PGN: Tell me about Chris.
CB: Well, I was born in Cheltenham, but a lot of my mother’s family was in Philadelphia. I studied the classics at Brown University, Latin and Greek and philosophy. Then I went to Oxford University to study them even more in depth. I was on a path toward a career in academia, but while in England I got involved in AIDS activism and it changed everything. I got involved with ACT UP in London, and with the Philadelphia chapter when I came home. I learned my community organizing and activism from them. It was a nice collection of activists of all ages and different backgrounds working together to bring about social change. I had wonderful mentors like Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Anna Forbes and Jonathan Lax.
PGN: What made you want to study the classics?
CB: In high school, we had a great Latin and Greek program. I really enjoyed it and, when I got to Brown, I had a professor, who was also a gay man, who encouraged me to study it full-time. It’s such groundwork for other ways of thinking, and is connected to so many other things.
PGN: What would you say to today’s teenagers to convince them to take Latin?
CB: In England, they believe that if you study the classics, you can do anything. They prepare you to have basic skills, not just reading and writing, but public speaking, thinking and logic, philosophy, there’s so much you learn from the classics. The American education system has become so focused on professionalism and teaching job skills that they’ve neglected the personal skills needed in the world: humanity, reasoning, decision making, empathy — the things that make us human. The classics are a place where you learn how to be a good person.
PGN: Are you an only child?
CB: No. I have a wonderful brother who is an editor at Random House. His wife is a professor at Rutgers and they have two adorable kids, my nephew Nicholas and niece Katie.
PGN: What did your parents do?
CB: My father was the director of Temple University Press and my mother was an English teacher at Upper Merion High School.
PGN: You obviosly came from a literary family. Do you remember your favorite book as a kid?
CB: I would say Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” I loved that the book was about kids having imagination and vision and adventures. [Laughs.] I also loved the Hardy Boys books: I read all of them.
PGN: What would you recommend for Oprah’s Book Club?
CB: Well, right now I’m reading “The Master” by Colm Tóibín, which is a fictionalized biography of Henry James, which is pretty good. But I also like novels, both fiction and nonfiction, that showcase gay culture. I love Andrew Holleran. He was a member of The Violet Quill and writes a lot of novels that depict the life of an adult gay man.
PGN: You were a part of ACT UP, which in the beginning was a bit controversial for its aggressive tactics. What’s your take on it?
CB: I think that there’s room for all types of activism. ACT UP played the role of really pushing the envelope where an urgent response was needed. For example, when it came to the pricing of HIV drugs or changing school policies so that condoms were available in health clinics, they were hot-button issues that required an assertive voice to make a difference. We always said that we had homework and hell-raising, so the hell-raising didn’t occur until we did the homework to understand the background of an issue before we raised hell. As a result, there were numerous policy changes that took place quicker than they would have if we took time to try to do it in a passive way. It’s hard to imagine now how little we were on the mainstream agenda. We really had to raise hell to be heard. We also worked really well as partners with more moderate LGBT groups. For example, Jonathan Lax, a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP, would get a meeting with a pharmaceutical company and invite other LGBT groups to attend with him. And he would wear a suit and tie to the meetings. He knew when to act up and when to moderate for particular audiences. ACT UP also, by being an aggressive voice, created a space that allowed other organizations that operated within bureaucracies in the government, to step in with a different voice.
PGN: Kind of like good cop, bad cop.
CB: Yes, with both having the same goal of saving people. The urgency came out of the thousands who were dying each month: We were all losing people around us and no one was doing anything about it. Someone needed to yell a little.
PGN: I understand that you’re also a big Faerie?
CB: I am! It’s probably one of the most important pieces of my activism. The Radical Faeries were started by Harry Hay and a number of other activists in the ’70s. What Hay noticed was that gay culture was increasingly becoming very urban with little opportunity for people to really connect. He traveled around the country and met with people who were interested in having a more spiritual experience within the gay movement. Harry believed that gay people had a particular role to play in society, that we weren’t “just like everyone else,” but that our experiences of being different allowed us to understand people of all backgrounds and would allow us to be sort-of liaisons and communicators and translators in areas where people found conflicts because of their differences, whether it be race or class or whatever. Not necessarily a better way, but a different way to relate to problems and people. And so he created places where gay men could explore their purpose on earth. He always called on gay men to take a serious look at the unique role we could play in society and understand the impact we could have on our communities and the country. A lot of those early conversations in Faerie movement created the activists that would change the world for LGBT people.
PGN: It’s interesting: I’m mixed race, so I often find myself being a bridge between cultures, with black people asking me why whites do certain things and white people making racist comments without knowing that I’m black. I also use it as a teaching experience.
