Patrick Dunn never thought that turning the pages of National Geographic magazine would lead him to the New Haven Pride Center (NHPC). Now his thinking about herd mentality has him stepping up as its first executive director.
An American-Turkish transplant who has been in Connecticut for the better part of 13 years, Dunn made the announcement that he is becoming the LGBTQ center’s director Friday afternoon. He begins the full-time paid position Aug. 1.
The center was founded by John Allen in 1996, with the stated intention of being “a space to form bonds and move forward in strength in the New Haven community and beyond.” For 21 years, it has operated under the leadership of volunteers and a board of directors, with an annual budget between $40,000 and $50,000.
Dunn said one of his first priorities as director will be growing that budget to $150,000 to $200,000, using the Triangle Community Center (TCC) in Norwalk as a model.
His other goal — making the LGBTQ community much more inclusive — is influenced by three decades of self-interrogation, country-hopping, and reading about animals around the globe.
How Herd Mentality Led To Pride Mentality
Dunn, 32, grew up splitting his time between California and Ankara, Turkey. In the ‘80s, his parents met at the University of Utah, where they were both students. They married and moved to Salinas, Califronia, shortly after college, where Dunn’s maternal grandparents lived and his father could pursue hopes of becoming a chef and sommelier. Then “I guess I came along at some point,” said Dunn.
They realized when Dunn was young that they were no longer in love with each other, and separated. Dunn’s father met and remarried a woman in California. His mother met a man who was Turkish military, stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to complete a master’s degree. When he finished his degree, Dunn’s mother decided to move with him back to Turkey. Dunn’s parents cut a deal: Dunn would spend the academic year in Turkey, where they felt schools were better, and summers in California.
Just shy of 8 years old, Dunn became “a puddle jumper,” making the 16-hour flight between Turkey and the U.S. several times a year. His worldview was shifting constantly around him. He learned Turkish, embracing the country’s custom of calling almost “everybody that you meet in a day” by a familial term of endearment. He hunkered down in his classes, where the educational system was more intense and fast-paced than anything he had experienced in the U.S.
He turned the long flights between Turkey and the U.S. into opportunities to overcome his shyness, pushing himself to talk to his seat mates each time he got on an airplane. And he kept reading issues of National Geographic that his grandmother championed, transferring lessons on the animal kingdom back to the human behavior around him.
It was simultaneously exciting and “so isolating,” he said. “I think I sympathize with everybody because I was alone for so many chunks of time as a kid.”
He felt he was living between worlds, he recalled. In Ankara, his stepfather’s extended family, younger half-sister, and friends had all accepted him “as Turkish” because he spoke Turkish fluently, and “passed” for Turkish with his darker skin and, as he aged, a “beard that I can grow in like three minutes.” He learned about, then tried to live out, Ataturk’s Ne mutlu Türküm diyene — “how happy is the person who calls himself a Turk.” But he also had a creeping feeling he really wasn’t fully Turkish — that “I didn’t have Turkish blood in my veins.” But he didn’t feel truly American either. When he returned to the U.S. each summer, he saw how much he was also missing from “experiences the average American has.”
By then, he said, he already knew he was gay — “since before I could think,” he quipped at one point — but he hesitated to come out to his family, overcome by a fear of rejection. He and a boyfriend had carried on a relationship in secret for a year and a half in Turkey before breaking up, because they both recognized that “you were gay until you were in your 30s, and then you got married. Or you were gay for a few years in high school but then you put away those feelings and you moved on.”
That changed when Dunn was recruited by the University of Hartford at the end of high school. He made the decision to come out on day one, as he and a roommate moved into their dorms.
“I was like: I’m gonna be gay, gay, gay, gay, gay,” he recalled. A month in, he found himself attending a show at Hartford’s Polo Club, where he saw his first drag queen (Divine Spice) and “this explosion of freedom blew my mind.” From the math and science he had studied in high school, he took on majors in creative writing and nonprofit management.
But he would return home and step back into the closet. He came out to his dad at 22, after his stepmother had asked him “point-blank if I was gay” the night before, and then spilled the news to his dad. He came out to his mom at 25 or 26, after she let on that she knew — he had come out to his younger sister some years before — and asked about a breakup. And he found, to his relief, that both of them were deeply accepting. They were part of his herd, and he part of theirs.
“You know, you get to a place where you think, ‘Well, fuck it if they don’t like it,’” he said. “And it’s OK. It’s OK to say that. And it’s OK to know that you hopefully have places to go where you can feel safe if the person that makes you feel unsafe is not able to change or accept you.”
Let’s Have A Kiki: On To New Haven
That place is also how Dunn ultimately made it to New Haven, and to the NHPC for the first time. After college, he remained in Hartford for a position at Hartford Stage, working at the Polo Club to support a small not-for-profit salary. In the early 2000s, he moved back to Salinas to help his mom and grandmother care for his grandfather, who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. For two years, he juggled care and work at the John Steinbeck museum, one of the city’s main attractions (the other is lettuce and mushroom farming).
