Imani Rupert-Gordon: Bringing intersectionality to the table
For the first time in LGBTQ history, three primary national LGBTQ organizations, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), National LGBTQ Task Force, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) are headed by Black leaders: Alphonso David, Kierra Johnson and Imani Rupert-Gordon.
Black leadership for these legacy organizations that have been central to and critical for the LGBTQ community has been decades in the making, and it comes after a concerted effort within the community by Black and brown activists to acquire full representation.
Imani Rupert-Gordon, 42, is one of those activists. An Ohio native who grew up in California, Rupert-Gordon has a B.A. in sociology and a master’s in social work. Among her achievements, Rupert-Gordon served as executive director of Affinity Community Services, a Chicago-based, Black-led, queer-led organization dedicated to social justice in Black LGBTQ communities, from 2016 to 2020.
In March 2020, just as the pandemic took hold and the country went into lockdown, Rupert-Gordon took on the leadership of NCLR. She succeeded long-time executive director Kate Kendell, who served in that role from 1994 through 2018. Kendell has been co-Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2019.
In an exclusive interview with Queer Forty, Rupert-Gordon spoke at length about a range of subjects from succeeding Kendell and making her own mark on NCLR to the challenge of social justice work in the midst of a pandemic to how being a queer Black woman in a society dominated by cis-het white men means carving a space for herself and elevating and amplifying the voices of other LGBTQ people of color.
Rupert-Gordon, who identifies as “queer, but lesbian works too,” had strong praise for her predecessor, Kendell. She said, “Kate is an absolute legend, and one of the leaders I admire most for reasons that are too voluminous to name. One of those reasons is the grace and generosity she’s shown me as I’ve stepped into this role.”
Rupert-Gordon explained that due to that support, “As a result, I have never felt pressure or need to make broad changes to assert my leadership. My tenure hasn’t been marked by seismic shifts, but rather by drilling down and bringing NCLR’s core values into sharper focus.”
One such focus is ensuring historically suppressed voices get heard.
“My priorities are making sure to continue NCLR’s legacy as the organization that is constantly asking who is being left out of the conversation and amplifying those voices and positioning ourselves at the ‘live edge’ of the intersectional struggle for justice for LGBTQ people,” she said, while noting, “It’s the work we’ve always done. And like every leader before me, I want to make sure that more people are included under our umbrella.”
As a sociologist and social worker, Rupert-Gordon said when she first heard about Kendell deciding to step down as executive director, “I didn’t know if it was the right fit, because I knew NCLR as primarily a legal organization, and I’m not a lawyer.” Kendell was well-known as an attorney and had received numerous accolades for her legal expertise, including being named one of California’s top 100 attorneys during her tenure at NCLR.
What NCLR is and does, Rupert-Gordon explained, is myriad things that extend through and beyond the legal issues lesbians and other queer women face. “We do our work through impact litigation, public education, administrative advocacy, policy change, advocacy campaigns, legislative work, social and cultural change, and bridge-building,” she said. That meant she “saw an opportunity for someone who understands that our work has to look that way to match the needs of our community. That is what I wanted to bring to this work—an understanding that our communities need an interlocking support system of legal rights and protections, political power, cultural change, and a strong social safety net that includes robust healthcare protections including mental health.” She said her training “prepared me well to look at it this way, and that’s what NCLR was looking for, and that’s what I was hoping to bring. It’s an honor to be on the team.”
That broad-based approach has never been more necessary than now. For all LGBTQ people, but especially Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous queer and trans people, 2020 was one of the most difficult years in decades. The pandemic and the racial/social justice protests of 2020 were the defining events for us as a nation and as individuals. NCLR had to face that confluence of issues as an organization and Rupert-Gordon had a far different world to navigate within than she—or NCLR—expected when she took the job.
Rupert-Gordon was succinct about the impact. She said, “The past year and a half will define this generation, and that means every movement will be impacted by these issues. NCLR has a long tradition of being an anti-racist organization, so we welcome the opportunity to more honestly and directly confront the role that racial justice must play in the LGBTQ movement and address the structural racism—particularly anti-Black racism—that has unfortunately lived within the movement.”
She asserted that “this moment is a challenge to meet. As an organization, we are, and will continue to be more intentional about confronting institutional racism, issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Racial justice is an LGBTQ issue, and so too are issues like police violence and accountability, creating true safe communities, over-incarceration, issues of poverty, decriminalizing sex work, fundamentally changing the child welfare system, and many other issues that are receiving more focus over the last couple of years. These will continue to be priorities for us.”
Likewise, Rupert-Gordon explained, the global pandemic impacted NCLR as an organization, and the way that organization does its work. Highlighting just how true that change has been, Rupert-Gordon said her first day in the office was also the first day of shelter-in-place in California as the pandemic took hold in the country. “My first official act as executive director was to give the order to shut down our office,” she said. “I still haven’t met most of our team in person, which has tested how we work together as an organization.”
Nevertheless, she said, “I’m proud of how we have met this moment. We have relied on technology and remote work, and we have had to introduce a level of flexibility that I think makes our workplace more sustainable and humane.”
Rupert-Gordon said all of these means “we’ve challenged our notions of what our work looks like, and creating team morale and culture in more creative ways has strengthened our team. As far as our work, COVID-19 has revealed a lot of existing inequalities for many folks in our communities.” She said she knows “we cannot have as our goal returning to the status quo” post-pandemic, noting “that didn’t work for many of us anyway.” One of the key things Rupert-Gordon has experienced and discerned must change is a recognition of the inequities among LGBTQ people that have been writ large during the pandemic.
