To explain the work of the LGBT Equality Alliance of Chester County, I’m going to share this info directly from the group’s website:
“In January 2015, Rachel Stevenson sought to revive the LGBTQA social scene that once thrived in Phoenixville, from 2001-09, in a little gay bar called Frank Jeffreys. Once closed, and with the need for social contentedness, the first monthly afternoon ‘tea dance’ was held on Jan. 11, 2015. These ‘tea dances’ brought together the LGBTQA community from Chester County and surrounding areas.
“Within three months, it was apparent that these ‘tea dances’ were more than just monthly social events. Realizing there were few services for the LGBTQA Community in Chester County, and using the energy, momentum and support from three successful tea dances, the 501(c)3 nonprofit LGBTea Dances was born on March 26, 2015.
“Following continued growth and expansion, the organization changed its name to LGBT Equality Alliance on July 15, 2016. LGBT Equality Alliance partners with businesses, community groups, schools, foundations and corporations to support LGBTQ+ community members in Chester County through Pride festivals, after-school events, education programs, art shows, health fairs, bridal shows, job fairs and more.
“LGBT Equality Alliance aims to remove barriers of communication between Chester County LGBTQ+ residents and the greater community. Rather than create a community center, it is our focus to unify the greater community so all LGBTQ+ community members feel at home and supported in their living environment.”
That’s a lot going on right outside our borders.
On July 16, the LGBT Equality Alliance will host another one of its (now-quarterly) tea dances. We took time out to chat up one of the board members, Julie K. Mesaros.
PGN: Where do you hail from?
JM: It’s funny, I’ve lived abroad for so long, I’m not used to being specific. I normally just say, “I’m from the U.S.,” but originally I come from a small town in rural Pennsylvania, not far from Gettysburg.
PGN: What’s the origin of your last name?
JM: It comes from a Hungarian surname that got butchered by immigration when my ancestors came here. It comes from the Hungarian “meszaroz,” which means “son of butcher.”
JM: There were five of us: traditional mother, father, siblings. I’m the youngest and there’s a fairly big gap between us; my sister is seven years older and my brother is nine years older than me. My mother swears that I was the only one who was planned. She says that’s her story and she’s sticking to it.
PGN: What did the folks do?
JM: My dad was in education — he started as a teacher and later moved into administration as a district superintendent — and my mom mostly worked in social services and then did nonprofit work.
PGN: I see where you get your do-gooder genes.
JM: Yes, I learned the value of an education and the importance of social service.
PGN: How would your parents describe you as a child?
JM: The first thing that comes to mind is very active. I liked to play outside until dark and was always into some kind of sport. I was pretty independent and was always able to entertain myself. I’d make up games and stuff to keep myself occupied.
PGN: What was the first job you ever took?
JM: I did some babysitting when I was in high school but my first job with a paycheck was as a pool lifeguard. I was 16 and I was not a really good swimmer but I liked the water and was willing to dive in to help someone in trouble.
PGN: What did you do after high school?
JM: I was offered a full scholarship to play basketball at Loyola College, which is now a university. I went and played for two years but there was a lot of pressure. They wanted me to be an athlete before being a student and I felt that my education was more important to me. I also wanted to study abroad; I’d done a semester in Bangkok at the International University and got a taste of the international scene. Basketball is a year-round commitment and I wanted to do more.
PGN: So you were a real jock! What other sports did you play?
JM: Yeah, I fit the stereotype! I played volleyball, track, softball and I’ve always loved football but I wasn’t aware of any women being able to play at that time. When I got into my mid- to late 20s I started coming out to myself and, as a way of getting out and meeting people and having some fun, I joined the softball leagues here in Philly and got into playing women’s flag and tackle football. There were some straight women on the team but it was about 90-percent gay.
PGN: I’m not in any way a jock, but football is my favorite sport too.
JM: Yes, there’s a lot of action and it’s almost gladiator-like if you really want to get into it. It’s one of the best sports, in my opinion.
PGN: What was a memorable sports moment?
JM: I was lucky enough to have had a few of those buzzer-beater, “sinking the shot in the final second to win the game” moments. They’re very dreamlike and make for awesome memories.
PGN: Worst injury?
JM: Playing football and again during softball, I tore the cartilage in my shoulder, which made it tough to throw a ball, which was upsetting. I actually just had surgery, 10 years later, to repair it.
PGN: What position did you play?
JM: Quarterback, so throwing was important.
PGN: I’m impressed. What was the coming-out process like for you?
JM: It was very tumultuous and not at all linear. But I guess that’s true for many people. I really had to come out to myself first and be able to say, “Yes, I am attracted to women” and then find the courage to put myself out there, which I did through sports, which is a very organic and safe environment to meet others like you. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was about 30. They were totally accepting. But part of the reason that I went to Thailand the third time in 2011 was because I’d discovered that Thailand is quite liberal in terms of sexuality and gender expression, especially for an Asian country. I wanted to try to find freedom and love there in a way that I couldn’t in the U.S. I lived there for three years and came back in 2014. It really helped me build confidence in myself and who I am.
PGN: What drew you there in the first place?
JM: I was a philosophy major and I was really interested in religion and Eastern philosophy. I wanted to travel and experience different cultures and our school had a study-abroad program that I was able to take advantage of. A lot of the programs were in England or Australia but I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone so I chose Thailand.
PGN: What were you planning to do with a degree in philosophy?
