Friday, April 4, 2003

Gregg White: Activism, Swedish and Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #205, April 4, 2003)

Gregg White, the new Mr. Minneapolis Eagle and this year’s Minnesota contestant in the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest, has always set his sights high: “When I was a kid,” he says, “the job I wanted without fail—and everything else would be failure—was secretary-general of the United Nations.” (He lists Dag Hammerskjold, the second secretary-general of the UN, as one of his heroes.)

Today, White is still “pretty driven to get as much done as I possibly can—that’s why I have three jobs.” Understand those three jobs—Director of Development for OutFront Minnesota, Swedish-language instructor; and evening manager at The Minneapolis Eagle—and you understand much about White.

For over eight years White has been the full-time Director of Development for OutFront Minnesota, the state’s leading GLBT political and social-service organization. “When I first started it was still the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council, and it was 90% a direct-service social agency, which was appropriate when it was founded. Over the years it has moved to being more of a political and community-building organization.”

White says that the agency accomplished much for the GLBT community over the years, but “one of the things they did not do in those days was build a donor base. They didn’t have the money to hire a development director, and if you don’t have a development director it’s hard to raise money. The year before I started there they raised just over $17,000 from individuals.”

Now, with White as development director, the annual amount of money raised by OutFront Minnesota is in the $350,000 range. “When you have $350,000 that you didn’t have before, you can do a whole lot more for your community. We’ve changed names, we’ve changed our look” (one of White’s responsibilities at OutFront Minnesota is corporate identity), “we are much more visible, we’re much more participatory. We have a gazillion ‘touches’ every year.” (White explains that in organizational parlance a “touch” is a contact with an individual.) “But it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. How did we get 2,000 people at the State Capitol for the OutFront GLBT Lobby Day? It takes a lot of work and a lot of money.”

Raising money for GLBT community causes has long been an avocation for White. “Way back, when I lived on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul, I always threw an autumnal equinox party every year. And this new thing called GRID was coming along, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. The Minnesota AIDS Project had just been formed, and I said, ‘You know, guys, they are dirt poor. You come to my house for a party, you can throw ten bucks in the pot.’ People thought I was crazy—nobody was doing fundraising like that within the gay community back then—but they contributed, and in those days a thousand bucks for the Minnesota AIDS Project was a hell of a lot of money.” White later developed and hosted a series of monthly fundraisers for the Minnesota AIDS Project at local nightspot Norma Jean’s.

White’s knack for fundraising was taken in a new direction in 1985, when White took the newly-developed HIV test and tested positive. Aside from prompting him to get in shape and run his first marathon, it inspired him to take the visionary step of founding Philanthrofund, the third GLBT community foundation in the nation. Donations to Philanthrofund are tax-deductible and, according to White, ensure that the donation will “forever, in perpetuity, help the GLBT community of Minnesota. Every single GLBT person in Minnesota should make some kind of recognition of Philanthrofund in their will. I can tell you clearly and easily, Philanthrofund Foundation is the thing in my life I’m by far most proud of.” For his long-time community activism White was named the first Minnesota recipient of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Leadership Award (now called the Wavemaker Award).

White’s second job as a Swedish-language instructor is consistent with his having adopted Swedish as a second language and heritage. White was born Irish Catholic (“with a little bit of German”) but after a year of high school in Sweden as an exchange student he returned there to study Scandinavian political science and Swedish ethnology at Uppsala University. He also holds a degree from the University of Minnesota in Scandinavian languages and literature (with minors in international relations and technical theater).

If you see White working his third job at the Eagle, and you notice the yellow and blue stripes on his black leather pants, don’t jump to the wrong conclusion—the stripes don’t stand for hankie colors. Those are the colors of the Swedish flag, and the pants are similar to what Swedish motorcycle cops wear. (He got the pants at Mr. S. in San Francisco twelve years ago and is justifiably proud of the fact that he can still wear them.)

One of White’s many ambitions is “to move back to Sweden and live there for another two or three years. I’d love to have my current job, development director, but for RFSL, the Swedish equivalent of OutFront Minnesota. Unfortunately, given the Swedish system, they don’t understand fundraising as a whole. You’d have to teach the nation what fundraising is about—like, ‘Why make a charitable contribution, doesn’t the state take care of that already?’ So that’s a challenge in that regard.”

When asked what he would bring to the IML title if he won, White’s response was “Experience. You know, I’m 50—I have wisdom. It is true that you gain wisdom as you get older. You get it the hard way, but you get it. I’ve also been around the block in a lot of ways. I’ve been HIV-positive for seventeen years now, I’ve seen people come and go.

“I have a very strong sense of where I feel the community is going. We had the sixties when we were all going for sexual liberation—straight and gay. We had the seventies and eighties when we were fighting for legal civil rights, but we now realize that’s not enough. What we are now doing is, we are community-forming. We’re doing the exact same thing that the Italians did twenty years after they arrived in New York—we’re building a community and an identity. And that’s the next step. A lot of us haven’t quite seen that yet, and I hope I can help communicate that idea—that we have a history, we have a future, and that we are now community building in a big way, becoming an integral part of American society.”

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