PGN: Tell me about Michael A. Pomante.
MP: I was born in West Chester, Pa., and lived there until I went off to college. My father was married previously to meeting my mom, so I’m an only child from the two of them but I have four wonderful, much older half-siblings.
PGN: How much older are they?
MP: I just turned 33 and my oldest sibling is 55, so there’s a pretty big gap. We have a great relationship, though, and we do a lot together. I was the first one to go to college so when my sister’s twins were looking at schools, I helped guide them through it and we went all over the country scouting schools. They’re my nieces, but they’re two of my best friends as well.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
MP: I was pretty shy. I was a bookworm, a nerd so to speak. I did a lot of reading and played a lot of video games.
PGN: What was your nerdiest moment?
MP: My friends and I had a challenge to read the entire Webster’s dictionary. I think I made it to F. I was also on the science bowl team. We went to the state championships and nationals and I was in a group called Academic Competition, which also went to state and nationals. I was also on the junior-varsity tennis team, which was my one experience with sports.
PGN: Tell me about your college days.
MP: I went to Ursinus, a small liberal-arts school in the suburbs. I went there for psychology but my freshman year I became the president of our Gay-Straight Alliance. Our faculty advisor was an English teacher whom I became incredibly close to and he talked me into taking English as a double major. This was 1998 and we had women’s studies, but there wasn’t any kind of queer or LGBT study, so I also made up my own queer-studies minor, one of the benefits of going to a liberal-arts school. I took classes at other schools and did an internship at the LGBT health center in Boston. College was great. I really grew and changed.
PGN: What prompted the change?
MP: I entered school as the shy kid and wasn’t out. One night I went to a frat party and had a few too many drinks. I walked home by myself and was attacked by three guys who came at me from behind. After that I thought, I’m getting harassed and attacked and I’m not even out; I might as well be who I am and be out and proud about it. At my school during my whole four years, there were only a handful of “out” people on campus. The surprising thing was that after I came out, I was really supported and the harassment stopped. [Laughs.] We had a strong GSA, but most of the members were straight female allies. It was great, though: I hosted the first-ever drag show at Ursinus and we had about 100 people come to the show.
PGN: Who did the drag?
MP: I was one of them!
PGN: What was your drag name?
MP: Eva Cotive, as in evocative. I had a lot of friends in Boston where I did my internship and it was a whole different world than at Ursinus. There I didn’t have a car so you pretty much stayed within the college bubble, but in Boston, I had access to a wonderful city with people who really opened my eyes to a lot of things, one of them being the professional drag world, which I found fascinating. I performed there professionally in drag for the first time. It’s funny, I never brought it back to Philly with me. I guess if you were to ask my hidden talent, that would be it. My dream would be to do my day job and then do drag in the evenings. I really admire the people who do that. They’re such a tight-knit group and do such a great job.
PGN: So what was coming out like?
MP: I came out accidentally to my parents. Back then we used the AOL chat rooms to meet people and I’d met this guy who I went on a few dates with. My mom listened in on one of our phone calls and that’s how she found out. They’re both Italian Catholic so it was incredibly difficult. There was a lot of crying involved and my dad didn’t talk to me for three months, not one word. They have a great relationship but one thing that really struck me was that my mom at one point said to me, “If your dad doesn’t accept you, I’ll always be there for you.” His reaction was pretty intense so she was basically saying, God forbid she had to choose, but if it came down to that, she was going to choose to support me. Now, 15 years later, they’ve completely come along. My dad loves my partner, Michael, and our boys. Whenever I’m in the paper, he cuts it out and saves the article. It just took some time and education. My dad was in the Army and all he knew were the stereotypes of gay people and the myths and stigmas. After we really talked, I realized that what came across as anger was really just fear. They both were fearful that my life was going to be harder than it had to be. Of course, I feel blessed. I think we’re all fantastic and fabulous and I love being part of this community. And they’ve grown to love it too. They’ve been to my birthday party at Sisters and a lot of other community events and have become surrogate parents to gay friends who have been rejected by their families. It’s a complete 180.
PGN: Were you out to your friends?
MP: I came out to a few of them when I was 15, but not to the school population at large. I felt like I was the only one. It’s interesting with Facebook to now find out how many of my peers were gay. It’s beautiful, but a little frustrating. Sometimes I feel like, wow, if we’d all just been out and proud in high school, it would have been such a different life for us.
PGN: And how did you become a daddy?
MP: Well, one night some friends talked me into going to Tavern on Camac, which surprisingly I’d never been to before. While there, we noticed that this guy was gazing at me and when my cocktail was empty he got up and offered to refill it. He was such a gentleman and so sweet. It turned out his name was Michael and his last name is Anthony. My first name is Michael and my middle name is Anthony, so we both had the same name! I’m a huge, huge animal lover and he is a vet, so we clicked right away. We’d both come out of long-term relationships; he’d been married for nine years and had two kids and I was with someone for nine years whom I’d met at Shampoo during my junior year of college, you know when they used to have those LGBT parties on Friday nights. He actually moved into my dorm room during my senior year before we got our own place. Eventually, we grew apart and split and I was single for a year before I met Michael. It was nice because he was totally transparent, even though he thought that having kids would scare me away. But I’d always wanted kids so it’s a beautiful situation. They love me, I love them; his relationship with his ex-wife is better than it’s ever been. We’re a true modern family. And we just celebrated our two-year anniversary last month.
