DeAnn Cox: Leaving behind childhood challenges, staying true to Jersey roots

Sarah Palin might not actually be able to see Russia from her house but, here in Philadelphia, we can look across the river and see the Garden State of New Jersey.

Often overlooked unless we want to go to see some sharks at the Aquarium or buy some cheap booze, our sister state’s southern residents tend to get the short shrift from us. DeAnn Cox, founder of Jersey Lyfe, is helping to change that.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. I’m originally a Jersey girl too, but I was born in North Jersey. DC: Oh, that’s a whole different ballgame! I was born and raised in Camden and didn’t leave there until I was about 16 to move to Runnemede.

PGN: Tell me about the family. Are you an only child? DC: I’m not an only child, I have two older sisters. As far as my parents … I don’t talk to them much; we don’t have a relationship at all.

PGN: I have all brothers. What’s a houseful of sisters like? DC: Oh my goodness, it was insane. We had a lot of fun when we were older but, before that, they used me as their plaything. I was just a baby so they would do all sorts of funky experiments on me. Feed me anything, tie me up, all sorts of crazy things that the youngest child gets subjected to.

PGN: I can identify with the feeding-you- things. As a kid I loved Nestle Quik powder but of course wasn’t supposed to eat it. One day my brother called me into the kitchen and told me he had a spoonful of Quik for me. I stuck it in my mouth only to find out it was finely ground coffee! DC: [Laughs.] Yeah! I feel your pain; they used to lock me in closets, roll me up in blankets and roll me down the stairs, stuff like that.

PGN: What’s the craziest incident that comes to mind? DC: They pushed me off of a roof!

PGN: Ha! Was that an experiment to see if you could fly? DC: No, we were playing tag with some friends and these guys started chasing us. We ran into an abandoned building and ran up to the top where we got trapped, so everybody started jumping off the roof onto an old mattress that was on the ground — mind you they were all seven or eight years older than me. I was scared to jump so my sisters pushed me off. Thank God I landed on the mattress.

PGN: What’s a good family memory? DC: Hmmm. I have to think a little harder for that. I’d say going to family reunions. We’d take road trips to Rochester or North or South Carolina and the ride was always fun. We’d stop at a motel or something and have a lot of good family time.

PGN: Silly question. Is it hard to be a lesbian named Cox? DC: [Laughs.] That’s too funny. No, though I did get teased as a kid. Now I embrace it. Though it’s funny, people will ask how I spell my name and I say, “Do you really think I’d spell it with a ‘ck’?” Though it is a good porn-star name. There’s a drag queen in New Jersey who goes by Seymour Cox.

PGN: All right, back to business. Was your coming-out the reason for the estrangement from your parents? DC: Actually, no, it was because of religion. They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I turned 18, I decided that I didn’t want that lifestyle anymore so I moved out and left the church. There are different levels of congregational discipline depending on the church you go to, and ours was very strict, so I was disfellowshipped and shunned. It’s a type of excommunication. So my parents weren’t supposed to have any contact with me once I was persona non grata.

PGN: Wow, kind of like the Amish? DC: Yes. And like the Amish, they frowned on education. They wanted you to study the Bible only and become a missionary preaching about God and spreading the word. Higher education was not encouraged, but I did have a nice experience a while ago with my dad. I was telling him about school and he said he was actually proud I’d rebelled against them and gotten an education despite them telling me I couldn’t. He’d gone to college before he got married and was glad that I’d gone.

PGN: Did you go door-to-door? I get a lot of Witnesses in my neighborhood but it seems they’re mostly older folks. DC: No, we had to do it too. It was mandatory. PGN: What was the worst part? DC: [Laughs.] Running into my classmates! I remember one time I rang the doorbell and it was opened by two boys who used to harass me all the time in school. When I saw the first boy my eyes got wide but I think they were just as surprised as me. For whatever reason, though, that was the one time they didn’t tease me about that particular incident. PGN: So as a Witness, I guess you grew up without any holidays? DC: Yes. Jehovahs believe most holidays are connected with non-Christian worship or came from Pagan origins and don’t participate. They don’t even celebrate birthdays because they believe them to be a form of self-worship — so no Fourth of July, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas.

PGN: Oh, that seems so unfair! [Laughs.] I’m an atheist and even I love Christmas. DC: I do too! I think I went overboard for a while to make up for lost time.

PGN: What’s your favorite holiday? DC: Halloween.

PGN: Best and worst costume? DC: Worst was probably a French maid, that was pretty cheesy. My best was … hmm. Oh, a bumblebee!

PGN: Awww. So you grew up in Camden, which seems to have a bad rep. DC: As it should. It was just horrible. Growing up, I remember my peers getting hit by cars all the time.

PGN: What? Why? DC: Well, there were no parks or playgrounds to go to so everyone played in the street. It was supposed to be a residential area but cars sped through all the time and invariably someone would get hit while playing. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of bullying, not even because someone was gay; it could be for anything, just because. You could be wearing the wrong outfit or looking at someone the wrong way or because you were wearing some bobos. PGN: Ha! I’m wearing some bobos now. DC: That’s funny! Yeah, it was tough, I’ve seen people murdered, assaulted, I’ve been shot at. It was hard.

PGN: What was the incident that led to you being shot at? DC: Oh, boy. I was hanging with some friends and I was the only one with a car so I was driving and … oh … [tears up] … I’m sorry.

