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June 22, 07
V 35 Issue 25

 
 
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New Director of Equal Rights Washington
New Director of Equal Rights Washington
SGN interviews Connie Watts this week

by Lisa Wardle - SGN Staff Writer

SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Connie Watts, Executive Director of Equal Rights Washington (ERW), took over the reigns earlier this month. Her partner and 21 month-old son moved with her to Seattle, where they hope to build a new life together. She had previously lived in Utah, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. while working for Planned Parenthood.

Growing up in a supportive family who pushed her to pursue a career in activist organizations, Connie has become a successful person who enjoys helping others. Connie says excited by the opportunity to do more activist work for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community. Although she had done some work on LGBT issues before, she did not work for a group whose sole purpose was LGBT rights.

The Seattle Gay News sat down with Connie this week to learn more about her background and hopes for the future of ERW.

Lisa Wardle: For some background information to readers, can you tell me some of the things that ERW does?

Connie Watts: We do so many things. We do online organizing and on the ground organizing. We mobilize activists around LGBT issues, all kinds of LGBT issues, and utilize all of the volunteers that we have. We affect change, not just marriage but, obviously, also a host of other issues.

LW: You were appointed to the position at ERW back in April. So far, what are your impressions of the group's inner workings?

CW: Even though I signed on in April, we made an agreement that I wouldn't start my position until June 4th. That gave me time to talk with and meet a lot of people and learn more about Washington's community and history. It's ideal to get a job and have time to become fully prepared for it. I also thought it was incredibly nice that I didn't have to deal with moving to a new place and getting settled in at the same time as starting my new job. This way, I adjusted to the new location and community before beginning my position.

LW: What work around LGBT issues have you done before your current position?

CW: Through other things, like Planned Parenthood and other organizations, I was able to participate in certain issues. I served on the National Organization of Women (NOW) and worked on LGBT organizing. In Utah, when I worked for Planned Parenthood, the first school to try and have a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) was right next door to our building. The school wouldn't allow the group to meet, so we provided them with a room to use and offered our support. Planned Parenthood let me use all of my time and resources to help them out.

LW: Why did you want to work with ERW instead of remaining in Washington, D.C. as the National Field Director for Planned Parenthood?

CW: Well, first I went to Atlanta, and then to Washington, D.C. as the National Field Director for Planned Parenthood. We were in D.C. for eight years. I wasn't sure that I wanted to come here, to ERW; I didn't leave my position at Planned Parenthood so that I could take up a new job. I felt that I have achieved all of the goals that I wanted to and young leaders kept coming up with hopes and goals of their own. I left Planned Parenthood and did independent consulting for one year before my partner sought out and got a job here.

It is a lot harder to get a job outside of your network, you don't know who to contact or what to expect. Someone brought my attention to ERW about a year ago, and I was thrilled to learn that the position was still open, so much time had passed that I assumed it was already filled. I would have given my own teeth to work on LGBT issues, so the opportunity was incredibly exciting. I sent in my paperwork on the last possible day, right before we moved out of the house and left for Seattle.

LW: What was life like growing up in Utah? Did you find it to be a difficult place for a young Queer woman?

CW: It's a challenge if you don't fit into the mold. Salt Lake City is made up of less than 50 percent Latter Day Saints. My friends and I would try to go to Salt Lake all the time, looking for reasons to go. There were things to do there. In Utah, if you were anything other than Mormon, you were an outcast. The amazing thing is, in those types of cities, the oppressed community comes together to create their own group. Out of sheer necessity, they build a coalition because they need each other. It was a progressive community where everyone helped one another. It's really an important part of the person that I've become.

LW: How do you feel about the so-called "liberal bubble" in Seattle? Do you notice a major difference from other areas that you have worked in?

CW: It's not just Seattle. All major metropolitan areas are full of big corporations and big companies. Larger cities, that's where progressive communities are. In Georgia, if you were outside of Atlanta, people would view the city as if it were off this planet. The same is true for peoples' views in Eastern Washington about Seattle. In order to make cities seem less like "bubbles", people need to move outside of those cores of luxury.

LW: What motivated you to do activist work in so many different areas?

CW: The core of who I am is due to my parents. I was raised to give back to the community. They taught me to stand up against discrimination and to fight for the support and equal treatment of people. Throughout my life, I have been doing things to try and make a difference. In high school, I wrote an article for the school newspaper about teen pregnancy and I got in a lot of trouble because of it. I try to fight for issues that have directly impacted me, or ones that I know I can help to change. Once you can, once you get out of college, it's important to make activist efforts and make a difference in this community.

LW: Tell me a little bit about your partner. What's her name, where did you meet, and are the two of you currently registered as domestic partners?

CW: Her name is Chris Korsmo, and she is currently the executive director for the League of Education Voters. We've been together for roughly eight years and in 2002 had a commitment ceremony. The two of us have known each other for about fifteen years, though, because we used to work together. In fact, our relationship started off as sort of an office romance at Planned Parenthood. (I don't advise office relationships, but if you're going to pursue one, talk to me because we made it work.) We had to be discreet at first, but once it got serious we had to tell our supervisor, who then told the president of the company. Everyone was very supportive; the president even sent us a wedding gift for our ceremony. Our relationship fostered a real family sense in the office. We even considered having the commitment ceremony there for a brief time, because it had brought us together and the people there had always supported us.

LW: Have you experienced any difficulties so far with being Lesbian parents?

