PFLAG National is the nation’s largest organization uniting families, allies, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ). We sat down with the Interim Executive Director Elizabeth Kohm for an insider’s view on the organization and it’s efforts, what she would say to the leaders of the White House, and her advice to PFLAG parents.
Can you tell me how you got involved with PFLAG National? I sought out PFLAG first as an ally to get educated. I was completely unsettled in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected the first African-American President, but Proposition 8 passed in California. I made a personal commitment to “help my gay friends more” as a result. First up was a whole lot of personal education to even start having my language be more inclusive and to figure out how I could actually live my ideals. After that, I just happened to be looking professionally for a new opportunity when the Deputy Executive Director position opened up.
Did you have any reservations being part, much less leading PFLAG National? No, it was serendipitous and I am fortunate that the professional skills and experience that I gained in my career are an asset to such an important organization at this point in time. I will also share a story that not only affirmed my decision, but also speaks, for me, to why it is so important for allies to speak up. After taking the position, I had a colleague approach me and tell me it was professional suicide to go work for an LGBTQ organization. I was stunned. Then, I began to unbundle their rationalization for such a statement, and saw how much it was tied up in societal misperceptions and marginalization that the LGBTQ community faces every single day. Candidly, I was not very “PFLAG-y” in my response but I learned and was much more gracious a few years later when that same person realized how wrong they were because of the increased visibility of the LGBTQ community and allies like myself.
The opportunity to lead PFLAG National came, again, at a serendipitous time, as we learned the results of the election this past fall. The role of allies is more critical than ever and we need to leverage our place of privilege in these current unsettling times. I have an opportunity and a responsibility to step up and speak out and, after creating a space for my LGBTQ colleagues, friends and loved ones, step back so they can use their own powerful voices for change.
What are the three most important issues going forward for you as the Interim director of PFLAG that you are focused on? Our country, and the PFLAG chapter network, are at a watershed moment for equality and inclusion; these are our primary focus. Our chapter network is metamorphosing to both meet the needs of people seeking us out for support, and to advocate for change by refusing to accept any rollback of the progress we have made so far.
These needs are driving record numbers of family members, allies, and people who are LGBTQ to seek us out to form new chapters, as well as to infuse new energy into existing chapters based on the evolving needs of our members and supporters.
Of course, with that incredible demand comes the need for more and better resources, which is my third focus. I must ensure that funders and individual donors recognize that PFLAG’s chapter network, and the resources and staff at PFLAG National, are essential in the movement to advance equality as a whole.
Why is PFLAG so important right now? Let me answer that with another personal story about why PFLAG has been important to my family. Thanks to divorce, I have a half-sister that I really did not know and had only met a few times, when she was a child and I was a young adult. Flash forward to changing my job status on Facebook and I got a friend request from her: It turns out she identifies as a lesbian and had been worried about re-introducing herself to me as an adult. When she saw PFLAG, she knew I would be welcoming. That is the power of the PFLAG brand and what we represent to the LGBTQ community. It is why when we were all reeling from Orlando and wondering if we were moving backwards after the elections, the requests to start new chapters came flooding into us. People know that PFLAG represents not just a safe space but an approach to changing hearts, minds and laws that works especially in times of intense conflict and division. More than ever, the voices of PFLAG need to rise up to let people know that we are with them, that we will have their backs; we have never been more important. PFLAG is love, respect, resolve, it is the bridge families need, communities need, and certainly our country needs right now.
What would you say to President Trump and VP Pence about the LGBTQ community? I would probably start by asking them what their vision is for America in terms of diversity and inclusion. A lot of words get thrown around in very contradictory ways–political correctness, fairness, dignity–and they never seem to reflect the reality of what that means to the LGBTQ community. I would want to try to help them understand that they have a responsibility to stop campaigning in their form of poetry and govern in prose by sharing real stories of real people, real families, real communities all over this country that are being hurt by their words and deeds. I would absolutely share with them what I have learned from the LGBTQ community about resolve and authenticity; my passion and demand for their dignity would be evident.
