Dan Kirsch, 1953-2020

At a recent meeting of the LGBTQ Elders Steering Committee, co-chair Cindy Hostetler said, “Every LGBTQ organization today (in Charlotte, N.C.) ties back to Dan Kirsch.” Kirsch died suddenly on Friday, Feb. 21. He was 66.

In 1989, the LGBTQ social scene in Charlotte was nothing like it is today. Dan Kirsch had just moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia, Pa. Other than the bars, there were only a handful of events and politically-minded affairs. There was not much opportunity for the LGBTQ community to come together socially. “It was small. It was closeted,” reflected Kirsch in a 2015 article in qnotes. Kirsch founded One Voice Chorus, envisioning a similar community organization to that of one he’d been involved with in Philadelphia. Somewhere between 25 and 30 people showed up for the first night of rehearsal. Liz Fitzgerald, program director, Grants & Services for Arts & Science Council, joined the chorus in 2003. In the 2015 qnotes article, Fitzgerald said, “The chorus was really able to serve as a place where people could see that they had community. It gave people a place where they could be out when otherwise they couldn’t.”

Kirsch became editor of qnotes in March 1991 and served in the role until January 1992. According to that month’s issue of the paper, Kirsch had moved to Charlotte to accept a job with the Charlotte Shakespeare Company and said of his new role, “There’s definitely a challenge to this position — to accurately inform our community and the public about our struggle and success, promote our strengths, give constructive criticism about our weaknesses, and at every moment instill a sense of pride and positive self-image about our individuality.” Kirsch was also working with Opera Carolina at the time as an education and outreach associate.

In 1994, Kirsch and Sue Henry brought N.C. Pride to the Queen City for the first time, expanding it to be the largest statewide LGBTQ event ever held at the time. That same year, Kirsch hosted the Gay & Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) Annual Leadership Conference in Charlotte, attracting 250 leaders and bolstering the young One Voice Chorus to the national scene.

OutCharlotte followed in 1995 and included an annual cultural festival, fundraising events, FilmOut (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival), OutMedia, and ReachOut, a training and education program. In 2001, OutCharlotte was a host site for the Gill Foundation’s InCommunity program, providing fundraising, training, organizational development and donor resource workshops to the community.

Elizabeth Pruett served as co-chair for OutCharlotte, “It was a festival created with a mission to raise up and celebrate the culture of the LGBT community,” she said in a recent email. “At the time, there was no easy way for queer people to meet or connect and many of us were incredibly isolated, lonely and venerable.”

She fondly remembers listening with Kirsch to the daily messages they received in the OutCharlotte office. “We got calls from so many who were thrilled to finally have others to connect to,” says Pruett. Kirsch and Pruett would also receive a regular handful of hate-filled messages like many other LGBTQ organizations, especially at the time, experienced. “Dan never dwelled on the homophobic rantings we so often received,” says Pruett. “He listened with disinterest and easily erased them to move on and focus on the questions and requests from so many others who were excited and often quite desperate for the events OutCharlotte offered.”

OutCharlotte would go on to lead the feasibility study for a future LGBTQ community center. With Kirsch as the executive director and a mere $83,000, the Lesbian & Gay Community Center renovated the space and opened to the public on Feb. 1, 2003. The Center held more than 480 programs, events and meetings with over 7,000 visits during its first year. “Dan was a great mentor who led in a way that I doubt he ever fully realized,” says Pruett. “I will always be grateful for the positive impact he had on my life as well as so many others in our community.”

In 2004, Kirsch spearheaded the effort to create the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund at the Foundation for the Carolinas. According to its literature, the Fund was “created to positively impact the underfunding of nonprofit organizations serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.” To date, the Fund has supported 41 organizations and donated over $1.3 million to the community.

In 2005, Kirsch left Charlotte to serve in leadership roles at Diversionary Theatre in San Diego, Calif. where he commissioned the creation of the play “Dear Harvey,” and at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax, Va. At that time Kirsch donated 22 boxes of archive materials to the Duke University Libraries, where the collection continues to be available today for research as the “Dan Kirsch Papers, 1975-2004.”

Kirsch would later support the efforts and contribute additional materials to start Charlotte’s first LGBTQ archive at the J. Murray Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), led by Joshua Burford, who now serves as the director of outreach and lead archivist for the Invisible Histories Project. “Dan was a huge supporter of my work to preserve local queer and trans history from the very beginning of the project,” says Burford. “He was a friend and mentor who always treated me like a colleague from the very start. I will miss his insights and his drive to make the community a better place for everyone.”

In 2016, Kirsch returned to Charlotte and served as development and strategy consultant for Time Out Youth Center’s successful capital campaign. His work with Time Out Youth led to the purchase of its first permanent home on Monroe Rd. Time Out Youth is now planning to build the city’s first LGBTQ homeless youth transitional living shelter.

