Kate Hinchey is no slouch. Activist, student, caregiver and world traveler are just some of the titles she holds.
PGN: You have had quite an academic career: Temple, Penn, Bryn Mawr …
KH: I actually started my academic career at Chestnut Hill College outside of Philadelphia, which is where my mother attended. But I transferred home after my first year to work as a kindergarten teacher’s assistant and then I transferred to Temple University and, while I was in my first year at Temple, my dad had a stroke. So I dropped out of school to go home and take care of him and work full-time to help support my family. I ended up at CCP because the family that I nannied for came home one day and said, “You need to go back to school and we are going to change our schedules to be able to help you do it.” So it was Kate and Harsh who made it possible for me to go back to school and then get a scholarship to Bryn Mawr. It was a long route.
PGN: Wow. Well that must make you a little more relatable for the kids you work with, to know you didn’t come from an Ivy League silver spoon.
KH: Yeah, well I’m at Bryn Mawr right now finishing my degree. I got a merit-based full scholarship for non-traditional students. The youth there are quite different from the other types of youth I’ve worked with. It’s a bit of an ivory tower and they really don’t want to talk about my activist experience or my life experience. They’re on a four-year set track and don’t have room for anything or anyone that deviates from that. It gives me a lot of insight about how the people with the power see the people on the ground who are actually doing the activist work that’s going to change the world. Especially the gay youth in Philly, they have no idea. They never leave Bryn Mawr.
PGN: I hear you. I grew up in Radnor and it killed me how many of my peers had never once been to Philadelphia even though we were 20 minutes away. They had money but had never been to a play or gone to a museum.
KH: Yes, they call it the “Bryn Mawr bubble.” It’s funny, I went the whole first semester without anyone knowing that I was queer or anything about me or the work I’ve been involved with. But I grew up down at the shore and we had the Radnor shoobies in the summer so it wasn’t as much of a culture shock as it might have been.
PGN: What is a shoobie?
KH: [Laughs] It’s a sort of derogatory term that locals in South Jersey used to describe tourists. The story that I was told is that in the ’20s, when the trains were popular, people would come from Philly and bring their lunch in shoeboxes, which they would leave scattered on the beaches.
PGN: Where did you grow up?
KH: Cape May Court House, which, with 17 letters and four words, is the longest town name in the country. It’s exciting, we were a “Jeopardy” question once. I went to Middle Township High School, but the closest beaches to me are Stone Harbor and Avalon. I have a really big family and they all live down here so I grew up with tons of cousins and my grandparents close by. I have two younger brothers who also still live down here.
PGN: What’s something you and your brothers liked to do at the beach?
KH: When I was about 9, my mother stopped waitressing during the summers so we got to spend a lot of time with her. During the year, she was a teacher so during the summer we went to the beach every day. We used to have big competitions making drippy castles. That’s where you dig down to the really wet sand and drip it out of your hands, drop by drop, to make these castles with nasty, muddy-looking spires, but we thought they were cool. My dad had a boat too, so we were always out on that.
PGN: You’ve worked a lot with kids. Tell me something fun about that.
KH: Yes, first as a kindergarten teacher’s assistant, that was the year I came out. That was fun. My mom taught at the same school and her class was right across from mine. I found out that she knew I was gay when I got a call from a friend’s mom who said, “Your mom knows.” I was like, “She knows I missed my car payment?” “No, that you’re gay!” It was just as I was walking into my classroom to start the day. I was also lucky to work as a nanny and my longest position was with a little boy named Emil. I was his nanny from the time he was 3 months old until he was 2. I’m still close to his family, and his parents were really supportive. They always supported and allowed time for my LGBT activism. I would take him to the Dyke March and even made him a little shirt that said, “I love my dyke nanny,” which he wore. He calls me Kiki and he called the march the Kiki and Amber [Hikes] parade. One of the best things his mom ever said to me was when I was thanking her for sending me back to school and always being so supportive — because I’d worked in nanny positions where I wasn’t out — and for loving me. And she responded, “Katie, Emil doesn’t love you in spite of who you are, he loves you because of it.” Sorry, it still makes me cry thinking about it. It was such a revelation that this child, this being that I had such a deep connection with, didn’t have to think of me as straight or gay, and that my being open with him was going to influence the way he sees the world. There are a lot of kids growing up like that now where it’s no big deal and it gives me a lot of hope.
PGN: What influence were your parents?
KH: They both were and are amazing parents. My mom got sick when I was pretty young, so my dad and I spent a lot of time learning how to be caretakers and I got to see a sweet and caring side to my dad. My dad worked in the casinos as a floor supervisor until the economy went bust and they fired all the people who weren’t union, so he started selling antiques on eBay. Then when I was 20, my dad had a stroke and lost the entire right side of his brain so my mom is now the caregiver, along with my brothers. They have shown me what it really truly means to be loyal. She’s endured so much pain. It’s hard to see someone you love become a totally different person and try to figure out a new relationship with that person. I was never told by either of them that I couldn’t do something because of my gender or any other reason. I was told from birth that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish if I wanted to. [Laughs] As long as I didn’t talk back to them. My grandparents also had a big part in raising me. They always treated me like an adult and were my biggest supporters. It gave me the agency to make my own decisions.
PGN: When did you leave the shore area?
KH: I got to study abroad when I was in high school, which was really cool. I was in England, and I moved to Philly nine years ago to go to Chestnut Hill College.
PGN: What was your first impression about England?
KH: Everything was so small! I saw one of those three-wheeled Smart cars and was like, What is this!?
PGN: And you also worked in Europe.
