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Turning Pain into Power

Kathy Flores. Photo supplied.

When Kathy Flores was 11 years old she was sent to a tent-revival camp to repent for her first kiss — because it was with a girl.

Flores, whose father was a “hell fire and brimstone preacher,” grew up in a family with negative messages about what it meant to be queer. There was also a lot of racism, she said. As a child, she was encouraged to focus on her White heritage, rather than focus on the Mexican heritage she shared with her mother. The religious and racial trauma of her childhood helps her in advocacy work today, she says. Flores, now 52, lives in Appleton and is a statewide LGBTQ anti-violence advocate, a survivor and a  trailblazer.

Although her career landed her at the Milwaukee based agency Diverse & Resilient, whose missions is to improve the safety and well being of LGBTQ communities her laundry list of accomplishments and her work as an advocate started many years prior.

Early Career

In 2000, while working in Diversity and Inclusion at the Kimberly Clark Corporation, Flores started volunteering at a local sexual assault crisis center. In addition to the religious and racial trauma during her childhood, she is also a survivor of sexual and intimate partner violence. She said she wanted to be a voice for survivors because she didn’t know how to find her own voice – yet.

After volunteering, Flores realized she wanted to advocate for survivors full time. Hired by The Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs in 2002, she wrote in an article for Our Lives Magazine, “Harbor House is also the place where I met my spouse when she became a volunteer; it’s where I came out of the closet and where I began working with LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and hate crimes. While at Harbor House, I found my voice as a survivor, an activist, and a queer woman.”

Flores quickly discovered that victims of violence who identify, as LGBTQ weren’t necessarily having equal access to services throughout the state.

Advocacy at the office

By 2009, Flores was the City of Appleton’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator. Knowing she was an advocate at heart, during her interview she asked then-Mayor Tim Hanna if he was ready to hire an advocate?  He replied by saying he wanted to shake up the status quo in the city. Shaking it up is something Flores surely accomplished.

Within the first couple months of taking the position she discovered that 85 percent of the teens that died by suicide over the course of four years identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning. Then in 2011, a judge upheld Wisconsin domestic partner benefits based on a lawsuit brought by Flores, her partner, four other same-sex couples and the advocacy group Fair Wisconsin. In 2013, she helped Appleton become the third city in the state to ban housing discrimination based on gender identity.

But these impactful policy changes did not come without major pushback and personal attacks. Over the course of her time at the city she was pummeled with opens record requests, told by a City Council member that she is making the position “a little too gay,” had homophobic pamphlets scattered through her neighborhood and had anti-abortion vehicles plastered with pictures of bloody tissue parked outside her house.

“It was pretty soul draining because everything I did came up with so much criticism from city and from community members,” says Flores. “[Because] they paid taxes, they felt like they could say horrible things about my identity and who I was.”

During Flores’ time at the city, Appleton was rated the third friendliest LGBTQ city in Wisconsin. Flores says these numbers have since diminished and that policies and equality too often fluctuate with who is in office.

Diverse & Resilient

Today, she is the LGBTQ anti-violence project manager at Diverse & Resilient, a Milwaukee-based organization whose missions is to improve the safety and well-being of LGBTQ people and communities throughout Wisc. Her position is the only statewide position of it’s kind. And similar to her work at other organizations she is making waves.

In just two short years Flores started the only statewide anti-violence LGBTQ resource hotline. Through a survey, LGBTQ survivors of violence indicated they were not reaching out to mainstream programs and wanted a verbal line to talk to someone who was queer and an advocate. Flores cold-called crisis centers and developed relationships with organizations all over the state in order to fully advocate for the survivors that call.

“I might get a call from a survivor, let’s say in Rhinelander. I can’t get [there] in time to help that person, but now I have a relationship with the tri-county folks, who are very inclusive of LGBTQ folks, so I can say to that survivor ‘hey– this is a program that can help you,’” says Flores. “They consider me a co-advocate and I consider them a co-advocate”

In addition to the hotline, in 2016 when Flores started the position there were only four shelters in the state of Wisconsin that identified as integrated shelters, meaning they serve all genders. Today there are more than 25. Again, she develops relationships with centers around the state and often in rural areas, where she feels they are very open to change and willing to integrate. Flores and some of her colleagues call these shelters in rural communities, ‘Unicorns in the Woods.’

“I’d find this little bright spot of queer hope,” says Flores. “It made the work so worthwhile and to see shelter after shelter grapple with this and come out as serving all genders. It has been some of the most rewarding work that I’ve been able to witness.”

Flores says she tips her hat to these shelters for being able to stretch beyond what the program was originally intended for. She says they recognize things change, including the needs of survivors but also technology, safety and what we know as violence. The biggest concern for shelters is letting in a perpetrator, says Flores. So they work together on effective screening and recognizing dynamics and what violence looks like in the LGBTQ community.

Spreading advocacy

In the future, Flores also hopes to add more anti-violence advocates around the state to reach more survivors, including an advocate in Milwaukee and Fox Valley.

People often ask her “How did you become an advocate, why did you chose this career? I would really say it kind of chose me,” says Flores. “For people who might be experiencing trauma or expiring violence or racism or anti-LBGTQ sentiment. Whatever it is. And as awful as that is– sometimes the best advocates are the people who have been through it. Who have been through hell and back. For folks who are wondering about advocacy or activism, turning that pain into power. Has been my saving grace.”

The Anti-Violence LGBTQ Statewide resource line is 414- 856-LGBT (5428)


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