CB: Exactly: One of the things that the Faeries really espoused was seeing people in all their complexities and celebrating the differences. They also set up sanctuaries all across the country where people could come and talk. If you were ever having a problem, if your family rejected you, if you were suicidal and needed someone to talk to, if you couldn’t pay your rent, whatever the problem, you could go there and you would be fed and given a place to stay. There are now about 15 of them worldwide. I go twice a year to one in Tennessee. One of the “technologies” of the Faeries is the Heart Circle. It’s a place where people share what is going on with them: Whether you’re having a hard time or if things are going great, no one tries to fix you or tell you what’s wrong or right, they just listen. It’s a unique experience. Whenever I come back from a gathering, it reenergizes my compassion and drive to work with LGBT people who might be facing some really serious problems, and makes me feel that I can make a difference.
PGN: What is the work you do now?
CB: I’m the interim executive director for DVLF and, for 10 years, I was the director of Safeguards. In between, I’ve done a number of things. I like to think of my mission as bringing about a more-harmonious LGBT community, so I take work that helps me achieve that goal. Last year, I received a grant to create a strategic plan to support leaders in the LGBT community over their lifespan. Effective leaders need the skills and the support to learn how not to get burnt out when working in the community for a long period of time. I’ve been traveling the country meeting with various leaders to learn what they need to continue to impact the community. My official title in that project is director of the LGBT Leadership Initiative, but I don’t think of myself so much in terms of job title, but in terms of having a role of service to the community.
PGN: Who is one of the leaders that has inspired you so far?
CB: I’m very impressed by Suzanne Pharr: She’s a longtime organizer and she wrote an important book called “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism.” Aside from her writings, she does a lot of community organizing in the South. [Laughs.] I think the South gets a bad rap from snooty Northerners like me but, in fact, they are doing some great work. She’s very powerful in ensuring that women, people of color and youth are stakeholders in the leadership of our community. Even though she’s an elder, she gets a lot of respect from youth members, which is always a sign of an effective leader.
PGN: What was your coming-out experience?
CB: It was interesting because my father is also gay. He came out when I was in my teens, which is when I was coming to terms with my sexuality, so he really paved the way. I was fortunate to live in a house where homosexuality was already being dealt with and, on a whole, dealt with in a calm and respectful manner. My mother always wanted to stay connected with my dad even after he came out, so it didn’t cause a huge rift in the family and let me know that my coming out would probably be treated with respect as well. And, in fact, my family was and continues to be supportive.
PGN: It seems like this generation doesn’t have the sense of community that we once had: Name three things that you think would pull us together again.
CB: It’s true. I was lucky enough to come out at a time when the community had already begun the gay-liberation movement and in the middle of AIDS activism. I hear younger activists almost nostalgic for those times. In fact, they were painful times, but it really did energize and pull us together. I still operate as though that energy exists. I think one thing that is important is to have belief in this younger generation. They are incredibly creative thinkers and have amazing resources. The innovations they have now, like Facebook and Twitter and other social media, are resources that they can tap as tools for organizing. We have to learn to partner with them so we can teach them but also let them show the ways they express themselves in current language. They have wisdom and we have wisdom; we need to learn from each other. The second thing is to start making elders visible and powerful in the movement. Right now, elders seem to just become olders. We don’t take time to benefit from their wisdom and skills, so we need to create a culture where we respect such rich resources before we lose them — people like Walter Lear and Kay Tobin Lahusen and Tyrone Smith, who have had valuable roles to play for decades in the community. Thirdly, we need to do serious work educating LGBT people about other movements — the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, etc. — and to learn from the way they have addressed their struggles. It seems a shame to reinvent the wheel, when others have already found ways to solve certain issues already. We need to expand our circles of learning. And we need to make sure our histories are included in mainstream media as well.
PGN: OK, silly question: Favorite vending-machine snack?
CB: Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews.
PGN: Favorite holiday tradition?
CB: I play the piano, so music is a big part of my life year-round. I love holiday music, whether it’s singing “The Messiah” or gathering around the piano at my home or at the family home and playing for my family or just listening to great music.
PGN: Any pets?
CB: Yes, I’m a big cat person. I have one cat right now, Madeline. She’s named after the little French girl and after a friend, Madeline Fox, who owns Joseph Fox Bookshop on Sansom Street, my favorite bookstore.
PGN: Any hobbies?
CB: I taught myself how to knit!
PGN: Latest project?
CB: I started a Web site to document all the gay men who have died of AIDS in Philadelphia. It’s set up so that anyone can add to it. I hope people will go on and write about people that mattered to them or just help include the names of those we have lost. It’s www.gayhistory.wikispaces.com and it’s open to everyone. We’ve lost so many people right here in Philadelphia, it’s important to honor them.
To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.