In 1973, when the National Gay Task Force was launched in New York City, the challenges faced by LGBTQ people were significant and relentless. The Stonewall riots – considered the first major protest in favor of equal rights for gay people – had occurred just a few years earlier. Homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. Many states had anti-sodomy laws. Children were often sent away to mental institutions when their parents discovered that they were gay.
Progress has undeniably been made since then, including the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. But in many states and cities, discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment, health care, and other areas is still legal. As the shooting in Orlando makes clear, the LGBTQ community continues to face real threats from those who find it easier to hate than to empathize.
But against all of this, the LGBTQ Task Force (formerly the National Gay Task Force) continues the fight to achieve full freedom, justice and equality. One of its earliest victories came when the American Psychological Association, in response to the work of the Task Force and other organizations, removed the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. In the 1980s, when AIDS was ravaging communities, the Task Force launched the first national AIDS hotline and hired the first lobbyist to work specifically on AIDS-related issues in the nation’s capital.
As the Task Force worked on removing stigmas and legal barriers for LGBT people, they also worked to provide resources to the community that were unavailable elsewhere. They were among the first organizations to work on reducing violence against LGBT people, and launched a hotline to report violence.
Russell Roybal was working with San Diego’s gay community in the 1990s when he was invited to a reception for the Task Force. He learned there about the Youth Leadership Training Institute, applied, and was selected as one of 25 participants from over 1000 candidates. After an eight-day training which, in his words “literally transformed my life,” he helped organize protests at the 1996 Republican National Convention. He describes that experience as changing the path of his life. “It helped crystallize my analysis of my place in the world, and what I could do to change it. I thought, I could make this a career. I can fight for the causes I care about, and fight for social justice, and there is a community that will support it.”
He went on to a position with the San Diego LGBT Community Center (also a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee). In 1997, Roybal was invited to join the board of the Task Force. After serving for eight years, he joined the organization’s staff as the Director of Movement Building, and was subsequently appointed to deputy director, a title he still holds.
Movement building is an essential part of the Task Force’s work. The Task Force offers resources including fundraising strategy, capacity building and network development. In addition, they provide on-the-ground grassroots training and leadership development for local campaigns across the country, with the goal of not just winning victories, but strengthening the local organization. “All of our work is movement building,” explains Roybal. “For us, it’s not just going into a community and doing training and then leaving. It’s about working side by side with folks, implementing that training, developing leadership locally on the ground, so that there is infrastructure left there when the campaign is over.”
The Task Force trains thousands of grassroots leaders every year though its community training academy. They have recently launched the Naming Our Destiny program, focusing on training more leaders of color in the LGBT community. Roybal noted that, along with leaders of color, they were working to expand the diversity among the movement by training more trans people and people of faith in local community organizing. They also host the national Creating Change conference, an annual event since 1988 that has grown to become the largest annual gathering of activists and organizers in the LGBT movement.
Over time, the Task Force has expanded the palette of issues typically associated with the gay rights movement. The organization has supported immigration reform, reproductive rights, and affirmative action and has weighed in against the death penalty. Roybal explains that this expanded view of social justice has become a hallmark of the Task Force. “People call us the progressive voice in the LGBT movement, and the LGBT voice in the progressive movement.” He also notes that their work, as well of the work of other social justice movements, depends on collaboration. “Each of our distinct communities – people of color, women, LGBT folks – we’re too small to win on our own. We need each other to accomplish freedom, justice and equality for all of us.”
Roybal points to the issue of immigration reform as an important one for their constituents. “You can’t talk about LGBT rights without talking about immigration reform. Immigration reform for LGBT people wasn’t just about being able to marry a foreign-born partner. It’s bigger than that. It’s about trans women stuck in immigration detention, put in administrative segregation because the facility doesn’t know how to treat their gender identity. And they’re not given access to appropriate care as a result. There are many things we should care about beyond what are seen as ‘traditional’ LGBT issues.”
One of their less visible, but no less important, campaigns is to make sure that census data counts LGBT people accurately. Currently, there is no question on the federal census on sexual orientation or gender identity. “We spend a lot of time inside federal agencies to get them to do data reporting on LGBT people,” says Roybal. “So much of the way the government collects data misses LGBT people. There’s just not a question asked. Much of that data is used to parse out money and funding for programs for particular communities; so being invisible in that data is a detriment for the LGBT community.”
Because the work of the Task Force is national in scope, new campaigns and priorities can appear quickly. Roybal noted that general support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation makes it easier to shift into action in response to new challenges. “It allows us to direct funds where they are most needed, so that we can be nimble. The flexibility of general support grants gives us a leg up. We can respond to a crisis when it arises.”
The LGBTQ Task Force has been fighting for more than 40 years in battles large and small, visible and invisible, to advance full freedom, justice and equality for LGBTQ people. As a vanguard in the LGBT movement, the Task Force has sometimes faced opposition from members of its own community for taking on issues not seen as traditional LGBT issues. Roybal says that the challenging conversations are welcome, and in fact have made the organization and the movement stronger. “If we did not have those difficult conversations, our community would not have made the progress it made.”