Whenever I become clouded in what Queerness looks like in action, I reflect on how the writer bell hooks described Queerness: “Not about who you’re having sex with … but as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it.” I reference that definition because it thoroughly captures my experience as a Black Queer person in America. It gives language for illustrating how Queerness is the diamond birthed from the pressure of two forces: the world’s fight to change us and our fight to change the world. Now, fighting to change the world is where I hope to stay, and my story of evolution from Queer confusion to Queer confidence is perfectly reflected in my ascension from an unsettled member of an underground tribe of Queer teenagers to a self-assured member of a board for an organization that hosts the unapologetic Pride celebration of the Bull City: the LGBTQ Center of Durham. 

In high school, I cycled through reshuffling cliques before discovering a home base: emo and skater kids. We were like an affinity group of believers in the gospel of social rebellion. The skate park became the sanctuary for the misfits—the band with the same name created our hymns, their band T-shirts were our choir robes. We had communion over gas station snacks and canned sodas. “One more Camel Crush for the road” was our benediction. We were at odds with the world, so we created one of our own. 

The skater kids, which became our unofficial label, were a unique mishmash of chaos and artistry. We were made up of boys with long hair and dyed bangs, girls with cargo pants and wallet chains, all of us in a silent competition for eyeliner icon of the year. We were diverse in race and class, androgynous in appearance, miscellaneous in personality, all scattered about a spectrum of bold rebelliousness and understated humility. Some were on the honor roll. Some were on probation. Some were packed in tight single-wide mobile homes. Others were booking flights to vacation homes. But we merged at the intersection of what bell hooks would diagnose as Queerness. I didn’t know it then. But we were “at odds with the world,” so it was tantamount to our survival for us to create an underground where we could exist.

It was the mid-2000s. There was no national marriage equality act. Gender-neutral bathrooms were a rare find. The year 2010’s “It gets better” message, a suicide prevention campaign, was the most visible pro-LGBTQ slogan. Queer young people like me had no motivation to discover and invest in who we were. With the exception of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Queer celebration was nearly nonexistent in the mainstream. During that time, being Queer truly meant being at odds.

A decade and a half away from my years as a skater kid, I regard myself and those skate park rebels as some of the many beacons for a new generation of Queer people, who needed people like us to thrive in the shadows so that they could walk in the light. Those Queer “boys” who wore fishnets to Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings were heroes before social media could “like” what they were doing. Those Queer “girls” who wore lumberjack shirts and ripped baggy jeans to the hangouts were iconic before anyone could repost and praise them for being so bold. Those millennial Queer kids who cried in the closet, withstood abuse at home and at school, internalized messages about God not loving them, pleaded for help through cutting and drug experimentation—those kids who were at odds with the world—unknowingly carried the stories of Queer champions like Marsha P. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Pauli Murray, and Harvey Milk; they were just kids who wanted to be free. 

In 2007, I didn’t know about the statistics correlating Queerness with homelessness, depression, and targeted abuse. But years later, now in my thirties, I’ve become painfully aware of the beauty, vulnerability, and uncertainty that comes from being at odds with the world. I know today that, according to the National Association for Mental Illness, as of 2021 LGB folks are twice as likely to have a mental health condition than heterosexual folks, and Trans folks are four times as likely. I know now that according to Mental Health America, younger individuals who identify as LGBTQ are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than young people who identify as heterosexual. I know now that, according to the Trevor Project, 60 percent of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in 2021 weren’t able to get it. I know now that without aggressive community strategies to give LGBTQ people, especially young people, hope and resources to survive, they may lose their fight while being at odds with the world. I know now that it’s imperative for our literal survival that places like the LGBTQ Center of Durham exist.

The LGBTQ Center of Durham was founded in 2014 by a Black Queer woman named Helena Cragg. Since that time, the center has thrived as an institution for Black- and Brown-led Queer collectivization. The center gave people like J. Clapp, former executive director and founder of Durham Pride; Candis Cox, former board chair and nationally renowned Trans activist; Natalie Watson, current interim executive director and Black Durham community advocate a place to put their hopes for Durham’s Black and Brown Queer people into practice. The center not only empowers Black and Brown Queer leaders, like Durham Pride coordinators Carlos Hernandez Jr. and Jesse Huddleston, but it provides a haven for all of Durham’s Queer people who want to be humanized and loved. It not only grants a space for revolutionary Black Queer artists like Gemynii, who merge their day jobs with their dedication to realizing a community for Durham’s Black and Brown Queer folks, but it provides an incubator for developing programs like Project FAM, which emphasizes, addresses, and uplifts the need for sustainability for marginalized LGBTQ people of color. Housing services, access to therapy, healing and resources for victims of abuse, support groups, crisis response, transportation assistance—the LGBTQ Center of Durham is mending the brokenness created by a status quo that historically delights in erasing and punishing those at odds with the world. 

