Former EQCA Board Member Gary Soto Talks About His Life and Regrets
Karen Ocamb

Gary Soto is a man of conscience who seeks to fill a need when he finds it. He was horrifically bullied at school, so he became a teacher, a principal and now an education expert. He saw injustice and insecurity in redneck California, so he joined the board of Equality California and became an LGBT checkbook activist.

On Oct. 15, EQCA honors Soto with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Riviera Resort & Spa in Palm Springs. Former EQCA Executive Director Geoff Kors will present the award to Soto, who resigned from the board of the EQCA Institute in August. It will be the first major appearance together of the two representatives of the ‘old regime’ since the EQCA board named Roland Palencia to replace Kors last summer.

In the past several months, EQCA has experienced a significant degree of turbulence—which Soto said the board should have expected as normal during a transition after a successful executive director—but for which the board didn’t prepare. And while not totally unexpected, Palencia was also smacked with an anti-gay effort to place a referendum on the June 2012 ballot to repeal the California FAIR Education Act. A source familiar with the StopSB48 campaign said the anti-gay group has collected 415,000 of the 504,760 signatures it needs by Oct. 12, although the source could not confirm if those were “valid” signatures. On a conference call with reporters on Sept. 29, EQCA Communications Director Rebekah Orr said the coalition campaign to stop StopSB 48 is “concerned.” Palencia later told Rex Wocker, “If we don’t win this, it also will impact other pro-equality fights, so it’s really, really critical that we take a stand and that people get involved.”

EQCA has not yet announced whether they support going back to the ballot in Nov. 2012 to try to overturn Prop. 8. In his interview with Frontiers, Soto said the polls indicate that the majority of Californians now support marriage equality, so he votes “Hell yes.” Others fear the economic climate will stifle campaign contributions—especially if there is another campaign to save the FAIR Act—and they think the American Foundation for Equal Rights’ Prop. 8 lawsuit will result in the amendment to the California Constitution being struck down.

Meanwhile, Palencia tells Frontiers that, “None of the funds raised to support marriage equality will be used to defend the FAIR Education Act.”

Ironically, as an education expert, Soto might have been one to help with the FAIR Act campaign. He says he was physically, emotionally and mentally harassed for being gay as a senior in 1973 at Bonita High School in La Verne. Only his straight girlfriends protected him. He became suicidal.

“It was the most horrifying thing,” Soto said. “I could not imagine what I was going to do. I did not see any light at the end of the tunnel. I took 33 pills, and on my 33rd, I called my two brothers who were firemen and told them what I had done. I recently went back to them—they’re now 76 and 77 years old—and asked them if they remembered that time. They were very quiet, then said, ‘Yes, we found you curled up in a closet.’ I thought how interesting that I could have ended my life in a closet, and here I am speaking on behalf of LGBTs.

“They knew what they needed to do to save my life,” Soto continued. “I ended up going to college to become a teacher.”

His first year of teaching was in Upland Unified School District in 1977 during the Briggs Initiative. At 30, he became a school administrator at the South Ridge Middle School in Fontana Unified School District.

“I vowed that all of my kids on my campus would be safe,” Soto said. “I vowed that there would be an asylum—whether they were gay or lesbian or girls or boys or white or black or fat or thin or money or no money—all my kids would be safe. My school wound up getting a lot of attention because of its academic focus. I was awarded Educator of the Year and received a national award and I had a lot of open LGBT teachers—probably about 13 of them. People used to call us the gay school.”

Later he served on a state committee to create AB 537, the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which changed California’s Education Code by adding actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing nondiscrimination policy. The bill was designed to end bullying.

“I started saying, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Soto said. “As I became well-known, I left education and opened up my own education consulting company, which became successful. I was also able to be successful financially.”

Soto initially got involved with the Human Rights Campaign. “But I was not really a happy camper with how HRC was asking for a lot of money from California LGBT community members,” he said. “I wanted to know how it was coming back to California. As I started to speak nationally, especially in California, based on my work in education, I would go to Stockton, Fresno, Indio—and, oh, my god, it was like being in Mississippi! It wasn’t L.A. It wasn’t West Hollywood. There was a lot of need for us to work in those communities to help LGBT people feel secure and comfortable.

“I was not comfortable with how there was a lot of asking for Californians to give money for Mississippi and other areas. And when I questioned [HRC President] Joe Solmonese about the direction of the money, he always said, ‘We want to spread it out across the United States, because California really is a nice state to live in.’ Yeah, well, right, Joe. You try walking through Stockton and Fresno and Modesto and you tell me whether or not LGBT people are safe.”

Soto guesses that was around 2003 or so. Then someone asked him to attend an EQCA event in Palm Springs and meet Geoff Kors, who he didn’t know. At a dinner meeting the night before the event, Soto said, Kors explained what EQCA did, the results they’d achieved and the goals they’d set. Soto was impressed.

“At the same time, I was being recruited by Joe Solmonese to not join the board of HRC but to be on their Governor’s Circle,” Soto said. “Geoff jumped on it and asked me to be on the board of Equality California. Geoff was trying to recruit board members who would actually roll up their sleeves and do the work, rather than be figureheads that served on the board but didn’t do work. With my experience owning a company and working with people, I volunteered my time as an executive leader to help shape the structure of the board because the board needed work. Geoff had a lot of great ideas, but he certainly needed a lot of people to do the grunt work.

“Immediately, Geoff was grooming me to be board president,” Soto continued, “a nice ‘fit’ with West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran as the inspirational leader of EQCA. I could be called biased, but I happen to think that Geoff Kors, along with Kate Kendell, is one of the top strategic designers of civil rights in the country.”

