Scroll To Top

Ann Northrop: Decades of Fighting for LGBT Rights

Ann Northrop: Decades of Fighting for LGBT Rights


Ann Northrop has come along way from her roots in conservative Hartford, Conn. Over the years, the Vassar art history grad has been a force for change… from the Vietnam War to feminism to the AIDS crisis and especially to the fight for universal equality. From Ms. mag to ACT UP to Gay USA, Northrop's been a tireless activist in the trenches of the battle for gay rights.


Ann Northrop has come along way from her roots in conservative Hartford, Conn. Over the years, the Vassar art history grad has been a force for change… from the Vietnam War to feminism to the AIDS crisis and especially to the fight for universal equality.

Northrop cut her journalistic teeth at the National Journal, ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS Morning News as well as Ms. Magazine and other print publications but it was an AIDS educator and activist that she found her passion.

Never one to shy from consequences, Northrop has been arrested at demonstrations and proudly suffered the consequences of fighting for her beliefs and against those who want to deny them. She is well known for being arrested at the ACT UP(AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) protest at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where she disrupted a service by lying down in the cathedral’s aisle. The act gained international headlines… just what she hoped to accomplish.

Most recently Northrop and fellow activist Andy Humm have engaged viewers of their weekly Gay USA TV show with news, commentary and opinion about LGBT issues and events.

“I have known Ann since we worked together at the Hetrick-Martin Institute in the late 1980s and early 90s,” Humm says.  “She was an indefatigable educator in the schools and at youth agencies on AIDS issues and LGBT issues.” When I needed a co-host for Gay USA 13 years ago, she was the first person I reached out to--and the only really qualified person to handle the job. She said yes and we've been at it ever since on a weekly basis, combining activism, journalism and analysis--all on a volunteer basis. She is a great activist and is becoming an even better golfer, as incongruent as that may seem.”

Edie Stull: How did you get from an art history degree to the world of television and communications?

Ann Northrop:  I majored in Art History because it was new and interesting to me at the time but it was the late 60s ...I am the class of 1970 at Vassar ... and the height of the Vietnam war and all the activism of the 60s and what really interested me was journalism. There were a lot of strong women on the air who became role models for me and I could picture myself in the news business. When I graduated from college, I ended up in Washington with a job at the National Journal [a weekly political magazine] and went on to various jobs all over the news business from there… and it's really always been my main interest. I like being where the action is and being involved in one way or another in current events, whether I am part of it or covering it.

ES: Any particular female role models?

AN: Everyone from Liz Trotta in Vietnam [former NY bureau chief of the Washington Times] to Charlotte Curtis at the New York Times covering society in strange ways. But my real mentor and role model was Gloria Steinhem [women’s rights activist and founder of Ms. Magazine] who I met when I was graduating from college and she was our graduation speaker.  I ended up working on the first issue of Ms and writing for them. It was her as both a journalist and activist who became a real role model for me and a good friend to this day.

ES:  You worked in network TV, at both ABC and CBS, and then decided to leave and become an educator. Was that spurred by a particular event or was it a journey?

AN:  It was the mid-80s and I was working at the CBS Morning News. I was getting very fed up with what I was doing in network television news.  I really just took a leap of faith and decided that there had to be something in life that would be more compelling and more satisfying. I quit CBS news at the beginning of 1987, making a very deliberate decision that I was going to be able to find something that was more satisfying to me than booking the latest entertainment star for a five minute interview on morning television. I spent a few months looking around and thinking about what I wanted to do, thinking maybe I really did want to become a gym teacher...

ES:  Isn't that what we all wanted to do?

AN: Exactly... and I realized it wasn't a joke... I really did want to do that... I gave myself permission to think about what I would do if I could do anything I wanted on a daily basis and the answer I came up with was field hockey...