In 2017, Kirsch was awarded the Pioneer of the Year award by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) at its 23rd Annual HRC North Carolina Gala, as “one of the original pioneers to organize the LGBTQ community in North Carolina.”

“Dan touched so many lives directly and indirectly as he tirelessly worked to make the LGBTQ community a better place,” says Louis Kemp, HRC Board of Governors member. “As I sit here and reflect on how Dan has influenced my path in community service, I think back to being a student at UNC-Charlotte and visiting the Charlotte Lesbian & Gay Center first time and back to an intern role I held with One Voice Chorus. If those institutions had not existed, I’m certain I wouldn’t have had the courage to take on the roles in our community that I have over the years. I know my story is not unique — it’s clear that Dan had a huge impact on many lives across North Carolina and that we’re all better for it. His legacy will continue and HRC Charlotte celebrates Dan and his unyielding desire to improve the lives of LGBTQ people in every city he lived in.”

Most recently, Kirsch pioneered and was leading the Charlotte LGBTQ Elders. The group, which was officially launched following a town hall meeting in 2017, was formed to serve as a resource for LGBTQ elders in the community who are over the age of 55 years old. The group continues to host monthly programs and social events that bring elders together and has worked with aging organizations in the region to build a resource bank and increase cultural competency in senior care facilities.

“When I think of Dan and how he touched these organizations, it’s a two-fold thing,” says longtime friend Ann Hooper. “He took a tenacious passion into whatever his creative idea was. He found the right people to work with him and he took this passion, always with the underlying mission of how it will affect our visibility in the community. It was very important to him to advance the specific mission of these organization, but also for it to be visible to the greater community and help build bridges so that the LGBTQ community was not so marginalized.” Hooper got to know Kirsch as part of the OutCharlotte board and later worked with him on the creation of the Lesbian & Gay Community Center. She also points out the importance of diversity to Kirsch. “It was vitally important to him that everybody’s voice be heard at the table with anything he was creating.”

On a personal level, Kirsch was committed to supporting a sense of friendship in the community. “He loved connecting people to each other,” says Hooper. “Not all people do that, but that was really important to him, and it was fun for us.” She shares fond memories of exploring the city and meeting other people through Kirsch. “Inevitably the conversation would get around to what was going on in the community because that was never very far from his mind,” she says. The night always ended with going to get ice cream. “One of his favorite things was going to Two Scoops and getting an ice cream cone, and I bet other people experienced that too.”

There is no doubt that Kirsch impacted the LGBTQ community in Charlotte through his life and work. For that reason, qnotes thought it was important that this story include responses from other community leaders and organizers who feel his impact daily.

Here are just a few.

“My first memory of Dan was working with him on the PFLAG Convention show in 1992. He put the show together himself, (introduced me to one of my favorite songs “Everything Possible”), did all the rehearsals, and directed it that evening. From then on I was continually amazed by Dan. He saw a need, and attempted to fill it — with One Voice (Chorus), OutCharlotte, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the LGBTQ Elders group. He always had a kind word and a hug whether I saw him last week or six months ago. We have lost a dear friend, and I hope this community can find ways to remember his legacy.“

— Linda Lawyer, Charlotte LGBTQ activist, Founder of Queen City Friends and former writer for qnotes

“Dan and I met for the first-time last spring. 90 minutes later, we were still talking. Dan was that person…when you sat with him, you were the only person in the room. He showed up for people. For organizations. For the community. As a leader. As a mentor. As a teacher. As a coach. As a guide.”

— Karen Graci, President of PFLAG Charlotte

“Dan’s visionary leadership in the 1990s as he co-chaired the effort to bring the NC Pride March to Charlotte in 1994 laid the groundwork for decades more public advocacy and visibility for our community. Without his work on that initiative nearly three decades ago, Charlotte Pride would not be the organization it is today. In the work we all do today, each of us builds upon the dedication and sacrifices of those who come before us. In 1994, the NC Pride March’s theme was ‘Invisibility to Equality: Never Turning Back.’ Dan’s work made that theme a reality and his legacy is a stronger, more visible, and more empowered LGBTQ community in Charlotte.”

— Daniel Valdez, President of the Charlotte Pride Board of Directors

“We are all so fortunate that Dan Kirsch moved to Charlotte in the late ‘80s. So many of us have benefited from his generous self-giving over and over again. I think of how many LGBTQ organizations were formed through his leadership and collaborations. When I was first coming out, I remember driving up from South Carolina to experience the sense of community offered through One Voice concerts and events. He brought people together to start the chorus, bring Pride to Charlotte, create a Community Center and form LGBTQ Elders. What an extraordinary man, what extraordinary vision.”

— Rev. Debbie Warren, President & CEO of RAIN, Inc.