KH: Yes, this past summer I worked in France as an international development and communications associate. It was amazing — my work, travel and living expenses were fully funded by grants from Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, Bryn Mawr College Sociology Department Pollack Fund and the Bryn Mawr College Dean’s Office. Do you know Matty Hart? He founded Spiral Q Puppets but he’s now living in Paris. Through my work at William Way, they hooked me up with an internship with Matty in France.
PGN: One of the things you worked on in France was the Young Feminist Fund. Do you consider yourself a feminist and has it become a dirty word in France like it seems to be here?
KH: I absolutely am. As for the French, it’s complicated; they don’t have the same sort of identity politics that we do. Also, we were based in Paris, but the work was with organizations in the global South and East. It was a cool program and interesting to hear Matty and others talk about the very real issues happening in those countries and how they were impacted by what we do. For instance, President Obama went to Kenya and other African countries and he made some very pro-gay comments about the treatment of LGBT people in those countries, which we applauded and thought was wonderful, but the result was that the governments turned on the activists and targeted them for causing trouble and, within a day or two, a bunch of activist groups had to take down any social-media presence and found themselves in real danger. A number of the groups we were funding had to shut down and go into hiding. It was pretty scary and we had to realize that we can be well-intentioned and cause more harm than good. I would never have learned that working in the states. My international view of the LGBT landscape has totally changed.
PGN: Other realizations?
KH: The import and effect that money has on advocacy. When I was involved with a lot of grassroots activism, money was a dirty word. But working with William Way, I learned from some great people in development like Alyssa Mutryn and Samantha Guisti and Matty, who came at it from a very intersectional lens about who’s getting money, what barriers there are and what it means. Activists from my generation seem to think it’s a bad thing and sometimes made me feel like a sell-out when I spoke about my work in philanthropy. But I’m learning. Matty once said to me, “Philanthropy always gives just enough money to disrupt the system and never enough to change it.” The problem is not the money but who controls it. Twenty-seven cents out of every $100 goes to LGBT-rights funds. Who’s getting the money? Who’s controlling where it goes? So it was weird coming back to Bryn Mawr and having all these people talk about social justice from an academic standpoint when they have no idea about the day-to-day needs of the people. I had one girl tell me, “If you’re an activist and you think you should get paid, you’re a sell-out.” When the people on the ground trying to make change have to choose between doing the ground/grunt work and putting food on their table …
PGN: I’m guessing it’s a lot of trust-fund babies who think money isn’t important.
KH: Exactly. Because I don’t look like a non-traditional student, they have no idea of the life experience I’ve had outside of the bubble.
PGN: What is “non-traditional?”
KH: A student over 24. There were 30 of us.
PGN: You mentioned that you had a boyfriend. Are you the B in LGBT?
KH: Hmmm, this is a tricky one. I’ve always identified as gay. And my partner Salman identifies as … well he’s Parisian, Muslim and trans. In France, there’s not really an acceptance of a lesbian or dyke dating a trans man; in fact, on our first date, he asked how I could be attracted to him if I identified as a dyke. I responded that I live in a country where the rules are made up as we go and for me it’s about who you are, what you bring into my life and how much I love being around you. So I don’t know, I’ve never been asked that. I think we both identify as queer.
PGN: So there’s less tolerance in France? You would think the opposite since they’re supposed to be so sexually free.
KH: Yeah, they’re very concerned about gender. [Trans activist] Kate Bornstein once told me that she named [France] the binary capital of the world. They need to know which box to put you in. In order to have your gender marker changed, you must be forcibly sterilized. Now. To this day. I didn’t expect any of that. I thought it would be a country of free thinkers. In some ways they are, but not when it comes to gender. He loves Philly because it’s so trans-friendly.
PGN: Random questions. Best celebrity encounter?
KH: I’m obsessed with Beyoncé. Amber Hikes and I went to her comeback concert and we were in the fifth row. It was really cool. Beyoncé ends all of her concerts with the song “Halo,” and it’s the only time I’ve ever been violent towards a woman, because Amber was on the outside and I saw Beyoncé coming our way. I dove forward and pushed Amber out of the way and got to touch Beyoncé’s hand! Amber was through with me but it was a big moment in my life. Another big moment was when Adele first came to the states to release the album “21.” I got to see her at the WXPN Free Friday at Noon with some friends and we were determined to meet her. We were like a pack of wolves and had every exit covered. My friend called me from one of the spots to say she was there. I came running down the stairs in a dress towards them and Adele yelled out, “Katie! Don’t run. I’m going to wait for you!” It was just her and her mom and we got to talk with them, and stupid us, she asked us what we were doing after the show and we didn’t catch on that she was probably trying to ask us if we wanted to hang out. She was like, “Well, me and my mom might get some coffee” and we just responded, “OK, have fun. We love you!” and left. It’s my biggest regret. I missed my chance to be Adele’s best friend!
PGN: The last person you got a letter from?
KH: My boyfriend. He sends me letters all the time. It’s one of the only great things about a long-distance relationship.
PGN: What was your best meal in Paris?
KH: I spent many an afternoon in various French cafés working and eating Croque-Madames and French fries while sipping rosé wine. I can’t wait to go back, I’m addicted.
PGN: Have you traveled to other places?
KH: Yeah, while I was there I spent a little bit of time in Dublin and Amsterdam by myself, which was really cool. I traveled a lot in high school. This is embarrassing but one of my hobbies is as an amateur photographer and I love to find cool, off-the-beaten-path places both domestically and abroad and take pictures. My dream in life is to one day drop everything and find a way to travel the world on someone else’s dime and take pictures. If I disappear someday, that’s where I am!