George T. Nicola, GLAPN
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Cathlyn “Cathy” Abbruzzese entered Catholic religious life (as a nun) in 1967. She left to explore her sexuality in 1972, coming out as a lesbian in 1979 after attending the first national march for LGBTQ rights in Washington, DC.
In the 1980s, Cathy worked for the New York City Housing Authority where she helped start a lesbian and gay group. At the same time, she was an active member of Metropolitan Community Church of New York and helped get New York City’s sexual orientation nondiscrimination ordinance passed.
Cathy cofounded and became a member of one of the first AIDS ministry teams in the nation. She marched and attended many rallies to get the government to pay attention to what was becoming the AIDS crisis. In 1990, she moved to Medford, Oregon. There she did volunteer work at a retirement facility where her wife Terry was the general manager. The couple was out to staff and residents. Someone on staff sent a letter to the owners complaining about their lesbianism, so Terry was given an ultimatum stating that Cathy was not allowed to enter the building. Terry, the chef, and the recreation coordinator quit. Cathy and Terry then moved north to Portland.
In 1992, Cathy was hired as a field manager for the campaign that fought the statewide Measure 9 which was sponsored by the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA). If it had passed, the initiative would have amended the Oregon Constitution to state “ All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse, and they are to be discouraged and avoided.” Through the work of numerous people like Cathy, the initiative was rejected by Oregon voters.
Two years later, Cathy worked for the campaign to counter the OCA’s anti-gay Measure 13. In 1996, Cathy was hired as Donor Outreach Coordinator for Basic Rights Oregon. She raised $2.2 million and developed long and lasting donor relationships for BRO.
Cathy’s work was so impressive that The Oregonian newspaper ran a feature article on her. Headlined “Basic Rights Oregon’s Star Fundraiser Cathy Abbruzzese is a steady force in the fight for gay rights”, it movingly documented her life and work: http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2013/05/basic_rights_oregon_star_fundr.html.
Cathy retired from BRO in early 2016. So loved is she, that her coworkers gave her a massive farewell party that filled much of Portland’s Q Center.
Reflecting on her contributions, Cathy says “Since 1979 I’ve refused to hide and live in silence. I dedicated myself to the movement for justice and equality. Following my heart, I found my home in Oregon. My chosen family gives me hope and strength. I know we will continue to work until LOVE WINS.”
Fortunately for us, Cathy has decided against moving back to Brooklyn and instead will remain here in Portland. Part of the reason she gives — “The Governor knows me by name.” Isn’t it great to be an Oregonian!