20 | Grandparents and Advocacy

Meet the Guest

Author, LGBT historian, and playwright Dr. Ronni Sanlo is the Director Emeritus of the UCLA Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center (LGBT) Center and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on LGBT issues in Higher Education. Now retired, Dr. Sanlo directed the UCLA LGBT Center and was professor and director of the UCLA Masters of Education in Student Affairs. Prior to coming to UCLA in 1997, Dr. Sanlo was the director of the LGBT Center at the University of Michigan. In a previous life, Dr. Sanlo was an HIV epidemiologist in Florida from 1987-1994. Ronni is the originator of the award-winning Lavender Graduation, a commencement event that celebrates the lives and achievements of graduating LGBT college students.

Ronni continues to research and write with a focus on LGBT history which is the foundation for the award-winning documentary Letter to Anita. While Ronni has many academic publications, her post-retirement books include her memoir The Purple Golf Cart: The Misadventures of a Lesbian Grandma and an historical novel about the last five months of WWII entitled The Soldier, the Avatar, and the Holocaust. Her next projects include Readers’ Theater plays with LGBT themes and an historical novel about the lesbians in Key West. She and her wife, UCLA alumna Dr. Kelly Watson, are working on a lesbian history of Palm Springs. Ronni and Kelly have been deeply involved in the current Resistance movement, travel and bike ride in interesting places both internationally and domestically, and both play really bad golf. They live in Palm Springs, CA and Sequim, WA. Ronni may be emailed at ronnisanlo@gmail.com

Further Reading

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Episode Transcript

Emily: Some of my favorite memories are of my grandparents. I’m lucky because I got to experience a whole range of grandparental love. I have two biological grandparents who loved me from the start and I also had two grandparents that I didn’t meet until I was six, when my non-bio mom came into my life. Now, her parents already had two granddaughters who were many years older than me, and then all of a sudden this six year old comes into their lives out of nowhere. And really just amazingly, they treated me just the same as my new cousins. I’m incredibly lucky to have had all four of them in my life for as long as I did, but everything wasn’t always simple. We actually never talked about my parents being gay or really anybody being gay for that matter. I felt their acceptance through their profound love for me, and they showed that they cared, but we really never talked about what our family was and who was in our family. So that’s one of the reasons that I am just so inspired by members of Family Equality’s Pearls of Wisdom program, grandparents who are speaking out and advocating for our LGBTQ families. Today with me is Ronnie Sanlo, who is one of the founding members of the program. Dr Sanlo is an author, LGBTQ historian and playwright. So the first question I always love asking everybody is who is in your family and how was it formed?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Okay, well I have a rather large family. Of course it’s my wife and myself and our little dog. And my mother is still alive. And today I have my two children, my daughter and my son, and they each have partners and two children. So I have four grandchildren as well.

Emily: How did that family come into being?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: When I was 25, I was very closeted. I knew I was a lesbian from the time I was 11 and I had fallen in love with this girl in college and we lived together for two years. But she had no idea that I was in love with her. I never told her or anyone, I never acted on it. I was just happy in my little setting. And then one day my grandparents came to visit and my grandfather said, you’re almost 25 and you’re not married. What are you funny or something? And I thought, oh my God, he’s figured it out. It’s leaking out of me somehow, cause I had never said the words. And so I called this guy who had been my sort of default date in college who had asked me to marry him just before we graduated. And it was like two and a half years later. And I called him and I said, you still want to get married? He said, yes. So we were married within three months of my grandfather’s comment, and I was pregnant immediately thereafter and very distinctly thought to myself, now no one will ever again ask me if I’m funny or something. So I was very much in a closet whose door I had just nailed shut. So I was married, I had my daughter. Three years later I had my son and at the age of 32, I knew I just couldn’t live the lie anymore. It was killing me. And we were now in Florida. My husband had been a middle school band director in Florida. And so when we got married, I moved from Los Angeles back to Florida, but this time to the Orlando area. And two years prior to my coming out in 1979, Anita Bryant had done her thing in Miami, which repealed Miami’s new gay rights orders and the statute to honor Anita Bryant created their first anti-gay parenting laws.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: And when I came out in 1979 knowing absolutely nothing about these laws, I lost custody of my two children who were now three and six. I was so incredibly angry and sad and depressed and pretty much of a wreck. But that fueled my anger so much that I became very active in, back then, the lesbian and gay civil rights movement when very few people were. I had limited visitation with my children until they were nine and 12. And by then I was working for the Florida AIDS program. I was an epidemiologist with the AIDS program and my children were told by their father and his parents that because I’m a lesbian -I did not hide it all from the day I came out, so they knew – that because I’m a lesbian and because I work with people with AIDS, I must have AIDS. And if they touch me or hug me or kiss me, they’re going to get sick and die. And so my children didn’t want to see me again and I didn’t see them again. They were nine and 12 at that point. I didn’t see them again until each one of them was in their twenties. So we’ve spent a lot of our adult years just sort of rebuilding relationships.

