Nick Ray’s transition from openly gay to professional advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered people happened during a speech organized by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1998.
The moment was so transformative for him that he doesn’t actually recall the keynote speaker’s words. What he does vividly remember is that he had found his calling.
“I was completely sucked into the moment,” the 41-year-old executive director of Equality Arizona, a politically active all-encompassing gay-rights organization, recalls. “I turned to my friend and told him, ‘This is what I should be doing.’”
Tom Mann, chairman of the board of Equality Arizona, agrees that Ray, with “his passion, energy, fundraising and team-building abilities” should be working to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. That’s why the Equality Arizona board hired Ray to lead the organization in July 2011. The group had been without an executive director for the previous 18 months.
“I have known Nick for many years and have been watching his work since he was with Wingspan in Tucson about three or four years ago,” Mann says. “His hiring is all part of a plan for success that I have been very confident of since I took over as chairman of the board. And Nick is one of the components of that plan.”
One of Ray’s chief goals for Equality Arizona is to return the organization to prominence in representing the interests of several LGBT organizations across the state. He plans to engage people who haven’t been involved as advocates before by making it easy for them to volunteer and holding events that are affordable enough for anyone to attend.
“Whether it’s (being) a board member, whether it’s knocking on doors for a candidate we might have endorsed, whether it’s coming to a party that we throw, I really want it to be a more inclusive organization that really is working statewide,” he says.
Ray also plans to reach out to several other organizations to form partnerships. He says it could be a chamber of commerce or an immigration advocacy group, but as long as there’s an overlapping interest between the two groups, he believes they should at least explore an alliance.
As executive director of a diverse political group, Ray knows he has to do his best to cater to the wishes of the membership, which isn’t as homogenous a group as some might assume. “There’s sort of an assumption that, ‘Oh, it’s a gay rights group, it’s a bunch of progressives,’ and that’s not the case,” he said. “I have to be ready and willing to work with people from across the political spectrum.”
Ray will soon register as Equality Arizona’s chief lobbyist at the Legislature. He concedes that some people will never support LGBT causes, no matter what he does, but says he sees the state’s lack of movement on LGBT issues as more of a challenge than a problem.
“Some of those people are completely immovable,” he says. “And that’s a reality that we have to work with, and if I was going to quit because those people existed, then I wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place.”
For the upcoming legislative session and run-up to the 2012 elections, he plans to push for candidates that are more open to Equality Arizona’s causes.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to be a part of taking the organization back to where it needs to be, which means travelling around the state, engaging people who haven’t been (engaged) and working hard in advance of 2012, hoping that come January 2013, we’re really going to be in a situation where we don’t just have to be on the defense,” he says.
A political life in Arizona probably seemed a long way off for Ray, who spent his childhood in Deeping St. James, Lincolnshire, a village of about 15,000 residents in eastern England. He says the area wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for future progressive leaders.
“It really is a village…with a river running through it, and stone buildings that date back to the 12th century, and pubs with gardens that run down to the river where people sit on benches drinking lukewarm beer out of big glasses; and people with bad teeth,” he says with a chuckle.
When he decided it was time to come out to his parents in 1995, rather than wait for the information to spill out in an emotionally fueled conflict, Ray decided to do the exact opposite. He did research and found that the day after Christmas – or the day after most major holidays – is a better day to reveal potentially upsetting information because family stress is typically lower.
“I literally did the research. I literally sat there and read the advice on when to tell parents and when was a good time,” he says. “I took a very analytical approach to it, which was, ‘How’s my family going to react? What’s the best way to tell them?’”
Ray sat down on the couch with his mother and told her the news. She cried for about 30 seconds, Ray recalls. Her initial concerns were whether her son would ever find someone to spend his life with, and – an especially prominent concern at the time – she was worried about the risk of HIV and AIDS.
Around that same time in the mid-1990s, the 25-year-old Ray had been considering pursuing a career in politics in England. He felt well- situated to enter the fray in English politics. “I am political and so there’s a part of me that likes to push people’s buttons. So if I’m at the mall with a boyfriend, if I want to hold hands I’m going to hold hands.”
Ray left England in 1995 to attend grad school in the United States. It was a few years later that he attended the fateful “Creating Change” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conference in Pittsburgh.
Between the conference in 1998 and his first LGBT-oriented job in 2005 as a senior policy analyst with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Ray spent time in school and working as an academic administrator at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.
He was looking, ideally, for a job that would effectively mix his love for politics and advocacy.
During his time with the task force, 2005-2008, Ray authored a report in January 2007 exploring the plight of homeless LGBT teens titled: “LGBT Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness.” After that, he worked from 2008-2009 as director of development for Wingspan, an LGBT community center in Tucson.
The homelessness report gave Ray experience with the issues facing LGBT teens and helped him get his next job as executive director of 1n10, a nonprofit organization in Phoenix that specializes in serving LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ is used specifically to describe younger people who are in the process of figuring out their sexuality, as the “Q” stands for “questioning.”
He served in that capacity from 2009 until earlier this year, when Equality Arizona came calling. After nearly two months of leading the organization, he is now preparing to help the organization celebrate its 20th anniversary in grand style.
The event, a gala dinner on Sept. 24, will be an opportunity for Ray to inspire the attendees and map out his plans for the future.
“I’ve got a vision for the organization. Arizona is changing and Equality Arizona needs to change as well,” he says. “We’re going to help move the state forward on issues related LGBT equality.”