PGN: PORTRAITS: SHARRON COOKS: OVERCOMING OBSTACLES THROUGH COMMUNITY SERVICE
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
This week’s Portrait certainly exemplifies those words of the late great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among her many community ventures, SharRon Cooks is the co-chair of Team Bayard, heading up the MLK Day of Service programs at William Way LGBT Community Center and around the city.
PGN: Where are you originally from?
SC: I was born in Camden and grew up in Pennsauken, N.J. We moved there when I was about 13. I came from a very — I won’t say strict — but traditional Christian home. I was raised with very strong Christian morals and values. We went to church Monday through Sunday and I went to a private Christian academy. My grandparents, my aunt and uncle were very distinguished members of the church; in fact, my uncle helped found it. So most of my younger years were spent as a churchgoer. Lots of Bible study.
PGN: What denomination was it?
SC: It was actually nondenominational. At the time, the church was called Soul Searchers and now they’re called Gatekeepers. Back then, Admiral Wilson Boulevard, where they were located, was full of adult-entertainment bookstores and theaters and my family and the church were instrumental in getting them taken down.
PGN: Now they’re liquor stores!
SC: [Laughs] Yes, so you can see I had an interesting upbringing when it comes to religion. The family has always shaped what we do around service and giving back to others. Many of them are missionaries and build schools in Africa, mostly in Kenya.
PGN: I understand that a lot of the homophobia spreading in Africa is because of some missionaries like Scott Lively. I’m hoping they’re not part of that.
SC: That’s in Uganda. In my experience with my family, it’s not like that. As long as they know a person gives back and is in service to others, that’s what’s important to them. Being respectful and staying true to the values that they instilled in me are the things that keep us together as a family. Often there’s a lot of dissention with LGBT people who were raised in religious families and there was a period of adjustment with me too; we faced some challenges, but once they saw that I was in service and bettering myself through higher education, it changed our relationship and we became a family again. It’s love and faith that keeps us together.
PGN: My extended family is very religious too but I think — in part from being mixed racially — we’ve been pretty open and liberal for a few generations.
SC: Funny you should say that; my grandfather is biracial with light skin and gray eyes. He married a brown-skinned woman but their kids came out very light. So people on that side of the family are all over the place: your complexion, my complexion. In fact, when I was born, my hair was blond and my eyes were blue. But I’ve always had a strong sense of being an African-American person and that’s how I’ve always identified. It was challenging in school. I’m not the lightest person in the African-American rainbow, but there were still some colorist issues in school and in society in general, even within the LGBT community.
PGN: So do you think being an openly LGBT person helped the religious factions in your family be more open-minded?
SC: My family respects the fact that I’m of service to the community, any community as long as I’m a contributing member of society in a valuable and purposeful way. My sister is a lesbian and she just got married in September. In fact, she and her wife are expecting and the baby shower is today. The non-religious side of the family were all there to support her, but the religious side didn’t participate in the wedding, they just don’t quite understand it yet. I think that, because of their beliefs, they have a very set idea of what sexuality and gender identity are and what they’re supposed to be.
PGN: Now you have me confused: I thought that you said that because of your service, they accepted you.
SC: Because of my service they respect me. There’s a difference.
PGN: Got it. How many siblings do you have?
SC: Two. My sister and a brother, who’s 14 years younger.
PGN: How was growing up in Pennsauken?
SC: It was great, we had the American dream: a five-bedroom house in the suburbs with a two-car garage. I’m very appreciative for it. Most people born in depressed urban areas never get out; they live there and die there for generations. My family sacrificed and worked very hard to give us the best opportunities they possibly could. For that, I’m immensely grateful. Because of it, I’m now in a position to be of service to others, to seek higher education and help my community.
PGN: What were some of your youthful activities outside of church?
SC: I was into a lot. I was in the chess club and went to competitions. I did indoor guard and color guard. I played clarinet, saxophone and trumpet in band. I was in the flag line; I can still twirl a riffle or flag, throw it in the air and catch it behind my back! I did well academically too.
PGN: What was a favorite band memory?
SC: When we competed for division championships at Giants Stadium and won. My parents were in the stands and they were so proud. I was easy to spot because I was the only African-American kid out there, with dyed blond hair. There was a long hallway leading onto the field and I’ll never forget waiting to go on to this gigantic field with bright lights in front of a huge audience. It was a wow moment! After we performed, we were standing holding hands waiting for the results and when we heard that we won, the place just erupted. It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun. We got to travel all over for competitions but that was the best.
PGN: Where did you go after high school?
SC: The summer right before my senior year I started coming to Philadelphia with two friends who were familiar with the LGBT scene in town. It was a major awakening for me. I was always very open in high school and it was starting to get me in trouble. My hair was long and I wore make-up and I got suspended several times for using the girls’ bathroom, which is one of the reasons that, when I went to Community College of Philadelphia, I fought for gender-neutral bathrooms. But anyway, I’d never known that there was an LGBT community. I’d been so sheltered in the suburbs so that just getting off PATCO at 13th and Locust would make me catch my breath at seeing the big buildings and all the people and the energy of the city. It was a new world. I was a girl going to the clubs with two gay-identified men meeting all sorts of new friends. I got into the ball culture and traveled to New York and Baltimore and all over. It was exciting for a teenager and when it came time to go back to school in September, I was full-on dressing in full make-up and hair, nails done and wearing dresses, which did not go over well in Pennsauken High School. There were a lot of challenges that year. My parents were constantly being called to the school. The funny thing is that there was never a problem with other students. You would think there would have been some bullying or teasing but there wasn’t; the only people who had a problem with it were the teachers and administrators. I finally dropped out because they made it so difficult. My parents had a hard time as well. They may have had an easier time accepting it if I was gay-identified but the trans thing was harder to comprehend. I resemble my mother and she would say, “I don’t understand why you’re trying to look like me!” So I ran away to Philadelphia. My parents tried to look for me but I hung out in places they wouldn’t find me. I was 18 and naïve, I had a lot of fun but also got into a lot of trouble. I did and was exposed to things that … I think the problem that my family had the most was my behavior. My experience was different from a lot of people I met. Many of them had never been close to their families, many had abusive parents. Some had been fending for themselves since they were 7 or 8 and been victimized in various ways. They were kicked out of their homes whereas I ran away from a suburban home to lay on the floor of an abandoned building. I made that choice and my family didn’t understand. The emotion was, “We didn’t sacrifice so much to give you opportunities to have you on the streets acting like you have no education or culture or ethics.” It took me a long time to understand, OK, it’s not necessarily this that they’re upset about, it’s that my conduct was not what they worked so hard for. When we finally started to heal our relationship was when I let them know that I was ready to respect and honor the values and principles they raised me with and to appreciate the opportunities that they gave me that many people never got. They’ve always let me know that I was loved and no matter where I was they always kept in touch and sent care packages and let me know I was always welcome to come back. They’ve always been very supportive through all my ups and downs.
