Conversations from the Gayborhood: Kendall Clawson Interview Part II

Q Center located at 4115 N Mississippi Ave. Photo by Ashley Bedford

In last week’s Conversations form the Gayborhood, we chatted with the executive director of the Q Center, Kendall Clawson, about the Winter Gala (which was a huge, glittery success!). This week, we switch gears from the details of the annual party to the details of the daily grind at the Q, as well as Clawson’s experience meeting President Obama.

Show of hands: How many of you have actually been to the Q Center? And walking by it on Mississippi in route to the bar does not count. I’m talking about been inside—checked out books from the library, or attended bingo, cabaret or one of their multiple discussion groups. In the twenty-something generation that I am proud to be a member of, the general reaction seems to be: Wait, what? They have bingo nights?! (Yes, and better yet, it’s drag bingo!)

So I wanted to see for myself what the place was really about; to answer some questions those of us unfamiliar with the Q Center often wonder: What goes on there? Can I just drop by anytime ol’ time and hangout? What resources does the place offer? And ultimately, why is this place important to the LBGTQ community?

Here is what I found out.

Krista Houstoun: The Q Center has come a long way since its inception. How has the new locale [they just moved to North Portland] benefited the center and its members?

Kendall Clawson: If anybody went to our old space they would know the difference just by sight. We’re four times as big as we were there…We just didn’t have the space capacity to be the LGBTQ clubhouse that we wanted to be. We want to be that place where people can find resources, where they can meet, where they can feel like they have a safe place that’s theirs, that welcomes them no matter who they are.

But one of the main reasons we really liked this building…is because it’s visible, it’s part of the neighborhood. We’re part of something. Here we’re not only members of the Mississippi Ave Business Association, but we host the monthly meetings. So now we’ve got a visible and a workable site that our neighbors can enjoy. You know, they walk by and hear piano music and people singing at cabaret with a Q and go, “hey what’s going on in there?” Come on in! You are welcome! It’s another reason why we wanted window and glass garage doors: we’re not hiding, we’re not closeted, we’re out and we’re actively engaged in our community!

Lobby and north room at the Q. Photo by Ashley Bedford

Lobby and north room at the Q. Photo by Ashley Bedford

Houstoun: What’s one of your personal favorite events that the Q center holds?

Clawson: Well, OK, so everybody knows that I am shameless show queen. I LOVE cabaret with a Q…There was this whole small cabaret club-type thing that would happen at local gay bars [back in the day], where there was a piano and people would gather around the piano and sing show tunes and have cocktails. So we thought, how fun would it be to have something like that?

Houstoun: Fun! I’ve been to a place like that in San Francisco…It was amazing.

Clawson: Yeah, it’s totally fun! It’s like gay church. [laughs]

Houstoun: [laughs]

Clawson: It totally is, and especially around the holidays, that’s our biggest event. We have 100 people in there singing Christmas carols and Hanukkah tunes. It’s our opportunity to come together as a family and sing around the family piano.

Photo by Ashley Bedford.

Houstoun: Absolutely

Clawson: And then, you know, you throw a little Barbara Streisand in there and you just have me hooked. I’m just that girl.

Houstoun: [laughs] So it’s not a secret at all that it’s your favorite event.

Clawson: No! I love it…But you know, what’s nice is that there are lots of things for lots of different people…We have this thing called Face2Face [where] we have a topic important to the LGBTQ community and people come in and have a discussion about it. Sometimes it’s hot and sometimes it’s warm and fuzzy. But we think it’s important that we have a chance to come together as different ages, different genders, different gender identities, different races, and really talk about our stuff.

South room at the Q. Photo by Ashley Bedford.

Come lounge out at the Q Center. Photo by Ashley Bedford.

Houstoun: Speaking of ages and races, what demographic is mostly seen in the Q center utilizing the resources? And which demographic would you like to see more of?

