Darius McLean: Building Community

Darius McLean

In case you’ve somehow missed it, the William Way LGBT Community Center (WWCC), located in the heart of the gayborhood, has been providing services to the LGBTQ+ community since the 1970’s. The center provides everything from workshops to peer counseling, art exhibits, social gatherings, education, programming for seniors and youth groups, a 14,000-volume lending library, a world-class LGBT history archive, a public art and exhibition space, a brand-new cyber center, and multiple community meeting spaces (post pandemic). I could go on but I need to leave space to talk to this week’s Portrait. Darius McLean is the Director of the Arcila-Adams Trans Resource Center and Empowerment Program at WWCC, and took some time out of his schedule to chat with us. 

I understand that you’re from across the bridge. 

Yes, I’m from Gloucester County, New Jersey.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Let’s see, I’m the eldest of 3. My younger sister and I are pretty close, she’s also queer, and I have a brother, he’s the youngest. We’re all close to my mom, she’s been in the same house for 32 years. She bought it when I was a year old, so it’s nice to go home and visit. Especially since I have a kid now; she was the only grandchild up until a few months ago. 

Who’s in your immediate family?

My ex and I co-parent with her best friend, so our kid has two moms and a Baba. My daughter is my best friend; we have a great time together. Her moms call my house “the fun house.” I’m definitely, what do they call it? A girl-dad. We tried to give her space to grow into her gender, did our best to be gender neutral until one day we were in the car driving and she announced, “Baba, I’m a girl!” I just said, “Okay, cool, now I know” and that was that. She’s this little super, high femme, girl. I let her do my makeup, whatever she wants. She knows that I’m trans and that we have other trans and nonbinary family members and she’s really good with pronouns and that stuff. She’s just the best in the world. 

How old is she?

Four. We celebrate Solstice, and a close friend got her a mushroom growing kit, they included a little note and a wand with it for making wishes and she whispered she wanted a unicorn, and to be five years old. (Nooo! She’s already growing up too fast!)

What were you like as a kid?

I liked to read a lot. I read most of the Boxcar kids books and the Baby-Sitters Club series, and all of the Harry Potter books. My office has a shelf with all X-men stuff, ‘cause I love them, a ton of Harry Potter stuff and my 90’s nostalgia shelf with things from Nickelodeon shows and Pokemon pieces.

So basically, you were a nerd! 

[Laughing] Yeah, I definitely was a nerd. Still am! I’m the guy who tells the dad jokes. I was also really into television. I loved TV.

Name 3 favorite shows from different ages. 

Very young, I loved the cartoon “Arthur,” as a teen, “X-men,” the animated TV series and I had a brief bout with “The Real World.” I wanted to be on it until I decided there was too much drama and everyone knows all your business! And “Avatar, The Last Airbender.” I still watch cartoons! 

Who was your best friend?

Her name was Georgia. We were both into the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and riding our bikes. She was the only friend that I was allowed to do sleep-overs with. 

And a little more about the fam?

I had a lot of responsibilities as a kid. My dad was Jamaican and got deported about 8 years ago, and I grew up with my stepdad who was also from Jamaica. So there was a big cultural influence from there. My mother’s maternal side is Lenape, Irish and Black. My great grandfather’s daughters married Black men and his sons married Lenape or white women. I go to the powwows and have been involved with the Indigenous community. My mom’s dad was Black and was a police officer who died right after she was born. So the family is made up of people of all complexions. I was the first darker skinned child. My sister is fair-complected and is what they’d call “yellow boned.” 

[Laughing] Oh, I’m mixed too so I’m familiar with the term.

[Chuckles] And I’d get, “You’re pretty for a Black girl.” When I applied for scholarships my mother wanted me to apply for tribal citizenship, but for me I grew up being called and identified as Black. Once I saw how expensive it was for school, I was like, damn, I should have done it! I have tried now but it’s a crazy fight, the state says that there are no indigenous people in New Jersey. Our tribe has fought to get back some of the land that was stolen. 

When did you start realizing your authentic self?

I remember watching “The Real World” and there was a contestant named Rachel on there. I’d think, “Oh, she’s my favorite!” and then after a while I started to realize that it was more than that. I started to realize that I found her attractive. I came out first to my history teacher and a counselor that I was close to. I think I said I was gay, I never really used the term lesbian, I was just attracted to women. I had my first girlfriend the summer before High School started. I didn’t say anything to my family yet, until one day while watching TV, I heard someone in the family use the term faggot. I told them that they shouldn’t use that word and my mom said, “Why do you care? Are you gay?” And I just said yes. Then it was just, like, a horrible series of family members coning over with bibles to read me scriptures, and it escalated until she said that I could choose to be straight and stay in her house or be gay and leave. I chose to leave and then she was like, “Where are you!?!” 

Oy vey.

Yeah, so I was out all through high school. I had two best friends who made sure no one messed with me but actually, even though I was a nerd, I was pretty popular. I was a peer counselor and I was in the band and choir, I can’t really sing, but I always had a deep voice, so I was a tenor which they needed. [Laughing] Maybe I just think I was popular, because thinking back, I used to eat lunch with the teachers! 

