Tis the season to be jolly, but for some that can be a challenging endeavor. Folks in our community often face housing challenges, lack of access to food and alienation from original families. Working to alleviate at least one area, the William Way LGBT Community Center has been doing holiday meals for those who might need a little holiday magic in their lives about now. They are pairing with the Office of LGBT Affairs to distribute holiday meals on December 25th at the center. Helping out is the Deputy Director of LGBT Affairs, Erik Larson. As one who likes to go all in, Larson has been involved in more jobs and causes than your average bear, including stints doing wardrobe for theater companies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, chaperoning attendees of the Alternative Prom with Galaei, planning meals for the Attic Youth Center, coordinating THON, the huge fundraiser at Penn State, delivering food for MANNA and the Mitzvah program with the Jewish Federation, and he has even gotten grizzly a few times as a team leader for Movember.
There are a surprising number of people with your name out there!
There are a number of us! Including an author who’s written several popular books. I frequently get texts for him from a long lost friend or classmate with a picture of them at Barnes & Noble in front of a table display of his latest novel.
Tell me a little about your version of Erik Larson. Do you know the origin of the name?
I think it’s Scandinavian, but I’m not sure. My understanding is that that’s where the family is from. Though I did a DNA test and it said zero percent Scandinavian, so I don’t know. I was born and grew up in State College, PA. which is where Penn State is, both of my parents are alums. I have a younger sister and three older step siblings. I’ve lived all over PA, I went to Penn State for undergrad, then I went to Grad school at Carnegie Mellon, so I lived in Pittsburgh for a number of years. It’s a very cool city; I’ll always have a soft spot for Pittsburgh. After graduating from Carnegie, I moved to LA for a brief stint where I pursued work in the field that I studied at CMU. I was a costume designer for many years before I got into the work that I do now. I moved to Philadelphia in 2015 so I’ve been here for about 6 years. I have family connections here, my dad is from Philly, he grew up in Abington and my step-dad is from here too. I still have family here and have been coming to the city since I was a kid.
So I have an important question here… Steelers or Eagles?
Eagles! Philly sports all the way. [Laughing] If I said anything else my dad would… let’s just say he brought us up to be 100% team Philly. I’ve been going to Phillies games since I was a little kid. Though I have to confess there are pictures of me on the internet at Pittsburgh Pirates games wearing pirate’s gear!
So you’re a fickle fan!
I like to say that I try to be an enthusiastic supporter no matter where I am. I have a Dodger’s hat from when I lived in LA. I get into the spirit wherever I am.
Did you ever play?
Just recreationally, I was on the board of Stonewall Sports. I played kickball, volleyball and sand volleyball for a couple of years here. Which is how I got this strangely shaped pinky, I injured it playing and I was so proud of myself for, at almost 30 years old, finally having a sports related injury I could brag about!
I love it! So what were you into as a kid?
I was always into the arts. My parents said I loved drawing from the time I could hold a pencil. They still have old sketchbooks and doodles of mine from long before I was professionally trained. So the arts were a big thing, definitely NOT sports. I didn’t play T-ball or anything, I was lucky to have parents who supported me and didn’t try to push anything on me that I wasn’t interested in. [Smiling] They let me enjoy the great indoors.
What did they do?
My dad’s a weatherman, Bob Larson. He did the weather on KYW for years. He still does it, I think in Boston and Chicago on the radio. My whole family has worked at AccuWeather in some capacity or another. My stepdad was the CEO, my mom worked there, along with various step siblings and cousins.
What’s the worst weather event you’ve experienced?
Ugh, I have traumatizing childhood memories of being an amateur tornado chaser, not by choice. I don’t know if you’ve met any self proclaimed weather weenies, but they’re obsessed with any dramatic weather incidents, the more severe the better. So you’d hear, “Terrible weather coming in… blizzards, storms…” and my dad would be in the car with us following it, fascinated, while my sister and I were in the back shaking in terror. We still talk about it to this day and I attribute my fear of flying to it. I get stressed and call my dad for weather forecasts before getting on a plane. I call him anytime I’m doing an event, “We’re doing a flag raising event, is the weather going to cooperate?” It’s nice to have that inside info.
What did you study at Penn State?
I studied theater design and technology and concentrated on scenic and costume design, [laughing] but scenic design has a little too much math required so I mainly focused on costuming. I got my BFA in May and then went to CMU in August to get my masters in costume design. So that was 7 years to study a very specialized field!
How did you start to get more involved in activism?
I’ve always kind of done them hand in hand, I was the VP of our drama club in high school and we’d help coordinate and participate in things like the local AIDS Walk. I was always doing volunteer work from a very young age and then tried to incorporate it into the arts work that I did later. At Penn State, I participated as a leader in coordinating the dance marathon, THON, which is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. I got to dance in it in 2010 which was a very cool experience that I never want to repeat!
I did a couple of marathons in high school, definitely a unique experience, but fun. How did you get involved in Philly’s LGBT community?
When I moved back here from LA, I wanted to find ways to get to know people, I knew a few people, but didn’t have a broad network of friends, so I cold emailed William Way and asked about opportunities to get involved as a volunteer. After the 2016 election, I decided that I really needed to do more and wanted to turn it up another gear. I felt I needed to give back more and to try to go beyond just volunteering to make things better in the world. I didn’t have any non-profit managerial experience so I found a 1-year program at UPenn and part of the degree requirement was to do a field placement and that’s how I ended as a policy fellow in the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
What are some things that you are working on now?
