John Quinlan’s first foray into advocacy came in 1986 when he became involved with the Madison Tenant Union and Tenant Resource Center. His efforts to pass fair housing regulations there empowered him professionally. It also empowered him to come out publicly as a gay man, a decision timed to cause another positive change. As he recalls, “Susan Green was the leader of an LGBT group called The United, and got me involved in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters issue.” At the time, LGBT people were not allowed as mentors in the organization and the work Susan, John and other volunteers contributed eventually lead Big Brothers/Big Sisters to begin accpeting gay volunteers.
The United became Outreach, Madison’s LGBTQA community center, and in 2002 named Quinlan executive director. By that time, he had worked as a journalist with several publications and was part of a team that launched an LGBT parenting publication. He also continued his work as an activist, working again with the United Way in 2000 in response to the Boy Scouts of America’s stance on gay members. Under John’s stewardship, Outreach became a part of the Coalition for a United Dane County, which also encompassed activists in labor, feminist groups, and advocacy groups for people of color. John notes with pride how Outreach and the coalition groups “were, as a group, able to take debates to the next level.”
After his tenure came to a close, he stepped into the role he still pursues today—host of Forward Forum on 1670 WTDY-AM. John co-hosts the show alongside Laura Gutknecht, and observes, “There’s a special power in a gay man and a transgendered woman hosting a talk show about the whole world. It shows we are not all that different.”
Originally at Madison’s progressive station, 92.1 The Mic, “Forward Forum” spent “a good two years building community to sustain the station” before finding it’s way to 1670 WTDY-AM. John appreciates being at The Pulse now because it takes the show out of the progressive radio cocoon and “lets us do more than just preach to the choir—we can talk to a broader audience.”
It’s clear that Quinlan is motivated by the luxury that radio affords—the ability to delve into a topic that’s important to many people, and explore multiple sides of an issue. “You may not be creating the stew,” he says, “but you can add the spices.” Those “spices” often simmer for days and weeks after and urge listeners to learn more and get involved.
John and Laura use Forward Forum to shed light on subjects, like traditional health care issues, that affect the community but for which there are precious few LGBT-specific resources. “Forward Forum” has tackled medical topics like mental illness in children, living with chronic illness, and women’s health. John says that one of the biggest responses to a “Forward Forum” broadcast came with a show on women’s health that featured cancer survivor Peg Lautenschlager, former state attorney general, and Meg Gaines, a Madison resident and fellow cancer survivor. Gaines’ experience with illness and recovery led her to eventually establish the Center for Patient Partnerships, a patient advocacy group. Having a public figure like Lautenschlager speak about her very personal experiences, John says, really affected the audience.
Proud to be a part of something that affects people so strongly, he sees his role as “the director of an orchestra. My job is to tap the baton and get the rhythm going.” John is continuing his personal journey as a gay man, one with deep roots in Madison, as he continues the journey he and Laura have started with “Forward Forum”. “We have the opportunity to bring a diverse world–one that we hope to help create–to air.”