• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Denise Brogan-Kator of Family Equality

In addition to hosting the most important national election of our lifetimes, November is also Transgender Awareness Month (and this is Transgender Awareness Week). So the choice for this month’s guest for the Common Sense Colloquy seemed clear: Interim Family Equality CEO (and former client) Denise Brogan-Kator.


Family Equality is the nation’s premiere advocacy group for LGBTQ+ families (and, full disclosure, a former client of RENEWPR). At a time when the rights of LGBTQ families are under attack, their work is more important and more relevant than ever. Denise joined Family Equality in August 2012 as Director of State Policy and became Chief Policy Officer in July 2017. This summer, she became Interim CEO. Denise still leads the organization’s federal and state policy work as well, giving her a prime seat at the table for conversations about legislation and regulations at the federal and state level.


Denise is a US Submarine Service veteran with both an MBA and a law degree. And she doesn’t just have a law degree, she was the first openly transgender law student at the University of Michigan (and later returned as the first openly transgender law professor). Wow. And she has been advocating for the LGBTQ+ community for nearly thirty years and also has experience running a statewide LGBT advocacy organization.


But Denise is more than her very impressive resume. She’s smart, direct and focused (check out her new blog on Transgender Awareness Week here). In our time working together earlier this year, I was always impressed with how effective she was and how efficiently she made decisions and got things done. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to benefit from Denise’s insight and experience and so grateful she was willing to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy in this most consequential month.


My thanks to Denise for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.


Q: A recent GLAAD survey found that most Americans think LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination when in fact, we’re not. Given your work on family issues that some may think would be non-controversial, how have you and your colleagues at Family Equality successfully communicated about the very real threats to LGBTQ families and pushed back against these false assumptions?


A: We have employed a number of methods to tell the stories of our families and the fact that, even in 2020, we still don’t have full equality when compared with non-LGBTQ people. Although they don’t necessarily reach a wide audience, one of our most important and successful efforts has been to file Amicus (or “friend-of-the-court”) briefs with various appellate courts, especially the US Supreme Court.


In these briefs, we lift up the stories and voices of youth in LGBTQ families as well as LGBTQ adults as they describe the actual impact that discrimination in various facets of their lives have on their lived equality. It was just such a brief that Justice Kennedy singled out in the case that struck down DOMA, leading two years later to marriage equality. But we also publish state law guides that seek to inform anyone who is interested on the status of the law with respect to LGBTQ families, or those who wish to form them, in various states around the country. Our staff regularly speak before legislative bodies – including in the US Congress – to share the stories of and the impact of still-pervasive discrimination on LGBTQ people and families.


In one very important area of our work, we maintain a website – www.everychilddeservesafamily.com – where we feature the stories and photos of real people who have encountered various forms of discrimination in the child welfare system (a very important avenue for LGBTQ people seeking to form families). These are just a few examples; telling the stories about the lack of lived and legal equality for our families is central to our mission.


Q: The 2020 election results seemingly told us many things about ourselves and about the nation’s ongoing struggle with racism, sexism and homophobia. While several LGBTQ candidates made history with their elections in Delaware, New York and other places, other candidates who were the targets of anti-LGBTQ attacks in Texas, Michigan and elsewhere lost. What do you think this year tells about how we should be communicating on LGBTQ issues? What messages should we take away from this month’s observance of Transgender Awareness?


A: The main message, from my perspective, that both Transgender Awareness and the election results convey is the need to continue lifting up the stories about our lives. It is safer, now, to be out and visible than it was when I came out, as transgender, nearly 30 years ago, but it is still not safe for everyone, everywhere.


When a politician running for elected office can still be vilified for their sexual orientation or their gender identity, it reveals a deep-seated animus toward our lives by those who fail to reject those messages. Or, perhaps it’s less animus and more fear and ignorance. In either event, the old maxim of “if you can safely be out, be out” applies more than ever. Research (and commonsense) show that when someone knows an LBGTQ person in their lives the odds of them voting for discriminatory legislation declines precipitously. So, we need to continue to run for office, openly. We need to continue to celebrate our victories and allow others to see us as fully human. When that happens, and it will, these types of hateful attacks will reduce into the nuisance category; we’ve a long way to go to get there, but we will get there.


Q: Your life has taken you from the submarine service to advocating for equality in the halls of state houses and the U.S. Congress. What have your experiences taught you and what lessons do you think they hold for others looking to communicate on challenging policy issues?


A: My answer to this question is, essentially, my answer to the next two questions, as well. Each of us has a unique story to tell (I have a friend who jokes “We’re each unique, just like everyone else”). But, regardless of how unique our story, we share a common humanity and most often we can find points of agreement and connection with just about anyone, if we take the trouble to look for them. Sometimes, it’s like panning for gold. You may have to sift through the mud to find that nugget of gold in someone’s communication to you. But if you persevere and remained determined to find it – that nugget of gold, or that connection – you will. And, in those connections, in those elements of agreement – even if seemingly small – we have an opportunity to learn. And, if we do that, our opportunity to speak and share and be listened to and learned from will inevitably arise. There are no shortcuts.


I don’t share the same politics as most of my shipmates from my submarine days. But I am accepted in that group (I even won the cribbage tournament at our last reunion) and, over time, they’ve come to admire and respect me for who I am and the conviction of my beliefs. Find common ground, meet people where they are and build from there. I won’t “convert” all of my shipmates to my politics or even my way of looking at the world. But I’ll understand them better, they’ll understand me better and we’ll both be cautious about vilifying one another or the groups to which we belong. You can build a country on that type of trust and willingness to be open and vulnerable.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?


A: Meet people where they are, not where you are. Be honest, in all your communications. That also means admitting when you’re wrong or when you don’t know an answer. That’s hard for most of us, especially me. I like to be in control and when I admit that I don’t know something or, worse, that I was wrong about something, it feels much like ceding control. But the goal of communication must be to learn and to inform. You cannot do that, effectively, or consistently, unless you’ve willing to be honest and meet people where they are.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?


A: Connect with your audience. That may seem daunting, especially when your audience is large or unknown to you (such as a mass email or ad campaign). But if you try and imagine who the audience is and then place yourself if their situation, ask a simple question: So what? In other words, why does this person care about what you’re saying? If you can honestly answer that question, you will have taken a huge step toward effective communication.




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