I’m a Queer person of faith, and I believe that it’s nothing short of divine alignment that I would go from hiding my Queer Blackness to, 17 years later, accepting the call to join the board of an unapologetically, Queerfully beautiful organization like the LGBTQ Center of Durham. In my role as a board member, I have an obligation to reconcile the frustration and fear that consumed my old clique of Queer skater kids. I have an obligation to innovate opportunities for the clients and staff of the LGBTQ Center of Durham to receive the visibility and respect that they deserve. I have an obligation to recognize members of Gen Z, like my former Queer colleague Aja, who inspired me to be “visibly Queer,” a term I learned from them. I believe that I weathered the storm of being a Black Queer emo kid so that I could understand that places like the LGBTQ Center of Durham may have been a remedy to some of the pain I experienced along with my peers. I believe that in a time where Trans youth athletes are harassed, Queer people are murdered, bigoted policymakers are firing off rounds of oppressive legislation, and drag brunches are being protested in fury, the LGBTQ Center of Durham epitomizes an oasis in the midst of an empathy drought. 

Today I am Desmera Gatewood, who I’ve always been, but I’m a little more sure now. I’ve expanded my pronouns, diversified my appearance, and embraced what Aja would call “visible Queerness.” The cover of this INDY edition showcases a moment where Durham photographer Derrick Beasley, only two days after I’d transitioned from having femme curls to sporting a fade with a side part, captured my spin on androgyny at his OpenStu event. He ingeniously snapped the photo in between moments of laughter, instructing me to focus. He didn’t know that he was capturing a moment in time where I was growing in self-assuredness. Unknown to both Beasley and me that day, he was documenting what it looks like when one finally comes to terms with the distinction of being one who embraces Queerness—“the self that is at odds with everything around it.”

Portraits of Pride: Reflections from LGBTQ Center of Durham Staff Ahead of Pride Week

Natalie Watson (they/them/theirs)

Interim Executive Director

In 2014, I met Helena Cragg at the LGBTQ Center of Raleigh. I volunteered there because it was the closest center to where I lived in Durham. Helena let me know in 2014 that she was starting an LGBTQ Center in Durham. As a gay resident and native of Durham, I wanted to see this vision happen.

Natalie Watson Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

After the opening of the center, I began volunteering and eventually worked as a board member, from 2018 to 2021. In 2021, I joined as a staff member. I wanted to help support and provide services and joy for the LGBTQ people of Durham County and beyond. 

I appreciate how my own Queerness lends itself to objectives and ideas that others may not have. I challenge the status quo, find ways to live life meaningfully, and I utilize how my identity as a Queer Black person informs how I interpret and interact with the world. 

I love the Blackness of Durham and how the work done at the center helps to uphold that. I love that we prioritize Black and Brown Trans people, provide free food at events, and make sure that, at every turn, we address the whole person and not just parts. 

My friends and family of fighters inspire me to keep going. I remember that we as Queer people are simply fighting to exist in peace, and this isn’t a fight where we should continue finding ourselves. 

As interim executive director of the center, in addition to supervising folks on staff, I keep programs running, and I keep us aligned to our mission. The center has a phenomenal staff with all of the passion in the world. I constantly look forward to supporting the staff and bringing our work goals to fruition. 

Carlos Hernandez (he/him)

Durham Pride Co-Chair

I’m known in this work as a community leader—the drag artist Naomi Dix of the House of Coxx, which is the first BIPOC drag house in North Carolina. I’m an Afro-Latino and a proud member of a community of BIPOC drag artists. I was brought on as co-chair of the LGBTQ Center of Durham’s Pride in 2021. In my role as co-chair, as with my role with the LGBTQ Center of Durham, I can maintain the legacy of the Queer BIPOC people whose leadership paved the way for us. The work we do highlights BIPOC people, and we strive to maintain that visibility while keeping each other safe. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

I’m a human first and foremost, yet I love how I align with an identity that embodies strength, a continuous passion to keep fighting, and an open-minded approach. I keep going because of the generations after me, who are activated and inspired by seeing a prominent Durham Afro-Latine drag artist.

Jesse Huddleston (he/she/they/we)

Durham Pride Co-Chair

Working at the LGBTQ Center of Durham is a labor of love for our local culture and community—period. 