What I found was that I couldn’t make a living as a private girls’ school field hockey teacher. As I was thinking about this, someone recommended the Harvey Milk High School for gay kids in New York... and I thought, great... I can combine gay stuff and sports and make these little gay boys the city softball champs … they almost laughed me out of the place on the subject of sports and said, ‘Don't be ridiculous. We don't have any interest in that but the Harvey Milk High School is a project of a larger social service agency, the Hetrick-Martin Institute...’

This was 1987 and the AIDS epidemic was really blowing up and the city hired Hedrick-Martin to do AIDS education in the schools and do advocacy for AIDS education.

So I became an AIDS educator to teenagers and doing basic AIDS education and doing homosexuality 101, because you also had to deal with homophobia. We would go into schools either to do ‘Hi I am your local lesbian, let’s talk about it’ or AIDS 101.

ES:  What kind of an impact do you think your work with the kids had?

AN:  We would go in and do five classes in a row... and then go to another high school and do five more... it was just relentless... thousands and thousands of kids all over [New York] city and the metropolitan area. One day I was on the subway and saw a guy who was a teacher at one of the schools I'd been in and he said, 'You changed my entire school.' The point was that the concept that we had put out there had spread throughout the school and had totally changed the culture of the school. We could, in 45 minutes, take self-identified gay bashers and at the end of the class they are saying 'I don't think that is such a good idea anymore. I get it now, you're regular human beings... you deserve respect and it's stupid for me to hate people.' We found that in very brief, very direct, very honest conversations, that were really quite deep, we could transform people.  I think if you have an honest conversation, where you open yourself up and respect the people you are talking to, they will respect you.


more on next page...




ES:  Is that when you met your Gay USA co host, Andy Humm?

AN: Yes, he was my boss. We almost killed each other but we have come to a much better place now. We have been working together since 1987 in one way or another… at Hetrick-Martin, as activists in various projects over the years and now together on the show.

ES:  And it was around this time that you became involved in ACT UP, the organization dedicated to end the AIDS crisis…

AN: Yes, almost immediately after I went to work at Hetrick-Martin. I had certainly covered the epidemic but all journalists, including me at that time, had a very superficial understanding of what was going on. When I went to work in the field, I found out very quickly what was really going on, which was very much like Vietnam. It was about people in power who were willing to let other people die and that the issues were of race and class and now homophobia and gender, too. And when I walked into the room at ACT UP at the beginning of 1988 it felt very much like I had come home. It felt completely comfortable and natural … it felt like a room full of cranky, idiosyncratic people I recognized immediately as my compatriots.

ES:  One consequence of your activism and civil disobedience has been arrests…

AN: I have been arrested probably two dozen times... I have been convicted on four misdemeanor counts for one demonstration.

ES:  What kind of an impact do you think demonstrations and civil disobedience really have?

AN: I think it is crucial and I regret that there is not more of it these days. I think when you are dealing with any issue and any desire to change public policy you have to have a multi-pronged approach... You have to have professional lobbying... You have to have people in power who are interested in making change and you have to have pressure from outside and that has to include public demonstrations and probably civil disobedience is part of that. I think that's what ended the Vietnam War, made success of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s and made some major progress in the AIDS epidemic... I think it is also only part of a larger strategy, but I think it is a necessary part.

ES:  The passage of Proposition 8 in California was a shock to a lot of people...Can you compare what is happening today with what you were involved in back in the 80s?

AN: I was not as optimistic about the vote on Prop 8... I was not surprised that we lost and I actually take heart from the fact that we lost in a much closer vote than we had on the proposition before that... so I think we are making progress, electorally. I was also involved in demonstrations here in New York after the Prop 8 passage. I have again been out in the streets. I think there needs to be some examination of what is right for the current age in terms of tactics. I think things change and we need to always examine what we are doing in current context,  but I think  there should be more street action... at this point maybe educational action rather than protests. I think we are about to lose the court decision in terms of overturning Prop 8... the conventional wisdom is that the arguments went badly... that we are not going to overturn it but probably retain the marriages already performed, which is really not a great solution. There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of lobbying and a lot of education and I am always in favor of street actions of various kinds, as long as they are there for a reason.


more on next page...




