Who he is: Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality
Where he lives: Asbury Park area
Why he’s important: Garden State Equality (GSE) is the state’s leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy and education organization. It’s been a key player in efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, pass and implement the state’s tough anti-bullying law for schools, ban “conversion therapy,” and combat discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Praise from politicians: Fuscarino’s appointment as GSE executive director last month drew plaudits from U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who applauded his “tireless commitment to the LGBT community.” He was also praised by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
In the trenches: Despite his youth, Fuscarino has more than a decade of experience in LGBT activism and social service. Growing up in Belmar, he was involved with his high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and was among the first participants in a national student leadership program of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, where he learned how to be an advocate and do peer-to-peer education. He attributes his activist career to his training with GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings.
“I was a young gay kid who was interested in being involved in the community, but I don’t think it was until after the program, that weekend training, that I understood that if I don’t speak up, there’s going to be no voice for the student population,” Fuscarino said.
“At the time, there were very few resources for LGBT students in K-12 schools. These student groups have now evolved and become even more inclusive of all members of our community. They serve a really important role in a young person’s life. They may be experiencing bullying, or they may need help figuring out why they’re feeling the way they do,” he said.
During his time with GLSEN, Fuscarino helped start Gay-Straight alliances in 10 schools a year, he said. He created a TV public service announcement for the organization’s National Day of Silence that won a student Emmy award.
He also created ProudTalks for LGBT storytellers and worked with the Pride Connections Center of New Jersey as a program developer serving gay inner-city youth.
College activism: While attending Hofstra University in New York Fuscarino noted the absence of organizations for LGBT college students and developed a series of leadership workshops at the school. He went on to found the Pride Network, a nonprofit that continues to run annual leadership summits for college students in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.
After graduation he worked on digital strategy at Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization headed by Alan van Capelle, a prominent gay activist in New York. When van Capelle moved to the Educational Alliance, a large social-service organization in lower Manhattan, Fuscarino become communications director there.
Looking forward: Though marriage equality is now the law, Fuscarino said GSE still has plenty of work to do. Intolerance still exists, as demonstrated by the rhetoric of some political candidates and new laws in North Carolina and Mississippi that restrict which public bathrooms transgender people may use, he said.
“There is a lot of divisive language in this presidential election, and we’re even seeing the official endorsement of discrimination in certain states. It’s still very important to have a voice that represents the LGBT community,” he said.
Fuscarino’s goals include focusing on a broader social justice agenda and collaborating with other like-minded organizations.
“Workers’ rights, racial discrimination, immigration reform, healthcare access, family rights, are LGBT issues,” he said. “We have people of color in our community, we have women in our community, we have immigrants who are looking for a path to citizenship in our community, we see the effects of workplace discrimination, we know how important workers’ rights are. These are issues that we’ve cared about in different capacities, but I don’t think have ever focused on as a whole.”
A national model: Fuscarino said the state’s progressive positions on issues facing the LGBT community can serve as models for how to effect change elsewhere.
“Even though we’re a New Jersey-based organization, there’s no reason we can’t provide support to states like North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee, which right now have the deck stacked against them,” he said.
One issue he cited is health insurance coverage for transgender people. In many states insurers are not required to cover transition surgery and related costs, and some have even seen their policies canceled when they need medical treatment, he said. GSE plans to work with New Jersey’s Department of Banking and Insurance to create regulations protecting transgender people and then put together a guide that activists elsewhere can use to establish the same rights in their states, he said.
Legislative priorities: Fuscarino said GSE will lobby for a dozen measures in the statehouse in the next year. One is a bill making it easier for transgender people to change their birth certificates, which Gov. Chris Christie has twice vetoed.
Another bill would prohibit exclusion of a juror because of sexuality or gender identity. GSE also wants to ban use of the “gay panic” defense in hate-crime cases and bar insurers from wrongly denying coverage of artificial insemination to lesbians and other women, he said.
“Women, in order to get covered by their insurance for artificial insemination, need to prove they’ve tried having sex with a man. That affects straight women as well. It’s just a ridiculous policy,” he said. “Insurers should not make that a requirement and the government should ensure those types of things aren’t going on.”
Personal life: Fuscarino’s partner Aaron is a tennis instructor who is now serving in the Marines. They met in Asbury Park and Aaron introduced him to the sport. Fuscarino said he needs to keep his skill up so he can beat Aaron in a few games when he returns from his military service.