METRO’s Chris Rudisill bids Tampa Bay adieu as he catches the train to Fort Lauderdale

By : Jeremy Williams
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After more than five years as a visible face of the LGBT community, Chris Rudisill will be leaving METRO and the Tampa Bay area Dec. 4.

Rudisill, 39, ran St. Pete Pride for three seasons starting in 2010 before being recruited by METRO CEO Lorraine Langlois as the Director of LGBT Community Center Services in 2012, and since has helped build up Metro Health and Wellness from an HIV/AIDS clinic into an “all under one roof” LGBT community center that includes primary healthcare, a welcome center and programs developed to assist with transgender issues, PrEP and LGBT elderly concerns.

Rudisill will be the new Executive Director of Stonewall National Museum and Archives. The change takes Rudisill from the Tampa Bay area to Fort Lauderdale in South Florida.

Rudisill, along with his fiancé (“The rings have been purchased”) Jacob Hamm, will be saying goodbye to the community at a farewell event at the St. Pete Metro LGBT Center Dec. 3; but before the tearful farewells, Rudisill sat down with Watermark to discuss what he learned from working at METRO and what he’ll miss most about St. Pete.

When you started with St. Pete Pride in 2010, what was the LGBT scene like in Tampa Bay?
It’s interesting, because I was fairly new to the area as well as new to St. Pete Pride. Brian Longstreth and the board of St. Pete Pride had done an amazing job. It shocked me when I moved here that St. Pete Pride was the largest in the state, but it was built by huge community support. Brian had led that in a great way and built that foundation. It wasn’t nearly at the level it is at now, but I think we capped out at over 100,000 that year, so it was already at a good peak and the community wasn’t too different. There was a Georgie’s and it was strong then, it was the center of the community in a lot of ways, I hate to say a bar is the center of the community but it really was. Metro was still located across the street next to Georgie’s. Pride’s office and TIGLFF were at the King of Peace. A lot of the organizations got their start in that office in King of Peace, and that led to one of the things I really love about St. Pete, and will continue to love about St. Pete, is the organizations work really well together. I think part of that was we were all centered around this one community.

What is it about this community that has allowed so many LGBT organizations to succeed and flourish?
St. Pete is in the midst of a huge renaissance of growth and culture. I see St. Pete as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with a beach lifestyle and that makes it very comfortable for people. I have been amazed at how welcoming this city has been and that goes a lot towards how successful we have been able to be. Ever since Jacob and I moved here, there’s never been a point where we didn’t feel comfortable and safe walking hand-in-hand anywhere in the city.

You made the jump from St. Pete Pride to METRO in 2012. What was it that made you make the jump from running an event centered on celebration to an organization that deals with a heavy subject like HIV/AIDS?
Two reasons actually. First, I honestly felt like it was time for someone else to run Pride. Brian and the rest of the board had done a tremendous job taking Pride to another level, and I think in the three seasons I was there I was able to propel Pride to another level, and it needed new leadership and new blood to take it to take it up again to another level. It was the right time to leave, plus I got to go out of the 10 year anniversary, so that was a great time to go out at a big Pride moment. Personally, it was about taking that nest step in my professional career and doing more direct services, getting more directly involved in the community, and I was excited to be getting a chance to help build these programs with [executive director] Lorraine [Langlois]. She approached me and there had not been a director level position overseeing the LGBT Centers. We all had that shared vision, so it was a great opportunity to dig in and help shape the Center and the community.

What are the big lessons you’ve learned during your time at METRO?
Collaboration is key. I’ve seen communities come together and fall apart and it’s all around the collaboration. You don’t always have to agree but you have to be able to work with each other. I think at the heart, that is what has made St. Pete such a strong community. One of the big things I hope people will continue to do after I leave is keep getting involved. One of the things that has made our lives so fulfilling here is that we have been involved in everything we could be. That doesn’t mean everyone try and get in a leadership role. That means whether you are coming to a trans support group or a queer youth night or going to the film festival or volunteering at Equality Florida it’s important to get involoved in the community.

METRO recently received a grant from the CDC, one of only three organizations in the entire state of Florida to get the grant. What is it about METRO that attracts the attention of federal groups like the CDC?
I think it’s the care that METRO has for its clients. The people that work here care so much about the clients and the community as a whole and people notice that. You have to have that care to have quality services and I think it’s noticeable. When they walk through the door of any of METRO’s locations they know they have found a safe space, they have found a caring home and caring people. If it’s an HIV patient they know that they will find a person who will walk them through every aspect of care, if it’s an LGBT teen they know they have found a place they can be themselves. I think that comes through because of the entire staff here. They have all been amazing to work with.

METRO has grown into a huge entity in the community, but when they started they were established as an HIV clinic. In the time you have been here how has the perception of HIV changed and how does METRO help in changing the negative perception?
There is still a lot of work to do with HIV stigma, perception around HIV and prevention. I see it improving. I see the gay community talking about HIV again which is hugely important to eradicating this disease. I think one of the most important things METRO has done to help change that and help shift that tide has been being out there and since I’ve been here I have seen a huge increase in our outreach into the community. I think more and more people know what METRO does; as we have added the primary care and the behavior health, as we continue to add program after program especially in the last two years, huge amount of growth, it has helped propel our status and image in the community. People are more aware that we are here than they were before, which in turn has people talking not only LGBT issues but about HIV. They see the METRO van and they see us talking about prevention, it all adds to it. I think that is helping but there is still a whole lot of work to do. There are still way too many people testing positive, Florida is now No. 1 for new infections and it breaks my heart to continue to see young people come in and test positive. I’m so glad we are doing PrEP now and hopefully we will start to see a change in the numbers. As the PrEP conversation continues and people become more educated, the most important thing though is that people are talking about it. To me that is huge benefit of PrEP, it is starting the conversations that we need to be having. People talking about HIV again, that’s the first step to really making a difference.

Do you think the numbers have gone up in Florida because people don’t see HIV as a deadly disease anymore, or is it that because of the conversation more people are getting tested?
That’s a good question; I don’t know the numbers as far as how many HIV tests were given this year as compared to last year. I would guess it’s a mix of both. I don’t think a lot of younger people realize the seriousness of HIV, I also think there as been a benefit of PrEP in larger cities changing the tide. You also have prevention from positive programs that are really taking a new push on the way we do prevention. Making sure HIV-positive people are in care and continue to get care. It all goes hand-in-hand, but I don’t know the facts so I don’t want to say for sure but I would guess it’s a bit of both.

With the stigmas associated with HIV, do you think it has been beneficial to the discussion having celebrities, for example Charlie Sheen and Danny Pintauro, coming out as HIV-positive and in interviews saying it was there “risky behaviors” that led to their positive status?
I think, on one hand, it adds to the stigma because it doesn’t take risky behavior to become HIV-positive, it only takes one occurrence. There’s a big difference, so I can see where it’s adding to the stigma but on the other hand sometimes any media attention is good news. We have got to get HIV back into the public’s eye to make a huge difference so I see the benefits from it.

We have been discussing a lot about people needing to talk about HIV again. Why did the community stop talking about it?
You have to look at the gay community and say what did we do to let people forget, because we did. I don’t know if it is even beneficial to look back and see what we did wrong; I think it’s better to look forward and say this is what we need to do. We need to start talking about HIV the same way we talk about all other LGBT issues. It needs to be a part of our discussion about LGBT health. There is no reason an HIV discussion should not be included in every LGBT person’s health just as much as a talk about your blood pressure.

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