What did you play in the band?

I played percussion from 3rd grade until now. I wanted to play the violin but we couldn’t afford it. But I did teach myself to play a lot of the instruments that they had in the room. 

What did you study when you got to college?

I started out at Camden County in NJ, and when I moved to Philadelphia, I was so broke I used to walk the Ben Franklin Bridge to get to school until it got too cold. Once I became a resident here, living in a West Philly collective, I went to Community College of Philadelphia, which was a great school that deserves more credit. At that time, I worked at a daycare and as a nanny on the side. I worked in restaurants as a waiter and bar back. It was fun but I think carrying those big trays is what gave me arthritis! My undergrad was Liberal Studies with a Psych concentration from Temple, and then I graduated last spring from Saint Joseph’s where I got a degree in Organizational Leadership and Development.

Congratulations. Let’s talk about what you’re doing now. When did you start at WWCC?

The 23rd of November, and I’m so excited to be there. I really love the work that I’m doing, and the people that I’m working with. Ally Richman, the COO is great. It’s nice to work somewhere where they don’t just throw you in without any support. I’m the director of the empowerment programs which include our senior programming, like the Elder Initiative, the peer counseling which is the oldest program in the center, and our wellness program and the Trans Resource Center. The programs are pretty autonomous, so I want to find ways to help support them and expand on what we’re doing. The Trans Resource Center is really fun and exciting, I used to work at Einstein Hospital and I’m really big on community partnerships, so I hope to be working with them and a lot of other organizations that also provide LGBTQ care. 

So what’s happening at WWCC now?

A lot of cool things are happening on the virtual plane. We have support groups online, and we did the last art opening online. There’s going to be a lot of virtual programming coming out of the Trans Resource Center. We’re partnering with The West Philly Bunny Hop to provide food for seniors, and we’ve recently merged with the Elder Initiative and we’re looking forward to seeing a lot of advocacy work come out of that. And of course we have the big Love & Solidarity virtual festival on February 13th & 14th, and that’s going to be great. It’s a fundraiser but it’s on a sliding scale so everyone can participate. There will be music and performances, a discussion with our Executive Director Chris Bartlett, food and drink demos and more. We will also take the opportunity to recognize individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to LGBT communities in Philadelphia and show them support. So mix yourself a cocktail and join in. The tag line is that love is bigger than romance, love for self and love for community. 

So let’s talk a little more about you…

Well, let’s see, I came out as trans and started to medically transition about 8 years ago. I was working at Mazzoni, in part because they had health insurance that covered trans related care. Surprisingly, it was much easier for my mom to accept me being trans then gay. She’s really supportive of both me and my sister now. She actually wanted to start a support group for parents of trans kids. I guess with two queer kids she just had to learn how to deal! 

When did your sister come out, before or after you?

I think it was also in high school. It was after me and I didn’t want her to come out because I thought I was going to get in trouble for it!

What was the thing that surprised you most about transitioning?

I was just talking about this to someone yesterday! Different social norms, like being about to eat in public without people checking you out or staring at you. I often forget my train of thought when I’m talking to people so I can be like the interrupting cow, trying to say something before I forget, but I’ve noticed that now when I do it, people listen more to me than my coworkers who are femme or femme presenting so I try to check myself and recognize the privilege I have gained, And on the flip side, I have to be conscientious of the fact that I am now a Black man in the world, and I’m nervous going out, especially when driving. So mostly those two things, recognizing the privilege I now have and the work that I have to put in to become an ally to the community I was once a part of.  For the majority of my life, I was raised as a Black woman which informs who I am. For me, I never felt that I was born in the wrong body, I have just felt that I was always a multi-spirited person and was always in transition. 

Okay, grab bag questions, did you have any posters in your room as a kid?

Oh my goodness, my mom loved me so much, she let me plaster my walls with posters, cut out pictures, and articles about the Spice Girls that my mom laminated for me. I LOVED the Spice Girls, still do! Along with pictures of Mariah Carey and the Backstreet Boys. 

I got to meet Mariah when we were shooting Shadowboxer here in Philly and she was so sweet and down to earth, She didn’t act like a diva whatsoever. 

OMG, when I was a teen, part of the prayers that I said every night included something about Mariah Carey and the possibility of her being my wife one day. My daughter loves her too; her favorite song is “All I Want for Christmas is You.” 

Awww, that’s cute. Do you have more than 5 hats?

Oh yes, I have a huge collection of hats, including a bunch that I stole from my sister! 

Who would you collaborate with and what would you work on? 

My ex is an amazing multimedia artist, Marie Alercon. It would be great to work on a music video or something creative with her. I’ve been doing a lot of collage visual arts. 

Well, you already have one great collaboration with your kid.

That’s true, she’s amazing.

What’s a bad habit you’ve broken?

I used to be a nail biter. 

A favorite quote or motto?

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down,” from Toni Morrison.