Street activist is also at home in the halls of power, fusing art with her advocacy and bridging the racial divide in the LGBT community
Cd Kirven’s first act of advocacy came as a 16-year-old growing up in South Dallas, when the verdict came down in the Rodney King beating.
Kirven had just gotten her driver’s license, and she recalls that her father had given her a green Oldsmobile Cutlass.
“I remember being so angry,” Kirven says. “I pasted ‘[Fuck] the police. Free Rodney King’ on these poster boards on the side of my car. My dad was like, ‘You’re going to get yourself killed.’”
Just to make sure she didn’t, he took away the Cutlass.
A year later, when she penned an article in a Dallas newspaper for teenagers, Kirven had seemingly learned to channel some of her angst.
The article was a critique of corporal punishment, which Kirven says was rampant in the overwhelmingly black Wilmer-Hutchins school district she attended.
“I took a picture of somebody getting paddled and their butt afterward bleeding,” Kirven says. “I almost got expelled for doing that.”
But the photo also helped the article get picked up by the Associated Press, making her the youngest author to have a story appear on the AP wire, which, in turn, led to a trip to Washington, D.C.
“I got to see that one person can really have an impact,” she recalls.
Clearly it was a realization she took to heart, and 20 years later Kirven is making a bigger impact than ever as one of Dallas’ most visible LGBT activists.
Known especially for her fiery oration, the 37-year-old Kirven has long been a fixture at gay-rights street protests. But she’s also recently managed to span the traditional divide between the grassroots and the halls of power, serving on Dallas City Councilwoman Delia Jasso’s LGBT Task Force and helping to organize the city’s official LGBT Pride Month celebrations this June.
And bridging gaps seems to come naturally to Kirven, who’s also an indispensible link between the African-American and LGBT communities — and who’s successfully fused activism with art as a creator of queer-themed comic books, literature and film.
For her tireless advocacy in 2012 — from responding to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings refusal to sign a pledge in support of same-sex marriage in January, to staring down Commissioner Maurine Dickey prior to a vote on domestic partner benefits in October — Kirven is Dallas Voice’s LGBT Person of the Year.
The art of activism
When Kirven graduated from Texas Women’s University with a degree in broadcast communications, she planned to pursue a career path along the lines of the corporal punishment article she wrote in high school.
“I was gonna be the next Oprah — until things happened,” she says. “You graduate, and you’ve got all those student loans.”
So she went to work for a utility company, eventually becoming a project manager before getting laid off several years ago.
“Then this activist stuff just kind of took over my life,” she says.
Kirven says she came out as lesbian in her early 20s — a difficult process because church was huge in her family and she considers herself a very spiritual person.
“I had to get right with God first before I took this journey,” she says.
But her coming out as an LGBT activist wouldn’t happen until her early 30s when, after she helped organize a fundraiser for the AIDS food pantry, she was asked to speak at a rally in City Hall Plaza protesting passage of California’s Proposition 8 in November 2008.
It grew into one of the largest LGBT rallies in the city’s history, but because street activism had experienced something of a lull, the public address system cobbled together by organizers malfunctioned. Unlike other speakers, though, Kirven’s voice didn’t require amplification.
“People were speaking, but it didn’t seem like there was any passion behind it,” Kirven says. “I got up and tried to say how I felt.”
It worked, to say the least, and since then Kirven has been invited to speak — or scream, as it were — at virtually every major LGBT rally.
“I think it comes from this intense anger that I had, being able to actualize those feelings,” she says of her gift. “I haven’t taken any speech classes. I think it
just comes from a passion from being tired of taking it as a woman, an African-American and a gay person.”
Around that same time, Kirven — who says her dream has always been to tell queer stories through film — completed a documentary about same-sex domestic violence. The first LGBT film shot entirely on a cell phone, it played at festivals around the country. Shortly after the film was released, Kirven says she went through a nasty breakup with her girlfriend and became a victim of domestic violence herself.
