An Interview with Trevor Thomas

Trevor Thomas, pictured above on  The War Room with Jennifer Granholm , spoke with me recently about how he's making an impact on the LGBT community.

Trevor Thomas, pictured above on The War Room with Jennifer Granholm, spoke with me recently about how he's making an impact on the LGBT community.

LGBT activist Trevor Thomas has served as deputy communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and worked to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by leading a grassroots communications effort that included a youth outreach plan featuring Lady Gaga. In 2012, at the age of 28, Trevor ran for a congressional seat in Michigan's 3rd district. Although his bid was unsuccessful, Trevor managed to collect endorsements from former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, former Massachusetts State Representative Barney Frank and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, among others.

Having grown up less than fifty miles from the red-leaning Michigan district where Trevor ran, I paid close attention to his congressional race and was inspired by the courage he showed not only in entering, but in doing so as an openly gay candidate.

Because of his LGBT activism and our shared Michigan roots, I reached out to Trevor this week to discuss what he's doing now, how he's continuing to make a difference in the LGBT community and where he finds inspiration.

CL: What are you up to these days? 

TT: I'm working for a group called Americans for Tax Fairness. We're pushing as hard as we can to make sure any deal in Washington includes new tax revenues. There are a couple of ways to do it, including corporate tax reform and eliminating loopholes that are legally allowing companies to avoid paying their fair share of taxes or, in some cases, no taxes at all. Most folks seem to agree they'd rather see big multinational companies pay up rather than themselves, but I've been surprised by how many folks seem to not care about the tax code and how royally we're screwed.

CL: How are you making a difference in the LGBT community? 

TT: I would love to make an attempt at explaining how tax equality impacts gays, but I'll leave that alone. 

In the past I've worked on a number of LGBT issues and I think the biggest thing I've learned is that we in the LGBT community need to be ready to act when our political power is at its peak. I'm pressing this point as our movement may be hitting another peak soon. With two major cases in front of the Supreme Court (DOMA and Prop 8), we're likely to have more momentum and I'm hopeful we'll harness it well. One thing I feel confident in saying is that our movement gains when we realize how to get things done and by not always accepting what party leaders tell us. 

Today I see a big space for helping young people and LGBT people get elected to office. Our movement isn't doing all it can do when it comes to helping viable candidates and I think we can improve in big ways. I hope to be able to share some of those ideas publicly very soon.

CL: What LGBT issue are you most passionate about? 

TT: Young people killing themselves will always be my personal passion as I'll never forget my own story. As a once suicidal teen, I worked to start an LGBT speaker's bureau at my college, raised money for The Trevor Project and worked to spread the word about the It Gets Better Project

I also think it's important how full circle I've come personally with my family, specially with my mom and dad. I wrote an opinion piece in The Grand Rapids Press in 2011 where I shared parts of that story.

I was 19 years old when I came out. It was 2004. I had driven from my campus apartment at Grand Valley State to my parents' house in Marne in the same Chevy Camaro I had once contemplated running into a tree. The altar-boy at St. Mary's Catholic Church (third grade through sophomore year) knew that homosexuality was a sin, but suicide was, too. 

Mom sat on the couch and my dad on the loveseat. I debated if I should use the word "gay" -- which I despised for its stigma -- or "homosexual." I went with gay. My mom pulled my college funding.

Having brought no guys around my family, I had never given them the opportunity to show how much they loved me. I went from 19 to 28 not so thrilled with their reactions from a decade ago, but they stepped up in the summer of 2012. Running for office nearly broke me and they saw it. They saw the weight loss. They saw my getting sick. They saw the stress that even the campaign staff didn't fully understand. What really shocked me was their willingness to do whatever it took. Sure, they donated as General Motors retirees with limited income and it meant something to me, but they became furious at the inequality of politics. They were furious we were raising cash for ten hours a day and our opponent just wrote a check and matched us. They were furious they worked the lines of GM and no matter how hard they worked the United Auto Workers endorsed against us. With total spending within reach of our opponent, they wanted to mortgage whatever assets they had for me to compete, though, to be clear, were not able to do it legally given contribution limits. 

When the media reported our loss, they were emotional. My dad hugged me. My mother was even a bit tipsy. It was a moment I can't forget. It was real. And I think losing could very well have been the best thing that ever happened to us.

CL: Can you name the one person whose contribution to the LGBT community has inspired you most? 

TT: Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mom. 

My parents have a cottage in Irons, Michigan. It's pretty remote and smack dab in the middle of the Manistee National Forest. It wasn't long ago when I was sitting alone at the bar of the local tavern listening to the folks around me, all of them commenting loudly when Barack Obama showed up on the TV. The disdain was shocking to me and the level of racism in Lake County seems marked by the number of homes flying confederate flags. Yes, people still do that and it's no joke to them. 

I think of their rage and their anger every time I see a celebrated success in the LGBT movement. We're largely a new movement compared to that of the civil rights movement and yet deep levels of racism are still present in our country. I think we should be mindful of this as we move forward in our so-called equality. While laws will change, I fear supportive hearts and minds in large urban areas encompassing large numbers of LGBT people and folks who support them creates a seemingly systemic false impression of just how far we've come.

Judy Shepard was asked why she speaks to so many people at so many schools in so many places around the country when the folks who attend likely already support her. She answered boldly, "Because even the choir needs preaching sometimes." And she's right. She pressed that we all remain mindful that there is still, every day, a gay or trans person in places like Irons who think they're the only one. The only one with those deep feelings they don't dare talk about. They think they're alone. And guess what, they really are. Running water is not always common, so forget the Internet. Forget Twitter or YouTube. And with home schooling, don't assume kids have access to outside opinion.

CL: If you had to recommend one book, movie or song with an LGBT bent, what would your recommendation be? 

TT: I'd recommend the song "For Good" by Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth from the Broadway musical Wicked. I'll just note that the song kept me going and reminded me that I was not alone.

To connect with Trevor Thomas, follow him on Twitter.

Previous interviewees in this series have included LGBTQ athletes, authors, businesspeople, entertainers and politicians. For a complete list, click here.

Note: A link to this post appeared on Towleroad on March 7, 2013.