PGN: [After a period of quiet] Do you want to move on to something else? DC: No, I’m all right … I was with my friend and she’d invited her boyfriend along. He asked if we could make a stop and we didn’t think anything of it but, little did we know, he was making some kind of drug deal. He left us in the car and something must have gone wrong because he came running back to the car yelling at me to drive. Next thing I knew there were people shooting at my car. It was terrifying. Of course I kicked him out of the car as soon as possible. We were terribly shaken. We didn’t know if we should call the police or what to do. We didn’t even have a clue who’d been shooting at us.

PGN: Not easy to notice much when you’re ducking, I’d imagine. DC: Yes. It’s horrifying.

PGN: So I assume you’re out of Camden now? DC: Oh yes. Though I almost had to move back a few years ago. I hit another rough patch when I got laid off of my job. My car was being repossessed, and I was still trying to run Southern NJ Pride and I just didn’t know what to do.

PGN: A lot going on, huh? DC: [Quietly brushes away a tear] Yes.

PGN: Where did you go to school? DC: I went to Rutgers on a scholarship but at the rate I was offered courses it would have taken six to seven years to graduate. That didn’t seem feasible, so I transferred to Camden County College and got my associates degree there ,and then transferred to Temple, where I am now.

PGN: What was coming out like? DC: I don’t know, I don’t really have a coming-out story. I just always was, even though I didn’t quite know what it was, but then when I learned, I embraced it. I guess my story would be my first attraction because after that I was never afraid. I didn’t have to tell anyone or make an announcement; just as simply as I brought a boy home before, I brought a girl home instead. [Laughs.] But my first attraction was my ex-boyfriend’s sister. I was dating him at the time and then when I met his sister I was just like, wow, I’m having feelings like I did when I first met him. I was really confused and then one day I was hanging out with my friends. We were pretty much all dating the same family — they had 10 boys — and I decided to tell my friends how I felt about the sister. They were all like, “Oh my God! Me too!” We were all attracted to the same sister!

PGN: So how did Southern New Jersey Pride and Jersey Lyfe come about? DC: Me and my ex-fiancé used to do a lot of traveling. We enjoyed going around to different Pride celebrations, and one year when we were coming back from the Charlotte Black Gay Pride, we were talking about how well it was done. We thought, How come we don’t have anything like this for South Jersey? And we planned the whole thing on the car ride home. When we got home, we got a license to do it and organized a committee, and from there it took off and flourished. We held our first Pride event in 2008. We do “Out in the Park” at Cooper River and we have all sorts of performers, a drag show, a voguing contest. We have vendors, games, we’ve done a meet-and-greet night out at the bars, a pageant and an Equality Walk. PGN: And what’s Jersey Lyfe? DC: When I first started in business I needed funding, and now I like to help fund other organizations that are just starting, to help with whatever events or initiatives that they might have. Jersey Lyfe is there to provide media sponsorship because, again, I needed that when I got started and there were people there for me, so I feel it necessary to give back.

PGN: And now the In The Lyfe newsletter has over 5,000 international subscribers? DC: Yes! It started out with 20 of my friends and, through vending, networking, marketing and using social media, it has grown exponentially.

PGN: What’s the name of your company? DC: Cox Consultant and Management Firm. I do a lot of small studies and market testing. I also teach a course at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree on marketing and social media. At first, I wasn’t sure people were going to grasp or comprehend what I was talking about, but the response was amazing. I love being able to teach people how to market their businesses. I see people wasting their money a lot and I can help them put it to better use. The next class starts in May in case anyone’s interested.

PGN: I might take you up on that. Back in 2011, Southern New Jersey Pride conducted a survey that questioned participants about the openness of their sexual and gender identity. DC: Oh boy, that was pretty devastating. We found a whopping 30 percent admitted to not being out to their employers, family or even friends. It confirmed what I had suspected, that despite living in New Jersey, which has some pretty strong LGBT protections including civil unions, a lot of people are still struggling with it, especially in lower-income and less-educated communities.

PGN: You stated you wanted to know why and what could be done about it — did you come up with any answers? DC: Every day I still ask myself why it is. I just can’t imagine a life where I couldn’t be out to my friends and family. I just try through Southern New Jersey Pride and Jersey Lyfe to encourage people to be themselves regardless of the social stigmas they might feel. We fund workshops and organizations that are working for the LGBT community in Southern Jersey or sometimes I’ll even run workshops — whatever we can do to support the people and organizations that help our community in New Jersey and Philly, like the Mazzoni Center, DVLF or Garden State Equality. Part of the problem is that people aren’t even aware of the resources out there. Most of my constituents don’t know about Philly Gay Calendar or PGN and that you list organizations and do stories on things that would be of interest and helpful to them if they took the time to check it out. I try to educate people and make them aware of the resources available. PGN: I host karaoke at Sisters and when QFest rolls around, I’m astounded that even though we have programs right there at the bar and the film festival is advertised all over town, most of the people in the bar have never heard of it. Or I’ll have someone from Mazzoni or the HRC come through because they’re doing an event and people have no idea who they are. DC: Yeah, and I don’t charge anything because I know how important these resources can be for people. For me, when I first discovered I liked women, I was aggressive in seeking out resources and finding support, but I think some people don’t know where to start or are just afraid.

PGN: So as a media consultant, what are two top tips for beginners? DC: Number one, get online! Some people are afraid of the Internet. And it’s not just the older crowd, there are a lot of young people and business people who don’t have an email address. Get online, get on Facebook, create a LinkedIn account, create a Monster account. The Internet is where you need to be. It’s the world at your fingertips — and it’s free! You have to be there, that’s where the rest of the world is. Number two, don’t be afraid to market yourself. I talk to so many people who are so skilled at a specific trade or profession but they’re afraid to market themselves. Get out there and promote, no one is going to be as big a fan as you are. Be proud of yourself and what you can do.

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