“Dan Kirsch was a kind and gentle member of our movement, whose dedication to and knowledge of the North Carolina LGBTQ community was extraordinary. Dan prided himself on building community, bringing people together and the depths of knowledge he held about LGBTQ life and history in North Carolina was unparalleled. He will be missed and his indelible lessons have taught us the power of listening as the first step to action, growth and change.”

— Elinor Landess, Equality North Carolina Board Chair and Donna Oldham, Equality North Carolina Foundation Board Chair

“We are heartbroken and saddened by the news of the sudden passing of our dear friend and founding member, Dan Kirsch. His legacy and inspiration will live beyond his years and his handywork is seen in much of LGBTQ Charlotte. We love you Dan! We wish light and love to the Charlotte LGBTQ Elders during this difficult time. We also recognize his contributions and work with One Voice Chorus of Charlotte, OUTCharlotte, LGBT Community Center, Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund, and countless theatre and music groups throughout the country.”

— Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce

“Dan provided courageous leadership for the queer community here in Charlotte as well as other cities where he worked and served. He worked tirelessly to promote the visibility of LGBTQ people at a time when being out was unheard of and in most places a dangerous idea. We have come a long way with leadership from him and others who paved the way for so many of us to live our lives out in the open. We will be eternally grateful for all he did for us.”

— Charlotte LGBTQ Elders

— Bishop Tonyia Rawls, Founder/Executive Director for The Freedom Center for Social Justice

“Time Out Youth is deeply saddened with the loss of Dan Kirsch. When Dan moved back to Charlotte, he helped Time Out Youth in our Development Department. Dan brought Time Out Youth into the phase that we are currently in and helped us rise and become a nationally recognized agency that serves LGBTQ Youth.  It is because of Dan’s hard work, knowledge, and love for the LGBTQ community of Charlotte, that Time Out Youth was able to purchase a permanent home in our community. He dedicated his life to bettering communities. Dan has had a deep impact on the lives of our youth and through his dedication to the LGBTQ youth and community of Charlotte, they will continue to have space and a voice. There are too many words to write about Dan and our appreciation for him. We will be forever grateful and thankful for his dedication to our community. Rest in Power.”

— Board of Directors, Time Out Youth

“Dan created and ran the first LGBTQ community center in Charlotte. There was a wonderful, busy atmosphere of acceptance, camaraderie, diversity and inclusiveness in that space. Soon after I relocated to Charlotte in 2000, I began to volunteer at the Center. I was there for two years, and that was the most satisfying and enjoyable volunteer experience I’ve ever had. We will miss him.”

— Allen Sendler, One Voice Chorus Member

“I met Dan in 1989 at the beginning of One Voice. He was always welcoming and did a lot to get One Voice going. Every time I saw him he had a smile and a hug. He will be greatly missed in the LGBTQ community.”

— Bobby Walker, One Voice Chorus Member

“Dan & I met the first night OV (One Voice Chorus) began. I was one of only one other female that showed up. That began a long friendship of serving on the board together to sometimes arguments like we were brother & sister. It has been great to have him in my life to teach me about Gala choirs, to work on many projects to help move the LGBTW agenda ahead. His spirit & energy will be missed. Rest in peace my Friend.”

— D. Evans, One Voice Chorus

“Dan was literally one of the founders of the gay culture here in Charlotte, and one of the reasons we have the incredible LGBTQ community that we do in this city. Rest In Peace and thank you for all you’ve built and left behind in your legacy.”

— Bethany McDonald, Co-owner of the former Hartigan’s Irish Pub and Local Deejay under the name DJ Little Betty

— John Quillin, Managing Artistic Director, Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte

How do we honor the life of Dan Kirsch? By being brave and being visionaries. We honor him by standing up for ourselves when we’re often surrounded by doubt and prejudice. We honor him by being active members of a loving and caring LGBTQ community and finding ways to care for those in our lives, building connections and bridges that will unite us when we can, and by creating the most welcoming city that Charlotte can and should be. “He loved the community,” says Hooper. “He belonged to so many people.” We honor is life by living ours to the fullest. With a single candle lit, Hostetler recited “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou during the Monday meeting of the Charlotte LGBTQ Elders.

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”
— Maya Angelou

The Charlotte LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce and close friends of Dan Kirsch will host a public memorial service at the Mint Museum Uptown from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, March 29. The Dan Kirsch Memorial Fund has been established as part of the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund at The Foundation for the Carolinas. The Fund will support the continuation and advancement of LGBTQ-focused theatre arts. Checks may be sent to The Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund, 220 N. Tryon Street, Charlotte, NC 28202 with “In memory of Dan Kirsch” in the memo line. Online Donations may be made at: Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund and signifying that the tribute gift is in memory of Dan Kirsch.