Legendary LGBT Activist Denise Penn Asks and Tells

By Dave Barton

When activist Denise Penn gets out of bed in the morning and looks at herself in the mirror, she sees a ridiculously accomplished person: executive committee member of the California Democratic Party and co-chairperson of the LGBT Caucus; editor of bimagazine.org; past president of BiNet USA; past news editor of Lesbian News; a person on the board of directors for the American Institute of Bisexuality; the first openly bisexual member on the board of Lambda Literary; AIDS prevention activist; and guest on Dr. Phil.

And that's all before she's had her coffee.


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A single mother and high school dropout from Anaheim, Penn eventually earned two bachelor's degrees–one in English at Cal State Fullerton, another in social sciences at UC Irvine–and a master's in social work. She found that journalism and social work had a lot in common. “Writing is part of advocacy,” she says. “I drive around, visit people and listen to their stories. Sometimes, I write down chart notes, and [other times] I write a story.”

She remembers counseling a Latino family in which the patriarch was in the last stages of heart failure. Walking to the front porch, Penn noticed a memorial rose bush with the name of a young man nearby. Talking with the patient's wife, Penn realized the name on the sign belonged to their son, who had died at a young age of cancer in San Francisco. The woman talked about how much she loved to cook with him and about his male “friends” that visited the house. AIDS never came up in the conversation.

“People say that being a hospice social worker must be hard,” says Penn, shaking her head. “Not after working with AIDS patients and hearing the lengths [families] go to keep it secret. That's hard.”

When did she realize she was bisexual? “I always assumed that it was okay to date whoever I wanted to,” she says. “It surprised me that gay people would have a problem with it.”

They still do? “Oh, yes.”

Why does she think that is? “The biggest reason is that gay and lesbian people were alone and persecuted. They came together and created community, and along comes someone who doesn't conform. . . . People get their back up. [They've come up to me and said,] 'You people just want to jump on the bandwagon!'” She stops and rolls her eyes. “Right, because that 'bandwagon' is so wonderful.”

Penn's partner of 10 years, lesbian and Democratic activist Jean Harris, died in 2011. Penn timed out for a couple of years to recharge her batteries–“I did quiet things: stayed home with my cats, read a book”–before jumping back into the game. This time, that included visits to the White House in June 2012 to celebrate the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell with President Barack Obama and a group of openly gay service members, then a short lecture on bisexuality and mental health to policy officials at the Eisenhower Building in 2013.

Where does Penn get the energy to do all of her volunteer work and political activism?

“Codependency,” she says, laughing. “Being an activist is in my values. It's not enough to just live and die on the planet. I need to make it a better place.”

To read all of our OC People 2015 profiles, click here!

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