”I had to go through that same experience that the people I talked to went through,” she says. “It was a real eye-opener for me.”
But it wouldn’t be the only time Kirven’s activism has collided head-on with her private life.
Just this year, she lost custody of her 6-year-old son to another ex, the boy’s biological mother, following a bitter court battle. Kirven says she’s raised the boy alone, but her ex pretended to have gone straight, and the judge was biased against her because she’s a butch lesbian.
“It’s pretty horrific,” she says. “I just want to make sure no other woman has to go through this again. Sometimes I can’t even think about it, because I have to know that he probably thinks I abandoned him.”
Although this year has been difficult for Kirven personally — she also recently lost her grandmother — she’s thrived as both an activist and artist. But sometimes the two opposing forces have met.
When Kirven was volunteering at a breast cancer screening for masculine women and transgender men and women, a lump was discovered in her own breast, and now she needs a biopsy.
But Kirven said the biopsy will have to wait a few more weeks, because first she wants to attend activism-related engagements in Boston and Virginia.
Meanwhile, her comic book about a black lesbian superhero, The Tao Diaries, is taking off. She recently returned from Los Angeles’ Comikaze, where the book sold out.
Kirven said she’s now honing her focus on “art as activism.” She wants to help the state and national chapters of GetEQUAL integrate art into their work because she thinks it can attract more young people to the LGBT movement and help it grow into a full-fledged civil rights struggle.
“You can’t change people’s minds; you can change their hearts. And that’s why I feel like art as activism will help us evolve,” Kirven said. “I think art can help translate our everyday lives into a thing where you can see it’s no different from racism, it’s no different from sexism, it’s no different from discrimination based on disability.”
Face of the community
Kirven has been involved with GetEQUAL — the national LGBT direct action group — ever since she met fellow Dallasite Mark Reed at a rally on Cedar Springs in 2009. Reed, a national board member for the group, was among the chief organizers of the March for Equality in Washington, D.C. later that year.
In 2010, Reed and Kirven returned to D.C., and Kirven was arrested in a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand a House vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. She was sentenced to six months of probation.
“Until you’re sitting behind bars and you didn’t do anything wrong — I’m sitting behind bars because I want you to vote on ENDA so that people can’t be fired — it really made me appreciate the sacrifices that were made by people like Martin Luther King, or people in the women’s rights movement,” Kirven says.
A few weeks later Reed, who posted Kirven’s bond, would get arrested for chaining himself to the White House fence in a protest calling for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“We certainly have seen from the civil rights movement how direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience can be an effective way to create change,” Reed said. “It takes a lot of courage to do those type of actions. What [Kirven] can do is, she’s not afraid to speak her mind and to stand up for equality and she does it in a way that encourages other people to also take a stand with her, and the more you can get people to take a stand, the more you can create change.”
But even within GetEQUAL, Kirven has made waves. At one point she broke off from the group, launching her own organization called GetEQUAL Now with a focus on addressing racial discrimination within the LGBT movement.
“We’re back on speaking terms,” she says of her relationship with GetEQUAL.
“I’m never going to fully let that go,” Kirven says of GetEQUAL Now, “because I really feel like we haven’t addressed the problem head on. [But] I feel like my role right now is to be that person of color alongside the other activists.”
Kirven, also one of the founders of DFW Pride Movement, a black gay Pride group in Dallas, says she’ll be rejoining that organization’s board in 2013.
“I think LGBT people as a whole are fantastic, and the whole separation between us doesn’t make any sense to me, because I spend time with each community, and we’re more alike than we are different,” Kirven says. “We just don’t see that. Once we do that, our movement will escalate at a rate — you have no idea. But until we do that, it’s so easy for the heterosexual community to throw something in the middle and separate us, because we’re already so segregated.”
DFW Pride Movement Executive Director Derrick Spillman said Kirven has made mainstream groups more aware of the concerns of the black queer community.
