“As a gay person working in social services I don’t have a choice but to deal with it. I’m on both sides. I can’t not exist.”
Chris is originally from Wichita, Kan. and joined the board in March of 2013. He was recruited by Mike McCarthy, who was the board president at the time. Mike wanted to bring someone with a strong social work background in and had found Chris through a mutual friend. Chris always had a strong interest in community work and had dedicated his career to LGBT work. He of course jumped at the chance to join the board and be involved with the GLCCB.
What would you say your primary focus is when it comes to your work with the GLCCB?
My work and expertise is all with LGBT issues. Early on, I worked in foster care and primarily with youth. I worked with LGBT kids in foster care. There were lots of gay, trans, queer and questioning kids.
How did you get into that type of work early on?
I went to a special high school for law, public and social services. There was a practicum requirement at the high school level. I worked as a social work assistant during high school in Kansas. I saw a lot of abused gay and trans kids that ended up in the foster care system during that time. The abuse was pretty severe.
After graduation I started working at a shelter called Wichita Children’s Home. Kids could be placed there for 72 hours. Social services used it as a stopgap measure for placing kids into homes. It was very off the books. I did lots of identifying and linking work to get these kids into proper homes. It was really tough. Most of the foster families were conservative and/or elderly retired people. They weren’t prepared for gender atypical youth. Kids with zero behavior problems were ending up in high level group homes because there was nowhere else for them to go.
What prompted you to leave Wichita?
I had a real hard time with conservative Kansas culture. I left to go back to school and moved to Cleveland. I got my bachelor’s in Women’s Studies and Social Work at Cleveland State University. Everything I learned about doing social work I learned in Women’s Studies. I double majored so I could get a job after school. It was a good solid education. In college I led the Gay & Lesbian Student Union and Social Work Student Club.
How did you end up in Baltimore?
While working on a double master’s at Boston University (in social work and public health) I had a friend that was living in Morocco. When he came back he tested positive for HIV and he totally freaked out and didn’t know what to do. The economy crashed in 2008 and it hit Boston hard. I ended up unemployed and flopping between friend’s houses. I had no direction. My friend started going to Chase Brexton and he said that they were looking for social workers. I submitted my resume, did a series of interviews and was hired within 30 days. I moved down here with nothing but two suitcases on the train. I left everything in storage.
What did you think of the work at Chase Brexton?
I was skeptical of being involved with HIV. So many precursors. HIV is just a symptom of the other diseases that are happening. When I got there I really fell in love with the work. These people were struggling with stigma. Struggling with addiction and untreated trauma. Clinging on to anyone. I was often the only person they could talk to about any of this. The importance of the HIV work grew and I became very, very passionate about it.
How did you end up so passionate about social work?
Part of the reason I’m so passionate is because I grew up dirt poor in a family of six kids. I passed really well for straight. I had a bunch of friends who didn’t. The level of shit they got, the level of physical abuse and torment they got as kids was awful. We ended up protecting each other. I had a friend who was thrown out of her home for being bi. She ended up battling addiction, homelessness, domestic violence and finally cancer. She lost that last battle.
Is there anything new on the horizon for you?
I accepted a Ph.D. fellowship at Tulane. I’ll be working on LGBT Community Engagement. I want to figure out what we can do to get mainstream providers to be culturally competent to cater to LGBT communities.
What’s a random fact about you that few people know?
I have the word “faggot” tattooed across my back surrounded by flames. My supervisor at SRS in Kansas was a black lesbian. I asked her once which is tougher – being black or gay? She said, “being black, because they can see that you’re black. They can’t always see that you’re gay.” I was inspired by that. I came back to her after I got my tattoo and said, “Now they can see me coming.” I wanted to remind myself to never “‘pass” again. I do make every conscious effort to be obviously gay.
I’ve also been told I’m cocky at every single job I’ve had except at Johns Hopkins. It’s easy to be cocky when you’re doing something you’re passionate about. People confuse confidence for cockiness. I’m very confident about what I’m doing. What I do is not to benefit me. It’s to benefit all of us. Because none of us should have to go through what we’ve been through.
Gay Life March 2015