JM: [Laughs] Everyone always asks that! I get it, people wonder why anyone would choose to study that. I wanted to go to law school and used philosophy as a precurser to that. I also had burning questions about life that I needed answered and philosophy helped with that. The things that I learned about — thinking critically and how to make arguments and how to consider different aspects of any issue or topic — have enriched my life. It taught me to be a better writer and other things that have filtered into both my private and professional life.
PGN: And what is it that you do now?
JM: I just finished my master’s degree in education, specifically teaching ESL [English as a Second Language] and now I teach at West Chester University. I work mostly with international students and teach reading, writing, listening, speaking, critical thinking, all the things they need to succeed in school. I love it.
PGN: What is a language mix-up that makes you laugh? I have a friend from overseas who used to say, “Oh get off of my face!” and I’d explain, “No, it’s get off my back or out of my face! Get off of my face is a whole different conversation … ”
JM: [Laughs] That’s good. It usually is the prepositions that trip people. One of the ones that I find is very common is mixing up “kitchen” and “chicken” because the syllables sound similar when you’re not familiar with the words. That’s always funny when you hear it.
PGN: Tell me about the last time you were in Thailand and the work that you did. Why was it important?
JM: I worked for an NGO in Northern Thailand whose mission was to fight human trafficking, especially girls and sometimes boys being lured into the sex industry and other exploitations. I went from a very-metropolitan Bangkok with seven-million people to a very rural area with a completely different culture. I’d saved up some money so I could volunteer, mainly as a coordinator for the group, and lived very basically. I was pretty much in a shack with no refrigerator. The electricity bill was so low, they just wrote it off. The work is important because Thailand is very much a country that’s all about that face. They want to show a good face to the world that it’s a beautiful destination trip with lovely beaches and mountains, when what’s really going on is quite different. Speaking the language and working as a teacher, I see a lot below the surface and it’s not pretty. There’s a deeply imbedded system of trafficking. Thailand is a hub for exploitation; it’s a destination, it’s a source and a transit country, which are the three categories of human trafficking. Thailand is considered a level-three tier, which is the worst, by the State Department. The politics are very corrupt, which allows it to go on and everybody’s involved, from the Buddhist monks to the school teachers, parents, taxi driver, doorman, anyone who can get a quick kickback. There are any number of people you can bump into along the very-intricate route of human trafficking. Having spent time there, I also saw how my status was diminished because I was a woman; it’s very patriarchal and I saw how the discrimination against women and children, especially girls and other “lesser” ethnic groups, fed into the sex trafficking. I felt that I needed to do something to be part of the solution rather than stay neutral or contribute to the problem.
PGN: Were you ever in danger?
JM: The NGO that I worked for was right on the border between Thailand and Myanmar, also known as Burma. It was very porous; people could easily come across or be lured across so it could get a little sketchy. When I had to cross the border to renew my visa, I’d get a feeling in my gut that it wasn’t safe. I didn’t get that feeling often, though, and other than a few catcalls, or being followed on occasion, nothing happened.
PGN: Well, that happens here daily! Do you speak any other languages other than English and Thai?
JM: I actually lived in China for a short time and taught English in Shanghai for about six months and I started learning a little bit of Mandarin, but now I can only say a few phrases.
PGN: So back to the states, what’s the best part of teaching at WCU?
JM: The campus is nice and our facility is brand-new. I love my job very much and I really enjoy my students. I love a multicultural classroom.
PGN: How did you get involved in the LGBT Equality Alliance?
JM: Last June after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, I was really, really angry and a little bit afraid … but mostly angry. I was at a point where I felt a little in the shadows in my life; I wasn’t really out there, I wasn’t in a relationship, I wasn’t living authentically, so I started looking for a way to connect to the community. I found LGBTEA and started going to support meetings. I also volunteered for almost every function I could get my hands on. I started going to and coordinating social events like the quarterly tea dance, which will be happening again on July 16, and I guess I proved myself as a leader because I was asked to join the board in a leadership role.
PGN: Does the alliance have a physical presence?
JM: Yes, we have an office in Phoenixville and we have a regular location for our tea dances. By the way, it’s not a tea party; the name comes from the end of our acronym: LGBTEA. We have a DJ and drinks and it’s always a good time. We also do educational programs and a health fair and also a winter-gear drive near the holidays since homelessness is such a big problem in the community. We also have our annual Pridefest in June and then we take the money from our big events and do grants and scholarships for youth.
PGN: I didn’t know all this was happening so close to us! How did you meet your partner, Amy?
JM: We met at an LGBTEA event that we both volunteered for and then we crossed paths again at a tea dance and soon after started dating. We’ve been together ever since.
PGN: LGBTEA is doing all sorts of good work out there.
JM: [Laughs] Yes, my three personal missions have been fulfilled: being more active socially, doing something for others and finding someone great to be with! Missions accomplished.
PGN: If you could be the leader of any country, which country would you choose? What would you do first?
JM: The U.S., and the first thing I would do is rearrange the federal budget. I’d prioritize education and social services.
PGN: As a philosophy major, what words or quote do you want to leave us with?
JM: There’s a quote from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” He writes, “I exist as I am, and that is enough.”
The LGBT Equality Alliance’s July tea dance will be held from 4-8 p.m. July 16 at Barnaby’s of West Chester, 15 S. High St. For more information, visit http://ow.ly/h3BW30dxmMS. For more information about LGBTEA, visit www.lgbteachesco.org.