In this episode we connect with Tony Hoang, Executive Director at Equality California. We discuss Tony's journey to his role at Equality California, from his start, canvasing against Prop 8, to his leadership position today. We discuss the history of the organization and how, even in liberal California, understanding, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights has been an uphill climb. Intersectionality is an important path to success for Equality California, and for all marginalized communities. As Tony says, "We know that we're not going to win until we all win together."
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Tony Hoang is the Executive Director of Equality California and Silver State Equality and a veteran of the LGBTQ+ equality movement. The son of Vietnam War refugees and the first person in his family to attend college, Tony is a proud first-generation immigrant who grew up understanding the marginalized intersections of sexuality, gender, race and immigration status. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Tony moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California. During college, he interned with the Pacific Council on International Policy and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor before joining Equality California as a field intern in 2009, beginning his long career with the organization.
Tony went on to serve as Equality California's Database and Volunteer Manager, Director of Operations, Chief of Staff and Managing Director prior to his selection as Executive Director-designate in 2021. During that time, Tony played a pivotal role in the passage of groundbreaking civil rights legislation in California, Nevada and Washington, DC, implementation of statewide public education campaigns and the election of hundreds of openly LGBTQ+ and pro-equality candidates up and down the ballot. Tony helped usher in a dramatic expansion of Equality California’s budget, staff, programming — especially the organization’s political work and efforts to advance racial justice — and growth to over 900,000 pro-equality members across the country.
Tony serves the City of Los Angeles as a Commissioner on the Innovation and Performance Commission. He also sits on the boards of Equality Federation, the national movement builder and strategic partner to state-based organizations advocating for LGBTQ people, and DTLA Proud. He is a member of the Center for Asian Americans United For Self Empowerment (CAUSE) Leadership Network and the Pacific Council on International Policy and serves as a mentor for the USC Lambda LGBT Alumni Mentoring Program.
"I think why opponents are so effective sometimes attacking trans and gender nonconforming folks is that a lot of folks don't know somebody that identifies publicly as trans or gender nonconforming. In that absence of knowing someone personally from that community, they can fill that void with the worst of the worst from our opponents."
Chapters is a multi-part series concerning the history and the lessons of civil rights violations or civil liberties injustices carried out against communities or populations—including civil rights violations or civil liberties injustices that are perpetrated on the basis of an individual’s race, national origin, immigration status, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Guest: Tony Hoang
Hosts: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by: Past Forward
[00:00:04] Tony: Look at Prop 8 where a majority of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriages, and now a recent poll in California shows that 72% of Californians support marriage equality. That is really due to the fact that folks came out, folks told their stories, folks within their own family said, "I have a gay son," or "I have a lesbian daughter, or a bi nephew.” Being able to share those stories so that it's not-- again, we're not talking about the abstract, or rather, it's someone that you know, that you care for that has come out to you in their own personal way. It's the human sir, right?
“Actually, it wasn't even out at the time of that, and so the irony of just going to complete strangers across Los Angeles County talking about LGBTQ rights pushed my own internal journey up.”
[00:00:40] Host: Welcome to the fourth installment of the Chapters podcast series. I'm your host, Jon-Barrett Ingels. In our Chapters series, we focus on stories surrounding the exclusion, forced removal, and internment of Japanese Americans, but with all that is happening in our country right now, in this historic moment ripe with the potential for change and growth, we are expanding our scope and amplifying the voices of organizations and individuals who are trying to make a difference, who are standing at the convergence of art, education, and social justice. With this series, we honor those who have struggled and suffered in the past and question, "How are we still here? How have we not come any further than this?"
In this episode, we connect with Tony Hoang, Executive Director at Equality California. We discuss the history of the organization as well as Tony's involvement with Equality California starting in 2008 with the fight against Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage. We also look at where the organization is today as a fight for recognition and representation continues.
Tony, let's start with your story and your journey that led to this role at Equality California.
[00:02:00] Tony: Sure. My story is, I was actually born and raised in Houston, Texas. Grew up there all the way through high school but made my way west to Los Angeles. I went to the University of Southern California. At the time, I was studying international relations, and while I was growing up, I always thought I was going to do more international relations, foreign policy, diplomacy, and stumbled upon the LGBTQ rights movement.
