) at least twelve states that had a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage on the ballot at the same election in November. The intention was to try to drive out anti-gay voters to help him win reelection. So Obama winning was good for a lot of reasons but for the LGBT+ community we felt, okay we can breathe. We have someone who will listen to us, who isn’t against us. He wasn’t as far along as we wanted him to be on a lot of the issues, but we knew he’d be open minded to a couple of these things. So yeah, we organized a March on Washington, 2009, 250,000 people. Lady Gaga and a bunch of stars all speaking. A rainbow appeared in the sky above the White House while we were marching. That’s no exaggeration, I have a photo somewhere. As a result of that they reversed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and passed, equally important, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill which had been stuck in the House. The Senate didn’t consider it for a decade. So, really powerful.

Olivia: Lady Gaga, wow.

Peter: And by the way I got to tell her what to say and what not to say. I remember being backstage with her and being really nervous and saying “Okay listen Stephanie, this can’t be about you, not saying this is but don’t make it about you. Make it about the movement, this needs to be about the broader movement”. Like we love you, but the soundbite that the media needs to take away from here is what we’re trying to accomplish. So that was a fun awkward conversation in front of a tree behind the Capital.

Olivia: You were instrumental in the creation of Trevor NextGen, the largest queer volunteer network in the New York metro area. Why did you go about this project? How do you believe we can best protect the lives of LGBTQ+ youth?

Peter: This was Spring of 2010 when we started this group, me, Keola Whittaker , Dave Castlemen, and a gentleman named Adam Banks. The four of us got together I think there were a few other people as well, and had the first meeting. The conversation was really around, look, at the present time or at that time we were fighting marriage equality battles on a state-by-state basis. If you remember, President Obama was elected and the same night Proposition 8 was passed in California, which banned marriage equality which had been legal up until that point. So marriage equality was actually reversed in California right before that. So we were already engaged, and we felt that the country was very engaged, and they were, in a heated discussion around marriage rights. So the gay rights movement had been really defined first by AIDS, then by marriage, but no one was really paying attention to the suicide prevention, bullying, all that sort of stuff that was going on. So we decided to start this group that the purpose of it was essentially to get interested people involved in funding and volunteering for the Trevor Project, which you guys know is the largest LGBTQ+ organization in America, fighting for the prevention of suicide and bullying. It ended up becoming a groundswell because, what ended up happening later that year was that Tyler Clementi from Ridgewood, New Jersey (not too far from Montclair) took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The media decided once and for all to start focusing on this issue, and started showcasing these suicides from all around the country. In this one period of time there were six or eight (I forget) suicides that the media was reporting on everytime. They were just finally recognizing that it was an epidemic before we started talking about that. We were the vessel, we were the channel. We were the place for people to come who were heart broken and heart sick and wanted to make a difference. So it swelled into this massive organization. We have pictures of board rooms in New York City just overwhelmed with people participating and showing up. We had to think, what could we do with everybody? What do you do with all these people? The Trevor Project expanded all of their programs: they had Trevor Chat, TrevorSpace, which was, at the time MySpace but Facebook kind of social media platform, and Dear Trevor Letters. We would have our group write letters to kids who were struggling, and that increased the response rate, so you didn’t have to wait a week to get a response, you could get a response in a couple days. Response emails later instead of just letters. I think equally important, our group became a source of fundraising for many of the events the Trevor Project had. I don’t know what the latest figures are, but when I left we had raised $500,000 for the Trevor Project, by having our own events and by supporting existing events. So I’m really proud of that, but I was really proud to see everyone come together and support it as a community in New York. By the way, it happened in L.A. as well, sort of organically.

Henry: Moving to your political platform, in your LGBTQ+ opinions, you mention many issues of queer protective measures, including expanding non-discrimantion employment city law to include gender identity, as well as introducing transgender-inclusive healthcare. Why are these and other citywide protections important to the wellbeing of queer people?

Peter: First and foremost, because they don’t exist. The Human Rights Campaign scored Montclair, which is a very progressive community (it is, I live here), I believe it was 77 points out of 122 possible points on the Municipal Equality Index. Lots of opportunities, so I dug into the weeds on that. Why we got that score, what were the particular things we could do as a community, and you find out there are all these glaring omissions from our policies here in town. Look, if I were elected I would be the first openly LGBT person ever elected to government here in Montclair, so I just don’t know if anyone’s ever asked or raised the issue. It’s important for dignity’s sake. It’s important that everybody be treated equally, that everybody have equal rights under the law, and benefits. I believe that there should be no daylight, no difference, in how we treat anybody regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I fully believe that in my bones, always have. Historically in our movement the G, L, and B have sometimes tried to separate from the T and advance those issues. I always held steady in making sure that the trans community was included. I was opposed to efforts in Congress to pass anti-discrimination legislation that didn’t include the trans community. I remember being on opposite sides of that issue with Barney Frank. I felt, until everyone can have equal rights, the rest of us shouldn’t. Look, we got marriage equality passed and that’s a really big deal. We still have to work on employment discrimination in this country (Supreme Court case pending). There are bigger issues around adoption discrimination, housing discrimination. But the number one community that is the most targeted for discrimination, that is suffering the most suicide, substance abuse, mental health, respective is the trans community, and particulary the black and hispanic trans community. Life expectancy if you are a transgender African American woman in America is mid-30s. That’s sick. It’s sick, it’s disgusting. Change starts on the local level. Change starts with people like me getting elected, raising the issues, and educating. By the way, I don’t think that it’s malicious that it hasn’t happened. I just think no one’s talked about it or raised it to the government. I think my colleagues would be very open-minded for supporting these issues. Thanks for the question.

