The classic image of an activist is a strident, in-your-face advocate. But gentle persuasion often works more effectively in winning people over to a cause, a fact that Alicia Skillman, the new executive director of the Triangle Foundation, a Detroit-based civil-rights advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, knows well. She’s soft-spoken but hardly timid. Before taking the Triangle’s reins in January, Skillman, an attorney, was the director of the Fair Housing Center of Legal Aid and Defender Association, where she monitored fair-housing laws in Oakland and Macomb counties.
Born in Omaha, Neb., but raised in Saginaw, Skillman says she’ll continue Triangle’s victim advocacy in combating hate crimes, bullying, and domestic violence, as well as keeping active in legislative policy work in Lansing. But she wants to explore other avenues on the road to understanding as well.
“I’m African-American and an active church member, and I want to start opening up dialogue in communities and churches,” she says. “I want them to understand that we are not against First Amendment rights regarding religion, but that we are seeking human rights and equality.”
Skillman also plans to work more closely with organizations seeking equal rights in local municipalities. Currently, just 17 Michigan communities — including Detroit — have ordinances protecting gays from discrimination in housing and employment. Without federal or statewide protection, individual cities must pass their own laws.
Skillman is optimistic that President Obama will enact positive change for the LGBT community, including lifting the ban against gays in the military. “I think people now realize that the ban is unnecessary,” she says. “It’s a disservice to folks in the military who give their lives in defending the country.”
Though he’s sympathetic to LGBT rights, Obama outraged gays by inviting the Rev. Rick Warren, who has made several anti-gay pronouncements, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.
“I believe he could have picked someone better, but, true to his word, President Obama is bringing lots of different people to the table,” Skillman says.
The uptick in hate/bias crimes in Michigan is one of Skillman’s big concerns. According to Triangle Foundation figures, there were 97 reported incidents in 2006; the number spiked to nearly 300 in 2007. Skillman believes the miserable economy may drive the number even higher.
“People are down, people are struggling and under intense stress in this economy,” she says. “They often turn their anger toward minorities, or those considered fringe. Someone gets into a situation, they’re outnumbered, and that’s the recipe for trouble.”
Skillman suggests that the surge also may be attributable to people’s growing comfort levels in reporting crimes, whereas in previous years they may have been ashamed to speak up.
While in college, Skillman came out as a lesbian. But she says the acknowledgment of one’s homosexuality often creates several issues for family and friends.
“Parents have their own coming-out process. ‘How do we introduce you to friends? What do we do when you bring someone home?’ Parents sometimes blame themselves. A whole different dynamic comes up, and my parents were no different.”
To that end, Skillman co-founded PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Family Reunion in 2000, an organization formed primarily for African-American parents and friends of gays.
“I founded it because my mom wanted to find a place to talk that was culturally sensitive,” Skillman says.
It’s precisely that kind of outreach that Skillman plans to build on in her position.