Soto’s mood changed as he geared up to get something off his chest.

“I became board president at a very difficult time—during Prop. 8 in 2008-2009. I was very involved in trying to raise funding. I was not proud of the fact that it was difficult for me to ask for money. It was easy for John Duran—he was a master of it. I wrote checks, I gave money—probably over $250,000. I was very involved with the formation of the task of being a part of organizing 17 organizations and I was horrified at the thought that Equality California was the target of the backlash of what didn’t work. There were so many people that were Monday quarterbacks coming out of the woodwork that were not involved in the process—but they were certainly out there with their vicious attacks on why it didn’t work.

“I will put it on record: as board president of Equality California, the thing that I did not do and I regret the most in my role as board president of Equality California Institute that I did not respond to the bloggers out there that attacked Geoff Kors and attacked Equality California. Because I listened to advice from other leaders that I should never have listened to about not responding. They said, ‘Don’t lower yourself and respond.’ But no one else was speaking. And if all the voices out there that were speaking were the negative voices—that’s who people were listening to. So I am not proud of the fact that I did not step up to the plate to defend Geoff Kors and the organization. And with that, we got the brunt of the backlash. We were one vote of 17 that made decisions. And yet our organization brought in anywhere between $14-15 million dollars. Yet we had one vote of the say.

“The thing I’m most disappointed in is that I could have just acted independently and just done it on my own. In my heart and soul, I knew I needed to do that. But collectively—the executive committee of Equality California and the other organization, too, had leadership—remember, I’m from Equality California Institute. So collectively we decided not to and I felt that if I did so, then I was going against my agreement with the collective decision. I am totally disgusted in myself that I didn’t say, ‘Fuck you. I’m doing this whether you like it or not.’ And I should have. He was my friend. I watched him being hung and that was a horrible thing for me to see and feel. And all the work we had done was being attacked by a handful of people. But they were the only ones people were listening to because they were the only ones voicing their opinion. And that is something I will take to my grave. I will never, ever do that. I’ve learned from my mistakes. If I need to say something, I’ll say it now.

“Would we do it differently next time? Oh, hell yes. Would we take charge and be a different leader? Oh, hell yes. But at the time, we did what we thought was best and being a collaborative member and yet, we paid the price on that,” Soto said.

As his term as board president ended and new board leadership came in, he still served on the executive committee of the board. And then Kors decided to resign—which apparently no one expected. He announced his decision in December 2010, saying he would leave in March 2011. Soto was going to stay for his full term ending in December 2011, but resigned in June, right after the vote for Palencia.

“I voted for Roland when it came down to the final vote,” Soto said. “The way it was set up, that’s where my vote went. I won’t give the internal how it actually happened—but my vote went that way as a solidarity to Equality California in order to move forward.”

He has some questions about what’s happened at EQCA since his departure.

“I support where Equality California vision and mission needs to go,” Soto said. “I feel, though, that if there is a direction that people are not happy with—that the board leadership has a responsibility to ensure that whoever is a staff member—including the ED [executive director]—whatever skills they have or do not have—it’s the board’s responsibility to make sure they’re providing that opportunity to excel at that level.

I want you to know that fiscally, when Geoff left Equality California, there was over $1.2 million in net assets. This is an organization that needs to work 24/7 on fundraising, especially at a time when the economy has tanked. And I’ll be honest with you—the only reason I gave the amount of money I gave to the organization is because Geoff Kors never let me off the hook.”

Soto gave a glimpse into the process to replace Kors. “The succession plan for Equality California to replace the ED did not include a period of no replacement for six to nine month or a year,” Soto said. “It was an immediate replacement and for those leaders out there who know in a transition of a successful person, no matter what organization, there will always an issue with finance dipping, inspirational dipping, emotional dipping, organizational structural dipping. All of those facets of a successful system will have a dip in a transition. So we didn’t look at that. That’s an honest thing—we didn’t. And we moved—good or bad. And if there are issues out there with Roland—because I don’t really know now because I’m out of there—certainly you can look at that. And that’s not ‘internal.’ That’s a regular norm organizational restructuring piece of knowledge every company knows about.

“So we didn’t, OK, and we’re where we are. So what’s the board leadership doing about it? If you want Roland to be a 10 and he’s not a 10—what are you going to do to make him a 10? I don’t have any pointing of fingers at Roland. My thing is what is the board leadership doing now?”

Since Soto’s departure there have been a number of other board departures, as well. And now there are rumors of impending staff layoffs, including that of Marriage Director Andrea Shorter. In an email to Frontiers, Palencia said: “Andrea’s role has changed but she continues to work with us in coordinating all the coalition-related activities. We are doing some restructuring to bring our resources and staffing into alignment with our work over the coming year, to add and strengthen capacity where we need to most and maximize our existing resources to the fullest. We have hired a new field manager for the Bay Area and are hiring a deputy and political director as part of that effort. A portion will be funded by new foundation support. Fundraising is also a critical responsibility of each these roles to make sure the positions are self-sustaining.”

EQCA is also now looking for a deputy to Palencia, a position previously held by Jim Carroll. Soto noted that while Kors was “masterful at the strategic end of it, Jim Carroll was masterful at the implementation of it.”

Finally, Soto is still up for fight, if necessary. “I would much rather be in a state like California without marriage and have all the laws that protect us than be in a state that has marriage with no protections, such as the state of Iowa,” Soto said. “Are we ready for a vote [to overturn Prop. 8]? Oh, hell yes! And would we win it? Oh, hell yes. We would win it today. But we got caught in the process in the state of California were it went to a vote—we were just a little ahead of our time. We’re ready now for that.”

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