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Like Mark Twain, EQCA is alive and kicking

SAN DIEGO – The reports of the death of Equality California (EQCA) are greatly exaggerated, the nonprofit’s new boss tells San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Like Mark Twain once did, John O’Connor, who became EQCA’s executive director about six weeks ago, is dispelling rumors about the health of the organization. O’Connor, whose wide smile acknowledges that he has heard about the premature obituary, said EQCA is still relevant today.

EQCA has been in a state of flux since October 2011 when Executive Director Roland Palencia abruptly resigned just months after replacing Geoff Kors.

“EQCA is still relevant today because LGBT Californians still need political power,” O’Connor said over coffee Tuesday afternoon at Claire de Lune in San Diego’s hip North Park neighborhood. “We still need a strong, powerful voice in Sacramento.”

Even without a strong leader in 2012, EQCA scored victory after victory for LGBT rights in the California Legislature.

O’Connor cited passage of Senate Bill 1172, co-sponsored by EQCA and dozens of other organizations, as milestone legislation to ban “ex-gay” therapy for minors. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on Sept. 30, 2012. Two lawsuits filed by anti-gay groups have temporarily held up enforcement of the law.

“SB 1172 is huge,” he said. “Imagine how many young LGBT people will no longer suffer harm from reparative therapy!”

2012 elections results propel LGBT movement forward

O’Connor marveled at the 2012 election results, record wins for marriage equality and LGBT candidates, and for President Barack Obama linking “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” in his second inauguration speech, which happened to fall on MLK Day.

He sees great momentum ahead for LGBT rights, not only for California where Democrats control the Governor’s Office and both branches of the Legislature, but also nationwide. But he also knows that anti-gay forces will rally their troops, raise money to fight against LGBT rights, and remain the chief hurdle on the road toward full equality.

A well-seasoned leader

But in 42-year-old John O’Connor, the opposition is about to meet their match. This Eagle Scout cut his teeth as a grassroots organizer for ACT/UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Queer Nation in the 1990s when he was attending Georgetown University.

The New Jersey native then went to work for David Geffen Foundation, the Gill Foundation, California Museum for History, Women and the Arts and the California Hall of Fame, and the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs.

The diversity of his résumé shows the number of valuable skills O’Connor brings to EQCA. He reflects on his past, finding a common thread.

“You could say I like mission-driven work,” he said, sitting in a comfortable chair and dressed in a blue-striped dress shirt with silver cufflinks and blue-washed jeans, sporting a stylish silver watch.

He said he learned how to be a leader as an Eagle Scout, but notes how it also often brings him into an LGBT dialogue because of the Scouts' anti-gay policy. From ACT/UP and Queer Nation, he said he learned the power of a grassroots movement. From working with wealthy patrons like David Geffen and Tim Gill, he learned the value of philanthropy.

“From my diverse background, I have learned how to run an organization, how to lead, how to plan, how to inspire,” O’Connor said.

He is not prepared to state his goals for EQCA other than in general terms, saying he needs to continue his “listening tour” to hear from his constituents around the state. He just made three hires, beefing up the staff in preparation for a new chapter for the organization. He will say that EQCA plans to start monitoring enforcement of LGBT-related laws passed over the past few years by the progressive California Legislature.

EQCA will continue to endorse candidates, and O’Connor said the organization is proud of its record of getting 52 of its 57 endorsed candidates elected.

The great marriage-equality debate

O’Connor declined to predict how the U.S. Supreme Court might rule this spring on California’s Proposition 8 case, but said EQCA will weigh “all options” in case the nation’s high court delivers a verdict unacceptable to the LGBT community.

Options include pushing the legislature to pass marriage equality a la New York or Washington state, or putting another referendum on the ballot.

“I can tell you this,” he said. “It is, with absolute certainty, that we will win the marriage-equality fight, sooner or later.”

O’Connor is in a committed relationship, and says he would love to get married someday. “I would definitely get married if I could,” he said, laughing, and holding up his hands to show that he was not wearing any rings. “But I haven’t been proposed to yet!”

He remembers a time when marriage equality was not even on the radar of most LGBT Americans, but noted how rapidly things changed after the San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, began (illegally) marrying gay couples in 2004.

Marriage equality is “huge,” he said, for its symbolism and practicality. But, he said, it is just one of many issues that EQCA will be fighting for. They include: ending bullying in schools, advocating for transgender rights, and supporting LGBT elderly who face discrimination in caregiving situations when they can no longer take care of themselves.

O’Connor closed the conversation with a smile, saying he was thrilled that SDGLN would be spreading the news that EQCA is alive and kicking.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.