Jason Cianciotto’s return to Tucson after a five-year absence to take the helm of Wingspan is a homecoming of the heart.
Cianciotto, who lived in Tucson from 1995 to 2003, used the services of southern Arizona’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center as a young adult and was its first paid employee in 1999.
Wednesday marked his first day as executive director of the center he credits with helping heal the wounds of a tumultuous adolescence in which his homosexuality led to teasing at school and rejection at home.
“I came to Tucson at the end of an extremely difficult time in my life. . . . I was at a crossroads,” he said.
Cianciotto, 32, spent his childhood in Staten Island, N.Y., and his teen years in western New Jersey. His mother and stepfather are evangelical Christians whose attitudes on sexual orientation were honed in the pews of Southern Baptist churches.
“I was raised in the church . . . to believe that nothing else existed besides growing up and getting married to a woman and having kids,” Cianciotto said.
As he entered his pre-teen years, his friends became interested in girls. He didn’t share their excitement. When he was 13 and becoming sexually active with other boys, his parents sent him to therapy.
“My family found a Christian lay counselor, who . . . taught me I needed to go as deep in the back of the closet as I possibly could. And if I just said my prayers, went to church and told my parents what they wanted to hear, I could stop answering embarrassing questions.”
His concerned parents restricted his activities, hoping to prevent or reverse the development of a gay orientation. Cianciotto wasn’t allowed, for example, to perform in school plays or musicals.
“I could be in the marching band because I was a drummer, so maybe that was more masculine,” he said, adding, “I kind of got back at them by being a xylophone player.”
Despite dating girls for appearances, Cianciotto was gay and was sent back to counseling from age 16 to 19 by parents hoping for a conversion. At his lowest point, Cianciotto considered suicide.
“I really wanted to be what my family and what my religion told me I needed to be,” he said.
His parents threw him out, at age 19, after finding gay porn in his bedroom and learning he had attended a LGBT student support group.
“I was at work and came home and found all of my belongings in plastic bags on the front porch,” he said.
His father and stepmother invited Cianciotto to live with them in Tucson. Cianciotto came across his future his first day here when the family went to Caruso’s to celebrate Cianciotto’s arrival.
“At the time, Wingspan had a storefront location on Fourth Avenue. As we walked past the window of the center, I saw a pink triangle, which, from the little exposure I had back on the East Coast to the student group, I knew was a symbol that it was a safe place for gay and lesbian people to meet. I looked at my father and said, ‘I guess that makes it obvious what that place is about,’ ” he said.
He wasn’t out yet and still believed he was a heterosexual “with some type of mental problem that needed to be fixed.”
But he soon returned to Wingspan and was invited to its youth group meetings
“It was really one of the first times that I was able to commune with other people my age who were like me,” he said.
Cianciotto came out on Feb. 14, 1995, leading to a three-year estrangement from his mother and stepfather. To this day, communication is difficult because they don’t accept his homosexuality, he said.
“There are many LGBT people who face similar issues, separation from family, separation from friends, separation from the religion or faith they were brought up in. So, one of the things we do at Wingspan is provide them opportunities to make themselves whole again.”
In 1998, through a Wingspan scholarship, Cianciotto attended a national conference held annually by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Surrounded by people whose lives were focused on a national movement for equality, Cianciotto realized that advocacy and education were his calling.
Upon returning to Tucson, he was hired as Wingspan’s part-time office manager, the center’s first paid employee. When he graduated from the University of Arizona in 2003 with a master’s in public administration, he moved to New York City to take a position as a policy analyst with The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He was promoted to research director and served as the main spokesman for the organization.
Cianciotto left his job with the task force in 2007. He spent the last year on the road with his husband of nearly two years, Courter Simmons, an actor in the touring production of the Broadway show “Jersey Boys.”
While Cianciotto praised Tucson as a city “that welcomes diverse communities,” I asked him about the pockets of bigotry that exist here. Does he think it’s possible to open minds that seem firmly closed?
“I would never lose hope,” he said.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at email@example.com and at 573-4582. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.
Wingspan is celebrating its 20th year and is developing a strategic plan for the next 20.
It has a budget of $1.2 million, 20 staff and 300 volunteers.
Jason Cianciotto succeeds Joseph Bodenmiller, who left in September after only one month on the job. Bodenmiller replaced Kent Burbank, who headed Wingspan for six years.
Wingspan is at 425 E. Seventh St. It’s open:
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday
10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
For more information, call 624-1779 or go to www.wingspan.org.