June in Bloom: June Crenshaw's journey to self-acceptance has helped her find ways to guide women still struggling in the closet
Post date: Sep 15, 2010 2:03:23 AM
In June Crenshaw's world, every minute matters.
The 49-year-old lesbian from Tulsa, Okla., who has been living in the D.C. area since the mid-1980s, has to carve out time from her full-time career as an IT project manager for her various roles in the LGBT community.
Beyond the day job, Crenshaw juggles three volunteer positions: serving as chair of Whitman-Walker Clinic's board of directors, as a member of the advisory committee to the Mayor's Office of GLBT Affairs, and as co-chair of theRainbow Response Coalition.
She's also a mother.
Which helps to explain why more than 15 years ago Crenshaw opted out of devoting three hours of her week to her hair.
''I had shoulder-length hair,'' she says. ''I will tell you as a woman of color it was hard to manage with my very active lifestyle. Every Saturday morning at 8 o'clock I would go to my stylist and she would wash and style my hair – a three-hour process.''
Crenshaw realized years ago that she just couldn't juggle that with raising a son and establishing herself as a local activist.
''It was a huge time commitment,'' she says. ''It was controlling me, instead of me controlling it, so I slowly took it shorter and shorter. Then I cut it all off and it was the most freeing experience.''
She followed that experience by becoming a community dynamo. And that work is not going unnoticed. On Thursday, Sept. 2, for example, she is being celebrated as an honoree at The Center, the metro area's LGBT community center, at its Fall Reception.
There was a time, however, when Crenshaw's growth was stifled.
Even though she knew she was a lesbian at a young age, followed by dating women openly throughout her youth, Crenshaw somehow ended up married to a man. However she ended up there, she eventually found the path back to herself.
METRO WEEKLY: What was it like growing up in Tulsa?
JUNE CRENSHAW: It was actually very – very – different from living here. The diversity is really limited. At the time, I think the stats were indicating that there was probably about a 5 percent minority rate. Oklahoma is in the Bible Belt, so certainly the mind frame and acceptance and diversity were very limited. But it was a nice, wholesome place to grow up, have family and friends. But not a whole lot of opportunities to grow beyond that point. And I just knew that my life was different and that I needed more opportunities than were available.
MW: When did you know you were different?
CRENSHAW: I had been dating women in my high school time, and I also had a girlfriend when I was in college. But there was lots of pressure, discomfort, and being in the closet.
I didn't want to live under the pressure of a very conservative area. I just wanted to be free and open and have more exposure to people that were like me and that weren't afraid to be open and out about being like me.
MW: What gave you the strength to be open in a conservative area like Tulsa?
CRENSHAW: I did have some very loving and supportive family. That could have made the difference and made me feel stronger about it.
But the girls that I dated were very uncomfortable with the situation. I know that there were pressures from their families to be what was considered the norm.
So the difference, I think, is only that I just knew emphatically who I was. I was okay with who I was. And those closest to me and important to me were okay with who I was. I think that gave me the strength to know that there was a better way of living and to move toward that.
MW: How did your family show their acceptance?
CRENSHAW: I actually have eight sisters and one brother. I come from a very, very large family. The ones that are close to me and loving, they were always supportive. The thing is I had to come out several times – not only to them, but to a lot of people.
I had a girlfriend in college and went through an extremely bad breakup. Then I got married to a man for a very short time. After I was married, of course all of my family thought that I was heterosexual and that everything was ''okay'' again. So having to come out again and sort of reaffirm and re-establish who I really am, that was a chaotic and confusing time for them. I did a lot of explaining, that I have always had the same preference to be with women, even when my actions didn't show that. That's not easy to comprehend and understand, but I think they got it for the most part.
MW: Did your bad breakup in college lead you to your marriage with that man?
CRENSHAW: Retrospectively, I think yes. I succumbed to the pressures of society for all of us to be heterosexual and married. I had a lot of challenges around relationships. Role models were just nonexistent for me. I really thought at the time that [marrying a man] would be easier, that this would just make life a breeze. I thought that if I could suppress my preference to be with a woman, then it would be okay. But that's not the way it turned out. It was actually extremely bad. But a very good lesson learned.