I'd always been politically inclined and volunteered on a number of democratic campaigns, but at the time, this was actually end of freshman year, was slated to go to Mexico on a research project to study remittance payments. At that time, swine flu actually broke out and the university canceled the research project. I was scrambling to find an internship and stumbled upon an opportunity from Equality California at the time.
The context in this moment was that California had just recently passed Proposition 8. For those that don't remember, that was the ballot measure that banned same-sex marriages in State of California, and so the organization, among others, were planning to go back on the ballot. There was a pretty broad public education campaign throughout the State. I interned as an organizer going door to door across South and East L.A. talking to strangers about why same-sex couples should get the right to marry.
That started my own personal journey. Actually, it wasn't even out at the time of that, and so the irony of just going to complete strangers across Los Angeles County talking about LGBTQ rights pushed my own internal journey up. Following that summer, I ended up coming out to broader group of friends and family. I'm one of the few millennials that kept on that, and so actually had started at Equality California as a full-time organizer after I graduated and have been with the organization for about 13 years now at this point.
My role currently is the executive director for the organization. Been in this role for about a year and a half overseeing all functions and interfacing with the board and external partners to ensure to continue the great work that we do through our legislative advocacy, our public education campaigns, and our electoral politics.
[00:04:39] Host: What was that experience of having this advocacy role and dealing with your own identity and that honesty within yourself? I think that's so fascinating. Did you feel empowered because of what you were fighting for, to be able to really, not just accept, but speak out the truth of yourself and your identity?
[00:05:09] Tony: It was definitely the internal conflict that was happening with the cognitive dissonance that I was finding the strength to go to complete strangers and door-to-door talk about civil rights for my own community that I actually wasn't fully open about my sexual orientation to the closest folks that love me. It was a strange tension that I think allowed me to push forward and allowed me to really embrace the work that-- this was really seeing how tangible these one-on-one conversations could have to really shape and shift public opinion, that I could do this work for a career, fighting for my own community and those that are close to me, and really helping push change across the State of California.
As crazy as it seems, looking back on it that I stumbled into this, the fact that summer in particular going across door-to-door to random neighborhoods, I think it really set me on the path that I am on today with Equality California.
[00:06:23] Host: Will you talk about the history? We're a little over two decades for Equality California. Will you give us a little bit of the history of the organization and how it's evolved over the past 20 years?
[00:06:36] Tony: Yes. Equality California has existed since 1999. Next year we're actually celebrating our 25th anniversary. The initial name around us was actually called CAPE, California Alliance for Pride and Equality, but this was the precursor, an organization that really brought the place where California is today, the state with the strongest sets of civil rights protections. Back in 1999, that definitely was not the case.
This was the state that passed a number, or tried to pass a number of anti-LGBTQ ballot measures, not just with Prop 8, but the Briggs Initiative in the early 2000s, harking back even prior to that, prior to the organization start where we had the HIV/AIDS crisis, where we had Anita Bryant coming to California pushing discriminatory ballot measures, banning the right for LGBTQ teachers to teach in the classrooms.
I think people think that California has always been a place of progressive politics and acceptance, but this was also the birthplace of Reagan, the Orange County, and the place where folks had never been accepted. CAPE and then Equality California was really the bedrock that allowed these civil rights protections to push forward. This started with key non-discrimination bills updating the Unruh Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The organization was fighting for marriage in the early and mid-2000s, but while they were doing that, also pushing through nondiscrimination protections that were inclusive of the trans community in all facets of public life.
We are lucky due to the giants on whose shoulders we stand on, whether they be folks at Equality California, whether it be our allies and LGBTQ elected officials in the state legislature. Equality California has been able to pass over 175 bills to date in the state capital, allowing California to be the state with the strongest sets of civil rights protections.
As we all know, there's still more work to be done, so year after year we work with our partners in the California legislature and our partners in Sacramento to push forward an annual legislative package.
Right now we are in the middle of that legislative session. We have upwards of 10 plus bills that we're working on along with the constitutional amendment that we're really excited to push forward at least at the state level. Additionally, we also work at the federal level. I think you know Congress's composition has changed over the past year, and so really working with the national policy director to play defense and really pushing back on some of the hate that our opponents are pushing at the federal levels.
