I Am Florida: Paula Naab
Over the decades, the LGBTQ community has been subject to violence and discrimination that has come to a head with the recent massacre at Pulse Nightclub. It is a community that has been united in their oppression, but even more so in their resilience, strength, and hope. Now, more than ever, the stories of people within this community serve as a reminder of our humanity, our diversity, and our collective drive toward positive change. Through sharing stories of inequality and advocacy from people across the state, Equality Florida is elevating ally and community voices to come out and say #IAmFlorida. I am here. And most of all, I matter.
Paula Naab is an ally, a volunteer, and in both the standard and unconventional sense, a mother. To Paula, motherhood extends beyond her own children and into the community. For years she’s welcomed people into her home when they needed support in their coming out process, and offered protection, love, and a listening ear — she’s even embraced the nickname “Mama Naab”. Paula moved to Pasco County from Boston in 1998, and started volunteering with Equality Florida in 2014 during the campaign for marriage equality. Her support for the LGBTQ community is not only a result of her deep belief in equality, but also a personal matter because of her own relationships. When I asked Paula about her connection to the community, she explained with a smile, “My daughter is gay, two sisters-in-law, a nephew — basically, everyone’s gay. Before the term ally was popularized, I was an ally.”
Paula went back to school late and is currently working toward getting a master's degree in Psychology with a specialization in Clinical Counseling. Her ultimate goal is to start her own support office in order to reach out to people, especially those in the LGBTQ community. “They need a place to just come and talk — to know that they’re not alone. The homelessness and suicide rates are so unnecessarily high, and I've seen amazing things happen when you just lend an ear. I’m interested in opening up my ears professionally to the LGBT community as an ally.”
Another reason Paula started volunteering was to be able to reach and educate people from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. True change in society, she believes, is only possible when you can change minds. “It’s one thing when you're in our inner community, but it's better if you have everybody on board, no matter who they are. You have to educate, open your heart and mind — especially now, I take issues very personally. When my daughter came out, it became really, really personal. I wanted her to get married, wanted her to be safe. It fuels my passion.”
Recalling her daughter’s coming out process, Paula made it clear that there was no struggle involved in accepting Olivia for who she was. She explained, “It’s effortless for me because a mother’s love is unconditional. It was an easy transition — it was more of a big deal for her than it was for me.” However, Paula continued, she understands that not every parent feels the same way, and that it can be difficult to overcome preconceived biases and beliefs.
I asked Paula what advice she could give to parents who were struggling with supporting their children in their coming out process. She thought carefully for a moment before responding, “I would hope that they would seek support groups and open up the dialogue with other parents — because if you don’t, you’re just going to be in your own little box and your perceptions will be slightly twisted. It’s not the end of the world, even remotely.”
As an ally or a relative of someone in the LGBTQ community, Paula continued to stress the importance of speaking out in support of equality and acceptance to people who may not be familiar with any LGBTQ people in their daily lives. “I’m flapping my gums all the time. Whenever I have the chance to educate somebody I say something. As for other parents, I can’t stress enough. You’re not alone, your child doesn’t have to be alone, you can work it out. The way you were raised, your religious background, it doesn’t matter — it’s about building relationships, not tearing them down. Open the dialogue, open your mind, open your heart, and get over it. We all make choices in life; we can choose to be miserable or choose to be happy.”
Finally, Paula spoke about the fear that comes with being a parent of someone in the LGBTQ community and how that impacts the way she lives and perceives the future. Although her disposition is undeniably one of optimism in the face of difficulty, being a mother in the current political and social environment comes with its share of anxiety:
“Just looking at the headlines of the past month, any mother would say this to their child: you have to be careful today. We’re living in a different world. More so with the LGBT community and for Olivia, the dangers are all amplified. When you can’t even go into a club, your safe haven, with your friends without worrying, that’s really sad. But I would hope, and I’m seeing this, [that the adversity] results in a sense of unity and people coming out of the woodwork and reexamining their beliefs, being supportive. It’s eye opening, and that’s a blessing. I like to think something good can always come good out of something bad.”
Paula took a deep breath, seeming to steady herself, and continued, “Things are changing, and momentum and progress is picking up fast, even when derailed by horrendous events likes Pulse. Orlando scared me because it gave me an image of what could take place. The vigil was incredibly emotional, and I met people who were so strong. Brenda McCool’s son got his strength from his mother.”
Paula closed with discussing how the current climate of violence and unrest makes volunteering and being an open ally that much more crucial to creating meaningful change. “I think visibility is important, and as an ally volunteering adds more credibility. When you get outside people who look at things from an allied perspective, it helps people rethink their opinion. I’m trying to set an example and I love to give back to my community.” Seeing diversity within a social movement, Paula continued, resonates with people. “To have credibility, you have to have representation from every walk of life. I'm a middle aged married women with two children and a grandchild, out in the heat canvassing. I'm just an average person who cares about people, and the people who are involved are very close to me.”
As Paula believes and history can attest, real change starts with average people. Paula's unspoken question rung out at the end of our interview, and begs being asked: Why shouldn't that average person be you?
Story by Hannah Powell