By Satta Sarmah Hightower
June 28, 2018
For more than 30 years, Catherine D’Amato has been an unwavering advocate within the LGBTQ community.
D’Amato’s advocacy work was forged from her own personal experiences. When she was in her late teens, D’Amato came out to her parents, but unfortunately, she wasn’t met with acceptance. However, that experience eventually put D’Amato on a path that has helped her make a difference in the lives of countless others in the Greater Boston Area.
“Life gives you certain kinds of opportunities. By coming out and having to leave my family, I had to go to work and I had to leave college and I had to do some things that I may not have planned,” she says. “So the combination of being on my own and suddenly out when I hadn’t planned on it, put a lot of these pieces together for me because if you’re oppressed in any way, shape, or form, you can identify that oppression perhaps in other communities.”
Over the years, D’Amato has seen rights advance for the LGBTQ community, but she admits there’s still a lot of work left to do to safeguard these rights. This is why, even decades later, D’Amato works tirelessly every day—remaining steadfast in her mission to ensure that equality isn’t just some elusive ideal, but a living, breathing reality for all Americans.
Making a Difference in Boston
D’Amato’s work with the LGBTQ community began in San Francisco in the 1970s. During that time, the environment was more hostile to people who were openly gay. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California’s history, was assassinated. People were killed and beaten, and hate crimes didn’t exist as a legislative agenda in the same way they do today, according to D’Amato.
“Things have changed, but oppression is oppression and there might be varying degrees of it,” she says. “Wanting to make sure that our community is safe and free to be who they are is a very important piece.”
In San Francisco, D’Amato was the founding incorporator of the world’s first LGBTQ foundation—the Horizon’s Foundation. When she moved to Massachusetts, she continued her work helping to advance LGBTQ causes.
D’Amato became involved with the Human Rights Campaign in Boston, serving on the New England regional board and the national Board of Governors. Today, along with her work in the LGBTQ community, D’Amato has led the Greater Boston Food Bank—one of the top food banks in the United States—since 1995. Just last year, the Greater Boston Food Bank distributed 60.7 million pound of food to those in need. D’Amato is currently one of the longest tenured food bank CEOs in the nation. She also serves as the co-founder and co-chair of the Equality Fund at the Boston Foundation.
The Equality Fund, which currently has nearly $8 million in commitments, will be used to address issues and causes that directly impact members of the LGBTQ community.
“It’s just a very good thing for our community, because in 20 years who knows what the needs will be, but the good news is there’ll be a fund there to help,” D’Amato says.
Leaving a Legacy
However, it’s clear that the LGBTQ community still has several needs and challenges today. Recent research on Massachusetts’ LGBTQ community indicates how much progress the state—and country as a whole—still needs to make to ensure the safety and acceptance of this community.
The study found that although more young Massachusetts residents identify as LGBTQ now than in previous years, they still face higher rates of depression, suicide, and discrimination. LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as non-LGBTQ youth to say that they’ve experienced symptoms of depression, while 50 percent also say they’ve considered suicide. Though Massachusetts was the first state in the country to pass marriage equality and the state provides many resources, support services, and has advanced public policy issues related to LGBTQ causes, D’Amato says there’s still room to grow. There’s a need for the community to remain vigilant on issues like safety, bullying, employment, and achieving equal rights in other areas—especially in light of the current political climate.
She adds that it’s vital for members of the LGBTQ community to work collaboratively and to fight together to make progress. “The important part for me, whether it’s pride month or not, is that we are stronger when we stand together as a community,” she says.
But D’Amato also says that its critical for the community to have allies. As D’Amato’s own experience has taught her, change can happen—it just takes time.
“For the folks that are on the other side of acceptance and inclusion, the advice I would give is to listen, learn, and then hopefully love, because these are human beings,” she says of the LGBTQ community. “My own experience, from being completely rejected from my family to not seeing them for multiple years or engaging with them to having your mother say, ‘Well, you’re my child and I love you and I want you to be happy.’ That’s huge for any person, whatever their story is. So the important part is to not be judgmental and to be educated and to understand.”
And that understanding will eventually lead to more acceptance and equality in our society, D’Amato hopes. It’ll just require a collective, unwavering effort—even in the face of ongoing challenges.
“I don’t think as a young, gay person in the 1970s in San Francisco that I could have seen some of the achievements that have occurred, both in our community and in the rights and privileges of being an American, so that is awesome,” she says. “Now, protecting those rights is where we are now—not losing ground, but maintaining the ground that has been gained. And when that is threatened, we’re all threatened. So the collective work is probably one of the most important things that people can continue to do. We’re stronger together than we are alone and that’s true for our own community. We must stand with each other.”
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Catherine D’Amato has spent more than 30 years advocating for the LGBTQ community in the Boston area. And she says there’s still more work left to do.