PGN: What were some of the downs and when did you turn around?
SC: Oh, there were a lot of scary moments that made me question what the hell I was doing, being introduced to drugs and subsequent drug use and illegal behavior. I joined a house, which was kind of like a gang, and at first it was like, “We’re taking you in and giving you a place to stay, taking care of you,” but then you are asked to do things in return that weren’t in line with my morals and ethics. People who truly care about each other don’t ask people to do things that aren’t in their best interest. There were a few times when I was out there in situations with no one to have my back. I realized I needed to change something.
PGN: So speaking of that, let’s jump to present day and what you’re doing now. Are you still at Pierce?
SC: Well, before coming back to Philly I lived in Florida for a bit. I was introduced to erotic photography and modeling. I also traveled for several years as an adult-film entertainer. Then I did some fashion illustration and figure modeling for the Academy of Art University in California, which was an awesome experience, and then I started getting homesick. I flew back to Philadelphia and made it my home base but still did film work in California. I got into some trouble with substance abuse, but it ended up being a lifesaver because I had a neighbor who invited me to an AA meeting at William Way. I started going to the AA and CMA meetings and got clean. I realized I needed to turn things around and began volunteering at the center. I figured, what better way to thank them for the services they provided for me? It was the spark for my community activism. Then in 2008, when we elected our first black president, I decided I needed to go back to school and do something more with my life. I got my GED, enrolled in Pierce Business College, changed my major umpteen times and then took a course taught by a psychologist named Abraham Maslow, which sparked my interest in human behavior, so I transferred to the Community College of Philadelphia. I took a philosophy course, Sex and Love, which I figured would be good after my experience in the adult-film industry. It completely revolutionized my life. I switched to liberal arts, I was an honors student, created the gay-straight alliance and lobbied for gender-neutral bathrooms. I got more responsibilities at the William Way Center and started doing workshops at the Trans-Health conference. I really blossomed. My last five years have been all about my education and service to the community. You name it, I’ve probably volunteered there.
PGN: Who moved you during your volunteer work?
SC: Being at the front desk of the center, people come in who need something and it’s a great feeling to be able to provide it. I remember one woman who came in with two children. She had experienced domestic violence and needed help. She wasn’t a member of the LGBT community but she felt that the center could give her resources needed to keep her and her children safe. I knew I was giving real help to a person in need. But for me, the staff has moved me the most by taking a chance on me and encouraging and supporting me, believing that everyone needs a second chance and trusting in me. Because of that, I was able to be at that desk when that woman came in and be the first face that she saw. I was in a position to help her and reduce her risk of harm.
PGN: What’s your organization, Making Our Lives Easier?
SC: I realized that there were gaps in services to some factions of our community. We work to fill those gaps by providing resources and information. Knowledge is power and just a little of it can make an enormous difference. As president of the GSA, there were many people I met who were beginning to start journeys I’d already navigated. Whether it was transitioning or just discovering the LGBT community or school or just wanting to know how to get more involved, I’ve been there and can help. If an organization feels that they’re not reaching a certain demographic they want to reach out to, my company comes in to facilitate it. I’ve been in the trenches with the people they’re trying to reach. If there’s an employee trying to negotiate fairness or a grievance with an employer, I can help intervene. I’m in the process of developing a program to teach life skills and professional development, things to help people have a competitive edge in the job market, especially for those in the 25-35 age range that often fall between the cracks of youth and adult-service organizations.
PGN: I’m glad you’re stressing an educational component.
SC: Yes, I think that’s where a lot of our organizations fall short. You have so many young trans girls who haven’t developed the self-esteem they need or the professional and life skills needed to interact with the binary world. Some stale pizza and a token isn’t enough. I’m very passionate about that; we need to be doing more.
PGN: Well, a good start is MLK Day. Tell me about what’s in store.
SC: It’s going to be great. Anne Aagenes got us started last year pairing up with Global Citizen 365 and this year Scott Drake and I are the coordinators. Team Bayard, named after Bayard Rustin, is the planning committee and there’s a lot in store. Organizations like Philly AIDS Thrift, the Delta Phi Upsilon fraternity, Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council, The Sister Girls Choir, Out at Comcast and others will all work on projects. We’re going to be writing letters to incarcerated transgender and trans-variant people with Hearts on a Wire, volunteers will prepare and serve meals at the John C. Anderson building and help seniors with various tasks, we’ll be painting the AIDS Library and doing beautification projects around the Gayborhood. Colours is doing HIV outreach and Equality PA is doing phone banking. Lots of things for people to do, so I hope people will sign up.