New Haven Pride Center

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Biography of Dorothy Awards honorees Carolyn and Leslie Gabel-Brett

One of their earliest memories is working together to organize a demonstration against a candidate for Hartford City Council who had been arrested for domestic violence. It was the beginning of a long life of shared activism and passion.

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Carolyn and Leslie Gabel-Brett

Carolyn Gabel and Leslie Brett started their relationship together 33 years ago in 1979, and were excited to get legally married in 2004, becoming Carolyn and Leslie Gabel-Brett. When they met, Leslie was the co-coordinator of the shelter for battered women in Hartford and Carolyn was on the faculty at the UConn School of Social Work where she was creating and teaching a new curriculum about violence against women. One of their earliest memories is working together to organize a demonstration against a candidate for Hartford City Council who had been arrested for domestic violence. It was the beginning of a long life of shared activism and passion.

Carolyn and Leslie have worked for decades for the rights of women, reproductive rights, economic justice and the rights of LGBT people and people with HIV. In addition to teaching at the School of Social Work, Carolyn opened the state chapter of NARAL. In 1983, she and Tollie Miller opened the Reader’s Feast, a feminist, progressive bookstore café in Hartford that became the most vibrant meeting and organizing center for the LGBT community in Hartford for 12 years. A few years after she left the store, she joined forces with former Secretary of the State Miles Rapoport to open DemocracyWorks, a nonprofit organization advocating for a fair and vibrant democracy, and later become Executive Director of it. Carolyn ended her professional career as the program officer for the Civil Marriage Collaborative at the Proteus Fund, providing funding to state organizations working for marriage equality in the United States.

Leslie was the Executive Director of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund and then the Executive Director of the Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. For three years, she also served as the Chairperson of the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, a position to which she was appointed by Gov. O’Neill and then re-appointed by Gov. Lowell Weicker. Leslie left the PCSW in 2006 to assume her current position as the Director of Education and Public Affairs at Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal organization committed to achieving equality for LGBT people and people with HIV.

Carolyn and Leslie fought for passage in the 1980’s of a Connecticut hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation, followed by the thrilling passage in 1991 of the state antidiscrimination law. Carolyn remembers working with State Senator Betty Hudson who first introduced the bill 17 years before it finally passed, and Leslie remembers writing a public letter to every state legislator, officially “coming out” in her position as Chair of the CHRO, as part of the effort to gain passage of the law. The year before the law passed, Carolyn joined with other activists to participate in civil disobedience, disrupting the Governor’s speech before the legislature and throwing a banner over the railing of the gallery of the House of Representatives before getting arrested. (Leslie held her coat and helped get her out of custody before the end of the day.)

Throughout the 1990’s, Carolyn and Leslie worked together to coordinate activities of the statewide LGBT coalition and the Stonewall Foundation through which they organized many programs about LGBT history and culture. They testified and lobbied on behalf of a new law protecting LGBT students from discrimination. They also worked with the state employees’ unions to fight for and win domestic partner coverage for lesbian and gay state employees. And they joined a group of plaintiffs to force their home town of West Hartford to treat same-sex couples and their families equally with respect to fees and services provided by the recreation department.

Leslie and Carolyn joined with others to fight for marriage equality in Connecticut, and helped to form the statewide advocacy group Love Makes a Family, and Leslie then served on its board. They testified, lobbied, organized, raised money, and spent many weekends and evenings speaking and educating around the state. They are proud of Connecticut and the many activists and allies who have made it a state with laws and policies that treat LGBT people with dignity and respect.

Leslie and Carolyn are also proud to be the parents of three adult children and their partners, and to have three wonderful granddaughters. They are very proud that their grandchildren are growing up in a world where they can be whoever they want to be – and that they have the support and energy to keep fighting to make it better.