This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.
Karen started volunteering at AVP at the ripe age of 68. After retiring from a lifetime in the suit-and-tie sector of Wall Street, her passion for the LGBTQ+ community brought her to AVP after she researched many organizations, trying to find where she might best spend her time. AVP’s work culture and engagement with trans communities are what made her decide to get involved.
“You never stop learning,” Karen said. “Even though I consider my school days behind me, I like to learn something new every day.”
About five years ago, Karen attended an AVP volunteer orientation & joined the mailing list. There was a monthly community bulletin that listed volunteer needs and upcoming activities and she simply started showing up and got involved in truly every way she could. From phone lines to front desk work, admin tasks, outreach, demonstrations, press conferences — the list goes on. To this day, Karen describes holding the AVP banner at World Pride as one of her proudest moments.
Karen has clocked well over one thousand hours with AVP and now considers the organization her family.
What inspired you to engage us and our work?
I’ve always been someone who’s had an affinity for activism of different types. In my younger days, I go back to the sixties, it was anti-war activism. I stayed with that for quite a while. Then I kind of backed off. I guess that within the trade I was in, it would not have been very smart for people to know that I’m a trans person.
I finally retired from all business activity. I had been “important” in the business world and had skills galore I could share with the world. I wanted to help in the way most important to me, the LGBTQ community. I was looking for a place to volunteer. I just investigated a lot of different options. When I saw AVP, I saw they were the largest group in the city that was involved in anti-violence work, that they had a great affinity to work with the transgender community. When I looked at the bios of the people, I said these are people I’d like to be around.
Can you describe your experience being part of AVP’s work?
I describe it within my own life context as a trans woman. Although my life had been mostly filled with societal respect and success, I had a secret that haunted me. By age ten I knew I was different. There were no resources no internet, no books, no media, no one to talk to, no AVP!
You have quite the background. Tell us a bit more about your path to AVP. I heard you were even at the Stonewall uprising.
I was born in 1948. You can imagine what it was like to know your trans in the mid fifties…. We had no agency.
I lived in the East Village. In fact 1968, the summer of love, oh my god, that was a lot of fun. When Stonewall occurred…I lived in the area. Anyhow, the people who were the drivers behind Stonewall, and Marsha Johnson, and all of those people, were people that I didn’t identify with really. But of course, after I saw that, I certainly had firsthand knowledge and understood that there are other people like me out there. I guess after that, …I gradually began to understand more…The fact is I’ve come out and gone back and come out and gone back several times.
I just started changing myself. The bottom line is I just showed up. If people ask me questions, I will answer any question. If I choose to answer the question, I’m going to be frank. I’m not going to lie. I’m going to tell exactly what it’s all about.
But I got married and I have a daughter who is now 35 years old. My wife, it took her literally 20 years, … but when she figured out I was trans, she hit the roof, and dialed 911. So some police came down, put the handcuffs on me and took me away…Child welfare comes right in, they take the kid. You could imagine the turmoil that puts everybody through. Then of course they wanted to cure me. In fact,…what it put me through, that’s one of the big drivers in terms of the work that I did with the Anti-Violence Project.
What are some of your crucial learnings from your time at AVP?
Perhaps my greatest takeaway from being involved with AVP is that I make a difference and together we all make a difference, no matter how small a task you perform to help.
I found a family at AVP. That family included many people I might only meet once, yet I contributed to something that was important in their life. The ongoing clients were special to me. I saw them week after week. If someone was not there at their usual appointment time, I worried about them. I knew who would need a few cookies or the energy bars I would bring when I handled the front desk.
Why do you continue to do what you do?
At AVP I saw firsthand how we interact with those who need us most. Because there are people who need help. The people who go to AVP, need help badly, because, we all know the problems: HIV, homelessness, everything else. I know trans girls all over the country, and all over the world, and outside of these kind of hubs where you have a lot of LGBT people, who have those kind of problems. I’m happy that I had a part in that.