A new report from the Movement Advancement Project, which compiled the data and presented the report based on polling data. shows that LGBTQ households—especially those headed by Black and Latinx LGBTQ people—experienced disproportionate, negative impacts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes being twice as likely to be unable to get necessary medical care and four times more likely to not have enough food to eat as non-LGBTQ households.
In June, more research was revealed. A coalition of leading LGBTQ rights groups joined together to release the most extensive summaries to date of scholarly data on the intersection of anti-LGBTQ and racial discrimination. The research brief, authored by the What We Know Project at Cornell University, found overwhelming consensus among peer-reviewed and other studies that discrimination inflicts profoundly greater harm on LGBTQ people of color in a wide range of areas, including grossly disproportionate rates of: experiencing discrimination over the past year, poorer mental and physical health, greater economic insecurity, and attempts to die by suicide.
In addition, LGBTQ people of color are more likely than white LGBTQ people to live in states without protections against discrimination and that state anti-LGBTQ laws harm LGBTQ people.
Dr. Nathaniel Frank, the study’s author, said, “This research brief makes clear the tangible harms that discrimination inflicts on LGBTQ people of color, and the urgent need for public policy that reflects what the research tells us about how we can reduce those harms.”
Rupert-Gordon knows NCLR must address this and other disparities. “Many LGBTQ people who are living at the intersections of multiple under-represented identities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic will continue to face inequities,” she said. “People dealing with homelessness and housing insecurity, incarceration, poverty, lack of access to affordable quality healthcare and transportation were those hardest hit by the pandemic. This is why prioritizing the needs of the most under-represented communities must remain priorities of our work.”
She added that this is much more than “just” the coronavirus. “In addition, we have to realize that COVID can’t be treated simply as a snapshot in time—it will have lasting impacts and LGBTQ people will be especially impacted.” There is a lot to consider about how much life has changed for an already marginalized group—LGBTQ people—and Rupert-Gordon said we cannot afford to ignore how complex but essential it is that we address these issues going forward. Particularly those issues that have been largely ignored within our community—and outside our community—for decades.”
People who have tested positive for COVID and survived have reported ongoing respiratory issues, which can be exacerbated by issues of environmental injustice and racism that leaves many living in less healthy and more polluted environments. It will impact people’s decisions whether and when to have children, making it an issue of reproductive health and justice,” she said, which lesbians and queer women are already disproportionately impacted by.
Additionally, Rupert-Gordon said, “Those dealing with the aftermath and compromised immune systems will be more dependent on access to affordable and culturally competent healthcare. These are all issues that disproportionately impact the LGBTQ community but aren’t thought of traditionally as LGBTQ issues. These are the gaps that NCLR is uniquely able to recognize and fully.”She was succinct: “This pandemic isn’t over, and our work cannot be either.”Intersectionality is both a goal and often elusive within the U.S. and the LGBTQ community.
As a Black queer woman, Rupert-Gordon said she brings an intersectional lens to all of her work because “without it, no movement would be equipped to include me. As the first Black woman to lead NCLR, that is my goal for our work: I want everyone in our community to feel recognized, especially those who aren’t used to seeing national organizations represent and champion their issues.”
She said, “This requires a genuine focus and a willingness recognize that all of our movements are linked and in order to protect Black and brown LGBTQ people and all LGBTQ people of color that our work must reflect that.” The importance of an intersectional approach and recognition of issues and their interconnectedness is paramount, she asserted. “Racial justice is economic justice is environmental justice is reproductive justice is LGBTQ justice. We can’t separate them out because people can’t separate their identities out. There isn’t a moment where I am just a queer person and then a woman and then a Black person. I’m all of them all at once and each identity informs the others.”
Succinctly put: “We must engage in our work the way people experience our work.”
Rupert-Gordon has specific goals for NCLR in the coming year, much of which includes expanding protections for the LGBTQ community. She said, “I’m incredibly excited about so much of the work we are doing this year. We are one of the lead organizations working to pass the Equality Act and provide explicit federal protections against LGBTQ discrimination. We are continuing to work to protect young people from the dangerous practice of conversion therapy in all 50 states through our Born Perfect campaign. We are also continuing our anti-poverty efforts as a co-founder of the LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Network. We continue to serve LGBTQ people seeking in asylum in this country, and since the inception of this program, we have never lost an asylum case.”
Prioritizing the disparities queer women face remains central to NCLR’s focus—especially now.
“There could not be a more important moment to be doing this work, and I believe that NCLR is able to meet this moment in a unique and important way,” Rupert-Gordon said, adding, “Our history is that of an organization founded because the movement wasn’t equipped to represent everyone. There were legal issues lesbians, bisexual and queer women were facing, and neither the women’s movement or what was then known as the gay rights movement prioritized those issues.”
Rupert-Gordon said the history of NCLR has been that the organization “was created to correct that and to open the umbrella wider. That is our legacy: asking the question ‘who is being left out of the conversation?’ is our birthright. So we’ll keep doing it. The conversation has changed many times over, but our animating concern remains making the movement bigger, richer, and more inclusive.”
The impact of NCLR on the community as a whole and her role in facilitating that is Rupert-Gordon’s focus going forward. “I could not be more proud of the role that NCLR plays in the movement, and I’m grateful to be a part of this organization.”
Coming Up for NCLR
For initiatives, the NCLR is working on with coalition partners encouraging everyone to contact their senators to pass the Equality Act. People can email, phone, tweet, and fax their senators on the Freedom and Opportunity for All website.
Also, NCLR’s Born Perfect conversion therapy campaign worked with Netflix and Ryan Murphy’s production company to help with the release of the new documentary Pray Away about the dangers of conversion therapy and the “ex-gay” movement, streaming on August 8.