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People Are Awesome: Leader Of The Biggest LGBT Anti-Violence Group Is Staying Strong

Beverly Tillery is helping a community grieve

Courtesy of Anti-Violence Project

We’re relaunching a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Beverly Tillery.

It’s a tough week to lead the country’s biggest LGBT anti-violence organization, but Bev Tillery takes it in stride. She’s not even ruffled that her wedding—to longtime partner Roz Lee—is this Saturday in Harlem.

“I wasn’t supposed to be working this week, but what can you do?” Tillery asks brightly. “We’re getting so many calls on our hotline (24/7, English/Spanish: 212-714-1141) and also trying to take care of our staff. Whether you were directly impacted, knew someone who was in Pulse, or if you just feel shaken up, we’re all dealing with some kind of trauma here.”

Tillery is executive director of NYC-based Anti-Violence Project, the oldest organization of its kind. AVP was founded in 1980 in response to the persistent violence against gay men in lower Manhattan. At the time, law enforcement was, well, less than responsive. AVP spoke on behalf of a largely voiceless group.

AVP now heads up a coalition of 50 like-minded groups across the nation. Each year, they create the most comprehensive report of anti-LGBT violence everywhere; the 2015 report just happened to come out this week. AVP was also the first organization to shine a light on violence between LGBT intimate partners; they produce a separate report on these incidents each fall.

Tillery spent decades in the social justice trenches before coming to AVP; she previously spent 11 years at Lambda Legal, the LGBT legal advocacy organization. She turned 50 the year she took over at AVP, a fitting benchmark to work for a cause so close to her heart. “I think we need to take this moment in our history,” Tillery says, “when many think we’ve done everything we need to do because we got marriage equality. People ask ‘Isn't the LGBT community taken care of now?’ The answer is obviously no.”

Three days before her wedding, Tillery squeezed in a thoughtful conversation about Orlando, her daughter, and the power of hope.

Who is your hero?

I’ve been thinking about this person a lot this week, right before I get marriedit’s my partner's mother Paulette. She’s passed now, sadly, and won't be joining us on Saturday. Paulette was a strong ally to her daughter when she came out, and she was especially welcoming to me coming into her family. My parents were not supportive, but Paulette always believed they would come around. She couldn't understand how they wouldn’t accept me as I am.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

“After all of our social justice work we have to take time to celebrate.” I don’t even remember who said it, but the words stuck with me. When I first started organizing there was the mindset that there’s always something else you have to work on. But you absolutely have to celebrate life for yourself, and for the communities you’re fighting for. It’s too hard to keep fighting for change, struggling all time, without enjoying the amazing things around you.

How about the worst advice?

To get ahead, personally and professionally, you have to be cutthroat. “You gotta get yours, otherwise you’re gonna get ignored, not get what you deserve.” That may work for some people, but it hasn't worked for me. I just work for the things I believe in and the people I care about. There’s room for everybody else; I don't need to get on top of someone to succeed.

What was the last thing to make you laugh out loud?

I’m thinking of it right now, how my daughter Stella is very funny. We like to introduce her to old movies—well not necessarily old, but movies we watched when we were younger. The last one she really liked was Airplane. The humor held up for me, but a lot of the fun was watching Stella enjoy it. Those two black guys on the plane talking jive, she had no idea what that was about. Her favorite scene was when the couple is on beach with the water rushing up, she thought that was hilarious.

What gives you hope?

So many things. This week I’ve gotten hope seeing all the individuals around the country, coming together after the tragedy. That has really been wonderful. I also get hope from my daughter and her friends. Stella is lucky to go to one of few progressive schools in the city, with a social justice curriculum. She’s talking every day about issues of justice, how to be fair. I took Stella to a conference recently, and someone asked if she wanted to say something at the end. She gave this eloquent example about the difference between equality and equity. For a 10-year-old to know that everything being equal is not necessarily fair for everybody, well that’s just amazing.

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