When we were doing ACT UP in the late 80s and early 90s our formula was always that whatever our goal was, we'd first try to talk to the people in charge, reason with them, have a meeting... and would take to the streets only if that failed...

There need to be meetings... there need to be discussions. One thing that concerns me about this on-line organizing by Impact, for instance, is that there are not community meetings. That was the beauty of ACT UP... we would come together every week... hundreds of people for fully democrat meetings where anyone could talk and everything was discussed and worked out in public, democratically. I think we have lost that and that concerns me.

I think the electronic age is brilliant... I'm thrilled with anyone’s involvement in any way. People sometimes say to me ‘I want to do something, what should I do.’ or ‘I don't want to just write a check,’ and I say... please, write a check, do whatever you feel like doing... just do something... Whether it's writing a letter to their senator or writing a check or talking to their family or friends. But I would love to see regular community meetings where people discuss issues and actions and strategy and what to do to make progress on these things. Everyone needs to be involved.

ES:  We are hearing talk about fragmentation of the gay rights movement and that some of the LGBT groups should merge... that there are too many groups.

AN: I know the talk about merging is to some extent economic... a fear of duplication of resources when we can't afford that. I don't pay so much attention to the groups. I think they have a place... I want them to be successful and accomplish things but I am really much more concerned about people in general at the grass roots, organizing themselves to do things… be it lobby days to their local legislature or events in the streets... whatever it is. I find the most creativity, the most progress comes from grass roots organizing...I think we are abdicating that power at the moment and I think that is a real shame. It is such a privilege to do this TV show every week, because I get to follow what is happening all over the world and I am moved on a daily basis by what I see happening with just local people doing things.

ES:  Do you think there is less of a sustained commitment today to fighting for these rights because things are a little easier ... because it is less of a stigma to be gay?

AN: I was worried for a while about a lull in activism, a loss of momentum. But I am newly optimistic as I see us fighting for our rights all over the country and around the world. Marriage equality is moving forward in several states, and even Californians, after taking a horrible blow, are picking themselves up and fighting back. 

We've fought off an attempt to take away our rights in Gainesville, Fla. The right wing in Tennessee has been forced to back down, for the moment, on its effort to shut down mention of us in schools.

All of this...and much, much, much because we really are a grassroots movement, manifesting our visceral sense of entitlement to equality. And now we're doing it through a variety of tactics. Less civil disobedience --which I miss, but which may be revived if we lose marriage at the California Supreme Court -- but lots of people lobbying their legislators in person and by email… More of us coming out and talking to our family, friends and co-workers one-on-one.  Young people fighting for their rights in schools.

We are truly everywhere, doing everything. The battles are still huge. We're still losing more than I'd like. But I think the momentum is back on our side and we have a new Administration that keeps hiring LGBT people and making policy changes in our favor.

ES:  Do you think our community as a whole understands how important what is going on in California to all of us?

AN:  I am frustrated by the extent by which people are unable to see these issues as simply markers of equality. People have to understand that marriage did bubble up as a grass roots issue.  The national organizations didn’t want to have anything to do with marriage a few years ago… It was couples at the grass roots demanding it that created this movement. This is simply the current venue for a discussion of equality, just as the AIDS epidemic was certainly about making drugs available to people who were sick, but was also that venue for discussing equality. All of these movements over the years have been about the same stuff about respect for all human beings about equal rights for everybody. Each generation simply has their own venue for this discussion but it’s all the same discussion.

ES:  What is the best part of what you do?

AN: I tell people I do this because it is satisfying for me and that it has an impact is just gravy

You can see Northrop weekly on Gay USA, archived on or you can listen to the podcast, available at Gay USA or on iTunes.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

author avatar

Edie Stull