Photography by Michael Wichita
People assume that Ty Christian is a lesbian.
He’s been volunteering at the Mautner Project for three years, and in that time he’s met only one of the service organization’s clients. Most of the rest would probably guess that the man behind the curtain is a woman.
After all, why would a man spend countless hours volunteering with an organization dedicated to lesbian health issues? Why not donate time working with some other nonprofit designed for men’s health?
“It’s like a diamond, ” says Kathleen DeBold, Executive Director of the Mautner Project. “If it’s rare, it’s valuable. And we have so few male volunteers that the ones we do have stand out. ”
Christian stands out regardless. DeBold describes him as invaluable.
“He’s been promoted from valuable to invaluable, ” she says. “He takes that extra step with the hundreds of hours of work he puts in every year. ”
For this reason, the Mautner Project is presenting him their annual Unsung Hero award.
The award is presented in conjunction with the National Lesbian Health Conference 2002, a conference to increase awareness of lesbian health issues across the board. Also taking place this weekend is the Mautner Project Gala, the program’s annual fundraiser.
“This brings in everyone. Clients, care givers, activists, researchers — all talking with each other as equals. ”
Which may be why Christian was almost hesitant to accept his place in the spotlight, but DeBold insisted.
“We want to use him as role model for everyone, ” she says. “That’s what makes our Unsung Heroes special. ”
MW: When did you first start doing volunteer work?
TY CHRISTIAN: When I was about four. Every year, my parents would have us sell paper poppies for the veterans on Veterans’ Day. You’d get pennies and nickels and dimes and it was basically a fundraiser. I did that till I was fifteen.
MW: Did you recognize it as volunteer work at that age or were you too young to grasp the concept?
CHRISTIAN: I think at about age six or seven my mom explained to me what I was really doing. That was in the mid-Seventies and we didn’t raise a lot of money. I felt really bad and took it personally if people didn’t give a lot. At that point, my mom sat me down and told me that every penny I raised was helping someone somewhere and that I needed to remember that.
MW: I think a lot of people assume that all of the volunteers at the Mautner Project are women. Why did you decide to volunteer with a group that specifically deals with lesbian health issues?
CHRISTIAN: I moved to Chicago in 1989, and the first month I was there, I was walking downtown and saw this ACT-UP rally in front of the State of Illinois building. Out front were four of the maddest, meanest looking lesbians screaming and yelling and punching their fists in the air. I thought to myself, “Wow, those women are fighting for a gay man’s cause. ” I knew that someday I was going to have to repay that debt. It really opened my eyes to the sense of community in the gay community.
MW: You seem like you’re more the behind-the-scenes type as opposed to a fist-in-the-air type, as far as your volunteer work goes.
CHRISTIAN: I’m definitely behind the scenes. People always tell me, you’re more of an ambassador. I go to cocktail parties and talk about these events and organizations and get people involved. I admire greatly the people who get out there and get arrested and get into brawls. That serves a purpose, it gives us publicity.
MW: Gay activism seems to be more and more about working within the system rather than outside of it.
CHRISTIAN: Absolutely. When I was working for AT&T, we had this gay and lesbian workplace organization called League, and when the division of AT&T that I was with, NCR, spun off into its own company, the League was split. I was one of the founding members of the League at NCR, and in 1996 I was co-chair for the first League@NCR conference. The year after that, NCR became the first of the three AT&T spin-off companies to grant domestic partner benefits, which was amazing because it’s a very conservative company.
MW: If it’s that conservative, why do you think it was first?
CHRISTIAN: We presented our proposal to the board of directors as a business case. We did not make it emotional. We were able to prove that it would not cost NCR basically anything and they were very receptive. In fact, once we had the domestic partner benefits, the next step for the group was to address transgender issues in the workplace, and in 2001 we actually got NCR’s EEO statement changed to include “gender identity and expression, ” which is a huge, huge step for any company, and especially for one as conservative as ours. We were just floored. On the HRC Corporate Equality Index, NCR was one of only thirteen companies to get a perfect score.
MW: Are you able to apply all these business-oriented skills at the Mautner Project?
