Samantha Giusti: Fundraiser, activist, would-be nun


This week, PGN spoke to Samantha Giusti, who, along with her partner Amber Hikes, has been labeled one of the “Most Captivating Couples” of the year by GO Magazine. Of all her many activities, Giusti was most excited to share her passion for Philadelphia’s Dyke March on June 11.

PGN: So where are you from originally? SG: I was born in Philadelphia but raised in South Jersey. My mother is from here, but my father was born in Italy. All my extended family, the ones who aren’t in Italy, are all in this area.

PGN: Any siblings? SG: No, I’m an only child. I don’t know exactly what it means, but I’m told that I don’t act like one.

PGN: What do the folks do? SG: My mother worked for Philadelphia Life and worked her way up to account executive. Then the company moved to Texas. They offered her a job, but she checked it out and Texas wasn’t really for us. Plus, all the family was here, so she became a stay-at-home mom. When I became school age, she went back to work doing social services, but she took the night shift at a shelter for homeless youth so that she could be home with me during the day. She was part of the reason I got into social services. My father is in sales with a chemical company.

PGN: Describe a favorite relative. SG: My aunt and godmother, Joanne. She died of breast cancer three years ago. It was devastating: She was my mother’s only sibling. We were very close: There wasn’t a game or recital or choir performance of mine that she missed. She and my mother are very different personalities. She was nine years older than my mother, got married and had kids while my mother was pursuing a career. I learned a lot from both of them, though I think I’m more like my aunt. One of the things I appreciate about my mother is that, being different from me, she brings out qualities that aren’t innate. I’d be so boring and less fun if it wasn’t for her. My aunt is more type-A personality. Between the two, I developed a good balance.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? SG: Oh, I had a great childhood. It was idyllic. My parents were great. They always supported each other: My father helped with household chores and was a good cook. They still live in the same house that I grew up in. Even though I was an only child, I had lots of friends and cousins around. There was a strong Italian-American population there so I grew up with a real sense of family and community. When I went to high school, it had a much more diverse population, which I’m grateful for too. They involved me in everything under the sun. Piano lessons, dance, I played the recorder, I played the trumpet, soccer, basketball, swimming lessons, drama camp, choir, tap, jazz, ballet, you name it. They wanted me to be well-rounded.

PGN: Favorite subject in school? SG: History! Amber makes fun of me because I was president of the history club in high school, which is probably the nerdiest club of them all, but I loved it. I love learning about people and different cultures.

PGN: An early sign you were gay? SG: I look back and wonder how I didn’t know, but I guess it wasn’t on my radar when I was a kid, mainly because I didn’t even know that “gay” existed. How can you want to be something that doesn’t exist? But there were signs. I would play house with the girl across the street. She’d pretend she was cooking for her husband. I would tell her that I didn’t have a husband and she would respond, “You have to have a husband — you have kids.” Remember, we were good Catholic girls, so I would say that my husband was off at war or that I was a widow. As Catholics, divorce wasn’t an option. And I would make my girl Barbies kiss each other: Even though that’s not something I’d ever seen girls do before, it just seemed right.

PGN: What college did you go to? SG: I knew I was gay and yet chose to go to Catholic University, which is very conservative. I grew up Catholic and was — and still am — very religious, though I saw a side of Catholicism there that was different than what I was raised with. It was more of a conservative mindset than most Catholics really are. That being said, while it was difficult and challenging, it was a good experience.

PGN: What was a good moment? SG: I was a student leader and student minister on campus and one day a young man came up to me and said, “I have to tell you. I’m gay and have been struggling with it at this school. But seeing you, someone who is popular, is respected by the administration, is openly gay and still has a strong faith, has changed my life. I was really depressed and was considering suicide, but to see you being yourself and being accepted was an inspiration to me. I told my cousin about you and used that to come out to him and my family, and they wanted me to tell you thank you for helping me pull through. I’m OK now and I feel proud of who I am.” It let me know there was a reason and a need for me to be open despite the challenges it entailed.

PGN: Worst sports moment? SG: I discovered rugby in college. It’s a pretty big sport in the lesbian community, probably second to softball, but since I was at Catholic University, I played on the straightest rugby team in the country. Anyway, we were doing a practice drill and a rookie didn’t realize it was not supposed to be full contact. I wasn’t prepared for it so she knocked me over. I hit my head and got a concussion. They’re pretty common in the sport — you can probably have five or six in the season and be all right (not recommended though) — but my luck, the way I hit, it did serious damage. I have vertigo and balance problems and weak peripheral vision in my left eye.

PGN: When did you move to Philly? SG: I came here for my graduate studies at Penn.

PGN: How did you meet Amber? SG: She actually did the same program as me at Penn, but she was two years earlier. A mutual friend introduced us.

PGN: Was it exciting being named one of the “Most Captivating Couples” by GO Magazine? SG: It was! We were so honored. It was lovely.

PGN: Tell me about your day job. SG: I’m the manager of corporate and foundation relations at Women’s Way, the nation’s oldest and largest women’s funding federation. It was started in the ’70s and next year we’ll celebrate its 35th anniversary. I do fundraising and grant writing and corporate sponsorships. I love the mission of the organization and I get to meet some wonderful and powerful women from all over the city. It’s super-exciting.

PGN: How did you get into it? SG: I never thought of this as a profession, but I took a fundraising course and really got into it. I figured, no matter where I went or what I did in the nonprofit sector, it was always important to know how to raise money. Though where I’d planned on going, I wouldn’t necessarily have needed it: I was planning on being a nun.

PGN: Say what? SG: Pretty crazy, right? I always thought I’d be involved in politics and I still might get involved someday. I’ve been passionate about politics since I was 13. I actually went to D.C. to major in politics and I loved my classes, but was turned off by the fact that a lot of my peers were into it for the power and not because they wanted to serve people. It may sound naïve, but that’s why I wanted to go into politics — to make a difference. It didn’t feel right and one day I woke up and I felt that I was being called to enter the religious community as a nun. I’ve met so many truly good priests and good sisters from various orders who live really wonderful, happy lives giving of themselves. There were a lot of things that were really attractive: meeting amazing women who I could see myself living with and become a sister to and dedicating your life to God and community service. I went through a discernment period but, in the end, I wasn’t called to it.

PGN: Tell me about the Dyke March. SG: The Dyke March is one of the things I’m most passionate about. I’ve been working on it for three years, but it’s been going on for almost 14 years. You don’t have to identify as a dyke to participate. Our brothers and allies are also welcome to cheer for us along the march route or join us in the park, like the Radical Faeries who serve water ice at the rally! It’s really empowering. The first time I went, I couldn’t believe how incredible it was to feel the energy of so many women. In addition to the march, there will be music and speakers and performers, including the Liberty City Kings and The Attic Youth poetry group. This will be the biggest one to date and I hope to see a lot of new faces out there!

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