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Epochalips Interview: Paula Pilecki

Epochalips Interview: Paula Pilecki

Paula Pilecki is the Executive Director of Spectrum LGBT Center of the North Bay in California. Spectrum LGBT Center provides community leadership in promoting acceptance, understanding, and full inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Spectrum celebrates 30 years this year and will hold a spectacular anniversary gala on November 10.

Paula, you are one of the most dynamic, hardworking activists I know. You’ve told me about your history as a Christian fundamentalist. Was it hard to break away from Christianity? How has that struggle helped you get where you are today?

PP: I had my born-again experience in December 1971, when I was in 9th grade and really looking for some way to connect to the world around me. As the youngest of five with an alcoholic mother and enabling father, I was very vulnerable to being lured in by the Jesus movement of the 70s that swept across the country. I spent about 15 years trying everything from speaking in tongues to having my bad vision healed through prayer. Eventually, I gave up trying so hard. And let’s be clear: I wasn’t involved in a generic form of Christianity. I was part of a bunch of fundamentalist extremists who believed women couldn’t pray without at least one man in the room.

Tell us more about your history as an activist.

PP: It all started when I became the first statewide Food Stamp Advocacy and Policy Coordinator for Project Bread Hunger Hotline, which advocated for better food policies on behalf of poor women, children, and families. (It’s now known as the Food Source Hotline.) This was in the 1980s, after Reagan declared ketchup was a vegetable. My job was to help low income people get food stamps, which was tough because the system was designed to deny first and ask questions later. I moved from Boston to L.A. to be with my then-boyfriend. And in 1990, a friend took me to a meeting hosted by the Clinic Defense Alliance of L.A. to plan on countering the far-right, anti-choice group Operation Rescue. This was the beginning of Operation Rescue’s attacks on women’s clinics throughout L.A. County. I became immediately crushed out on one of the facilitators of the meeting – a woman who ended up not being lesbian at all. That night, motivated by all the female energy and this crush that came out of nowhere, I volunteered to use my fundamentalist background and participate as a ‘spy’ for Clinic Defense Alliance of Los Angeles. That lasted a little over 3 years, during which time I left my boyfriend and started dating women.

I met you through my commitment volunteering for the Speaker’s Bureau at Spectrum. I absolutely love doing this and believe that it is one of the most important things in life, giving back to the community. Why did you choose a career serving the LGBT community?

PP: After I came out, I decided I wanted to work on behalf of the gay community. I lived in West Hollywood with my first partner, and we became politically involved there. We started the WeHo chapter of NOW, and I was a member of the Stonewall Democratic Club. In 1997, my partner and I volunteered to be ‘married’ in front of Van Nuys City Hall on Valentine’s Day as part of a nationwide demonstration organized by the National Organization for Women, to protest the Defense of Marriage Act. The local press picked up the story and ran our photo. I was stunned when my auto mechanic congratulated me. It was, after all, a mock wedding, but I felt compelled to play along. Next I set my sights on moving to San Francisco and getting a job as director of a nonprofit organization working on behalf of gay and lesbian people. I applied for ED of Spectrum and got the job, celebrating 14 years on February 19th.

Tell us more about Spectrum, what exciting things are on the horizon for 2012?

PP: 2012 is Spectrum’s 30th Anniversary. What a rich history this organization has, founded by Rev. Janie Spahr, a lesbian Presbyterian minister who is being prosecuted by her own church for marrying gay couples. It was Janie’s  original work that started the Speaker’s Bureau you participate in, and the outreach and support to LGBT youth. We are currently going through a strategic planning process to determine the future direction of Spectrum.

In this tight economy, so many nonprofits are struggling to remain sustainable. We’re doing the same. The LGBT social justice movement is changing, and the purpose of the small, local community center is changing with the times. My board and I are exploring what Spectrum will become and how we will sustain our future work. In the meantime, we are celebrating our 30th anniversary with a big event on November 10th at Mill Valley Community Center.

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