MW: Would you say that you were having an identity crisis?
CRENSHAW: I was not having an identity crisis, because my husband knew that I was a lesbian. He actually knew my ex. We were all kind of in the same circle. So what we thought we were doing was supporting each other. He cared about me. He knew that I was struggling with my relationship. I was really struggling in a lot of areas, and we thought let's get married and just make all of this pain and discomfort go away.
We thought that we could do that, we really did. But we couldn't. It just didn't work. I know that I couldn't have done it if I were in his position. I couldn't have dealt with the discomfort of knowing that my partner was attracted to some type that I could never be. That started to erode our relationship and our friendship. Once that erosion occurred, trust and support and just everything went down the drain. It was best to end that as civilly as we could.
MW: What was the breaking point for you?
CRENSHAW: I reached a point when I hated coming home. I hated being around him. There were so many parts of my life that were just overwhelming. I didn't feel as though, in that relationship, there was ever going to be a way to improve it.
It wasn't like a bad relationship that needed work or support or anything like that. We were just not on the same page in a lot of different areas. I reached that point when I realized that in some situations I was putting everybody else's needs, and ideas, and preferences, above my own. I wasn't making self a priority. My health was suffering, my motivation -- everything was just not right. Everything was out of sync.
I knew that I had to be true to myself. People will struggle with that in a lot of different ways. That's another reason I facilitate a coming-out group, because I know what that journey is like for so many people. I know that things seem just insurmountable, when there are different options and opportunities. We just need to open ourselves and open our eyes to those opportunities. Normally, they come along.
MW: You're referring to the group you facilitate at Whitman-Walker Clinic?
CRENSHAW: I do a 10-week, coming-out group for women at least three times a year. It's extremely popular, even in this day and age. It's a safe space for women to get together and ask questions, talk about what they're going through, share their experiences and also support other women.
MW: Is it difficult to hear their stories because of your past? Or do you find it empowering?
CRENSHAW: It actually is both. It's difficult to watch the struggling, the journey that a lot of women are going through. But the empowering thing is I know that – not only with the other women that I've been exposed to, but with my own journey – there is a way out, there are options. When the women come in and say, ''These things will never work for me, I will never be able to say that I'm lesbian, or I'm gay, or I'm bisexual or I'm transitioning,'' in the first week that they start meeting, by the end of it, they see that there are other options. Obviously we're not expecting at the end of 10 weeks for people to come out and be in the pride parade or anything like that. But we're expecting to strengthen them in their journey and provide resources and outlets and sources of support and information to them. So whatever their path, whatever they choose for their path, it's the right path for them and we support that.
There's no judgment and there's no expectation. It's just a place for them to sort of flourish and talk about what they're going through. Sometimes the women come in there and say, ''I've never said some of this stuff out loud and it is really empowering for me to get it out of my head and off of my heart and off of my shoulders, and also to find empathy by other women who are on that same journey.'' Sometimes in the same exact place in their journey. It's really wonderful to watch.
MW: You got a divorce?
CRENSHAW: I did.
MW: How did you re-establish yourself as a lesbian?
CRENSHAW: Just by changing who I partnered with. I met a woman and we had a long-term relationship. We bought a house and moved in together, in D.C. I moved away from [Tulsa] because I had to cut myself off from family and friends for a little bit of time, to kind of re-establish it in my head, with myself, and my own life.
MW: Why D.C.?
CRENSHAW: I moved here because a friend of mine lived here. I knew that I would have a jumping-off point as far as friends and support. With moving 2,000 miles away you kind of just need that. I worked at Avis [car rental] at National Airport. I rented a room in a house on Aspen Street, right across from Walter Reed hospital, and just immediately fell in love with the history, the trees, the changing of the seasons – just so many things about the city were just wonderful. Plus, there was a large and vibrant LGBTQ community. I moved here and just started doing different things, but I had a young son at the time. My son was 2 years old, so I was also a very active mother and focused on raising him and getting acclimated and settled and ready for starting school and all of those things.