Emily: You mentioned that they were in their twenties. Were they at points in their life where they were considering becoming parents? Did you establish those relationships or rebuild them prior to becoming a grandparent?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Well, when my daughter was 22, I was working at the University of Michigan. I was the director of the LGBT program in Ann Arbor. And I got an email from my daughter and it was Christmas of 1994. I didn’t see my children, but I always sent them a card that gave them my contact information. So they always had that information if they ever wanted to contact me. And as soon as she got to Ohio, she did contact me and she came to my house the next day and brought her husband and told me that she was pregnant and that her baby was due in May of ’95. And so she and I started spending time together and when she went into labor in May of ’95, she called me and I made it to the hospital where she was and I was in the birthing room and I got to watch my first granddaughter be born.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: That was such an amazing day. I remember every single second of that day. We’ve maintained our contact. My daughter and I have had a fairly contentious relationship until recently, but I’ve always had a very close relationship with my two granddaughters. Even though they still today live in Florida and I live in both California and in Washington state. So I don’t see them very often, but you know, thank goodness for social media. They text me and Facebook me constantly, several times a week. My son on the other hand, I had been recruited by and move to Los Angeles to work at UCLA. And several years later I received a letter from him and it said, dear Doctor Sanlo or mom, I don’t know what to call you. I’m searching for myself and in order to find myself, I know I need to find you.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: And, and we began corresponding by mail. He didn’t have a computer. He really had just come off the streets and didn’t have a computer, but we wrote to one another and I sent him a plane ticket to come visit me for Thanksgiving of 1998. And he came out to California and we started rebuilding our relationship. Now I thought this kid was gay from the time he was a year old. I was in Orlando for a conference and it was my birthday weekend and he was 28. And he came to my hotel and we were going to have dinner together. And he said, mom, I have a birthday present for you. And I said, what? And he goes, I’m gay. And I’m going, you know, this child is probably the last one to know because everybody else knew. But he came out and when he told his father, he was disowned by his father and his grandparents. And so I told him, put your clothes and your cat in your car and come live with me in Los Angeles. And three weeks later he was in my apartment in LA. So we started building our relationship immediately and we have a great relationship. He up here in Seattle now and he was never involved in a relationship with anyone. He would date periodically, but he didn’t get involved in a relationship. But there were two young women with whom he’d been friends in Florida and they moved out to LA also. And I officiated at their wedding, which was really sweet. They asked him to be the donor daddy for their child and turned out to be children. They’ve got two little boys and my son is the father of these two little boys and they’re all very close. So I have these two beautiful little grandsons who are eight and four. My parents have been accepting of me since the day I came out in 1979. They’ve been very accepting of my son. My oldest granddaughter is 23 and she’s been in a relationship with a woman for the last four years. She identifies as pansexual, not as lesbian. My son has gone from identifying as gay to also identifying as pansexual. The foundation of this family are really strong and it really does have a basis in the LGBT community.

Emily: It seems like you have generations of people coming out – yourself and your own experience, your son, your granddaughter. this is someone who is, this is the youngest of the three sort of generations to be out. Do you think that is in part just how like our culture has changed or do you see conversations at home having a role in some of that?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: What I attribute it to is the conversation that both my granddaughters have had with my daughter. Although my daughter and I have had this contentious relationship for years, my daughter has been very supportive of me as a lesbian and her brother as a gay man. And she’s a tremendously outspoken in Florida. And has been from the time the girls were born. So these little girls always knew that they had a lesbian grandma. So they’ve had this sense of social justice around LGBT issues their whole lives. I really give my daughter lots of credit, having been raised in a home where lesbians and gay men were vilified, especially lesbians were vilified. Given that that’s the context in which my children were raised, they’re socially just consciousness is really quite astounding to me. Has been forever.

Emily: As I had mentioned, I was very close with my grandparents. I saw them all the time, but we never acknowledged that my parents were gay or that that was something that was important or that having queer parents was a critical part of my own identity. Which is also just so compartmentalized in some ways because you know, Nancy, my one of my moms didn’t start dating my biological mom until I was older, about five. And so I met her when I was about six and I met these my grandparents when I was more around six years old. It’s just incredible to think of, they love their daughter, they love their daughter’s brand new six year old and they love their daughter’s partner, but they wouldn’t acknowledge what that was and where we fit into the family other than like, this is my granddaughter unequivocally. So they could feel that love and they could show it. But talking about it was really totally different. It was very separated.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: You just made me think that it might be similar to that today in that people don’t talk about it. But I think especially in the context of my family, it’s just a given. So it’s just a natural thing that there are lesbian and gay men in this family. When we all know one another, we all know our stories. We have shared stories. So it just really isn’t that much up for discussion, where back several generations ago, and even in my generation and I’m 71, I think people still are uncomfortable talking about it.