Clawson: It’s interesting because we have a really nice blend. We have probably a relatively equal sprinkling of people that come here. It’s very exciting that we’ve got a number of trans groups that meet here…[but] I would say typically we have a nice chunk of people who are between the ages of say 35 and 50. We [also] have a nice group of people that are in their early to mid 20’s.

I would love to see a lot more younger people coming, but the reality is we have a great partner in SMYRK, they do really great things for young people and so we want to be a partner and a resource; something else that they have access to without trying to take away from what other people are doing really well. Our goal is to really bring the community together of all backgrounds…We’re not solely focused on young people, or solely focused on seniors, or solely focused on trans, or solely focused on women, or solely focused on men. We want to have that great slathering of our community.

Houstoun: That’s essential. Like you said, there are so many niche things going on and there needs to be a place where it can all conglomerate.

Clawson: Yeah, exactly.

Resrouces at the Q. Photo by Ashley Bedford.

Houstoun: You’ve done so many things; I’ve read up on you. You’ve been the Grand Marshal of Portland Pride, you were invited to watch the hate crime legislation, which you went to…?

Clawson: Yes!

Houstoun: And how was it?

Clawson: Awesome, are you kidding?! [laughs] I was at the white house with the President!

Houstoun: I know! I’m wondering if it’s as amazing as it sounds, and if you did get to meet the President.

Clawson: I did…It was one of those things that I was very clear on the honor around it, that I got to do something that a lot of Americans will never get to do in their lifetime. But then there was also [the factor] for me as an African American woman—I stood in the doorway of the White House and just paused for a minute. One, because I was so hyper I needed to calm myself down, because I was like oh my God, oh my God! But I took it in for a second and realized, you know, I am a descendant of slaves, the very people who built this house, and then here I am entering the place when there’s a black President, which I never thought I would see…It was something I’ll never forget.

Houstoun: Was the energy there pumping like crazy [at the hate crime legislation signing]?

Clawson: Oh yeah! I mean, we were excited. You know we’re in very difficult times, and I know that the LGBTQ community has very high expectations of the President. He ran knowing that we came out in droves to support him…

Houstoun: We sure did!

Clawson: Right. And I know that there’s a level of frustration that things are not happening quick enough, but I’m a firm believer that he’s going to pull it off at some point. I understand on one level why people are aggravated by it, because we’ve been second class citizens for so long—we’re just over it…At the same time I recognized he clearly can’t come out of the gate first thing and go, “OK, two wars, horrible economic situation, all kinds of crazy swine flu madness, but the gays go first!” I mean, really…

Houstoun: [laughs] That’s what us gays would like to think sometimes…

Clawson: Yes, but it’s just not realistic. I do however think it’s our job to stay on him and, more importantly, our local legislatures. We’ve got multiple layers of responsibility to make this stuff happen.

For executive directors of LGBTQ community centers, we’re never the ones who are asked [for political advice regarding the LGBTQ community] when frankly I think we should be, because we’re the ones who know what’s happening on the ground level. We’re hearing the stories when people walk in here and…[they say] “Oh, I got laid off on Friday.” For the last year, we’ve watched that happening and people are hurting.

Houstoun: And you can’t just walk into your legislature’s office and say, “This is what happened to me today.” There is a disconnect. The Q Center is the place where those intimate conversations seem to happen.

Clawson: Exactly! Yep. And I’m pushing for that…We’re not lobbyists, we don’t have a whole bunch of stuff behind us. We’re just everyday Joe’s.

Um. How about everyday Joe’s who just happen to have one of the most vast LGBTQ libraries in the nation and who throw bitchin’ annual galas! And in case you are still wondering, yes, you can just go hang out there any ol’ time you’d like.

Only half of the expansive LGBTQ library that the Q Center houses. Photo by Ashley Bedford.

Krista Houstoun will be organizing a field trip to drag queen bingo at the Q Center on February 17th, who’s with me? If you know someone in the queer or allied community who is doing a damned good job at life, e-mail to nominate them for an interview.

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