What leadership skills do you need to possess to lead a group that is under constant scrutiny and threat? All leaders should have a conviction for the mission that drives them because those are the reserves you need to seek out when you are exhausted from the onslaught. Like all people who are in leadership roles, we tend to think the skills you need to possess are the ones we have. For me, it is the ability to keep my eyes on the horizon when you have to bushwhack through a forest of trees. That capacity provides a level of calm because sometimes progress can seem too incremental, even stalled, but you never lose sight of your ultimate destination. I am also personally not a big fan of internal drama and gamesmanship because we all need to stay focused on the external threat because lives are at stake and we can’t forget that.
What is the best way to raise awareness for PFLAG? I was someone who had never heard of PFLAG, and we still remain unknown for too many people considering we are one of the largest volunteer grassroots networks in the country committed to inclusion. It is the nature of who we are that so much of our work is done privately, quietly, in confidence. It’s the slow, steady work of changing hearts and minds, and it’s not flashy headline-grabbing work. Since the election I have watched a few of our well-deserving partner organizations garner visibility and support, through a high-profile tweet for example, and think, why not PFLAG? That said, people love PFLAG–just ask anyone who has been to a Pride march or to one of our workplace trainings or has benefitted from the work we do in schools and faith communities–literally tens of thousands of people have their own story of what PFLAG has meant to them. What we need is more resources to tell those stories…and maybe a few of those high profile tweets to pay for it.
Do you have any advice for parents with LGBTQ sons and daughters? As the proud mama of 10 and 13 year-old sons, I have learned that I make it up every day. They are constantly evolving into the adults they will be someday so if anything, my only advice is to relax and just keep showing your kids you love them. No parent gets every moment right and sometimes we have to recover, but if you’re doing it from a place of love, your children know.
In our family we often have a “most favorite/least favorite part of…” conversation, and that has become a way to ingrain important life skills in my kids. It creates an opportunity to reflect on an experience, have a safe place to talk about the good and the bad, and most important to recognize that life is never black and white, often experiences have both good and bad. We never thought of it as building resilience and a forum for sharing challenges, but it has become a major tool in our parenting arsenal as they enter their complex teenage years.
How can people in the business community get involved in PFLAG? One initiative of which we are most proud is our signature program, Straight for EqualityTM in the Workplace. It is a great way to engage with PFLAG while investing in the success of your business. In the last year, we reached more people than ever before through our learning sessions, working with more than 50 organizations, agencies, and corporations. This includes people at every level, including C-Suite executives, middle managers, human resource and diversity and inclusion professionals, and employee resource group members.
We have the unique and strong advantage of nearly 45 years of experience working with families in every state in the country. We take that experience and then apply it to working with allies–whether they are longtime allies or new to the world of diversity and inclusion–by meeting them where they are, having crucial and sometimes challenging conversations, and approaching all of it in a way that makes people comfortable. We also approach with much-needed sense of humor, when appropriate, which really helps people engage!
We are actually a small nonprofit organization in terms of staffing, yet we serve thousands of volunteers across the country. This allows us to be very entrepreneurial and creative in our partnership approaches. We are not ‘young’ but we are scrappy and hungry, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda. I personally was also really fortunate in my professional career to have worked for a brilliant corporate philanthropist and successful businessman, former chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, John Morgridge. He taught me how to think about market forces as a lever for good and to advance social goals. Here at PFLAG, we are smart and creative about business engagement at the same time we stay true to our mission. It is a win-win worth exploring and I would love to talk to any of your readers about those opportunities.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. A completely uninteresting but insightful fact is that I have never won a game of double deck solitaire in my life –if you knew statistically the odds of that, given how often I have played and how easy it is to cheat, it says everything about my tenacity.
I am from a really small, conservative town in the Adirondack Mountains and am the daughter of an elected Republican official. I still consider Edinburg home and am very close to my mom, so that means no bubble for me. I think that is why I have a number of friends across the political spectrum and can engage with people with many different viewpoints from mine without making assumptions about their opinions on matters about which we disagree. I have been really blessed to work in the equality movement during a time of great success but I think the victories I am most proud of are the friends who ‘did not get it’ and now do because I was always open for the questions and up for the quiet education without judgement that have led to their hearts and minds changing.
By Brenda Matamoros-Beveridge