Emily: I suppose it’s so much more present and familiar in some ways with younger generations. So yeah, maybe it doesn’t need to be talked about as much because the response that I hear so often is, ‘yeah, so?’ It’s like, yeah. And like, so we is

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: You and I live on the coast, right? We’re not in middle America. Yes, same sex marriage equality is the law of the land, but in 29 states there still is no protection for maintaining custody or keeping jobs or housing. And so probably in the majority of the country, maybe not necessarily the majority of the people, but in the majority of the country it’s still very dangerous to talk about it in even with family members.

Emily: Absolutely. So one of the things that Family Equality is really focused on is getting out information about paths to parenthood so LGBTQ+ people can grow families. And your own story of how your family was formed, it rings to what my own mom’s experience as she has shared it with me. We’ve talked about this a good amount that for her, that for many years being out felt like closing the door on having a family on ever raising children because the laws didn’t feel like she could become a foster/adoptive parent. She didn’t feel like the laws were there to protect her through pregnancy and through raising a child. She was very concerned about losing her job for a very long time. She was a public school teacher. That identity and being out and having a family is so complex and only more recently has felt safe and a lot more possible.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Absolutely. That’s why Family Equality is so unbelievably important, Emily, because those things that you just described still happen today in 29 states. Teachers who are known to be lesbians and gay men, or bi or trans probably lose their jobs still. And so it’s very frightening to let anybody know. I knew this couple who had been together for 30 years and they came to school in different cars from different directions even though they lived together because they didn’t want people to suspect. It’s still very much a challenge. There’s a lot of work to do and this political climate is frightening. I worry for my children and my grandchildren and we’ve got to pay attention. Oh God, we’ve got to get out there and vote.

Emily: Yes, absolutely. Even just at the time of us recording this, just recently in Kansas and Oklahoma, we’ve seen ‘license to discriminate bills’ that would allow child welfare agencies that are contracting with the state to discriminate against anyone that they deemed having a moral objection to placing a child. So really denying then foster and adoptive homes to children. I mean, it’s just not in the interest of the children. They can turn away someone of a different faith, someone of no faith, a single individual. And really, this is blatantly coming at LGBTQ identified prospective foster and adoptive parents.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Absolutely the religious liberty laws, you know, Florida was the one that created the anti-adoption, anti-gay parenting laws in 1978. Oklahoma was the next day to create those. It didn’t get rid of those lots until 2010, Oklahoma got rid of them prior to that, but now they’re back in Oklahoma. So, we’re watching these laws just start rolling backwards, which is why it’s critical for us to be supporting Family Equality and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund because they’re the ones who are fighting for us in court.

Emily: Going a little bit more in depth into your own experience then in what became a very different movement and working with individuals with HIV and AIDS in the medical side of things from 1987 to 1994. Those were incredibly important years and years where, just as you described, the understanding and the stigma was just at peak. Do you think there’s been much improvement there as well?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Well, the improvement has been that HIV/AIDS is treated a little bit differently now or perhaps a lot differently than it was before. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but now it’s treated as a chronic manageable disease as opposed to a death sentence. When I was doing this work, people died every day. They’d get a diagnosis three months later they were gone. Part of the work that I was doing at my office was going into the hospitals. We had to do our epidemiological work, but we were all for doing social services because nobody in the hospital would. We were picking up trays from the floor by the doors, food trays to take into people because the food service people wouldn’t go in their rooms or we would be the ones cleaning the hospital rooms because nobody else would do it. Or changing someone’s gown because no one else would do it. It was a horrible, horrible time that required an army of people who weren’t afraid to get in there. But we knew how this virus is transmitted by 1987. And we also knew, I knew that there’s no way I could have contracted it. So I wasn’t afraid of people with AIDS. It was easy to get in there and do the work. It was just hard. It was in my heart, and then to have to hold their partners or their parents at memorial services or fight with family who tried to take away somebody’s belongings because the partner had died. I mean, it was just a horrible, horrible time. Those times have changed. Thank God. But we’ve got other challenges today and the biggest challenge right now is this administration and the anti-gay laws that they’re re-instituting.

