The Power of Two: Ellen Ratner and Cholene Espinoza

Through the Eye of the StormEspinoza and Ratner responded to the crisis with action. They packed up a U-Haul full of basic supplies and headed for Pass Christian, Miss. Ratner had been a passenger on a crowded flight with an attorney named Shantrell Nicks, who lived in Pass Christian, a town devastated by the storm.

Out of this initial visit grew an ongoing relationship between Espinoza and Ratner and the people of Pass Christian and neighboring DeLisle. Working with the community and other supporters, they have raised well over $600,000 to help rebuild the area and establish a community center. Ratner says, “Every moment of our lives has been devoted to raising this money.” She gives Through the Eye of the Storm much of the credit. “Cholene's book moves people.”

Ratner, too, is an author. Ready, Set, Talk! A Guide to Getting Your Message Heard by Millions on Talk Radio, Talk Television, and Talk Internet, co-written with Kathie Scarrah, was released earlier this year, and outlines ways that progressive organizations, campaigns and politicians can communicate effectively in the media.

Asked how effective the LGBT movement has been in getting out its message, Ratner is blunt: “They haven't been.” She cites personal and organizational missteps that interfere with that message, but focuses mostly on the experience working in Mississippi to illustrate one area in which the gay community could strengthen its outreach.

“Gay people need to be effective communicators in nongay organizations so people will be exposed to gay people,” she advises. “Be involved as human beings in the fabric of our communities, as well as in gay organizations.”

She believes that enabling straight and gay people to get to know each other and be present in each other's lives, families and communities is a key to overcoming homophobia in society. In Pass Christian, she says, being gay hasn't been an issue at all. Espinoza concurs: “It's been a nonissue. Work like this is opening doors, opening people's hearts to diversity of all kinds.”

Nonetheless, Ratner adds, “I've never met so many closeted people in my life.”

Espinoza agrees and says, “That aspect has been extremely painful, like my military experience.”

While she was a reporter in Iraq , Espinoza never discussed her lesbianism, but since the publication of her book, she's realized it's not an issue for the soldiers with whom she is still in touch. “To them, the important thing was that they wanted me to tell it like it was, to be their champion by telling the truth,” she says. “In the face of that, all the differences melt away. Also, sexual orientation is less and less of an issue with a younger military with changing attitudes.

Espinoza continues: “Which raises the issue, what does it really take to create social change? The right wants to go by the polls on gay marriage, but ignores the polls that show people want gay people to serve openly in the military.”

In the end, she says, “There are so many Katrinas everywhere, people and projects that need help. … This sense of service and community has been the antidote for my own bitterness. Community is the antidote to the challenges we face in our society today. We have a responsibility to each other. When we reach out, we have a stronger family.”

Ratner advises anyone with a cause to promote in the media to always be prepared for tough questions. What tough question would Ratner like to ask, and of whom?

She answers: “I'd like to ask Bush and, really, all elected officials, the question I asked Tom DeLay, right in front of dozens of reporters: Did he have any gay family members or staffers? Did he know any gay people at all?”

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