Just earlier this week, there was a national anti-LGBTQ bill that was passed, really playing the red herring card in terms of protecting women and various facets of life as well as parental rights, but really we know what they're trying to do. They're trying to erase LGBTQ people and trans people specifically. Part of the playbook that we're doing is really pushing back with the broad California delegation, where we have so many strong allies from California to push back in these hearings and on the floor.
[00:10:10] Host: Yes. We always have here in California this notion or concept that we are this progressive liberal state, but like you said, there have always been challenges and pushback. What are some of the obstacles and challenges for LGBTQ rights and equality that still exists here, or that have developed over the past 20 years?
[00:10:39] Tony: I think, especially as we talk with our colleagues across the country, California is its own country. Obviously, there are very different pockets of California when we think about California people when we think about San Francisco or Los Angeles. We also have places like Fresno, Kern County, Bakersfield, the Inland Empire, Orange County, far north all the way to the far south.
Especially as we think about services and just broader acceptance in all these communities across the state, we know they're buried. How do we as the statewide LGBTQ plus civil rights organization ensure that we make sure that all members of the LGBTQ+ community feel full-lived equality in all facets of their lives? We know the places that have been historically underserved don't have that, and so how do we continue to affect change using all the levers that we have available to us to push forward that change?
“I think one thing that is unique about the LGBTQ+ community is that we are part of every single community. When we think about full-lived equality, we have to look at all the identities that our community holds. Whether that's from women's organizations, whether it's from immigrants' rights organizations, whether it is about racial justice organizations.”
[00:11:46] Host: I'd love to talk about the concept of intersectionality and the work to find the intersection of LGBTQ+ rights and say immigrant rights or homelessness, racial justice. Is there partnerships that you create with other organizations to find that?
[00:12:10] Tony: Yes. I think one thing that is unique about the LGBTQ+ community is that we are part of every single community. When we think about full-lived equality, we have to look at all the identities that our community holds. Whether that's from women's organizations, whether it's from immigrants' rights organizations, whether it is about racial justice organizations. When we think about who is disproportionately affected around discrimination, and you're compacting the layers of an LGBTQ person who is an immigrant, who is a person of color, you know the contacting factors around that.
We know that we're not going to win until we all win together, and so part of our work is building those alliances. We are lucky that we fit at a number of tables that work in an intersectional fashion. Having partnerships with MALDEF and CHIRLA for the Immigrants' rights community, whether that's partnerships with NARAL and Planned Parenthood when we talk about reproductive justice, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the NAACP.
These are all organizations that we have to work with whether it's supporting their legislative priorities, whether that's ensuring that we're working together on broad public education campaigns so that our campaigns are culturally competent, particularly in the diverse communities that California serves. That is an important way. That's the only way that we're going to push forward in terms of full-lived equality for LGBTQ+ folks. For us, that's how we know we have to do the work, especially in such a diverse state like the State of California.
"We've always had some intersectionality. When you think about the march in Washington with the civil rights movement where you had Bayard Rustin, one of the key leaders leading that march was a gay man that understood intersectionality."
[00:13:55] Host: Yes, it's this concept of rising tides, raising all ships, right? To be truly progressive and equitable, all these issues must be addressed, whether it's reproductive rights, like you said, or health equity, environmental justice, racial justice. This concept of intersectionality or solidarity is somewhat of a new thing in social justice. It feels like in the past 60, 70 years, marginalized communities have been siloed in their fight, and it makes it easier to pit groups against one another. We're here now, but let's talk a little bit about how we got to this place of seeking solidarity and working together, and what challenges we still face with that.
[00:15:02] Tony: I think that's a great point. I think when we step back and think about “who are our opponents?” The same folks that are attacking LGBTQ folks are attacking voting rights, that are attacking reproductive justice. The LGBTQ community is a relatively new political movement. There was the Lavender Scare in government, either outing folks or pushing them underground. Then you have moments like the Stonewall Riots and folks that help galvanize the LGBTQ community, and then moving forward to the AIDS crisis that really combined even LGBTQ where we had lesbian women coming and caring for dying gay men, these moments in times that began to help consolidate folks.
