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Memphis mother-son duo make Black-led LGBTQ advocacy group

May 2, 2021 GMT
Mother and son duo Gwen and Davin Clemons, who run Relationships Unleashed, a nonprofit that works "to create social, cultural, and professional equity for members of the Black LGBTQ + community," pose for a photo outside their new office space, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. They were recently honored by GLAAD Media Awards for their work assisting people living with HIV. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via AP)
Mother and son duo Gwen and Davin Clemons, who run Relationships Unleashed, a nonprofit that works "to create social, cultural, and professional equity for members of the Black LGBTQ + community," pose for a photo outside their new office space, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. They were recently honored by GLAAD Media Awards for their work assisting people living with HIV. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via AP)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — In 2014, the mother and son duo didn’t see many Black-led organizations supporting the LGBTQ population in Memphis.

So, they decided to start their own.

Today, Gwendolyn Clemons and Davin Clemons continue to run Relationships Unleashed, a nonprofit that seeks “to create social, cultural, and professional equity for members of the Black LGBTQ + community.”

And last week, the mother and son were honored by GLAAD Media Awards for their organization’s work to end HIV in Memphis.

“We were lacking Black-led organizations bringing awareness to healthy relationship practices, the devastating effects of HIV and the meaningful messages concerning health and wellness and holistic therapy,” Davin Clemons said. “So if you’re missing something, you have to create it.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Relationships Unleashed was able to provide rent and utility assistance to more than 75 people living with HIV in Tennessee through a grant from the Compass Initiative.

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The nonprofit also refers people with HIV to community partners for medical care.

Memphis has high rates of HIV: In 2018, 6,090 people were living with HIV in Memphis, and 84% of that population was Black, according to AIDSVu.

The work is deeply personal for Gwendolyn Clemons, who lost her sister Jewel Clemons to AIDS in 1991.

“The medical treatment was awful and even the family response was awful to her in the last year of her life,” Gwendolyn Clemons said. “I only wish I had the type of information that’s available now and the type of treatment that’s available now. People are living long healthy lives if they stay in care and take their medicine. They’re living life. Living long healthy lives now. Not only my sister, I lost a lot of friends in the 90s.”

Both Gwendolyn Clemons and Davin Clemons are ministers and members of the LGBTQ community. Gwendolyn is a retired counseling supervisor, with a background in criminal justice. Davin works for Shelby County Government and is a former officer with the Memphis Police Department.

Through their nonprofit, they’ve also worked to advocate for members of the LGBTQ community and tell the stories of people living well.

“Tennessee has a nickname ‘a slate of hate state,’” Gwendolyn Clemons said. “Year after year our legislators spend an insurmountable amount of time launching anti-trans laws, anti-LGBTQ laws just to roll us back from all the progress that was made during President (Barack) Obama’s administration. We’re constantly being bombarded with laws that attempt to restrict and erase us. No matter the challenge we continue to try to combat this type of rhetoric, this type of thinking and this type of legislation.”

They have founded and run a nationally distributed, bimonthly LGBTQ magazine in which they write about mental health, HIV, overall wellness and “celebrating the lives, the magic of the LGBTQ community,” Gwendolyn Clemons said.

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They also ran a radio show on KWAM 990 from 2014-2020, shifting to Facebook and YouTube due to the pandemic. Now, they are making plans to return to the studio.

As mother and son, their working relationship is built on trust in one another, they say.

In a way, they’ve grown up together, Davin Clemons says, but he still has respect for her as his mother. He jokes that he can’t let his hair down around her because she’s his mother.

“I never heard that before,” Gwendolyn Clemons responds with a laugh.

Davin Clemons handles the business side of the nonprofit while Gwendolyn Clemons handles the creative side.

Ultimately, they are hopeful that they will be able to impact more members of the LGBTQ community in Memphis.

“We need support of the community,” Davin Clemons said. “We need more resources so we can support other individuals … We can’t do this work by ourselves.”