Emily: What does staying in touch with your grandchildren mean for you and what are some of the ways that you’ve been doing that? You mentioned a some of the technology you’ve been using.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Well, one of the things that I’ve done over the years is I’ve tried to be present when my granddaughters, who are older now, they’re 20 and 23, had their various rites of passages. So, whenever they would go from one school to another or their high school graduation, I would be there. I was there, I was present with them and for them. And then to be able to stay in contact with them on Facebook. I think we touch base at least every other day. One granddaughter’s in college right now. She’s 20 and the other granddaughter is 23 and she works full time and then she’s got her girlfriend. So we’re in touch maybe once a week, once every two weeks, something like that. But it’s always through messaging, through texting, every now and then a phone call. But rarely a phone call to be perfectly honest. I don’t care how we stay in touch as long as we do. My two little grandsons, their moms and I connect through texting, but they also they do the video thing on their telephone. So they are always sending videos and I’ll send videos back. I chat by video with the two little boys and that’s fun.

Emily: That’s really wonderful hearing that. While my grandparents, for the most part, were geographically very close to where I was, technology played absolutely no role in how present they were in my life. I had peers who I remember texting their grandfather and I was like, that is so cool. That technology is creating a new type of presence. Clearly you’re connecting all the time in often smaller ways, but in a way that’s always present. Tt’s a different type of presence.

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: So here’s the cool thing. So my mom is a 92 and she is very proficient on the computer and on Facebook. She was telling me yesterday that for the last few days, she’s had been having a wonderful text conversation or an email conversation with my oldest granddaughter. And while they’ve always had a connection, the granddaughters would text them to say thank you for a gift or something, but now it’s been this ongoing conversation about what my granddaughter does for a living and what she wants to do. And my mother is just, she’s so happy that she’s having this conversation with her great-granddaughter. The generation older than myself, some of those folks are becoming pretty proficient on computers as well, specifically to maintain contact with the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Emily: Yeah. So it sounds like it’s almost meeting the grandchildren where they are and how the teens and young adults today are communicating, which, you can read lots of think pieces about how no one talks to each other on the phone anymore. It’s all those sort of apps and messaging and emails and things like that. For you, was it that need to meet them where they were? Or where you were you already on Facebook and on some of these different platforms?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: Well, I was already on them, but that’s because I worked in higher ed. That was the only way I can communicate with students. So I was already pretty proficient on those kinds of applications if I wanted to have the relationships with younger people and do the work that I needed and wanted to do. I had to get with the program and because that really helped me with my relationship with my grandchildren.

Emily: One thing that you shared at the very beginning, made me think about how even identities and the experiences with in the LGBTQ community have changed so much over various generations. With your granddaughter and then your son now identifying as pansexual, for example. You were in higher-ed, but I imagine this is a different experience and language that for others who are not so frequently exposed to college age students. Have you had conversations with people defending pansexual and other newer terms?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: All the time. The language has changed. Now, I love the word lesbian. I love the work dyke. The word queer, from the time I was 11 until I was 31, I referred to myself as that damn queer in the third person. There’s so much self-hatred around it and that the word is not among my favorite. What I think any grandparents should do is just love their kids, love their grandkids. If you don’t understand what it is they’re doing, they’re saying, ask because they’ll tell you. And make sure that you do everything you can to maintain a relationship to be part of their lives. That’s the best we can do.

Emily: What do you see as the journey from acceptance to advocacy? Because acceptance is one thing, what are some next steps grandparents can take to support their children and grandchildren?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: So a thing that I saw happen in my family – I graduated with my doctorate in 1996 and I had been very close friends with a woman and her husband who founded the PFLAG chapter in Jacksonville, Florida. So she and her husband came to my graduation and she met my parents who also came for the first time. And my parents had been supportive, they hadn’t been advocates. They’ve just been accepting. And so they met this couple Frida and Lund Saraga. And when my parents came back home from visiting me in Florida for my graduation, they joined the local PFLAG chapter and ultimately became the co-chairs of the PFLAG. So they went from being accepting to becoming outspoken advocates. It’s important to be an advocate. And I would love to see everybody be an advocate. We all need to have our allies and we all need to be allies. But if you can’t do that, if a grandparent can’t be an outspoken advocate, if all I can do is be a loving, accepting grandparent, that’s a gift all by itself, for the grandchild and the link with the grandparent too.

Emily: Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel it was. It was a wonderful gift. And then to have these four individuals who I knew were behind me 100% and loved me 100% and loved both my moms. Do you have any other final thoughts?

Dr. Ronni Sanlo: The world is changing very quickly and there are all kinds of things that are taking place right now that we really need to be aware of. I think it’s just so important to be aware, stay informed, so important to vote, and to just be there as supporting loving grandparents for the grandchildren. And grandchildren, let your grandparents love you and support you however they feel they can.

Emily: It’s always a journey. You never know what could change in a few years or how people can grow over time and certainly the Pearls of Wisdom program is there for anybody who does want to speak out or maybe just wants to hear from other people who have gotten to that point or a different point on their own journeys.