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Interview with Charlene Strong

LGBT Rights Activist

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Charlene Strong

Charlene Strong

Cause+Effect
Charlene Strong’s story is one that is hard to tell. One rainy night in Seattle in 2006, the unfathomable happened to her. A strong and aberrant flood claimed the life of her partner Kate Fleming who was trapped in the basement while Charlene tried desperately to free her. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when Charlene got to the hospital, she was barred from being by her dying partner’s side by a hospital administrator. And later, when it came time to make funeral arrangements for her partner of ten years, Charlene had to defer to Kate’s mother, because the funeral director would not recognize her as next-of-kin. Charlene Strong has since become an activist and speaker for LGBT rights. She co-produced a documentary film For My Wife. Charlene and I talked for more than an hour about the lesbian and gay rights movement. This is the edited version of our interview.

Lesbian Life: I read a blog post. that you wrote about meeting a woman in the pool. And her telling you she wasn’t political and she was going to vote for Sarah Palin, and your visceral reaction to that, just curious if you’ve had time to reflect on that and how do you think we can combat that kind of apathy within our community?

Charlene Strong: Well, that is kind of the $6 million question. One of the things that I have a difficult time understanding is people just checking out of their own equality. Checking out when it comes to being aware of the ramifications…perhaps not in their life, but in their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. And when I say brothers and sisters I mean gay brothers and sisters, and transgender, bisexual community. It’s when you think singularly about your life and only think of how they affect you, that’s a real disconnect from understanding community building and a real disconnect from having empathy and compassion for someone else other than yourself.

And so when I hear a woman who’s sitting there at the Dinah and asks me what I do for a living and I tell her about that and she’s says, “I’m not political.”, but then in the next breath feels compelled to tell me that she is a Sarah Palin fan, it gave me permission then to say “WTF”. You know? Why would you…support someone who’s so…has so little regard for who we are in this world? It was my teachable moment too, that I had to find out “Who is this woman?” “Where is she coming from?” “Is she just living this vapid, emotionless life, that all she cares about is the next party, the next this, the next that?” I’m very careful to point out there’s a lot of people who are carrying the water in our community. And that’s just a metaphor for the people who are actually in the trenches, doing the hard work, and dedicating their life. It’s not that bad out there for many of us. A lot of us can walk down the street and hold our partner’s hand; a lot of us can go through life with never being challenged about your sexuality.

But it’s when those crisis moments happen like what happened with my spouse and myself…the hospital when she was dying. That moment of clarity for me that we’re not as safe as we thought we were.

We lived in a very large gay community, so for me to think that after spending 10 years of my life sharing a safe life and my home and all of the trappings of having a committed relationship were not enough to satisfy this hospital administrator was disheartening. I feel passionately that we have to have kind of a reawakening of our rights in this community…or 30 years from now we will still be watching marriage equality moving along state by state at a snail’s pace. We’ll still be having to educate people. I’d like to move onto something more enlightening like looking at all of the other issues that we have as a country. That was kind of a long answer, I apologize.

So I’m just curious about your own journey. Before the whole incident happened with your tragedy, were you an activist?

Well, I’ve always been someone who cares deeply about everything in my life. In fact, when I met Kate, volunteering with the humane society.

I had always questioned my sexuality, but never, because of my faith, I had never really thought that it was anything I could actually feel comfortable with or be allowed to do without being completely turned away from my faith. When I came out. Kate was the person I came out to. And I said to her, “Well there’s another part to this.” And she said, “What’s that?” I said, “I find myself thinking about you a lot. And I find myself caring for you deeply.” And she was like, “Whoa, Nelly! Would you still come out if I said no?” And I said, “Absolutely. I know that I am gay.” And as it turned out, we both cared for each other quite deeply. And that’s kind of how we met.

Ok. And the two of you were together for 10 years?

That’s correct. We actually went back to the Catholic Church as a couple. When she came out she felt a very big darkness in her life about her faith and as a couple we decided to explore if we could find an open and affirming church and we did.

Could you speak a little bit about how you’ve come to reconcile the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality.

Kathy I’m not sure that I’m reconciled with my Church’s stand. I’m not sure how anybody could be reconciled with the Church’s stand. I do know that as a small child, it was a very wonderful experience growing up in the Catholic Church for me. You know, if I look at the big Church as a whole, I can’t do it, but if I look at the people that are around me, that are at the church, then I can do it. I felt very strongly…and so did Kate that if we were going to be a part of our faith, we were going to do it from the inside out. Walking away is the easy situation. We were very blessed with two priests right in a row that were very open and affirming, who never ever treated us any differently than any other parishioner in that church. And for me that was more of a message of God’s love than any pope sitting in Italy.

There’s a very progressive movement in the Catholic Church. Now, it’s been very difficult for me to go back to the church since I lost Kate. It breaks my heart every time I walk in the church. That Sunday before Kate was killed we actually carried the bread and wine up to the altar to be consecrated…as a couple. No one ever questioned who we were as a couple. In fact, both of those priests that we had cared very deeply for…performed her funeral mass and it was one of the most beautiful masses that I had ever been to in my life. I will always be very thankful for that.

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