by Jessica Carreras
Bernadette Brown has been doing her homework and is ready to take over as the Triangle Foundation’s new director of policy. But what she’s not ready for – the gas prices. “I keep hearing about this gas price situation,” the Brooklyn, N.Y. resident says.
Hearing about it?
“I ride the train,” she clarifies. “None of my friends have cars and neither do I, so this is probably actually the only affordable thing in New York City.”
When Brown comes to southeast Michigan with her 11-year-old son Jabran, she’ll be coming home to the lower living costs, the lack of public transportation and a very big job to do.
Raised in Detroit, Brown is the daughter of lesbian activist and long-time pillar in the Detroit LGBT community, June Washington. Growing up in an LGBT household, Brown’s adolescence was atypical. “My home life was extremely different from my friends in the fact that they didn’t talk about sex education with their parents,” Brown explains. “None of them. Because my mother was an HIV/AIDS counselor, this was very out in the open for all of us.”
More than just being open about sex, they were open about their sexuality. So much so that Brown didn’t realize that she was a lesbian until her mid-20s. “If my mother were straight, I think I would have known I was gay,” she says. “But because being gay was so normal, I don’t think it dawned on me well until I was an adult.”
As a child, Brown was no stranger to the problems that gays and lesbians faced in their daily lives. It wasn’t until her teenage years, however, that the truth of the injustices really hit her. The realization was brought on by one of the issues at the forefront of Michigan LGBT news today: second-parent adoption.
Brown’s mother was in between jobs and without health insurance. Her stepmother had insurance, but was unable to use her benefits for Brown and her sisters. “It was a huge issue and I remember being really, really upset by it,” she recalls. “I remember thinking about what was going to happen. We were just starting to drive, and what if we got into an accident? What if something happened?
“That’s the first time it really hit me that we have really unjust laws on the books that make our families second-class families.”
When Brown came out at age 25 while beginning law school at Boston University, she immediately became involved in LGBT issues. She joined Outlaw, the school’s LGBT group, and began considering the field as a possible career path – should the opportunity ever arise.
Now, with her new position at the Triangle Foundation, it has.
Brown worked as a public defender in New York City and moved to civil litigation where she practiced law “under the most intense circumstances.” Most recently, she comes from the Childbirth Connection, where she served as deputy director and worked in policy.
Her hope for her new position is that she will be able to live up to her predecessor, Sean Kosofsky. “Sean was an amazing policy director and just a great individual,” she gushes. “The magnitude of following in his footsteps is not lost on me at all.”
Brown has been researching Michigan’s LGBT issues, and admits that there are many to be addressed – and many that appall her. “The issues of safety and security and freedom from violence, intimidation and discrimination for all our community members is paramount,” she says. “I cannot believe when I read something that says there was a 133-percent jump in hate crimes in Michigan in our community. That is just shocking.”
Of course, Brown is aware of the fact that she comes from a state where – although not bounds ahead politically – is more socially-accepting of gays and lesbians.
Recently, a night out with friends celebrating her move reminded her of the social differences she will face in a few short days. Walking around Manhattan, several same-sex couples that are friends of Brown walked with their arms around each other, holding hands and showing affection openly. “I’m not so sure that many people in Detroit or other areas of Michigan would share that same sentiment where they could just walk down the street and hold hands and not be in fear,” she says. “When I go home (to Detroit) on vacation, people will remind me to be careful and that I can’t just do whatever. I think when I get there I will pay more attention. I think it’s going to be obvious that I’m not in Manhattan anymore.”
Fortunately, Brown sees the differences as a potential for change – not simply a barrier. “In spite of what’s happening, I still believe in my city,” she says adamantly. “And it’s not just the city, but all of Michigan. I believe that we can come on board. I believe that we can make equality a reality in Michigan.
“I don’t see (moving to Michigan) as a sacrifice because I want to share with everyone there what I’ve learned here and I want to work hard to make our community equal in not only the eyes of the law, but also in the community, in our neighbors.”
But as for gas prices, Brown said she’ll just suck it up and pay.