PGN: You were the director of development at the Jewish Publication Society. How did a little Italian boy end up with that job?
MP: It’s funny, I started out studying psychology but realized that if I wanted to be a therapist, I’d have to go back to school for a master’s degree and I really wanted a breather after graduating. I wanted to put the skills I’d learned in those four years to use. Without a license to practice, I was looking for something to do. I’d lived in the community-service house at the school and really loved doing volunteer work. When I was president of the GSA, I brought the kids to the William Way Center several times. We volunteered with Equality Forum, did HIV testing, all sorts of things, and I loved dealing with citizen engagement and philanthropy. I looked at all the nonprofit job sites and got a job at Greater Philadelphia Cares. I did a little bit of everything there, including applying for grants. I found I really flourished doing grant work. For me, going on “asks” to major donors was exciting, it brought out the salesman side of me. I was never afraid of getting a “no,” it just made me work harder and when I got a large donation, it was such a rush it made me want to run out and get the next one. From there, I worked for a year with Malcolm Lazin and the Equality Forum on the 40th anniversary of the gay-rights movement, which was really exciting, and then got the job with Jewish Publication Society. They were planning their 120th anniversary, which in Judaism is super-huge. They have a saying to wish people good health, “May you live to be 120,” because that’s how old Moses was, so it’s a big date. We did a whole bunch of events culminating with an event at the Kimmel Center and we raised more money than they’d raised in all 120 years before that. So I was very proud. It was then that I fell in love with event planning and opened my own event company on the side called “Belle Affaire.” I also fell in love with Judaism. I was a lapsed Catholic and after being exposed to the beauty and intricacies of the religion, I converted, so now I’m a practicing Jew. I’m officially part of the tribe.
PGN: And how did you get to William Way?
MP:I realized that I’d found my niche and was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, except that I wanted to be doing it within the LGBT community, to use my skills as a fundraiser to help the community that I was a part of. I saw the job at WWCC listed and started the interview process. It was grueling but I consider it an honor to work here. I’ve always looked up to Chris Bartlett and his amazing work with DVLF and ACT UP so I was excited to know I’d be working with him here. We’re a team and we have some exciting things happening at the center. Our major donors — we like to call them cornerstones, because they are the foundation that helps keep the doors open here 365 days a year — are really stepping up to the plate. We’re working on a Pew grant to have the first-ever queer jazz festival in the U.S. and we’re hoping to expand the art gallery. We have a thriving music program supported by Pew Charitable Trust and we’re working to make WWCC a real cultural hub with a dance troop and more theater performances and other cultural programs. For instance, we have classical pianist Ching-Yun Hu doing a concert Jan. 12. She’ll be playing works by Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, who is going to be here for the performance, which is a real coup. We’re also developing our membership program to add real benefits other than supporting the center. Right now you can use your card to get discounts at 25 different places throughout the city as well as discounts to things happening at the center.
PGN: So in 30 seconds, in this post-gay world, why do we need a gay community center?
MP: We need a community center because there needs to be a safe place for members of the LGBT community to come and be able to socialize, to get the support services they need — we are the only place in the area for free LGBTQ peer counseling. We need a space where like-minded people can get together and incubate fantastic ideas that will help the community. LGBT people are still getting kicked out of their homes and still being discriminated against, and we’re a place where you can stop in 365 days a year and get warm, get help and feel safe. There’s no judgment here based on your sexual orientation or gender identity, it’s all about love, support and friendship. It’s incredible that we have a resource like the Mazzoni Center but people underestimate the importance of being able to express oneself and be social with other like-minded people, to have a place where you support each other and learn from one another. Part of good mental health is nurturing the soul and that’s what we do here.
PGN: Very true. Now for some random questions. Scariest weather experience?
MP: When I was a kid there was a tornado that went through West Chester. It was scary but fascinating. Now I’m one of those people who watches The Weather Channel as if it were a real channel. In another life I’d be a storm chaser!
PGN: Weirdest gift?
MP: I’m known for wearing fun accessories. I have 30 murses [man purses] and lots of costume jewelry. I like fake bling and cool shoes, etc. I’m obsessed with accessories, so someone gave me a Barbie jewelry holder for Christmas this year.
PGN: Favorite celebrity encounter?
MP: I got to meet Cyndi Lauper during Equality Forum and she was great but I’m more star-struck by the gay pioneers. I got to be in a room with Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, and I was fortunate enough that I’d studied gay history all through school so I was able to really talk to them about their stories and learn from them firsthand. And I’ve always admired drag queens like my friend Jujubee who was on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Mimi Imfurst and the Goddess Isis. They’ve done fundraising shows for us and never charge, they just do it out of the goodness of their hearts to support the community. I love them. They’re so, so civic-minded it’s incredible.
PGN: What’s one item you should throw out but probably won’t?
MP: I’m 6-foot tall and in college I was 150 pounds. [Laughs.] I’m not anymore, but in school I did some modeling. Nothing big, but it was fun and I made a little bit of money. The first designer thing I ever bought with my own money was a shirt from the Armani Exchange in the King of Prussia Mall. I wore it every Wednesday to Woody’s for underage night and it’s worn and covered in spills. I’ll never wear it again, even if I got back down to that size, but I just can’t throw it out. My sister was doing some house cleaning for us and she called to ask me if she could cut it up for rags. But I can’t, it holds too many fond memories. I had my first kiss with a boy in that shirt! That’s history.
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