“She is the voice and the face for the African-American community when it comes to advocating for equality,” Spillman said. “What I love about her is the fact that she has balls, meaning she is bold and she’s willing to stand in the face of adversity, and she’s going to represent us and represent us well.”
Weighing her future
At the outset of 2012, Kirven was among approximately 25 LGBT leaders who gathered at Resource Center Dallas for a closed-door meeting with Mayor Mike Rawlings, after he angered the community by refusing to sign a pledge in support of same-sex marriage.
The activists took turns speaking as an emotional conversation made its way around a semicircle in front of the mayor. Some held up pictures and talked about getting married in other states, or fearing they wouldn’t be able to see their sick partners in the hospital.
Kirven, one of the few who was there without a partner, waited with photos of her own family under her seat, planning to show them to Rawlings and talk about how her mother and brothers are so accepting despite their church background. But as she watched Rawlings listen to the other activists, Kirven didn’t sense that the mayor was taking it in.
“I just told him,” Kirven recalls. “I said: ‘I’m not gonna show a picture of my family to someone who can’t appreciate their importance. I think what we should be doing as a community is finding a candidate, putting him up against you and making sure you lose.’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind.”
Reflecting on the experience, later chronicled in a profile of Kirven that appeared in the Dallas Observer’s People Issue, Kirven says she’s comfortable with the role.
“I used to hate it so much — the stereotypical angry black woman — and now I’ve grown to embrace that because I’ve started to look at the movement as more of somebody has to be that agitator, somebody has to be the person they hate,” she says. “Somebody has to be that person for the other people to be able to make headway.”
Kirven says she’s spoken to Rawlings since, and she now serves on the city’s LGBT Task Force. But she was actually invited to join the Task Force because of her work on a different issue.
Kirven was friends with one of the leaders of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and when female firefighters sued the city for sex discrimination a few years ago, she threatened protests and put together a drag show benefit before the city settled.
“I’m not just a gay rights activist,” she says. “I’m a woman, too. I’m a black person, too. Those issues mean a lot to me.”
As an LGBT Task Force member, Kirven planned one of this year’s four weekly LGBT Pride Month events in June — a kickoff in the City Hall Flag Room that featured performances by both the Turtle Creek Chorale and spoken word poet Lady B Smoove.
“My week, I wanted to make sure it was a multicultural representation of our community,” she says.
And it’s not surprising that Kirven has become the go-to person when it comes to reaching out to African-American elected officials on LGBT issues. When County Commissioner John Wiley Price was the swing vote on domestic partner benefits this fall, Kirven locked up his support. She says it helped that Price was once a street activist himself.
“We connected, and I think he saw a little bit of himself in me,” she says, adding that she’s now working with DART board members on DP benefits. “It usually works. I usually connect with them and change their minds.”
When DP benefits finally came up for a vote at Commissioners Court, Kirven took center stage in one of the most memorable moments of the year.
Anti-LGBT Commissioner Dickey called Kirven a “him” and requested that she stop taking photos from the audience. Kirven notes that she had addressed the court a week before, so Dickey knew she was female.
The incident, captured on video by Dallas Voice, made national news. Kirven would later publicly offer LGBT diversity training to Dickey, who never responded to the gesture.
“She knew exactly what she was doing, and I hate the fact that her bizarre behavior overshadowed the triumph that the community made together,” Kirven says of Dickey, adding that as a butch lesbian, the insult didn’t phase her. “She didn’t get the reaction she thought she was going to get.”
Kirven’s success as an activist has led to requests for her to run against anti-gay incumbent Vonciel Jones Hill for City Council in 2013, but she says that’s unlikely. Kirven says she’s also considered running for Congress, when U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson retires.
But her first love will always be filmmaking. She’s working on a screenplay that she describes as a queer version of The Big Chill, and she plans to volunteer again this winter at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m at a crossroads of being a filmmaker or a politician,” Kirven says.
She might have enough energy and passion to do both.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 7, 2012.