I was invited to co-lead our planning committee back in 2021, and I felt led to accept the invitation because it aligned with my commitments to the arts, equity, and community engagement. It was also a clear chance to co-create liberated spaces for LGBTQ+ folks with LGBTQ+ folks. 

Credit: Photo by Morgan Crutchfield

Thankfully, as I’ve come to understand and affirm my identities, I have continued healing from a lot of self-hatred and come to appreciate how being Queer has shaped my ideas of living wholly for the better. 

Now, I’m deeply committed to loving myself and to giving myself permission to show up whole. I hope that others are inspired and encouraged to do the same in ways that help us all embody liberation and justice more fully, and I hope that these ideas and intentions transfer well into the collective experiences and outcomes of our programs for Pride: Durham, NC. 

Here’s to making spaces that make us proud to be who we are without apology and proud to be in Durham!

Hunter (they/them)

Health Case Manager

I have a passion for dismantling privileges by creating equitable spaces that reduce barriers to access to health and wellness across the spectrum. My background is in psychology and public health, and I’ve always known that I wanted to work in spaces where I can advocate for my community. Working at the [LGBTQ] Center has allowed me to find my voice and help others to find theirs, too.  

E Wright (they/them)

LGBTQ+ Survivor Services Coordinator

I serve as an advocate for Queer and Trans survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and family violence. We do things like provide support, legal advocacy, education, and resources directly to LGBTQ+ community members in need. We also support existing agencies to strengthen their capacities to better serve survivors in all marginalized identities.  

This project was initially brought to the LGBTQ Center of Durham as the NC LGBTQ Domestic Violence Response Initative and was hosted by a cishet institution. Something to celebrate from 2023 is the reclamation of the project under the LGBTQ Center of Durham and the birth of the Southern Queer Survivor Network!  

SQSN (pronounced “squizzin”) aims to partner with coalitions, affirming agencies, and pockets of communities throughout the state that want to make the world better for Queer and Trans survivors—across all of North Carolina, not just here in the Triangle. It’s a really stellar program, very word of mouth, so we’re very relational.  

So, yeah, this is incredibly meaningful work for me. 

I am white, fat, Queer, nonbinary, and a survivor of abuse. I have never worked in such a place that has been so affirming of my whole self. It’s truly for us, by us. My identities are so deeply connected to what gives me pride, purpose, and conviction for this work.  

As difficult as this job can be, in this political climate with a constant attack on our identities, with what little financial resources we have, a major part that sustains me is the profound connection I share with my beautiful coworkers, my community, and how we impact each other. It’s why we’ve chosen a mushroom for our logo—well, it’s really about the mycelium. If you know, you know. It’s our way of persisting. 

Alix Adrian (he/him/they/them)

Operations Manager

In early 2016, when I walked through the door of the LGBTQ Center of Durham for the first time, I was my kids’ mom looking for support for me and looking to support other parents of Trans kids. I was not disappointed. I also didn’t know I was Queer. And I didn’t know how much I needed this home to become who I am today. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

Currently, I am operations manager, and this summer was my third anniversary of being a full-time employee at the center. I still support families with Transgender and gender-diverse kids of all ages, across North Carolina, and like the best work done here, this includes helping folks gain the confidence, knowledge, and skills to advocate for themselves, their families, and their community. 

I hold in my heart that this center was intentionally ignited from a community survey and community members’ hard work, hard play, and deep love. The all-volunteer leadership created a structure and an invitation for folks to create the programming they were seeking.  

Thoughtfully, with significant grant funding, we have been able to add social services to the center that are designed to uplift the most marginalized among us—Trans and Queer people of color. Our programs provide spaces for self-discovery. And this brings reward to our clients and ourselves. Some of the greatest joys of my job are found when I can observe a Giving Closet shopper step out of their cis disguise into clothing that expresses their authentic self, and when Name Change Navigation clients stop by to show me their life-changing ID with an affirmed name and gender marker. 

We recently moved to a new space (that puts a lot on the operations manager’s to-do list!). As we settle in, I am reminded about how fluid our organization is and how much we still need our community to contribute to be successful. I could not have orchestrated this move without my team of tireless volunteers. Equally important are donors who provide financial support, especially on a recurring basis, to help cover the expense of keeping the lights on and the supply cabinet stocked. 

Whether it’s rearranging furnishings, completing the programming and volunteer coverage calendars, or sharing the new legislation’s restrictive practices for schools with parents, all the work I do here is transformative. 