It was really hard. One of the things that I didn't realize is the really strong network I had around raising him, with family members to help with daycare and with different things. Oddly enough, I didn't recognize the significance of that resource. I thought that I would move here and it would just be the same, I would have that same community, family, support – and I didn't.
In the early '90s, I met my now ex-partner. We had a 14-year relationship in which she helped to raise my son from about the age of 7. She came into his life and really was a godsend and is still very active in his life. So, yes, it was really challenging to find care and to know the right schools to get connected to, to understand the best neighborhoods and all of those things, but we figured it out.
MW: How would you describe your son today?
CRENSHAW: He is a thriving person, just a really strong, contributing citizen. He advocates for fairness as well. I remember when he went away to college at the University of Maryland in College Park. One of his classes had a required reading that had derogatory information in it about the LGBTQ community and he called me and he said, ''I am going to go to my advisors and tell them that I am extremely offended that I'm forced to read this very derogatory non-truth about the LGBT community.'' He said, ''I wonder if there are some gay people in my class.'' I told him there probably were, and that I was glad that he was strong enough to stand up and say, ''Listen, this is how this is making me feel, this is not right.'' One of the outcomes of that – not immediately – is that they made it an optional reading, not a required reading. That was a step in the right direction.
So I know that even though I was kind of doing it blindly, in an area in which I didn't know a lot of people or have a huge community of support, there were a lot of things that I did right. As a result, I'm very proud of who he is. I like him as a person. That's really, really important. He supports all of the things that I do, and he's very concerned about things that are going on at the clinic and at Rainbow Response. He's attuned to what's happening in the community and how it affects others.
MW: Did you have to have a conversation with him about being a lesbian?
CRENSHAW: I lived life openly and authentically so that he saw my relationships. He saw who I was. It wasn't anything foreign or unusual. He was immediately exposed to it. However, when he was 7 or 8, I decided to have a sort of sit-down conversation about it as well. Because this is what he had always been exposed to, he didn't really think that there was anything extremely unusual about it. As he became older, I think that there was certainly some peer pressure and discomfort around his parents. Kids reach a point where they want to be just like everybody else. They just don't want to stand out. He reached that point in life, but we were open and honest. Every year when we got all the packets for the school year and we had to fill out all the forms about who to contact and mother/father information, I meticulously went through and marked through all of the ''fathers'' and put my partner's name and changed it to ''partner'' and not ''husband/wife.''
My partner and I at the time would go to the PTA meetings, we would go to back-to-school night. They knew to reach one or the other and it didn't matter who or in what order, so they knew about the significance. But there was obviously some discomfort not only for [the school], but for him. Although I tried to do it in the most compassionate way as possible, I couldn't change how I lived to make other people comfortable.
MW: What led you to Whitman-Walker Clinic?
CRENSHAW: In the early 2000s, I was actually just looking for opportunities to volunteer. I had been volunteering for Heartly House, which is a center that deals with domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and child molestation. Their program, prior to my arrival, had really limited resources for same-sex couples. I worked really closely with the director there to make sure that their questioning and their outreach was sensitive to individuals that may be in that situation.
From there, I wanted to do different activities. I've always been a volunteer in a number of different capacities, so I wanted to get involved in the LGBTQ community, connect and make friends and do outreach. Not just go to parties and hang out at the clubs, but to really be more part of the community.
The clinic was the place to be. That was the word on the street: That's where you went if you wanted to connect with women that were doing things in the community.
MW: You took leadership as chair of Whitman-Walker Clinic's board during a difficult time, when the clinic was suffering financially and laying off some of its longest-serving staff members. What do you remember about that time?
CRENSHAW: It's pretty public that the clinic was experiencing some challenges. We have experienced some challenges over the last couple of years. Obviously Councilmember [David] Catania [D-At Large] is a very passionate supporter of the clinic. Although we've had some differences of opinion, the clinic really has benefited and grown from our relationship with him. At the time, the board was making some really, really tough decisions around the new business model that we had envisioned for the clinic. We were working to support the staff in developing a much more professional staff, and new processes and new procedures and all of those things were all happening at the same time. So we had some really tough decisions to make. In hindsight, there are certainly some things that we would have handled differently, but for the most part I feel as though we made the right decisions to keep the clinic viable. I think it's evident in how well we're doing now, and how the expertise has changed. We are still extremely committed to our mission around LGBT health and having a primary medical care center for everyone, and also being a center for individuals that have HIV/AIDS.
