Phyllis Harris, the warm and dreadlock-ed executive director of the Greater Cleveland LGBT Community Center, says she doesn't work there because she's a lesbian.
"I work here because I'm a non-profit practitioner," she says, speaking in the 7,500-square-foot basement of the center on Detroit Avenue near West 65th Street. "Non-profits are what I've always done. It's my area of expertise."
She also happens to be a lesbian, but says that's just "one part" of who she is.
Another part is her Cleveland heritage: "From Headstart to Case," says Harris of her Northeast Ohio schooling. Her only stint outside the region was a single year in California after high school. "All my friends were going," she says, "and I wanted to go too."
She worked as a pharmacy tech at a Walgreen's in the heart of San Francisco's robust gay scene.
"It was there that I learned compassion for people with HIV," says Harris. "People would yell and scream and throw bottles at you, but I always tried to be patient with them. They were there getting medicine, because they were sick."
Now in her second year as director at Cleveland's LGBT Center (the third center of its kind in the country), Harris oversees daily programs that seek to support and engage the region's LGBT communities.
"I see the center as a hub," Harris says, "and a lot of the other organizations can use us as a resource."
There are state and national policy groups — Equality Ohio, for instance — with whom the Center collaborates and strategizes for programming and awareness-building.
On a day-to-day basis, the center provides a meeting space, programs for young adults and seniors, and regular HIV testing on a walk-in basis. One of Harris' missions is to continue reminding people that, as the community continues its fight for marriage equality, some of the other, less flashy issues — housing and employment accessibility for trans people, or the epidemic of homelessness among LGBT youth — aren't forgotten.
Harris herself came out at 18, "landing softly" among a network of African-American lesbians living in Cleveland Heights, and having a single mother who supported her fully.
"I realized, when I became the executive director of the Center, that of the 'L.G.B.T.' I was really only familiar with the L, and even then, only a part of the L. I've spent two years educating myself about the different subcultures, and there's still so much to learn."
For instance: "I once had a person come in and ask my feelings about gender neutral bathrooms." Harris says. Though she thinks they're a good idea, she also acknowledges that for trans people having made a transition, something as simple as entering a bathroom is affirming and important. "What I'd love is to turn the janitor's closet into a gender neutral bathroom," she says.
"I was glad to be challenged," Harris says of the bathroom interlocutor. "Challenge is one of the things I love about the job. Some of the community members are hella critical of the way we do things, but I appreciate respectful challenge. It's when people are disrespectful that I have to be nudged to meet them halfway."
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