The media maverick Cathy Renna on how to harness our power.
For media relations expert Cathy Renna, being a spokesperson for the LGBT community is more than just a career—it’s a calling, and she is a force to be reckoned with. After working with GLAAD for 14 years—during which time she played a critical role in the shaping of the media coverage of the death of Matthew Shepard and successfully countered the anti-gay rhetoric of the church officials following its abuse scandal.
Renna went on to found Renna Communications, a public relations firm which specializes in representing LGBT and progressive organizations, and which allows her to continue to be a powerful spokesperson for justice and equality for the queer community.
You’ve been at the forefront of giving LGBT issues prominence for two decades. Which story, event or cause most influenced the political dialogue?
It is really almost impossible to choose after all these years. I have been so privileged to be at the center of many historic moments. And they have been a real mix—from helping organize the “come out with Ellen” screening in Birmingham, Ala. In 1997 when the lone ABC affiliate there refused to air the coming out episode to all the work I did related to the murder of Matt Shepard—and many other victims of hate crimes—to the amazing 2006 experience with hundreds of LGBT families at the White House Easter Egg Roll to the recent marriage victories on Washington D.C. and New York.
But the truth is there are so many smaller moments that mean as much to me—getting a transgender Point Foundation scholar on the front page of her small hometown paper, watching a child talk about their family in a way that cannot help but move those who think are families are more different than we are alike. Media training and empowering the parents of LGBT youth to speak out and become advocates or getting an email from someone who has seen me on TV and said “I never thought about it that way.” I am truly blessed to not only do what I love and enjoy but know that it makes a difference in ways large and small.
Each year LGBT rights inch forward but America still lags behind the rest of the Western world in terms of comprehensive LGBT rights. What is the biggest obstacle?
People forget we are a young country—the colonized America, not the Native American and First Nations people. I think the way our culture is saturated with Puritanical values is the biggest obstacle. We are a country in denial. We use sex to sell everything but we don’t want to talk about it. We glorify youth in ways that feel exploitative and inappropriate to me.
We force a binary in terms of gender identity and expression that is stifling and unhealthy. The superficiality of so much of our culture is a challenge in my work in many ways, especially in terms of the glorification of celebrity for the sake of celebrity. We certainly have a longer way to go than places like Europe, where there is far less prudishness and more openness to fluidity in all parts of people’s lives.
Gains can be made with lobbying and when the mainstream hears individual stories of LGBT suffering, and yet we saw with Governor Cuomo in New York that it is really the back room power brokers that get things done. In what ways can the LGBT community learn to be more powerful?
We need pressure on the outside and behind the scenes. What I admired most about Cuomo was that he took a leadership role and also got the organizations to work together better. If we were more able to work together—simply work better together and “play nicely”—we would be much more powerful. If we were less fractured into identities and more inclusive of the diversity in the LGBT community we would be much more powerful.
There are vast power differences between the four groups that make up the LGBT community. How can we create an equal balance of power?
There are four things that need to happen. One, we must, as members of the groups you describe, claim and own our power and be as visible as possible. Two, we must engage allies. I have had the honor of people thinking at different times that I am bisexual, a leather dyke, a devout Catholic, and Jewish.
I am actually none of those…but I am an ally that speaks up for all the diverse parts of our community without judgment and with love and respect. We must speak up for and demand inclusion of our brothers and sisters who often do not have as much of a voice. Third, and this is a tough one: we must have the powerful gay white men—and frankly anyone else who harbors the cultural stereotypes and misinformation about bisexual, transgender and others—look at their privilege and own issues and try and come to a different place.
Finally, the biggest challenge for all of us: we must be willing to “live in the grey.” Things are not always up and down or black and white. Life—and biology, sexuality, gender etc.—is a spectrum. Simple answers are the refuge of those who are afraid of difference and unwilling to challenge their assumptions.
My hope is that we, as LGBT people, can help the rest of world become a place where people simply are who they are, without judgment or labels. We should be at the vanguard, and in many ways we are, but we could do better.