MW: Did you have any hesitation or anxiety in taking on the position at that time?
CRENSHAW: I had all kinds of anxiety and hesitation around it, for a number of different reasons. If you're familiar with any of the prior chairs – Jim Sandman, Jannette Williams – these were strong leaders in the community. They knew the history of the clinic, they were well supported. So there were some really big shoes to fill.
One of the things that I had said to the board when I was being considered is that there's only one way that I can be a success at this, and that is if the entire board feels as though it's the right decision. We certainly had to make sure that it was a collaborative effort. There were board members that had been around since the beginning, the early '80s. They had history. They had knowledge. They had passion about where the clinic was going, and that was essential to the board's success. So I was terrified, but felt positive that I had the full board's support. I felt positive that the leadership of the clinic was confident in my ability, so I was willing to step in and do it.
Let me tell you, it's been a rough couple of years. There are people that either love or hate the clinic. People have no problem coming up and giving me their opinion about the clinic and the leadership and the board. Sometimes that gets pretty scary, and it gets overwhelming.
MW: What's the scariest feedback that you've gotten?
CRENSHAW: That I need to watch my back.
MW: You've been threatened?
CRENSHAW: Yeah. But I've also had an opportunity to hear about all the positive things that the clinic has done and how it's impacted people's lives. I've heard some amazing stories about how people felt as though there was no place else to turn, there were no other options, and the clinic was again a place for them to get their health care, to get therapy service, to get all kinds of support that they needed to live a better life. And it has been life changing for a number of people. Those stories are really the ones that stand out the most.
MW: How do you go about building community trust again?
CRENSHAW: One person at a time. Making sure that they see that the clinic is doing the work that the mission has stated, that we are committed to the LGBTQ community, the community that's affected by HIV and AIDS, the community at large. We are really building an excellent health care facility that people can refer their friends and their families to, and that's important.
We are getting our story out. I think one of the lessons learned in this whole experience is that a lot of the messaging around Whitman-Walker has been extremely negative. We don't tell about the good work that we're doing and the ways in which we impact the community and the significance and the importance of the work that we're doing, and the expertise of the people who are doing that work. We don't really talk about that. We were extremely humble around those particular topics and now we know that we've got to get that message out.
MW: The clinic has been working to get the message out about its largest annual fundraiser, AIDS Walk. Have you participated in the walk before?
CRENSHAW: Probably seven or eight times.
MW: How do you prepare for it?
CRENSHAW: I go to the gym five days out of the week, so as far as physically it's a piece of cake. The big prep is to make sure that everybody that I know in my circle and beyond is aware of the importance of the AIDS Walk and that all of the money goes into to the clinic to help us to continue to serve people with HIV and AIDS, and that it is the largest fundraiser for us.
It's really important that we raise a lot of money, and raise a lot of awareness and create additional community support to sustain some very, very important programs. One of the things we're trying to do is exceed last year's goal, which we did extremely well in very economically challenging times. We need to improve that to get services and support to more people. We're doing it in some fun and creative ways, because you always have to reinvent yourself to your core customer base and bring in new people. We're doing that with Lynda Carter lending her name and prestige to this. We're so excited about that.
We're also doing this differently this year by having community partners. These community partners allow other HIV agencies and organizations to raise money when they don't necessarily have the internal resources as far as advertising and campaigning around it. So we're doing all the heavy lifting and they get to benefit by taking half of the funds that they raise, or their walkers raise. This really is a community-based event, and so this is an opportunity for us to get out and be a good neighbor and support other agencies that are doing similar work or that partner with us in some way to do the work.
MW: Your other volunteer work includes your role as co-chair of Rainbow Response, raising awareness of and reducing intimate-partner violence (IPV) in the LGBT community. How did that come about?