Then he got a call from his friend John Elash, who performs under the drag moniker Bella Lucia. Elash suggested Dunn move to New Haven. And Dunn, whose post-Salinas job offer had just fallen through, did.
Dunn intended for it to be a temporary stop, a professional stepping stone on the way to New York or a larger city. “When I lived in Hartford, New Haven was the scary place that you wouldn’t go to except to go to Gotham,” he said, recalling the now-closed nightclub. “That was the only reason to go to New Haven as a gay student. We’d come down here and dance, but otherwise we didn’t really come to New Haven.”
The city had other plans for him. When Dunn arrived, Elash wanted him to meet the LGBTQ community. The two hit Partners on a Tuesday, 168 York on a Wednesday, and Gotham on a Thursday. A month later, Dunn wandered into the Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival, and then learned about the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Soon, he was working for the festival. The thought of staying for one year became two, and then two became five.
One week short of his 30th birthday in 2015, Dunn asked drag queen Robin Banks if he could perform at her show as part of a long bucket list. It was part of a personality “I’ve worked so hard” to get to: Years before, he’d told his mom “well, I’m not that gay. It’s not like I’m walking down the street in a dress and heels” as he came out to her. He didn’t want to be the person who had said that anymore. He wanted to be a person who fostered LGBTQ community “in all its forms” instead.
Taking the stage as Kiki Lucia, he asked Banks to let him do one song at no charge. She paid him for five, and then gave him as monthly show called Let’s Have a Kiki. He joined the Imperial Sovereign Court of All Connecticut, part of the LGBT advocacy Imperial Sovereign Court network. And those five years in the city bloomed into seven.
“I never really had a place that I considered home, because I was always on the move,” he said. “And in New Haven, I feel that I have really found a home.
Throughout, he found himself working closely with LGBT allies in Connecticut, from queens performing at 168 York to NHPC board members Allen and Josh O’Connell. So when O’Connell announced the goal of hiring a full-time staff member at the Dorothy Awards two years ago, Dunn — there as Kiki Lucia — sat bolt upright, and offered to get involved.
Dunn, a longtime volunteer for the center and performer at New Haven Pride Month, first asked to help. He and O’Connell knew that a gift of around $10,000 would be coming to the NHPC from the Imperial Sovereign Court, and that a second would follow from the Sweetheart Bowling League; both were above the center’s operating budget for the year. The two met, and then discussed an executive director position with the board of directors. The board jumped on.
Where The Center Has Been, And Where It’s Going
Twenty-one years ago, the center grew out of a need for community and coalition building. Now Dunn is seeking to bring that mission back.
In 1993, John Allen watched the city’s Board of Alders fail to pass domestic partnership legislation, and did a needs assessment at Southern Connecticut State University that revealed there was no central hub for gay life and activism in the city. In 1996, he and partner Keith Hyatte opened the center on Fitch Street, running it with a volunteer board of directors.
In the years that followed, it became a home for some of the city’s gay life, relocating to West Haven in 2009, and then to its current home on 84 Orange St. in 2013.
Now, Dunn said, he is interested in both preserving that history, and opening the center up to groups who haven’t yet felt welcome there. He plans to start his tenure with “a lot of listening” to both local nonprofits and activists in the black, Latino, trans, immigrant and refugee communities, whose stories he said have often been overlooked or excluded from New Haven’s queer narrative. In addition to “coffee with the ED,” he plans on bringing larger numbers of youth into the center and starting a queer refugee support group.
“The reality is that the LGBTQ community is the most diverse community that exists, because we have a little bit of everybody,” he said. “And because we have a little bit of everybody, there’s no one person that can actually represent everybody. It’s just not possible.… There’s just so much in our community that I can never fully experience, and it’s so important for anyone in my kind of position to really listen to everybody and try to do my best to serve everybody to the best that I can.”
“I think what my biggest job is going to be, at least for the first six months to a year, it’s gonna be listening,” he said. “And also hearing what people need. A community center is not a community center unless it’s doing what the community needs. Period. We cannot serve any population unless they feel that we’re doing what they need us to do to serve them.”
Some of that, he said, goes back to a lesson he learned as a kid, poring over issue upon issue of National Geographic.
“No community is stronger than their weakest member,” he said. “It’s like a herd. And if you think of the LGBT community as a herd — and if we’re in the animal kingdom and we think of naysayers as predators in the animal kingdom — our weakest members are the ones that feel the most pain.”
“It’s my job to use my voice to try to speak for those people in their words, not my own,” he continued. “Not corrupting their experience or trying to use them. I never want to take their experience away … because I will never be able to do that. But I can listen to what their concern is and then hopefully use the voice I have to try to bring them closer into the herd and make them safer.”
He declined to disclose his starting salary but called it “appropriate for the size of the organization.”
“This development is an exciting time in the history of New Haven’s first (and only) LGBTQ+ Center,” said Allen in a press release for Friday’s event. “The region is a better place because it has a home in the Center, a safe place that can be used as a refuge for those who need it. With the hiring of Patrick, we hope be more responsive to the needs and desires of the community.”