We've always had some intersectionality. When you think about the march in Washington with the civil rights movement where you had Bayard Rustin, one of the key leaders leading that march was a gay man that understood intersectionality. As we look in the years ahead, especially as our opponents have been successful in dividing and conquering and saying, "You only care about this issue. You're not going to care about this issue," we know, especially given unfortunately the regression that has fell pretty acutely over the past number of years, the only way that we're going to push back against our opponents is continuing to stand in solidarity and continuing to stand up for all each other's lives, not when it's convenient, but when it's tough.
I think one thing that's been heartening to see, especially as the attacks that are happening across the country around our youth, seeing our allies come up and step up and speak out in this moment because our point is currently going after the most vulnerable, trans youth. They're going to pick on them first, but they're not going to be the last. We understand in this moment in time that it's going to continue to take solidarity to continue to play defense and push forward with its current attack.
[00:17:23] Host: To talk about the youth, I have a 14-year-old daughter, and it's been the consensus of parents my age or with children my daughter's age that there's almost this exponential increase in identifying on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, especially from when we were teens. There's a high number of this understanding of or identifying as nonbinary or trans in our kid's peer group. Do you think that this is a product of societal acceptance or exposure? Do you notice this increase in young people in how they identify?
[00:18:19] Tony: Yes. You can see it from the surveys that come out on annual basis where LGBTQ youth are identifying higher and higher. For us, it's a few reasons. One is just more inclusion and acceptance of queer kids across the country. It is good the fact that as folks are coming out that they're feeling accepted to be their authentic selves, whether it's in the home, whether it's in the schools, or their broader social networks. In addition, there's just broader representation. Folks are able to see themselves in pop culture, in entertainment.
When you think about 20 years ago, who were the LGBTQ people on screen? There was Ellen. There was only one or two people that people identified with that may not be a person of color, that may not be a trans person. As media continues to evolve where you have different types of folks being represented in the public sphere, it allows folks to identify with that person, giving words and meaning to what that feeling they felt. I know there's a stream of thought for folks that are out there saying because I think this dovetails into an attack line from our opponents that folks are indoctrinating them.
There have always been LGBTQ folks. I think now we're at a point where folks are able to feel more acceptance and inclusion in their communities allowing them to come to terms with their identity and being able to verbalize that. I think, if that weren't the case-- I did not grow up with a queer representation. I grew up in a fairly conservative culture. I knew I was gay and I didn't know how to come to terms with that. For us, it's continuing to fight for the right for folks to feel comfortable in their own skins and coming out on their own terms in whatever form that means to them.
[00:20:32] Host: Is there work that you do for, like public education or understanding? I would imagine for anybody on the LGBTQ+ scale, but definitely, for someone who's trans or non-binary, the confusion of what they must go through in their experience is also mirrored in the confusion of what their family and friends are trying to understand. Is there a public education platform to help understand the science, the psychology, the emotional experience behind what that experience is?
[00:21:28] Tony: Yes. Obviously, we've been involved in those public education campaigns. We, a number of years ago, did a broad statewide campaign called Transform California, working with a number of coalition groups, statewide PSAs, doing a lot of in-language ads, specifically Spanish-speaking and various API communities really to just show visibility. I think why opponents are so effective sometimes attacking trans and gender nonconforming folks is that a lot of folks don't know somebody that identifies publicly as trans or gender nonconforming. In that absence of knowing someone personally from that community, they can fill that void with the worst of the worst from our opponents.
For us, it's ensuring that we continue to have public figures that they at least have interacted with or have seen that identify as trans or gender nonconforming and show that they're just like you or I with a different gender identity. Being able to uplift that more in various forums I think is really important. I think harking back again to the last fight around marriage equality where 20 years ago-- or look at Prop 8 where a majority of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriages.
Now, a recent poll in California shows that 72% of Californians support marriage equality. That is really due to the fact that folks came out, folks told their stories. Folks within their own families said, "I have a gay son," or "I have a lesbian daughter," or a bi nephew. Being able to share those stories so that it's not-- again, we're not talking about the abstract. Rather, it's someone that you know, that you care for that has come out to you in their own personal way.
[00:23:34] Host: It's a human story.