CRENSHAW: I have always been extremely passionate about intimate-partner violence and stopping that in whatever way that I can. I knew that there was a huge gap in our community for education and services and resources to survivors that have dealt with IPV. We had places that were okay with members of the LGBTQ community, but that didn't really have programs to address our unique needs. It was exciting to be a part of [addressing] that.
I've been a part of Rainbow Response since its origin in 2007 and we've done some really awesome work with outreach and education to the community. Twice a year we'll do town-hall type meetings and different educational situations. We've gone to [George Washington University] and Morgan State [University] and the University of the District of Columbia, and just a number of different ways that we've outreached to educate people that this does happen in our community at the same rate that it happens in the heterosexual community. We don't have the resources and support that we need to get our survivors and victims out of those situations and to educate those first responders on knowing when there is a situation, to treat it as serious as it is.
Unfortunately, we lost a couple of members of the community to domestic-violence situations, so it was important to get out and speak out about this issue that we were having. The community doesn't want to talk about the bad things that happen. I get that and I understand – but they are happening. Our relationships deserve all of the resources and time and intention and support that any relationship would have. That means that we need to know how to have healthier relationships. We need to know how to create those. We don't have, often, role models on which to mimic our relationships. Sometimes they go down the wrong path, and we need to change that.
MW: Are LGBT people more reluctant to talk about IPV?
CRENSHAW: We're significantly more reluctant just because of homophobia. Sometimes we're not out, and reporting these types of crimes seems as though it's going to push us out of the closet. In addition, we do want to present our relationships as not having these types of issues. A lot of people feel as though it's a black mark against the community, or we're not doing what we need to do to sort of keep our dirty laundry in the closet. And sometimes people really don't understand the power and control situation around domestic violence. People have been in domestic-violence situations and they haven't recognized it themselves.
We're much more reluctant because of a number of reasons, but the major one is we don't think we're going to get support from the police or the services that are offered. We know that our community is still homophobic to a certain degree and won't necessarily take us seriously. And we may not be out and comfortable with the relationship. All of those things tend to make us be less likely to report.
MW: Why are you passionate about this issue?
CRENSHAW: Because I am passionate about us having happy, healthy, relationships. I'm passionate because I think that we don't mentor our young LGBTQ community and see what things should look like. It's just such an area that has gotten little focus and is so, so important. I knew one of the victims that died, the young lady that was shot right outside of Safeway. She was not an extremely close friend, but I knew her. And that was just an unacceptable situation.
MW: Did you testify before the D.C. City Council in favor of marriage equality for some of those same reasons?
CRENSHAW: It's just about fairness and equality. We needed to have enough voices. The other thing was that there was certainly a lot of media attention around the [assertion] that this was not a people-of-color issue, that this was not a really a lesbian issue, that this was an issue affecting only the affluent, white, gay population. And that's just not true. We're all affected. We're all struggling and striving to make a better life for ourselves and for our children and for our friends and families.
MW: As you continue to make a difference, where are some other areas you'd like to be involved?
CRENSHAW: I'm doing a lot of things that I'm passionate about. I see that certainly continuing. I do want to get more involved on a national level and some of the efforts that the [National Gay and Lesbian] Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign are working on. We need more voices out there. There are never too many. I want to add mine to the pot.
I also want to create some mentoring programs particularly for LGBT people of color to create our future leaders and support those individuals that have similar passions and commitments to the community, and figure out ways to particularly support the women of color in the LTB community. We shouldn't be reinventing the wheel. We have so many resources out there that people should be able to tap into. I want to build camaraderie and togetherness and much more of a cohesive community than we have. Those are some of the things I hope to see in the second half of my life.
The Center's Fall Reception is Thursday, Sept. 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the Artists Inn Residence, 1824 R St. NW. Tickets are $50. Visit thedccenter.org or call 202-682-2245.
For more information about the 2010 AIDS Walk, call 202-332-9255 or visitaidswalkwashington.org. For more about the Rainbow Response Coalition, visitrainbowresponse.org. For more information about support groups at Whitman-Walker Clinic, call 202-745-7000 or visit wwc.org.