We have a Covid-19 LGBT resource guide which we started in April of 2020. It was something that I came up with in the early stages of the pandemic, I was working as a coordinator at the time and I approached Celena Morrison with the idea. I wanted to gather info about Covid resources but with an LGBTQ focused lens. She often reminds us that there are a lot of people in the community who won’t go to something, or seek help unless they see something, a rainbow icon or whatever, that lets them know they’re in safe space. The guide has everything from food banks, testing sites, and where to get vaccines, to housing support, legal support, etc. from places we have vetted and/or have relationships with. I’m proud to say that it still gets regular use and we keep it updated and remove old information or add new resources at least bi-weekly, but usually a few times a week.
Good to know, I need to find out where to get my booster shot.
Yes, please use it; there should be information on the site to help you. I’ve also done one-off things like working closely with Celena to help spread the word once vaccines were widely available. We built a whole campaign to get the word out in the community. We coordinated with a lot of LGBT health and supportive organizations and did a virtual Q&A with the person who is now the Health Commissioner, Cheryl Bettigole, along with other LGBTQ health practitioners to answer questions, and we worked with Mazzoni Center and other groups to bring the vaccine into communities. We did LGBTQ affirming clinics in different areas of the city. That was a big project that I helped create and oversee. And currently, I’m working with Celena on crafting some really expansive and long overdue LGBTQ policy reform. Philly likes to tout itself as a very progressive city and in a lot of ways it is, but there are a lot of internal policies that need to be updated. We need to hold ourselves accountable within the city government.
Can you give an example?
Sure, currently, when collecting information, there are very limited options for sexual orientation and gender identity like there are for racial or ethnic demographics, so there’s very limited data available. On most government paperwork it’s M or F, that’s it. The city releases a workforce diversity profile annually and how it’s distributed across the departments. Mayor Kenny has said that he wants to build a workforce that looks like the city, but how can you do that if you’re not collecting data about this segment of the population? How do you know? So we are on the verge of completing changes that would give many more options so that we can get a truer picture. We’re also working on guidelines for people transitioning in the workplace. Written policy so that everyone from the transitioning employee, to their supervisors and HR, to their colleagues have documented information about how to ensure that it’s a safe and affirming process.
That’s great! So let’s talk a little about the annual Holiday Meal-to-Go event.
It’s going to be on Christmas Day, Saturday, the 25th, from noon to 2:00 pm, or while supplies last as they say. The meals are free and are being provided by William Way LGBT Community Center and the Office of LGBT Affairs. They will be boxed meals ready to go prepared by Honeyhill catering, which is a Black owned catering company. The menu is incredible; honey glazed salmon, turkey smothered in apple sage gravy, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, candy yams, mashed potatoes, cauliflower steak, grilled asparagus, and a mushroom rigatoni. There’s also a vegetarian option.
You’re making me hungry!
And there’s no cost, they are completely free for anyone who wants one. We hope folks from the community will take advantage of it, we know that the LGBTQ community often faces a lot of challenges, not having an affirming family or access to certain opportunities. We hope this will help a bit. Because of Covid, the meals will be packed to go.
How many meals do you think that you’ll give out?
We did this for Thanksgiving with S & J Cuisine, a Black and lesbian owned company, and we distributed about 200 meals, which is about what we did last year for the Holiday meal. So it’ll probably be the same this year.
Can people still volunteer to help?
We have a ton of volunteers and people asking us every day, so as of now we are good, but we do have some events in February and March that we will be looking for volunteers for.
Let’s pivot to some fun questions. What’s a favorite holiday memory for you?
I grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, so I always liked when they overlapped. I was just looking at my Time Hop app which shows you what you posted on a certain day over your different media platforms and there was a picture of me lighting a menorah on this day several years ago when the holidays were close.
It was a Mazda 6, which was a great car until I wrecked it in a snowstorm.
Your father didn’t predict the snow for you?
He totally did! I was just being my stubborn self and didn’t listen.
Ah, that’s right. You’re a fellow Taurus. What’s your go-to dish?
I like to bake, so I’m in holiday baking mode. I like to give out homemade cookie tins, which I’ve been doing since I was a kid. It’s a cliche, I really got into bread baking during the pandemic. Being a Jewish person, it was great to have an excuse to make challah bread every Friday and I’ve started experimenting with cool shapes or braids. I even saw a rainbow one I want to try.
I was obsessed with Power Rangers. I collected them and had all sorts of figurines and a crazy amount of stuff to go with them: pajamas, costumes, you name it. I’m sure my parents still have them somewhere.
Which was your favorite?
It depends. There are several generations of the Power Rangers, but I remember the originals and having a crush on the Red Ranger when I was about 4. But like a lot of little gay boys, I liked the Pink Ranger too.
The last song you sang to someone?
Ok, this is embarrassing, but I sing all-the-time. My partner, Justin, is a singer. He studied vocal performance in school and was an opera singer, and I was in drama school for years, so we’re very musical. So it was either something from Kelly Clarkson’s new Christmas album, something from Disney, or we just saw West Side Story so that’s been on heavy rotation with us. One of those three!
What’s a favorite saying or motto?
Well, it’s not either of those, but I often revisit a Jewish prayer, Shehecheyanu, which is about being grateful for reaching significant points in your life. As in, my first nephew was born in the fall and the minute I heard, I said the prayer as a thank you for us all being able to reach and bear witness to that moment. For me, it’s something that I use for inner focus to bring me into the new year with gratitude, and the hope that things will be better on the other side of all this, perhaps with renewed purpose.