Despina Kontos: Activist, scientist, mom


As someone who grew up in a multiracial family with a lot of multiracial friends, the argument I heard the most from people who had nothing to do with it was: “What about the children?”

Well, the kids are all right. One of us was recently president of the United States and one just became a British princess with an agenda, and one of us writes a weekly feature for PGN. The same argument was made about same-sex couples who wanted to start families: “What about the kids?”

It seems to me those kids are all right too. Research shows no difference in the happiness quotient of children raised in LGBT households than in heteronormative homes.

One of the organizations that has supported LGBT families since 1993 with programs, workshops, support and advocacy for LGBT families is Philadelphia Family Pride. We took a moment to speak to board member Despina Kontos about the organization and some of its upcoming events. In addition to her work with PFP, Kontos spends most of her days as a faculty member in a research department at the University of Pennsylvania working on a cure for cancer. Nothing big at all.

PGN: So with a master’s and Ph.D. in computer and information science, can you tell me what to do when my computer starts showing the spinning wheel of death?

DK: [Laughing] I’m not sure about that — I’ve been removed from that aspect at this point in my career. But if you can’t find anybody else, I’ll give it a try!

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. I detect a Greek accent. What part are you from?

DK: I actually wasn’t born in Greece. I’m a little bit of a hybrid. I was born in the U.S. in New York City. My parents were here for their graduate and post-graduate educations and then my family moved back to Greece when I was 4. I lived in Greece until I came to the States for grad school myself, and I’ve been here ever since.

PGN: What’s your favorite Greek dish?

DK: Oh, so many yummy things. Definitely something that my mom would cook. I love lamb and meat in general. I’m very much a carnivore. Spanakopita is always good, and moussaka.

PGN: What do the folks do?

DK: My mother is a doctor, she runs the NICU unit at a big private maternity clinic in Athens, Greece. She also has her own practice. My father is a computer scientist and mathematician who started his own software company.

PGN: Ah ha! So he’s the one I should call if I get the spinning wheel!

DK: [Laughing] He’s even worse than me! He doesn’t even know how retrieve to emails — he has his secretary print them out and writes his response on the paper for her to reply for him.

PGN: Nice. When did you come out? Was it in Greece or here?

DK: That’s quite the story. It took a while. When I grew up in Greece, nobody was really out. There was no public figure, no politicians, no artists — no one. There weren’t discussions about LGBTQ issues in the media. None of my friends was out. Everything was under the radar. I didn’t officially come out to the family until after I came here and met my now-wife and knew that we were set on living our lives together.

PGN: How do you think it affected you, not having any LGBTQ role models to emulate or to inspire you?

DK: It made me clueless. I had no idea about my sexual orientation. I didn’t even realize it until late in the game. I was 21 when I first got a clue and it was very hard for me to deal with and digest the information for myself, let alone come out to friends or family. I also grew up in a very conservative, religious family, so my parents were not very open-minded about the subject. To this day, it’s a testy subject that they’re not fully comfortable with. We went to church every Sunday and the theme was often that if you were gay or lesbian, there was something wrong with you and that you had a very prominent place in hell waiting for you. So it was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that there was nothing wrong with me. It’s been a long process.

PGN: What was the first clue that you might be gay?

DK: I fell in love with a woman! How about that? It was a big clue.

PGN: [Laughing] Yeah, I guess that would do it.

DK: I know. It took me a while to figure out what my feelings were and then a lot of things began to make sense in retrospect — feelings I’d had as a kid that I’d never cognitively interpreted as gay.

PGN: What did you study in Greece?

DK: Computer engineering informatics. I got my master’s and Ph.D. at Temple and then I came over to Penn and did a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in the radiology department. I then did two years as a research associate where I did some training in epidemiology and bio statistics and then stayed on as a faculty member. Now I run a research lab doing cancer research using computer-aided applications. It’s been 12 years and last year I got my tenure at Penn.

PGN: Without being too technical, what is an exciting breakthrough that you’ve been a part of?

DK: Some of the most exciting stuff is happening right now. We’re starting to look at the information that we can extract from imaging with the use of computer applications that can help us characterize genetic properties of cancers. It will help us tailor treatment to the individual based on their unique molecular profile. I was always torn between going to medical school and engineering, and this is an amazing way to blend the two in a real-world application.

PGN: Moving forward, how did you meet your partner? Or wife?

DK: Wife. Her name is Jill and we’ve been married for about three years now and have two children. We met at a friend’s birthday party.

PGN: Is she also in the sciences?

DK: No, her background is in linguistics. She worked for many years as an editor but she’s taking a break to spend time at home with our two wonderful kids … which may be more challenging than it sounds. We have a boy named Eli who’s 3-and-a half and a girl named Mara who’s 3 months old.

PGN: How did you first find Philly Family Pride?

DK: They were putting on a conference and I went and found a lot of useful information. We started going and making friends and now I’m on the board. In celebration of Philadelphia’s 30th anniversary of Pride, the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, Philadelphia Family Pride and the Mt. Airy Art Garage are partnering on the Philly Family Pride Picnic & Arts Festival 11 a.m.-5 p.m. June 23 at Lovett Library Park (6945 Germantown Avenue). We’ll have family-friendly entertainment, fine art, food and resource tables from a variety of organizations that deal with LGBTQ parents and youth.

PGN: Do you get concerned about the fact that though we have LGBT antidiscrimination protections in Philadelphia, we’re not protected in the rest of the state? If there’s a nonbiological parent, it has to be a little scary.

DK: Yes, that’s why we do things like the second-parent adoptions, which are very advisable. We did it with our first child and we’re in the process of doing it with our second. We’re not going to rely solely on the birth certificate. I think it’s a major problem that needs to be dealt with on a national level and not just for same-sex couples. More and more people are using IVF methods of conception and it’s often done with an egg or sperm that’s donated by a third party. In Pennsylvania, parenting rights are established by either biological connection or adoption decree. It’s something that will have to be dealt with from a legal standpoint at some time considering that family planning has changed dramatically for all types of families.

PGN: Good point. Since I have a scientist in the hot seat, I’m going to vent a little. Every other day, there seems to be a study telling you the complete opposite of what was said the day before, i.e., “You should drink a cup of coffee every day” or “Coffee gives you cancer.” As a researcher, does it drive you crazy too?

DK: No. But there are things to pay attention to: not all studies are equal, often the smaller studies are the ones likely to have contrasting results. But even with that, there are some really exciting findings happening right now, especially for cancer therapies. The landscape as we know it is going to change dramatically in the next 10-20 years.

PGN: A favorite quote or motto?

DK: I don’t know if I have a favorite quote, but I’m generally a very positive person and very proactive, so I live by the thought that if there’s something that you don’t like, either do something about it or stop complaining about it.

PGN: Hear, hear! 

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