Farewell to Lee Swislow of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders

Last night, March 19, I had the great fortune to give remarks at a Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders retirement party for one of my favorite people, GLAD’s departing executive director Lee Swislow.

Lee and I came in as organization heads in Massachusetts at close to the same time. I took the helm of MassEquality in January of 2006, a half year after Lee took the reins of GLAD.

This was not an easy time in the marriage movement. Our opponents in Massachusetts had just turned in more than 100,000 signatures on a citizen’s petition to move a constitutional amendment to the ballot. By then, we had been the only state with the freedom to marry for two years and, we soon learned, it was going to stay that way for awhile as we lost marriage lawsuits in court in four other states. So our opponents’ daggers would continue to be focused on just us for the foreseeable future.

Within our MassEquality coalition, of which GLAD was a key part, there was plenty of crankiness—at our opponents, at Mitt Romney, and from time to time at one another.

Nevertheless, we needed to keep moving forward.

Lee was the best collaborator and partner in the work that I could have imagined. She served as a mentor to me, taking the time to go out to lunch every month or two and serving as an informal executive coach as I headed an organization for the first time.

She took on the challenging job of facilitating our sometimes cantankerous MassEquality strategy meetings every two weeks. Every other Wednesday evening, Lee and I would talk, figure out what we needed to bring to resolution at our 8 AM meeting the next morning, put together an agenda, and then the next day drive it forward to get to yes.

What’s so unique about Lee? She’s exceptionally smart and a top-notch strategist. But what sets her apart is that she’s one of the rare people who is able to set aside their own position, even when they are convinced of what the right thing to do is, and really understand others’ positions and why they hold them, in order to guide a group to a workable “yes.” That doesn’t mean ignoring your own position; it means recognizing that reaching a decision requires getting agreement. That takes wisdom, restraint, the ability to really listen, and a great deal of integrity. To me, it’s simply called leadership. On many occasions, we came to a point where we were stuck in the ditch, and Lee got us out of the ditch and moving forward again. 

More recently, Lee and I served together on the executive committee of the Maine marriage campaign. I remember that, when we had our “come to Moses” session, when we needed to decide whether or not to turn in the signatures to go to the ballot, it was Lee whose voice was so influential. Because Lee was such a great listener, people listened when she spoke up. And once she did, I knew we were going to move. 

The years during which Lee has directed GLAD—from May 2005 to April 2014—have been crucial years for the marriage movement. Lee’s smart, enlightened, and integrity-laden leadership has enabled the great lawyers at GLAD to do such crucial work in winning marriage and demolishing DOMA, along with all the other crucial work that GLAD does.

 And as a national movement leader, Lee has brought her unique skills to our movement: helping us listen to one another better and elevating our ability to collaborate and get things done. That has, without question, enabled our movement to speed up its successes in a truly significant way.

Thank you, Lee. We will miss you!