CHRISTIAN: I apply a lot of business philosophy because that’s what I volunteer doing. I’m very good at event planning, coordination and management — finding that need at Mautner was wonderful for me. They don’t have to pay someone to coordinate their events, they’ve got someone who can volunteer it. I can also use these skills in my position on the governing board of directors for an organization called Out and Equal. It’s a national nonprofit organization that focuses solely on LGBTIQ workplace issues. One of the programs we have is called Building Bridges Diversity Training which, should ENDA pass — or, I should say, when ENDA passes — is going to be incredibly important. Companies are suddenly going to realize, we haven’t addressed this issue, and our organization will be in place with an established training program to train people on diversity and sensitivity.
MW: It sounds like Mautner might be the more emotional side of your activism and volunteer work.
CHRISTIAN: Absolutely. I’ve only met maybe one client of the Mautner Project, but even if I never meet a client and they never know who I am, I know in my heart that I’m doing something to help somebody. And I’ve developed a wonderful relationship with Kathleen. It’s so nice to go to a meeting and be able to sit and chat and still get work done.
MW: Why don’t more men volunteer with the Mautner Project? Do you think they feel uncomfortable with the idea?
CHRISTIAN: I think a lot of men just don’t consider Mautner to be a viable volunteer opportunity for them — it’s just not on their radar. When I talk to men about getting involved, I tell them my three loves are Mautner, Out and Equal and my partner. At least one of those should click through. Well, that last one’s not really available. You could volunteer for my partner but he’d just make you mow the lawn. But I think it’s part of my role to make more men understand that they are so welcome at this organization. This is not a lesbian organization, it’s a gay organization.
MW: How big of a rift do you think exists between gay men and lesbians in our community?
CHRISTIAN: I think there’s a divide on the surface, but the minute you go beyond that, you realize that we are one community and we’re all fighting together for the same thing. There are men involved at HRC, so why can’t we do the same at Mautner? I know there are gay men whose natural tendency is to nurture. The work I do at Mautner isn’t really providing a nurturing environment, although my friends do call me Earth Mother. [Laughs].
MW: Do you ever find it depressing working with an organization that deals with terminal illness?
CHRISTIAN: No. I was raised pagan, and that taught me that we all have a distinct and predetermined length of time in the world. I think if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness and there’s nothing you can do about it, you have to accept it, go through the grieving process and then look forward and think to yourself, “Okay, I have a limited amount of time left, what am I going to do to make sure that my life really meant something? ” I am in awe of the people who do that and I see my role here being to help them enjoy whatever time they have left. So it doesn’t depress me because it’s natural. It sucks when life is cut short, it hurts a lot of people, but if you take the time to create the memories then you’ll live forever. Someone will always remember you.
MW: Has working at the Mautner Project helped you live your life that same way?
CHRISTIAN: I think it has. Each month, I read in the Mautner newsletter about the people who lost the fight, and I think about what I’ve done recently. Have I told my partner how much he means to me? Have I told my family? My friends? So yeah, I get those daily reminders at the Mautner Project, and I make sure that the people I love know that I love them.
MW: Do you think that lesbian health issues often take a backseat to men’s health issues in the gay community?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, and I say that because lesbian health issues are not lesbian specific. AIDS has always been, at the forefront, a gay man’s disease. But unfortunately, the diseases that affect lesbians also impact all women. But then, I think lesbian issues aren’t served properly by the women’s movement as a whole. Women’s organizations say yes, cancer is an important issue, but what about lesbian specific issues? Like health care, for example. A married woman can go to a doctor and not feel the need to hide anything. Are we making sure that lesbians feel comfortable going to the doctor and saying things like, “My partner and I… “?
MW: Do you think the government should take more responsibility in the areas Mautner works in?
CHRISTIAN: I think Health and Human Services needs to give Mautner more money — a lot more money. That’s the role of the federal government. The organization is already there. It’s in place, it’s fantastic. Now fund it.
The National Lesbian Health Conference 2002 takes place September 26-28. Visit Out and Equal at www.outandequal.org. The Gala takes place Saturday, September 28 at the Washington Hilton, 1919 Connecticut Avenue NW. The silent auction begins at 6 p.m., dinner at 8 p.m. Tickets are $125. For tickets or more information, call Alex Khalaf at 202-332-5536 or visit www.mautnerproject.org.