ABOUT CHRISTEN: Christen is a cisgender, multiracial, queer womyn with over 15 years of experience and recognition for her work in the Northeast Ohio community. She holds both an undergraduate and graduate degree in Psychology. In 2008, a program she developed for young adults and their families received an Illumination Award for Best New Program of the Year. In 2010, she was named by the Plain Dealer as one of Cleveland’s Community Heroes for her work with young adults. In 2013, Christen received an LGBT Heritage Day Award from the City of Cleveland for her work in Education and Social Services. In 2014, she was named one of the top five most influential people in Northeast Ohio for LGBTQ advocacy by Cleveland Magazine. Also in 2014, she was named Cisgender Ally of the Year by the Northeast Ohio Transgender community.
Christen has developed and delivered programs extensively throughout the United States around diversity and inclusion issues to international audiences. One of the most notable being her development and leadership of a large scale LGBTQ Cultural Competence program throughout Northeast Ohio in preparation for the Gay Games in 2014. This program largely focused on the intersectional nature of identity and how Clevelanders could appropriately welcome and interact with the large influx of international visitors who came to our region.
Christen’s primary career focus has been around issues of equity around race, ethnicity, (dis)Ability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and gender identity and/or expression as well as leadership development within a global context. Christen is also adjunct faculty at Cleveland State University where she teaches undergraduate level Women and Gender Studies through an intersectional lens. She is passionate about preparing Cleveland’s next generation of leadership and helping to amplify their voices in a society where they are often silenced.
Christen DuVernay currently serves as the Director of Look Up to Cleveland at Cleveland Leadership Center in Cleveland Ohio.
Why is LGBT activism still so important?
LGBTQ activism is still important because we are still a marginalized community within society, it shocks me when people suggest otherwise based on the fact that same sex marriage is now an option. In Ohio we are still not protected for non-discrimination in housing or employment, are unable to change birth certificate gender markers, and same sex couples are not able to adopt children together. Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is also not included in Ohio’s Hate Crime law. Despite the fact that we are now allowed to marry same sex partners- LGBTQ Ohioans do not have the protections or rights that other citizens enjoy. Same sex marriage is a step towards a more inclusive society, but it was never the most important issue in my mind. If an individual chooses to exercise their right to marry their same sex partner on a Saturday there is no guarantee they will not be fired on Monday when they return to work- that’s incredibly problematic.
What’s an important issue facing the LGBT community that we aren’t addressing as well as we should?
I believe that issues of race and class (at the bare minimum) really need to be integrated into the discourse around LGBTQ issues and strategies for achieving equality. Unfortunately, much of the discourse is controlled by individuals with money in their pockets. Based on the current structure of our society, more often than not those members contributing to LGBTQ causes and organizations are cisgender gay or lesbian upper middle or upper class individuals. Their concerns are not the same as other members of the community who hold multiple marginalized identities and yet they are making choices about the direction our community should be heading inevitably leaving the most vulnerable members of our community behind.
We need to address how we can engage, respect, and involve diverse members of the LGBTQ community as well as their voices in our strategy creation, decision making processes, and every day dialogue. Without true representation from members of the LGBTQ community we will not land on inclusive, innovative, or effective solutions for the injustices we experience.
What inspires your activism?
That’s a simple answer: our next generation.
I’m actually not from Ohio, in Cleveland I’m referred to as a “transplant.” When I moved here I did so without fully researching Ohio in terms of where it stood on LGBTQ issues. Shortly after I arrived, legislation was passed by popular vote that actually banned same sex marriage. A couple of years after that ban went into effect I started working with LGBTQ young adults at The LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland. I cared deeply for these teens that I’ve now watched grow into adults before my eyes. Many of them have left for various opportunities, but more of them have stayed in Cleveland. For the past 14 years I’ve continued to work with young adults here in Cleveland, form bonds with them and become invested in their success. Every time I got an amazing job offer, a temptation to move to a new city, an opportunity to move to a state that was more inclusive of LGBTQ folks- I thought of them. I feel a responsibility to Cleveland and the young people I’ve worked with over the years to stay and continue the work. My education and experiences may give me the privilege of mobility but many of the people I care about don’t have that option and I have no intention of leaving them or Cleveland behind.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give LGBT allies to be better and stronger allies?
Check your privilege. Pay close attention to the intersections of identity. Always be open to learning, growing, and being challenged. Realize that small things aren’t ever actually small in the grand scheme of things.
What’s one simple action that readers could do today that would positively impact the LGBT community?
Educating themselves around the specific laws in their community as it relates to the LGBTQ community. I’ve noticed that more often than not people don’t realize how incredibly marginalized the LGBTQ community truly is because popular media and public discourse has focused primarily on same sex marriage and military service. There are a great deal of issues that effect the day to day life of LGBTQ community members far more than marriage or military service.