Longtime Human Rights Campaign board member and community activist Gwen Baba was honored by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, under the leadership of new executive director Jonathan Weedman, at the 6th annual Voice Awards Celebration on May 20 at the J.W. Marriot at L.A. Live.
Some longtime politicos think it’s about damn time.
“Gwen has been a longtime advocate for celebrating women’s contributions and their impact on causes that matter,” says R. Christine Hershey, co-founder of Access Now for Lesbian and Gay Equality (ANGLE) and the Victory Fund, L.A. County Small Business commissioner and of Hershey Cause Communications. “She was a key voice and my partner-in-crime during the ANGLE years during which we saw a huge consolidation of LGBTQ political power. She was one of a very small group of women doing this work.”
Hershey notes that Baba helped bring women back to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, where she served as a board member. It was the mid-late 1980s, during the horrific AIDS years.
“That was a really difficult time in the community,” recalls Baba, who was then in her late 20s. “A lot of our board members were dying and passing away; staff was dying and passing away. And it really felt like a war zone.”
“For those of us who came out in the late 70s-early 80s, we had to handle some really difficult stuff,” said West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem John Duran, ANGLE co-founder, former chair of the LIFE AIDS Lobby and GMCLA Board Chair. “Back then, in the late 70s, LGBT people were still criminalized. We were considered criminals; we were considered mentally ill. A lot of us began to tire. And in through the door walked this woman, Gwen Baba. And she had such a presence of grace and we looked at her and there was such a big sigh, like, ‘Ahhh! New leadership!’”
Though the gay environment was originally unwelcoming to women, women were much needed and became powerhouses—women such as Torie Osborn, who became executive director; the late politico Jean O’Leary, who moved her nationally-recognized, must-attend Women’s Night to the Center; and current L.A. LGBT Center CEO, Lorri Jean. Baba, a commercial and residential real estate investor, also helped lead the Center’s historic first capital campaign to raise money for their new headquarters in Hollywood.
“I grew up with the message that I could do anything but that didn’t mean I still didn’t feel discrimination, either as a woman, or as a lesbian,” says Baba.
Baba served on the Center’s board, with a term as co-chair, from 1986 to 1997.
She joined the board of the Human Rights Campaign in 1996, serving two-terms as board co-chair from 2002 to 2005. There, too, she served on the capital campaign for HRC’s headquarters in Washington DC and sat on several committees. Baba has also been an anchor for HRC’s L.A. chapter, a steadfast presence during changing times.
“Gwen Baba helped build the Human Rights Campaign into the organization we are today,” said HRC President Chad Griffin on a tribute video.
“Gwen was president of HRC from 2002-2005,” said attorney Diane Abbitt, ANGLE co-founder who headed HRC’s political action committee and serves on the GMCLA board. “Those were very, very hard times. She led HRC during the time that [President George W.] Bush was in office and Karl Rove was running things. That’s leadership.”
“Gwen speaks for everybody. Her voice carries a lot of weight,” said David Bohnett, head of the David Bohnett Foundation upon whose board Baba sits. She also sits on the board of the California Community Foundation.
During her acceptance speech, Baba noted that her daughter Gabrielle turned 17 on May 22nd, “a birthday she proudly shares with Harvey Milk.” Gabrielle was at her high school prom so she missed the festivities, including meeting composer Stephen Schwartz, who was also honored, along with Logo.
“LGBT organizations have long made a huge difference in Gabrielle’s life,” Baba said, and she was happy when GMCLA came to her school as part of the Alive Music Project.
Right now, Baba said, “the world feels pretty crazy to her, as it does to all of us. Like we walked into a Living Salvador Dali painting. We’re sinking under the weight of alternative facts and outright lies.”
But struggle is familiar. “Fighting alternative facts is nothing new for the LGBTQ community,” Baba said. “We’ve been doing it for decades. No, we can’t be “cured”, we can’t pray the gay away, we’re not crazy or sick or perverse or unfit to be parents.
“For LGBTQ people, alternative facts aren’t just ridiculous diversions. They’re designed to control us, to demean us, to deny us our joy and our freedom,” she said. “They’re promoted by people who demand we think and behave as they do. But that we will never do. Because we are inherently creative, in our activism and our art, in our satire and our song.”
Baba brought it home to the artistic audience. “So when politicians want to defund the arts, they really hope to silence our dissent. They choose not to accept that LGBT people are woven into every corner of this planet. And we will not be quiet.”