Family Portraits: Junnie Cross

She’s what some might call an Air Force brat, but with a winning smile and an open attitude, Junnie Cross could hardly be considered a brat.

We spoke with the LGBT advocate, who serves as the director of programs of AIDS Services in Asian Communities, to learn what has made her such a strong ally to the LGBT community.

PGN: I understand you were born far from Philly. JC: Yes, my father was in the Air Force, so I was born in Japan at Yokota Air Force Base. We moved to Delaware when I was 4 years old. I grew up there until about five years ago, when I moved to Philadelphia.

PGN: Only child? JC: No. I have an older brother, Mark.

PGN: What games did you play as a kid? JC: I was forced to play Monopoly and the game of Life with my brother and my cousins. I still like playing Life. I played it a couple of times recently and had fun.

PGN: Which Monopoly piece did you favor? JC: The hat. My brother said that it was Rockefeller’s hat, so I figured if I chose the rich person’s hat, I’d get the money. Outside of board games, I used to love playing my brother’s Nintendo. My favorite game was Legends of Zelda.

PGN: You’re biracial; was that difficult growing up? JC: Before junior high it was. There weren’t a lot of Asian kids in school and, even though I didn’t look Asian, they knew that I was because of my mother. And sometimes I would wear traditional clothes or I would go to school with traditional food, which smelled different than other people’s lunches.

PGN: Japanese food? JC: No, I was born in Japan, but I’m half Korean. My mother is originally from Seoul.

PGN: I was just in Seoul last April as a panelist for the Women’s International Film Festival in Seoul. JC: Really? That’s great! Seoul is awesome. PGN: So it was hard? JC: Yeah, it was tough in grade school. I got called names and picked on a bit. I was very aware of the fact that I was different from everyone else, even though I may have looked the same. I think that’s one of the ways I understand how some people in the LGBT community feel: looking the same as everyone else, but knowing that you are different. I tried not to talk about my heritage much: If people asked me about my mother, I’d get scared. I was uncomfortable if my friends came over and saw my grandmother sitting on the floor eating at a tiny table instead of at a traditional Western dining table. But by the time I got to high school, I think kids were more curious than anything else and, by the time I got to college, I really started to embrace my Korean side.

PGN: Did you live with your mother? JC: Yes, my parents got divorced when I was really young. She basically raised us as a single mom and we lived with our grandparents. I saw my dad fairly frequently as a kid, Christmases and stuff. I’d visit his family up in New York.

PGN: I’m mixed-race too and, like you, it isn’t until my other family members show up that people say, “Uh, your brother and cousins look black … ” It’s very confusing for some people. JC: [Laughs.] I know, people at school would be like, “Is that your mom?” Or they’d see my grandmother, who would always pick me up at the bus stop in traditional Korean clothing, and just not get it! They never knew I was Asian unless that happened or I told them. Honestly, that came in handy sometimes, as I’m sure it did with you, because you get to find out how people really feel. People will make derogatory comments about Asians or minorities in front of me, and I won’t say anything right away, just find a way to subtly drop it in that I’m half Korean. Usually, they get extremely embarrassed.

PGN: I worked at one job where the N-word was flying my first day at work. The next day, I brought in a bunch of family pictures and a black-history calendar for my desk. That shut them up pretty fast! JC: That’s great!

PGN: What does your mother do? JC: She was educated in Korea, but that usually doesn’t transfer to the U.S. After my parents got divorced, she started working as a cashier at a convenience store. She went back to school and got her associate’s degree in accounting, started doing accounting for some banks in Delaware and ended up buying her own business: a store in a small shopping center that sold medical uniforms. She got tired of paying rent to someone else for the store, so she bought her own shopping center. She now owns her own building in Dover and rents to other people! I’m really proud of her.

PGN: What about your father? JC: When we moved to Delaware, he came out of the closet and that’s when my parents got divorced. He wasn’t very, very involved in my upbringing, but I used to visit him and his partner in New York. I lost touch with him after high school.

PGN: Was his family accepting? JC: I think so; my perception was that they accepted him. They were very traditional, so at the core I don’t know how comfortable they were with it, but his partner was accepted at family functions and they slept in the same bed together when we went to my grandmother’s for Christmas.

PGN: And what’s his racial background? JC: Funny you should ask! He says he/we are Irish and French, but he’s obsessed with French culture, so my brother thinks he’s making the French part up. The whole family on that side is Protestant and there’s a lot of stuff that just doesn’t add up. He’s a real character, so it wouldn’t surprise me that he embellished our history a little.

PGN: So did you have to deal with homophobia on top of racism growing up? JC: I kind of took into account the mentality of the people in the area where I grew up so it didn’t offend me as much. Also, my father wasn’t around, so I didn’t have to deal with it often, but having a different family and being different at such a young age made me understand how important it was to accept people for who they were. When I was in high school, I had a lot of friends who were gay or questioning or perceived to be gay. People would tease or pick on them and I would stick up for them because I knew what it was like to feel different. Now a lot of those gay friends are very confident and own their sexuality, which makes me really happy and proud for them.

PGN: Where did you go to college? JC: I went to the University of Delaware.

PGN: The Fighting Blue Hens! That’s where my older brother went, class of 1978. JC: That’s the year I was born!

PGN: Ouch. What did you study? JC: I got my degree in communications, but I’ve always been involved in theater and the arts.

PGN: An unusual fact about yourself? JC: I was Miss Delaware!