[00:23:35] Tony: It's the human story. For us, it's continuing to do that. Especially in the schools when we talk about our youth in conjunction with our partners at the Trevor Project or GLSEN, having those resources available. One thing that we're continuing to work on is the schools, it's hard being a kid. You go through a lot of things as an adolescent, and it's already confusing. As we layer in coming to terms with your own sexual orientation or gender identity, how do we ensure that our teachers, school administrators have those resources so that when they're able to recognize that, provide a student with those resources in a respectful way that folks know that those resources are available.
Not just the students themselves, but the parents. Thinking to my own coming out stories, it's a journey process for everybody. How do we ensure that in a particularly vulnerable time, folks are able to access those resources, whether it's for the student, whether it's for the parents, whether it's for the administrators or teachers overall?
“...we want to make our work irrelevant. We want to have it be a day where coming out as LGBTQ isn't an issue.”
[00:24:44] Host: Now, what would you say is your hope for progress in California with regards to LGBTQ+ rights over the next 20 years?
[00:24:58] Tony: When people ask this, for us, we want to make our work irrelevant. We want to have it be a day where coming out as LGBTQ isn't an issue.
[00:25:13] Host: It’s almost more like a celebration.
[00:25:15] Tony: Exactly, where folks aren't facing discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Unfortunately, we know that our opponents are going to continue to push back and to try to roll back the hard-fought victories that we've fought for over the past 25 years. I think it's particularly fit for us now because we have friends at Planned Parenthood, where you had Roe v. Wade exist for 40-plus years where people believed that that was a right.
Unfortunately, with one Supreme Court decision removing that right where half the country now does not have access to reproductive care, for us, it's moving to that place where we could have full-lived equality, but also remain vigilant because, unfortunately, we know that our opponents will never stop attacking us. We have to make sure that we have a vibrant, statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization to continue to lift up and support our community as a whole in all corners of the state.
"We were talking about, a few years ago, allowing trans students to use facilities and join sports programs that correspond with their gender identity. We have moved hyper-speed ahead in terms of the attacks where now you're having governors talk about pulling away trans kids from their families because they're trying to access lifesaving gender-affirming care where you're threatening doctors with felonies because they're trying to give youth gender-affirming care that is age-appropriate."
[00:26:26] Host: These last six years, I would say, have brought a lot of fears of rights that people thought were secured and safe now have a vague outline to them. Has these last six years made your work a lot more challenging?
[00:26:58] Tony: Yes. To your point, I think movement organizations knew there was always more work to be done, and we had to continue to move the ball forward. I think the broader public at times when we had these string of Supreme Court decisions around marriage happen, people felt, "The LGBTQ community has it all." We knew that wasn't the case where we knew that half the country could still be fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think particularly over the past six years where the attacks have ramped up very significantly to the extent you are having state legislatures pretty much ban the existence of trans people, that had never been done.
We were talking about, a few years ago, allowing trans students to use facilities and join sports programs that correspond with their gender identity. We have moved hyper-speed ahead in terms of the attacks where now you're having governors talk about pulling away trans kids from their families because they're trying to access lifesaving gender-affirming care where you're threatening doctors with felonies because they're trying to give youth gender-affirming care that is age-appropriate.
The rhetoric has really ramped up, and unfortunately, it's having real-life impacts whether it's around higher rates of suicide ideations and attempts, whether that's increased rates of discrimination, not just in the states that it's happening, but it's obviously seeping into the national discourse across the country. For us, it's how do we work in coalition to really push back on this because the attacks are escalating and I think are only going to get worse ahead of the presidential election where we know our community is going to be a wedge issue on that. For us, it's continuing to remain vigilant and pushing back against the hate that is out there.
[00:29:01] Host: Is there anything you'd like to share before we finish? Anything else?
[00:29:06] Tony: No, I just appreciate you giving us an opportunity to talk a little bit about the work, and really gratifying that we're thinking about these issues at an intersectional level because, again, I don't think that we have any shot of winning unless we all stand together against the hate that exists.
[00:29:25] Host: We want to thank Tony Hoang and Equality California. For more information, visit eqca.org. Chapters podcast was produced by Past Forward and made possible with support from Chapman University and California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, a state-funded grant project of the California State Library. For more information, visit pastforward.org, chapman.edu, and library.ca.gov.
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