A Note from the CEO:
“Words cannot express our sadness in the wake of tragedy in Orlando. We are outraged by this act of hate which has stolen the lives of so many. Our deepest sympathy goes out to their loved ones. YWCA Bergen County stands with the LGBTQ+ community, defending their choice in love and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.
For June, which is LGBTQ+ Month, we were planning to share Chris Giarmo’s story. His words are even more impactful reading them now through the lens of this Sunday’s tragedy. Chris, a performance artist who sang and danced at our recent “95 Years of Walking the Talk: A Celebration of YWCA Bergen County,” essentially “grew up” at the YW. We find his story heartwarming and inspiring.
In the spirit of our solidarity with all who grieve the tragedy in Orlando, we felt Chris’s narrative is especially poignant.
-Helen Archontou MSW, LSW
CEO YWCA Bergen County”
My mother, Barbara Giarmo, had enrolled me in swimming classes at the YWCA at a young age. She served on YWCA Bergen County’s Board of Directors in the 80’s, and later worked as the organization’s Special Events Manager. When I was 13, I came out to her as gay. Supportive, and already acquainted with activism as vice president of the LGBT advocacy organization at Bell Atlantic, my mother joined me in speaking to high school health classes and faculty in New Jersey. We did this under the auspices of PFLAG (Parents, Friends & Family of Lesbians and Gays), discussing the importance of creating safe spaces for LGBTQ students and their allies. We were a great team—she, describing her experience as an ally, flower child and mother, and I, with my experience as a gay teen in the state public school system. Together, we helped educate students, promote teacher understanding of LGBTQ issues, and create safer environments.
I attended college at NYU, taking many classes in gender studies. The coursework was illuminating, providing contemporary theories of gender. I came to understand how this construct affects everyone, and how as a society we create very strict limits for our behaviors based on gender identities. I began incorporating some of this powerful academic theory into my presentations. Soon, we weren’t just advocating for LGBTQ youth, but also discussing how “gender rights are human rights” that affect everyone. This knowledge expanded how I view myself, not only as a gay rights activist, but also as a feminist.
Through her work at the YW, my mom arranged for us to speak with counselors at Camp Ma-Kee-Ya, discussing strategies for dealing with campers who might come out to them as gay, transgender or genderqueer. Since statistics show that nearly half of transgender women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, I conducted a similar informational-session with counselors at YWCA’s healingSPACE.
I have always been a feminist, but was spurred to activism because of my own experiences as a gay man, and my interest in helping others like me. It is fascinating to think that although the issues gay men face are so different from those faced by women, both genders are bound by societal stereotypes regarding the ways we’re “supposed to act”. It is this deep-seated, yet completely socially fabricated constraint that unites women with those who face homophobia, transphobia, or narrow definitions of masculinity and maleness. In this sense, the cause of feminism, of supporting women and their rights, is good for everyone. I am truly committed to creating a society in which our individual gender representation can be just another part of our multi-faceted identity.
This is why I am honored to [have performed at YWCA’s 95th] gala. The YWCA honors and supports women and the issues that are important to them. As a society, we must understand that this work is vital, and its ramifications, infinite. [That evening, I performed] as Kimberly Clark, my drag alter-ego. She is also a feminist. She is an homage to the strong and influential women in my life, like my mother, Barbara—but she is also a foil. Kimberly represents impossibilities, and forcibly stretches perceptions about what gender is. She does all this while attempting to be entertaining. So I hope that…you will join me in celebrating the YWCA, celebrating women, and celebrating open minds and hearts. If you are reading this, you most likely already believe in a better future for all, regardless of gender. I salute the YWCA for being an organization dedicated to spreading that truly contagious belief.