PGN: Really? JC: Yes, I needed a way to put myself through school and there’s a lot of scholarship money offered, so I started doing beauty pageants. I love to perform and the talent portion was 40 percent of your score so I figured I had a decent shot. I was able to come out of college without any debt. I also learned a lot of skills — interviewing techniques and public-speaking skills — that I still use on a daily basis.

PGN: So are the rumors about Vaseline on the teeth and taped butts true? JC: [Laughs.] I don’t know, but I wish I had used the Vaseline trick. I did a lot of parades and, after a while, your lips do stick to your teeth when you’re sitting on top of a convertible with the wind blowing in your face!

PGN: What was a crazy mishap? JC: Oh my gosh, well, I’m not known for being the most graceful and, when I was on stage competing for Miss Delaware, they had the runway lined with light bulbs. As I was walking in the evening-gown portion, my gown got caught on one of the bulbs and I almost fell into the audience. Despite that incident, I won. Then, when I competed for Miss America, they had this turntable thing that you stood on that was supposed to slowly, gracefully turn you around while you stood there in your evening gown. Well, my gown had a string of beads on the bottom, which got caught in the spinning mechanism. I yanked at the dress and, as it pulled loose, the beads spilled all over the floor. Next thing you know, there are stagehands crawling around behind me trying to clean up the beads so nobody trips on them. I had to try to walk toward the judges as if nothing was happening.

PGN: Fast forward: How’d you get involved with ASIAC? JC: I’d had about five years of experience in the business sector and wanted to get into nonprofit work. ASIAC was looking for a program manager and I met with Ron Sy, who is the executive director. I’ve been around the LGBTQ community all my life and it was nice to have involvement with the Asian community as well. A perfect fit.

PGN: Your current title is director of programs; what does that entail? JC: I’m in charge of basic operations. Stuff like contract and grant writing, managing AIDS/HIV testing and counseling programs, prevention programming, linguistic services, etc. I also do outreach at events like Pride and Outfest so I can interface with the community. We have a big fundraiser coming up on the 20th, our “Year of the Tiger” Lunar New Year banquet. Tickets are on sale now on our Web site.

PGN: A person’s experience that moved you? JC: We had a client who was at an event we did on seniors, sex and HIV. He didn’t speak English very well, but he addressed the crowd as best he could and shared his story. He was Korean and he spoke about how hard it was for him when he was diagnosed with HIV. He had to tell his family not only the fact that he was sick, but also the fact that he was gay. He spoke about how difficult it was being older and Asian and HIV-positive and having to come out of the closet. The fact that he persevered and was able to stand up in front of a group of strangers and share his life brought tears to my eyes.

PGN: Who was the first person you told about having a gay dad? JC: I don’t remember. It was never a secret or something I was embarrassed about. Was he the best dad? No. But that had absolutely nothing to do with him being homosexual. In fact, I empathize with the fact that he had to hide his sexuality for so many years and was glad that he had the courage to come out and was able to share his pride in being gay with his children.

PGN: Now for some random questions. Which winter event would you want to compete in? JC: I love figure skating but there’s that lack-of-grace problem I mentioned before, so it would have to be skiing, which I enjoy doing. PGN: What time period would you return to? JC: The late 1950s, early 1960s. I know it’s superficial, but I love the clothing from that era — when men wore suits and ties and women dressed up with gloves and hats and always looked sharp.

PGN: What type of candy would you be? JC: A Krackle bar. They’re smooth on the outside, but have a surprising crunch inside. I’m kind of like that: laidback and smooth unless you try to bite me!

PGN: Any pets? JC: I have one cat and I’m fostering a cat for an organization called City Kitties. They’re a wonderful group that takes in stray cats, gets them veterinary care and then places them in foster homes until they can find a permanent home. This is the second cat I’ve fostered.

PGN: How about superstitions? JC: I won’t give my partner shoes. There’s a Korean superstition that if you give your lover shoes, it means they will walk away. I won’t let him buy me shoes either!

PGN: Who is your partner? JC: His name is Zach and we met on a blind date. A friend was working with him at the Philadelphia Inquirer and fixed us up. We’ve been together for four years.

PGN: What’s great about Zach? JC: I saw a movie where a guy described the perfect partner as someone you would want to be in a trench with, someone who you work well with who has your back. That’s Zach. He’s intelligent and passionate and compassionate. We make a great team. I love him. PGN: Let me end by asking about the whole Carrie Prejean* thing. JC: You know, everyone was saying that Perez Hilton’s question was inappropriate. I find that hilarious, because in my pageant preparation, I was asked about gay marriage all the time — and that was back in 2000. When you compete in a pageant, you are expected to be able to respond to questions that are controversial. That’s the whole point of the question and answers, to see if you can assess your opinion and then articulate your position. And being that she was Miss California, where the whole Prop. 8 debate was taking place, and knowing that Perez Hilton was a judge, people shouldn’t have been surprised that she was asked about gay marriage. On top of that, as a pageant person, I find it totally crazy that you could be involved in that world and be antigay. I mean, you can’t compete in pageants without working with the really dedicated and talented members of the LGBTQ community who make it happen. From makeup to costumes to supporters and officials, there are so many wonderful gay people involved that, without them, the pageant and all the opportunities that go to the women involved wouldn’t exist. I was very angered that someone could have those views and yet take advantage of all the help from the LGBT people around her. It isn’t right to me, but I was raised better than that!

* Prejean is the former Miss California, who lost her crown in 2009. During the 2009 Miss USA pageant, she responded to a question about legalizing same-sex marriage with “Well I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And, you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there.”

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