CW: Not yet, but I'm excited about that. Being a parent forces you out in ways that you had not seen before. When there are two women walking down the aisle of a supermarket, you don't think anything of it. When there are two women with a child saying "Mommy, Mommy" it is something else. Having a child, you're faced with a new kind of world. Through things like childcare, you are coming out all the time. He's being put into situations all of the time and it gives us a heightened awareness of any discrimination that may occur. The daycare that he is in right now is so incredibly supportive of our family. They can't wait to dance up and down when the two moms come. They promote diversity, but I think that we're the only same-sex couple there right now.

LW: What was the process of getting your son like?

CW: Chris legally adopted our son, Maxwell Flynn Watts-Korsmo, about one and a half years after we initially started the paperwork. The whole process was a reminder of our difference. Our lawyer specialized in adoption and we met other parents through her, learning about their experiences. We had nine home-study visits and a very involved process compared to some.

From state to state, people will have different experiences. In Washington, D.C., one of the most liberal places, even that process was more complicated than I thought it would be. Our lawyers said that it was difficult not because of LGBT issues, but because it would be considered a single parent adoption. If I was a heterosexual giving birth at the same hospital, my partner's name would have been put right on the birth certificate. We're now thinking of adoption. I'm too old to give birth again, and Chris doesn't have the desire to. I love that we have a boy, even though I thought that I would want a girl. Maybe it would be good to round it out and have both. I really look forward to my boy's future, though. His favorite toys are cars, but he dances with a leading hand. Maybe he will grow up to be a Nascar ballerina.

LW: How do you feel about the current sexual education required by the state (of 8 hours on HIV/AIDS) and the fact that many schools use an abstinence-only approach?

CW: I'm very opposed to abstinence-only programs. I think that it is a naïve way to educate youth about what happens. It's disturbing to see how many students are sexually active while they are taking those classes. Kids are smarter than they think, but they really don't seem to understand what kids are capable of knowing. By talking down to the students, keeping out information, I don't believe that it's a responsible way to teach.

LW: ERW does work around quite a few different issues (adoption, discrimination, elections, hate crimes, HIV, marriage, Transgender and youth) are there any that you have personal attachments or stories to that made you want to get involved?

CW: What compelled me most about ERW was the time and potential to win marriage. I found the court defeat particularly interesting. It will take a lot of people to get support and to get marriage, but I'd love to live in a place where people can make such a great impact. We have a good chance to achieve it here. The grassroots for LGBT rights have been around Seattle for 30 years and have spread throughout the city. That would not happen in Georgia or Utah; we have a much better chance here. I'm thrilled to get on board and that the community is so supportive. Heaven knows I want to get married.

LW: What is the next step in your mind to approach the right to legally marry a same-sex partner in Washington State?

CW: A careful step. It takes people to make things happen--the legislature, the governor--to build success on top of the last session. In the short term, we can take significant steps to see that it happens soon. It's important for people to show up and get registered so that our government knows how many people want to get married. We need to make sure that it is known to be critical to people. We need to let officials see it's a really important issue to so many people.

LW: Do you think that Gay marriage is in the foreseeable future, or quite a ways in the future?

CW: I'd say that it should be in the foreseeable future. That's the way I'd like to say it. Leaders in the state need courage to see it through. We have amazing leaders in the Legislature already, who made a fantastic achievement in passing the Domestic Partnership Bill. They are showing others that it can happen and we should thank them every day. Our leaders are showing courage to their peers and other legislatures in the country, they are teaching them that changes can be made.

LW: There are currently a few Transgender issues that ERW hopes to address. Which issues do you plan to deal with first and what are you going to do?

CW: We need more Transgender people in activist roles in the state. In every area we need to identify what needs to happen. We are currently looking to pursue a fellowship for a Transgender person. It's a national program to bring issues into view. Fellowships can pay for the project and benefit the entire organization as well as the individual. There are a lot of organizations that offer fellowships, but there is one that we're looking at specifically.

LW: How do you feel about the police's current process of dealing with hate crimes?

CW: I want to explore further possibilities. A friend of mine in D.C. was mugged. Positive that the mugging was a hate crime, he worked with the police force to ensure safety and establish an LGBT unit. It was in its second year when I left and it was highly successful. The unit would police around the Gay community in D.C. on lookout for hate crimes. Lots of crimes aren't looked at as hate crimes, even though they might be one. Seattle is privileged in its LGBT access, and I think that it's worth exploring a police unit like the one in D.C.

LW: The annual poll recently released from Gallup found an all-time high amount of Gay tolerance across the nation. Particularly, those surveyed between the age of 18 and 34 were significantly supportive of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle (75 percent of all surveyed). Why do you think that our society is growing more accepting and tolerant of Lesbian and Gay people?

CW: It's all contributed to our forefathers and foremothers at Stonewall. People are now coming out, saying who they are. Because of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) there are now out teachers. We say we are all just like you. We buy coffee; we buy gas, just like you.

It takes time for movements to be born. Now the payoff for all of the hard work has come. It is all a lesson of being out. Every movement is the same thing, people need to gather courage to be seen and make their voices heard. We aren't going to have marriage in a closet.

LW: Are there particular directions that you hope to take ERW and goals that you wish to reach?

CW: ERW is in it for the long haul. It's currently in its fourth year, so it's passed the first few "nail-biter" years. The organization successfully made it through the sink or swim trial and it is swimming. I am here to address and help issues; here to make an impact. I want people to know that marriage is not the end. It is a huge marker, but not the end. People rely on us, trust us, and we will be here for them.

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