Henry: So in those same LGBTQ+ opinions, you also promote the creation of a Montclair Pride Festival and the painting of a rainbow crosswalk. Why should we not only protect, but celebrate LGBTQ+ identity.

Peter: So I have to give credit to Cathy Renna, who you interviewed in your last series, for the rainbow crosswalk idea. She’s also from Montclair, New Jersey and she’s a big supporter. It is her idea, and I want to do this because it’s fun and it tells the community that this government, this town, supports you. To that 13 year old kid who’s questioning their own identity and their own sexuality, seeing that is a signal that it’s okay to be who you are. So it’s a gesture, of course, but I think it’s a signal, and I think it’s important. The festival I think just makes sense. It would be fun, and it would be commerce for the town. It would be a way to celebrate who we are, and it would be a way to bring the community together. We’re not otherwise engaged, Montclair LGBT+ community doesn’t come together ever. There’s no reason to, there’s no organization, there’s nothing that exists. So, bringing us together to see each other, to have a sense of community that isn’t online, that’s in person, and then doing it in a festival way, that celebrates and supports our supporters in terms of small businesses, restaurants and vendors in town who would set up and operate at a festival. So very similar to what Maplewood, New Jersey does I’d like to do in Montclair.

Olivia: I would certainly attend. So as a New Jersey-centered queer publication, we ask all our interviewees the same question: what are the differences and similarities in New Jersey’s queer community and the queer communities in other states and countries? Or, in your case, what differentiates the Montclair community from the rest?

Peter: Well look, I just had a conversation with a voter about a half hour before I did this with you guys and she reminded me of a mutual friend of ours who had committed suicide, who lived in Montclair and committed suicide, I want to say six or seven years ago. I think we’d like to believe that in places like Montclair and New York City that we’re evolved and different. But I’d argue with that. I’d argue that there isn’t much difference. I’d argue there is unconscious bias wherever you go. We know it’s a fact there are different laws, and there’s a patchwork of laws and protections that affect our community wherever we live, depending on the jurisdiction. Those are the differentiators, those are the true differentiators, but I’d argue that the experience isn’t necessarily as different as we think it is. Maybe on a macro level it is, but when you’re talking about the level of coming out in the African American community, it’s almost as bad in New York as it is in Alabama. There is still so much stigma to be addressed in that community, and in the Hispanic community as well. Look, obviously from a global perspective, you’ve got countries where it’s illegal and you’ll be murdered for being gay. Horrible atrocities committed just in Iraq in the last five years. If you were discovered to be gay you would have your rectum sewn shut and you’d be fed alkaseltzer tablets, so that your intestinal track would basically be overwhelmed, and that’s how they would kill you. Pretty awful things happening around the world, in Saudia Arabia, Iran, Russia, all these really dark places. So I think the biggest distinction between the United States and all these other countries is we’re far more advanced than they are. But then you also have countries like Denmark and Sweden and the Netherlands that are far more advanced than we are. Gay men can donate blood, like we can’t here in the US still, they can adopt kids like we can’t in many states, there’s protections against being fired like therearen’t in many states here in the US, and they’re much further along on the acceptance continuum.

Olivia: True. So finally, you’ve been incredibly active within the queer community, whether it’s working for Garden State Equality in 2007, or helping on the case for marriage equality in the state of New York. So how do you recommend that others get involved in queer activism? In short, how can we be better activists?

Peter: Yeah I think the most important thing is to know who your elected officials are. Be informed. You know, it’s very easy to pay attention to “Trump versus Biden” or “Biden versus Sanders”. It’s very easy to pay attention to the thing that’s being pushed in front of you all the time from the media perspective. What’s not easy to do is investigate what’s going on in your own backyard, and that’s what I’ve done. You asked me the questions about some of the initiatives that I want to do for Montclair, and that comes from doing some research, just googling and looking at our town website to see what ordinances and things already exist. The word gay doesn’t exist on our municipal website at all, so how does a gay person know what support is available to them, or trans person?. So I think if you’re someone who’s sitting at home, and you’re not sure what to do in the Covid crisis, cause you can’t do the typical things that we would do (march on a state house, or march on Washington, or anything like that), get informed. Know who the people are who represent you locally, and make sure that they share your values, and that they hear from you. If you have more time, take it up a level. Take it to your state officials, to your State Senator and your State Assembly Member. Then take it up a level from that. Take it to your member of Congress and the House, take it to your US Senators. And then of course we want to continue to put pressure on our federal officials, in terms of the Presidential nominee and cabinet secretaries, to advance equality as well. But I really believe, and I’m trying to be an example of it, that it starts with the most local of governments. That would be my advice: be informed, know who represents you, and make sure they know how you feel.

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