OUTStanding Virginians 2015

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga – Advocate, Richmond

Claire for websiteThe most important work “isn’t ‘out there’ in the world but is ‘in here’ in the heart.” The woman who said those words, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, is being honored with an Outstanding Virginian Award for her service as a long-time ally and advocate for LGBT Virginians, including her work as Equality Virginia’s voice in the General Assembly and, briefly, its interim director.

Claire’s fight against legal and policy impediments affecting the lives of LGBT people began decades ago. What galvanized her to champion this cause was the experience of losing two friends in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s: “They died cruelly and in silence because people had not cared.” To this day, she believes, “it is not bigots who are the greatest obstacle to progress but those who stand idly to the side.” Building on the felt imperative to act, she concluded that legal and policy solutions were necessary to drive social change.

By the time Claire started her work with Equality Virginia, she had acquired formidable skills and experience as a lawyer and administrator. She had been interim president of Chatham College in Pittsburgh and Virginia’s Chief Deputy Attorney General, the first woman to hold that post. She had argued cases before the Virginia and United States Supreme Courts, held several staff positions in the Virginia General Assembly, and had run a management consulting firm advising the public and non-profit sectors.

Claire began her tenure as Equality Virginia’s voice in the legislature with an important win: the repeal (by one vote) of a law banning Virginia firms from offering insurance coverage to domestic partners. Within a few months, she found herself at the center of another high-stakes battle when Proposition 1 (the “Marshall-Newman  Amendment”) appeared on the ballot in November 2006 and she was named manager of the Commonwealth Campaign’s effort to defeat it.

Although the campaign was unsuccessful, it generated almost a million “No” votes and sowed the seeds for change. One thing the campaign made clear was that whether a voter knew or was related to someone who is LGBT was critical to how they voted. That’s why she encouraged the establishment of EV’s OUTstanding Virginians program to help Virginians get to “know” more people who happen to be LGBT. ”Where we are now in terms of freedom to marry and LGBT equality,” she says, “is purely and simply about those in the LGBT community who have the courage to live their lives openly and honestly.”

This past fall Claire had what she describes as the “best day of her professional life” when, as the Executive Director of the Virginia ACLU, she got to inform the two couples whom the organization represented in the Virginia freedom-to-marry case that the US Supreme Court would let stand the lower court ruling that Virginia’s restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional.  The entire ACLU of Virginia staff assembled to make the calls, and the joy on both ends of the telephone was unbounded.  “Getting a chance to be involved in work that really makes a difference in people’s lives is what matters to me,” Claire says. “Remembering the joy of that day will keep me going for a really long time,” says this passionate advocate for equality.

Celebrate the freedom to marry and honor the 2015 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!