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Queer Central

How Kendall Clawson found her bliss at the gayest job ever.


Imagine a world where your top workday priority is finding a replacement drag queen to call bingo numbers. Where the mayor of your city, with an out daughter of his own, pledges support to your fledgling community center. This is not a dream: The location is Portland, Ore., the building is the Q Center, and Kendall Clawson is its first executive director, an unabashedly straight-shooter just settling in for the long haul.

“My first day of work was during Pride,” Clawson remembers. “It was awesome, like this big party to welcome me.” Her infectiously blissful attitude was key to uniting Clawson and the Q Center in the first place. A year ago, Clawson reached a point in her life where she needed something different. After 20 years of working in the corporate world, Clawson wanted a position she could grow and build. She and her partner Michelle, who were married in Massachusetts in 2006, talked about relocating.

The couple had visited Portland several times and loved it. Shortly before one of their visits, Clawson happened across an ad for the center’s executive director position and thought, “I could do that!” A few inquiries later she scheduled a last-minute interview.

During her follow-up interview she told the board: “Look, this is my job. I’ll go through the paces, but tell me what I need to do to nail this thing down.” While Clawson was up-front with the board about the challenges the Q Center would face in hiring an African American woman, she was calmly optimistic, imagining the center as though she was “looking at delicious pie, thinking—where do I start?”

A month later she and Michelle packed up the house and their two dogs for the drive from West Springfield, Mass., to Portland. That everything went so smoothly was proof to Clawson that she’d made the right decision. “I’m already lucky. Just out the gate, I walked into a situation that was healthy, where…people worked well and respected each other’s ideas. I have a terrific board who support me like crazy, and they’re conscious of their role as board members and as people supporting an African American in leadership.” Portland’s unique qualities—like its LGBTQ designation—are something Clawson still appreciates a year later, something she deems “all Portland—it’s thinking about and including everyone. Portland is a great place to be able to take a little upshoot like the Q Center and grow it into something amazing.”

In 2003, metro Portland surveyed its denizens on whether a queer center was something necessary—and the overwhelming answer was “Yes.” Now the mission is to create a space “to increase the visibility of and foster connection within the LGBTQ community.” The work on the center happened with the advice, direction and hands of the people it was built for. Portland lacks a centralized, distinctly queer community like Greenwich Village or the Castro, so it was important to find a space that was centrally located and easily accessible by foot and public transportation.

Clawson arrived just as Oregon was gearing up for the fight for domestic partnership. The Q Center, which itself stays neutral, hosted candlelight vigils supporting the community through the law’s extended passage: In May 2007, state legislators voted to allow same-sex couples basic rights like visiting a partner in the hospital, inheriting a deceased partner’s estate and coverage on a partner’s insurance plan. This domestic partnership was challenged and its implementation delayed until Feb. 4, 2008. During the vigils, the Q Center’s Achilles heel was exposed: It needed more space. “At that point we had a place for the community to come home, a club house where they could celebrate, mourn and marry. There were so many people that we knew we had to find a new space.”

Clawson envisions that the Q Center will become the absolute center of a complex of queer organizations: cabaret next to realtors, massage therapists and tax people—all sorts of resources in one building. The idea is to find yourself connected to a community and to leave no one isolated. Clawson hopes for the Q Center to provide that support for the community. “For the rest of their lives, people might not get the struggle, but I can open the door and allow someone to be just who they are—that’s what we’re about.”

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