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Vanity Deterville (she/her/hers)

Director of Gender Advocacy and Support

As a Black Transgender woman born and raised in the South, I embody the resistance against the narrative that Southern infrastructure, politics, and sentiment paint about Queer and Trans people around the world. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

I didn’t have many Black Trans role models growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, and as a result, much of the success in my life and transition was through trial and error. For Trans folks, especially those of color, the error in our trials can render fatal results if we lack support systems. 

I met the staff of the LGBTQ Center in 2019 at a conference on youth homelessness and, after all speaking passionately about our hopes for the youth as it pertained to our lived experiences, we determined our values aligned and I was welcomed into the team in 2020. 

What I appreciate most about being LGBTQ is that oftentimes our personal and professional lives are married together and we are fully invested in seeing each other usher our lives from surviving to thriving. 

My purpose in working at this center and in the greater Durham and Triangle community is to restore and strengthen the relationship our organization has with Black and Brown Queer folk and seeing the hope in faces and experiences similar to my own is what keeps me driven in the work.

Shaye Loyd (they/them/theirs)

Case Manager for the Southern Queer Survivor Network

I do this work to ensure that Queer and Trans survivors can build up their support networks and get access to necessary resources in their area. I feel drawn to do this work as a Queer survivor to support my community in ways that I wish I would have been supported.

What I appreciate most about being Queer is the community. I especially have found a deep appreciation for the community here in Durham; I feel safe and surrounded by Queerness.

Freddy Perkins (he/him)

Youth Center Co-Director

My role has been and will always be to create sustainable programming that meets the needs of today’s Queer youth and encourages them to step into their power as leaders within the community. 

During the height of the pandemic, while carving out the vision for the Youth Center, I worked to create programs to fill in the social gaps created by the COVID-19 virus. Now, post-pandemic, the Youth Center is implementing programs that address social wellness and expand into other areas of health.

Before working at the center, I worked as a board-certified music therapist, serving the LGBTQ community and other diverse communities. In my clinical work, it quickly became apparent to me the lack of access to services available for Queer people of color and Queer youth of color. This discovery pushed me to want to create those resources. Luckily, the opportunity to build the Youth Center arose, and I jumped at the chance to work with such an eclectic group of individuals who all want to see Queer people thrive in the world.

What I appreciate about being a Queer person is the reminder it gives me not to limit myself. As a cisgender Black man, the world has a lot of thoughts and opinions about who they expect me to be. My Queerness reminds me that I’m multifaceted and capable of existing in whatever way best represents me. My identity may have labels, but that does not mean those labels are fixed. I’m free to ebb and flow unapologetically and redefine what Black maleness looks like—how it speaks, dresses, behaves, and travels throughout space. 

The youth I interact with daily also serve as an example of the aforementioned reminders. To see them live authentically in their truths and remain open to the idea that they are in a constant state of getting to know themselves is inspiring to me. Seeing them and being able to travel alongside them in their journey is what keeps me coming back to this work and advocating for systemic change.

Gemynii Gatcombe (she/her/hers, they/them)

Director of Housing & Therapy Services and multidisciplinary artist

What I appreciate the most about the LGBTQ community is our ability to continue to shine even when the world works to diminish our light. We make a way to be seen, heard, and felt. We make a way to create our own opportunities and families. We make a way out of no way, and I love the resilience of our people. It is that same resilience that continues to motivate me on a daily basis from what I do at the LGBTQ Center, my artwork, and what I do on the dance floor as a DJ and party curator.


Niccolo Roditti in Masculine Form (he/him they/them)

Co-Director of LGBTQ Youth Center

Kali Fuchis in Feminine Form (she/they)

I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and immigrated to the United States with my mother at the age of three. From an early age I grew up surrounded by matriarchs and feminine energy. It was clear to me that my perception of life was different. My family taught me that community, in this case biological family, is the most important thing to create experiences that make you and others feel happy and whole. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

Growing up in Rhode Island among poverty and moving to North Carolina at the age of 11, I had a strong base for community education from my family and CVS Highlander School, where I received a liberatory education centered on the principles of equality and well-being for everyone. 

I truly believe that these fundamental values and teaching led me down a path seeking answers for: What causes communities to fail and experience challenges? How can communities thrive and under what circumstances?

I went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology and international studies from NC State University; go Pack! 

After college, I found myself working for numerous community organizations in Durham such as Families Moving Forward, Student U, Book Harvest, and Witness for Peace Southeast. In each community position I learned that systems cannot change without communities and individuals developing skills that allow individuals to reflect, learn how to critically think, and understand a sense of self. In the midst of working within communities, I found my own Queer family in a group of drag performers. 

