Equality California Hires New Leader, But Will John O'Connor Divide or Unify Gay Rights Activists?

It took one year and ten days to find a new, full-time executive director, but the gay rights group Equality California has hired a super-connected fellow named John O'Connor.

"John is a bold leader with a history of leading nonprofits into the next phase of their journeys," said Clarissa Filgioun and Cary Davidson, board presidents of EQCA and EQCA Institute respectively, in a joint statement.

We'll see about the "bold" part, but O'Connor does have an interesting resume. He worked with Maria Shriver to create a hall of fame at the California Museum, he was national director at the pro-gay, politically influential Gill Foundation, and he was program director at The David Geffen Foundation. In other words, he's got A-list connections.

Equality California, once a political heavyweight in California's gay rights movement, has been trying to reorganize itself since longtime executive director Geoff Kors left in 2011.

EQCA replaced Kors with activist Roland Palencia last year, but he quit -- somewhat mysteriously -- after only a few months on the job.

EQCA has been extremely slow to hire another executive director, and there's been talk that the organization has become somewhat irrelevant.

Enter John O'Connor -- and a number of well-connected people who appear to like him.

"John's dedication to the California Museum, which represents all of the breadth and diversity of California," Maria Shriver says in an EQCA press release, "was key to the turnaround it experienced and the success it achieved during the years I was California's First Lady. I know that he will bring that same passion, commitment and skill to making sure that the voices of all LGBT Californians are heard. Congratulations, John, and congratulations Equality California."

Michael Fleming, executive director at the David Bohnett Foundation, says in the same press release: "I've known John for more than a dozen years and couldn't be happier with EQCA's selection of him as their next executive director. Whether in his role as a foundation manager or non-profit director, John has always been a passionate advocate for, and a great partner in, so many of the causes and concerns that we all share. I look forward to working with John as he takes on this great challenge."

There are more quotes like that.

In the past, EQCA has clashed with grassroots gay rights activists, so we asked Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs what he thought about O'Connor. Jacobs, who likes to shake things up from time to time, was polite.

"The Courage Campaign welcomes the appointment of the new executive director of EQCA," Jacobs wrote in an email. "We need a strong, focused, state-based equality organization and we look forward to working with EQCA in years to come."

Infighting is the norm in the California gay rights movement, so we'll see how long those good vibes last. If O'Connor can unify gay activists rather than divide them, then gay folks have themselves an actual leader. Stay tuned.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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