Today’s Woman Crush is one for the history books. LGBTQ history in fact. Dr. Ronni Sanlo is a playwright, author, educator, leader, and a historical expert. Many know her simply as friend. Gay Desert Guide’s Jeff Denean Jones had the honor to ask Dr. Sanlo a few questions for today’s Woman Crush spotlight. You definitely want to read what she had to share!
GDG: Having seen you on a recent episode of the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast, I was so moved by your story, impressed by your encyclopedic knowledge of LGBTQ history, I thought to myself, this is someone you can have a fantastic and empathetic conversation with. Do you enjoy dinner parties, and are you the conversationalist I imagine you to be or are you reserved, only occasionally engaging folks in conversation?
RONNI: Kind of. I’m really an introvert but no one knows it. I can be quite the conversationalist if the topics of LGBTQ history or LGBTQ issues in higher education or boating come up. I love our boat Strait Knot. I saw a shirt once that said, “I love my wife but oooooooo, that boat!” Otherwise, I scoot over and watch my wife be her charming self.
GDG: It’s the early 1980s. In such a troubling time in LGBTQ history, there were several key ideologues who emerged as larger than life antagonists with an even larger megaphone with a message that essentially expressed the same homophobic objectives. Jerry Falwell, the John Birch Society, James Dobson, Fred Phelps come to mind. One of these 20th Century puritan extremists was/is Anita Bryant. A Floridian yourself at the time, what was the impact of Anita Bryant’s influence on the local policies of the time on you and your family?
RONNI: Anita Bryant was honored by the Florida legislature in 1978 with an anti-gay parenting law, Florida’s first LGBTQ-related after the sodomy laws, which were first enacted in 1822. The new 1978 law was invoked in 1979 when the court deemed I was an unfit mother because I’m a lesbian, and gave full custody of my children, ages 3 and 6, to their father. After I began working in the Florida AIDS program, my children were told if they hug me or kiss me, they’ll get sick and die because I’m gay and all gay people have AIDS. From that time, when my kids were 9 and 12, I didn’t see them again until they were in their 20s.
GDG: Do you worry the farther we get from these ideals and from the people who spread them, the greater the risk of a resurrection of these terrible ideals? ‘Those who don’t know history will be condemned to repeat it’ must factor somewhere in your motivation to be an educator. Is that a fair assumption? If so, tell us why.
RONNI: I believe in the Elie Wiesel quote: “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story.” This is my call in a nutshell. I come from a large Jewish family who lost so many people in the holocaust. I was always taught “Tikkun Olam” – repair the world. So, yes, this concept of teaching others to prevent future holocausts is truly my passion. But initially, my real motivation to go into education was that LGBT centers were brand new concepts back in 1994. The University of Michigan was searching for a director. They hired me and my newly minted doctoral degree. Three years later I was recruited by UCLA to grow their LGBT Center. After not seeing my own children in many years, I now had other people’s beautiful LGBT kids for a period of time on whom I could love and support and watch grow. Many from both schools are still connected to me today. I’m retired now but it was an honor to take that journey with all those precious young people.
GDG: What are the glimmers of hope you are witnessing or observing on campuses and communities around the country over the last few years? So much of the last 4-5 years will feed the pessimist’s purpose for years. What about the optimists among us. What can they grab onto that feeds their purpose as an optimist?
RONNI: There are young people on every campus who know what to do. They’re out, they’re proud, and they’re a bunch of badasses! They’re learning our history and they’re NOT going to go back into that closet from which many of us did not escape. And in spite of the political climate over the last four years, I would bet there are a thousand colleges and universities, community colleges, and now even community centers who are hosting Lavender Graduations which I founded at the University of Michigan in 1995. And our LGBTQ college students are allying with people of color, standing with and for one another. So powerful! So smart! And it’s why I’m on the board of the LGBTQ Center of the Desert, to help this beautiful desert community grow in love and power and hope for a good and safe future for all of us inclusive of our ages.
GDG: You have two volumes written so far – a collection of historic facts relevant to LGBTQ people. LGBTQ History Vol 1 and 2. One of the interesting things about the collection is that they are not by year but by month and day. I imagine there comes a greater sense of we do belong here, we exist and we will always exist, that comes with knowing history, just like for our non-LGBTQ counterparts. I just ordered my two volumes on Amazon! What can you share with us – here on April 15, 2021 – that we might share with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters of the past, besides filing our taxes of course?
RONNI: Thank you for buying my books. Volumes 3 and 4 will be out later this year. When I was a kid, I would search my schools’ libraries looking for reflections of myself as a little homosexual (because that’s the only word I somehow knew). I created the LGBTQ library at UCLA so that students would always be able to find themselves. But not every person gets to go into that wonderful space, so after I retired I began researching, finding, collecting pieces of our very existence. Over the years – and still – the data base continues to grow. In fact, people are now sending bios to me of known LGBTQ people in their communities for inclusion! I’ll likely publish an addendum to the four volumes in 2022 and beyond.
So, since you asked, April 15th was a busy day!
Gay American writer Henry James (15 April 1843 – 28 February 1916) is born in New York City.
Bisexual American blues singer Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) is born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She died in 1937. Her grave was unmarked until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by bisexual singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green who as a child had done housework for Smith.
Lesbian Sally Miller Gearhart (born April 15, 1931) is an American teacher, radical feminist, science fiction writer, and political activist. In 1973 she became the first open lesbian to obtain a tenure-track faculty position when she was hired by the University of Oregon
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is founded in San Francisco by Ken Bunch (Sister Vicious PHB), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position), and Baruch Golden. Their mission is “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
ACT UP’s First Use of “Silence = Death,” the iconic pink triangle and slogan, is debuted to thousands waiting in line at New York City’s General Post Office to file their taxes.
Buenos Aires police raid Boicot, a lesbian disco, and arrest 10 women ostensibly to check their police records. Lesbian activist Monica Santino obtains their release after three hours during which time the women are subjected to verbal abuse and threats.
GOProud, an organization representing conservative LGBT people, was founded by Christopher R. Barron (born December 15, 1973) and Jimmy LaSialvia (born December 15, 1970), two former Log Cabin Republican staffers who expressed dissatisfaction with that organization’s centrist political positions. It is now defunct.
Supreme Court of India recognizes third gender not as a social nor medical issues but a human right.
Pete Buttigieg (January 19, 1982), the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., announced his run for president of the United States. However, he’s not the first openly LGBT person to run for U.S. president. In 2012, Republican Fred Karger campaigned in 26 states and beat Mitt Romney and Donald Trump in the first New Hampshire Straw Poll. Buttigieg made it through the primaries then lost to Biden. In December, 2020, President-Elect Joe Biden named Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, the first openly LGBT person to sit on a U.S. president’s cabinet.
This has been an amazing interview. We definitely gained some important historical facts all LGBTQ folks can be proud of. Thank you so much, Dr. Sanlo. Enjoy your travels!
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