I found safety in failing, challenges, setbacks, because I had a community that affirmed I was more than moments of distress or uncomfortability. I was able to vocalize fears and was validated. Eventually, I started to realize that many of the fears and anxieties that I picked up throughout environments were because those spaces (work, social, and familial spaces) did not recognize or lacked the experience to understand my full identities as a Queer Latine person. 

My drag name is Kali Fuchis. Kali Fuchis is Niccolo and Niccolo is Kali. I tapped into a divine feminine spirit (with an incredible eye for fashionable shoes) and recognized even within nightlife and social events there’s a need for positive experiences that connect Queer community members together. My personal need for spaces like this and developing a sense of self hugely benefited my community organizing work and how I show up to advocate for myself and as representation for Queer communities I align myself with. Yes, I wear cute 1990s Latina outfits with elaborate eyeshadow looks and perfectly applied lipstick, but as a bearded drag artist I have a larger message. I learned that much of my internal conflict and gender dysphoria was lacking the language to explain to people that there was a duality I felt internally between my masculine and feminine presence. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

I would not have been able to begin to dissect this notion if not for drag and my drag family. It was the experiences I had with them surrounding the art of drag that gave me the holistic support to fully understand myself. I knew how hard it was to find community and felt maybe that is what others are struggling with as well. Intentional communities built on shared interests, trust, and genuine want to see others succeed. However, many systems in place by local, state, and national systems of government and commerce prioritize individuals as agents of change for “good business,” not necessarily mutuality or community connection. 

The main priority, whether it is intentional or due to power constraints, is profit and “good business,” for those with power. The problem is that education and experiences for positive personal development that leads to thriving communities is not the main focus of the government, and unfortunately due to systemic constraints and funding, it is also not the main focus of many community organizations. Queer Trans youth in particular are hyperfocused on as a problem to distract from an overall lack of opportunities for all individuals. Globally, the way we live is threatening opportunities to develop a sense of self and abilities to live a thriving life. 

I joined the LGBTQ Center of Durham’s staff last August after completing a master of education in community development and action at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I applied my experiences in community work and my own personal gender identity journey to intentional programming for Queer youth in Durham. I am passionate about creating spaces for all individuals to have opportunities to experience positive human development. For example, we are starting paid support groups for transitional-age youth, ages 18–24, created by project fellows of the same age funded by the City of Durham’s Office on Youth.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the subject

We needed to be innovative with our programming at the LGBTQ Youth Center of Durham in order to uncover what really are the answers for change. 

This being Durham Pride Month, it is important to note that not one person has these answers, but the solution is in community and experiences that tell a person that being vulnerable, learning through discomfort, active listening, and self-accountability are tools that prepare you to be present and experience joy, while inviting experiences that may lead to conflict and change. 

The LGBTQ Center of Durham staff and Pride Committee have created an atmosphere where these experiences are within reach for the Queer community of Durham and the Triangle. 

Pride is to recognize the wholeness of a person, and that is an essential part of systems change. 

Raye Dooley (they/them/theirs)

Southern Queer Survivor Network (SQSN) director

I’m a Trans social worker and public health nerd from the South and direct the Southern Queer Survivor Network (SQSN), a project at the LGBTQ Center of Durham that provides statewide services to Queer and Trans North Carolinians who have experienced relationship harm. 

I first started working in domestic violence (DV) response in 2009, shortly after DV seriously impacted a close loved one. Over the course of my work in DV response and prevention, I have become too familiar with the ways traditional services fail Queer and Trans people. 

Queer and Trans people as a whole, and especially those of us who have survived violence, deserve to be met with dignity, care, and competence. SQSN proudly strives to provide by-us, for-us anti-violence services that were built with Queer and Trans people in mind from the beginning, rather than ones that account for our communities as an afterthought.

I have called Durham home for 11 years, and I’ve been in North Carolina for almost 15 years. I am happily settling into middle-age domestic bliss here with my partner, toddler, dog, and cat. 

The life I’ve built is something I’m really proud of. I didn’t know any out gay adults as a young person growing up in Georgia, and it is important for me that younger Queer and Trans people have models for possibilities of all kinds of Queer life—both the fabulous and the ordinary. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of the LGBTQ Center of Durham

Being an employee of the center means being a visible representative of Queer folks in Durham. I am particularly proud to bring my professional and personal identities and experiences to the center at a time when state and local governments are actively attacking Trans rights. Our existence is radical, and our belonging in community is beautiful!

LGBTQ Center of Durham Case manager Amber Esters in September 2019 Credit: Photo by Jade Wilson

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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