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Impact Spotlight: Terra Russell-Slavin, Los Angeles LGBT Center

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Angel City FC has partnered with the Los Angeles LGBT Center since the club’s beginnings. Through Angel City’s 10% model, where 10% of sponsorship dollars are allocated to community organizations, the club works with DoorDash and TicketManager to support the Center’s meal distribution programs, Clear to support the Pride in Tech Scholarship, Code Four to celebrate Youth Prom, Heineken to celebrate the Trans Pride festival, and Charlotte’s Web to celebrate Senior Prom and Senior Holiday Party.

For this month’s Impact Spotlight, interviewed their chief impact officer, Terra Russell-Slavin. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and telling us what you do at the LGBT Center.

Terra Russell-Slavin: I'm the chief impact officer here at the Center, and I use she/her and they/them pronouns. I've been at the center for 18.5 years. In this current role, I oversee all the non-health programs, which includes senior services, legal services, cultural arts, community programs, youth services, as well as policy for the organization. 

ACFC: What do you love about this work?

TRS: We have an average of about 50,000 client visits a month across all of our program areas. I love when we're able to see the systemic barriers our clients are facing, and then take those barriers, figure out a solution, go and advocate for that solution, and then see it implemented. I love being able to affect policy change. Some changes are small and others are large, but it does have a significant impact on our community.

I started my career at the Center as the lead domestic violence attorney. So for eight and a half years, I managed our domestic and sexual assault legal advocacy project. We saw just a tremendous amount of discrimination against LGBTQ+ survivors. I took that information and worked nationally on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. And in 2013, I helped co-chair the effort that led to the first-ever nondiscrimination provision in federal law on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the Violence Against Women Act. That was an amazing accomplishment that happened through a lot of hours and a lot of coalition building. So now, legally, you cannot turn away an LGBTQ+ survivor of intimate partner violence or sexual violence just because of these identities.

ACFC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

TSR: Right now we're facing these really intense and coordinated attacks by far-right actors. It's really disheartening to see that some of the language that I heard growing up in a small town in Texas, we're now seeing that same type of rhetoric in school board meetings in Los Angeles County. It's a reminder that we have to keep fighting, that progress isn't a given and that we can't let our guard down.

ACFC: Talk a little more about that. I don’t know if people realize how damaging some of this anti-queer or anti-trans rhetoric is.

TSR: Right! What they said about Prop 8 [the 2008 California ballot measure that amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage (overturned in TK YEAR)] was the same thing: “This is about parental rights. This is about protecting our children.” And in Los Angeles County, a majority voted to support Prop 8 and take away marriage rights for LGBTQ+ couples.

And that same rhetoric is the language we're now seeing from candidates for the Glendale School Board [Ed. note: the two right-wing candidates in that election both lost]. What I think is different—and I actually think I had not seen this in LA County until the last year—was just the extremism of the movement. Like, people showing up with members of the Proud Boys, or the incident at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood. They were there to acknowledge Pride Month by reading a book that talks about different kinds of families, and you had a whole group of extremists out there protesting it, and you ended up having armed police outside of an elementary school. I did not expect to see that in Los Angeles.

ACFC: When you think about how prevalent this kind of extreme rhetoric and anti-LGBTQ+ organizing is becoming—what do we do to counteract that?

TRS: One is I think we need to not be complacent, and we need our allies not to be complacent. They need to be vocal and they need to be steadfast that even if they're going to get this pushback from a small, very vocal and extreme minority, we are still the majority, right? We know we're on the right side of history, and we need people to maintain those protections. 

The way I see it is that they are targeting schools on purpose, because with younger people, they know that they're losing in that demographic area. So they're trying to take away the education. They're trying to take away the progress. They're trying to claw that back. We can't let that happen.

I would also just really encourage people to vote local. I think we have a tendency to think about who's on the top of the ticket, but most decisions that are being made that are going to directly impact people's lives are happening on the school board or the city council—and the turnout rate for many school board races is less than 10%.

I think it's more coordinated than most people realize. We’ll see them run a bill in one state and it’s effective, so they take it to the next state, and then they take it to the next state. These are well-funded, coordinated efforts.

ACFC: Tell us about your upbringing and coming out, and how those things affected your career path.

TRS: Well, the reason I knew I was different is I was the only Democrat in my third-grade class [laughs].

I grew up in a very conservative area of Texas, in a town called Seabrook, Texas. Increasingly it’s a suburb of Houston, but it was really a shrimping town when I was growing up. I grew up there over the 80s and 90s, so kind of the height of the AIDS epidemic. There was no LGBTQ+ visibility growing up, none. The message was, if you are gay, you will die of HIV. And even though my family wasn't conservative, it didn't feel like a safe place. There wasn’t a single out person in my high school, that I knew of. 

I actually started volunteering in the domestic violence movement when I was 16 years old. I kind of associated my activism with feminism and bodily autonomy. I knew anti-LGBTQ+ bias was wrong even at an early age, but I didn't necessarily have the language for it until I went to college. So I ended up in college, came out late in college and then went to a very queer law school.

I've spent my whole legal career, basically, at the Center, fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. It’s such a privilege to do this work day in and day out. I love my job.

ACFC: Two final questions: first, what progress have you seen during your career? And second, what gives you hope for the future?

TRS: It feels so different from when I was growing up. Being queer or trans, the amount of visibility in media and in sports and all of these different places, it's a night-and-day difference. I think where we live, in a place like California, we still have amazing protections, and even though there are rollbacks, it does feel like we’ve passed a certain point, where I don't see people going back in the closet the same way as three decades ago. So I do think even though we're in a really hard moment, that overall progress has been really incredible. 

We do senior services and youth services, and they both give me hope in different ways. The youth we work with are often homeless, or maybe they’re in foster care. They've just had really hard, challenging young lives. And yet they find ways, despite it all, to experience so much joy. Queer joy and resilience is so real, and that makes me feel very clear that we will ultimately succeed, because you can't take that away. 

And then with our seniors who, some of them are coming out in their 60s and 70s and for the first time in their lives are feeling present, feeling like they're able to be themselves. Then there are the ones who have been out all their lives and have lived through so much, and they're still here, living their lives out and proud.

I truly think most of the attacks at this point are politically motivated. I'm hopeful that the reality of people's lives and the essential joy people have in being themselves isn’t something you can suppress. It will take work, but I feel confident we’re on the right track.