“We’re in the fight for our lives right now” – GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis talks LGBTQ+ rights at TIME100 Summit

The 2023 TIME100 Summit, featuring TIME CO2, was held by Time magazine in New York City on Tuesday, April 25th, convening leaders from past and present TIME100 lists across a diverse range of sectors including government, business, entertainment, health and science for topical discussions anchored to the broad themes of leadership, impact​ and innovation​ with an increased focus on sustainability. Participants included President and CEO of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis; Founder and President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Dolores Huerta; Speaker Emerita of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi; artist, philanthropist, activist, and investor John Legend; filmmaker Steven Spielberg; actor, director, producer and Co-Founder of The Solutions Project, Mark Ruffalo; Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky; Apple Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives Lisa Jackson; Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics Dr. David Sinclair; Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Deborah Persaud; and entrepreneur and founder of SKIMS, SKKN and SKKYS, Kim Kardashian.

Artist MILCK performs “Quiet” at the 2023 TIME100 Summit

The morning began with a stirring performance by singer-songwriter MILCK of her latest single Metamorphosis, followed by Quiet, taken from her album This Is Not The End which, as she described, “became an anthem of sorts for the women’s movement” after a video of her performing the song at the 2017 Women’s March went viral. It features the refrain, “I can’t keep quiet / A one-woman riot / Oh, I can’t keep quiet”.

Sarah Kate Ellis, Abby Phillip and Dolores Huerta attend the 2023 TIME100 Summit at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 25th, 2023 in New York City. Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for TIME.

CNN anchor and Senior Political Correspondent, Abby Phillip, moderated a rousing and urgent panel entitled How To Build A Movement, featuring Sarah Kate Ellis of GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, and community organizer, labor leader, and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.

“It’s a fascinating time to be LGBTQ in America”, Ellis observed when asked to address the current threat to LGBTQ+ rights. “What we’re seeing right now is really a targeted effort against the transgender community in America today. If you think about it, and just peel it back for a second, we’re talking about 0.6% of the population in the United States. There are over 450 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been proposed this year at the state level, over 300 of them target trans folks. These people have always been here. There’s been no inciting incident. There’s nothing happening other than political play pawns. What we’re seeing is that people are building their political currency off the backs of very marginalized folks. We’re in the fight for our lives right now. It’s created a very dangerous environment for transgender folks.” Ellis went on to survey the range of attacks on LGBTQ+ life. “They’re banning drag performances, which has been an art form forever. It’s culture. We’re seeing a lot of censorship come toward our community.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, Dolores Huerta and Abby Phillip on stage at the 2023 TIME100 Summit in New York City. Photo credit: James Kleinmann/The Queer Review.

In contemplating what is driving these legislative attacks, Ellis suggests that it is “a blowback from the advancements” in LGBTQ+ rights that have “been made over the past decade or so, especially around marriage equality”, going on to call out those who seek to demonize the queer and trans community for political mileage, asserting that gaining and marinating LGBTQ+ rights is “a human rights issue”.

“We have to remember that we’re one human race”, Huerta affirmed. “A lot of what we’re facing right now comes from slavery. The fact that anybody should have to use their life’s energy and life’s force to make other people wealthy—this legacy of slavery—transcends to women, to children, and to the LGBTQ community also.” Huerta underscored her point about human connection by asking the TIME100 Summit audience to turn to their neighbor in the auditorium and greet them by saying, “hello, relative”. Describing the human race as “one human family”, she went on to say, “we have to remember that the LGBT community are our family and they have to be protected. So all of us have to fight the haters out there that are trying to do away with education, trying to turn back the clock. That means that we have to do a lot of organizing. We have to support our educational community and get ethnic studies, LGBTQ studies, women’s studies, labor studies, and civic engagement studies into our classrooms and we have to start in elementary school. If not, the haters are going to win.”

The Transgender Tipping Point – Laverne Cox became TIME’s first openly transgender cover subject in June 2014. Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME.

When it comes to the increased representation of trans people in media, entertainment, and public life in recent years—since Laverne Cox made history as the first openly trans Time cover subject in June 2014—Ellis describes the situation as “a doubled edged sword”, going on to observe, “that’s where this backlash is coming from, but for decades there was no representation of trans folks.” Ellis noted that this increase in visibility comes at a time when there is a lack of understanding about the trans community. “30% of Americans say they know someone who is trans”, warning that the resulting “information gap is being filled with anti-trans rhetoric”. Her solution is part of GLAAD’s mission, calling for representation and inclusion “in Hollywood, in advertising, and across the board” in order counter the “misinformation and bias around trans folks”. Adding later, “our tactic at GLAAD is about being a culture change agent, so we go where culture is made to make sure that LGBTQ folks are included in whatever is going on” so that perceptions change and it is “ultimately safer for us to exist and live the life that we love.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, Dolores Huerta and Abby Phillip on stage at the 2023 TIME100 Summit in New York City. Photo credit: James Kleinmann/The Queer Review.

According to Ellis, LGBTQ+ activism has become increasingly intersectional. “We work together with the women’s movement, with the labor rights movement, and with the racial justice movement, because it’s all intersected: we’re workers, we’re Black, we’re women. We’ve come to realize that over the past seven or eight years because we’ve had to. We didn’t have a choice when we were all under attack, and still continue to be under attack”.

For Huerta, the rhetoric from “the haters” demonizing immigrants, and attacking women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, “is part of the culture wars” that are intended “to keep people divided and separated”, with her concluding that a well-educated population is the solution. She quoted Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who cautioned, “if you do not have an educated citizenry, then the powerful, greedy and the corrupt will rule”. She observed that the current wave of “anti-woke, anti-education, rhetoric and practices” are aimed at keeping people “divided and ignorant”. She went on to quote 19th century Mexican president Benito Juárez’s observation that “respecting other people’s rights is peace”. She shared that in her own life, as a mother of eleven children, she accepts her lesbian daughter’s choice not to become a mother. “We have to respect other people’s rights”, Huerta continued. “If you want to marry somebody of your own sex, or live with or love them, that is your human right”. She encouraged those present to “organize and become messengers of justice and peace” and to fight for a living wage, a pension, and universal health care, as well as for “our democracy”, adding, “if not, we’re going to lose it.”

By James Kleinmann

How To Build a Movement with Dolores Huerta and Sarah Kate Ellis | 2023 TIME100 Summit

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