Black women are building movements in Memphis. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is spotlighting women whose names may not be easily recognizable but who are forces in the fight for voting rights, access to health care, criminal justice reform and other critical issues. Gwendolyn Clemons is the fifth of six women in our series, “Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable,” who are being profiled over three months, all nominated by their peers and our staff.
Gwendolyn Clemons has always been a fighter. As a child in South Memphis, she was trapped inside repeating patterns of poverty, violence and family dysfunction while grappling with her sexuality. She raged against everything, including herself.
Now, Clemons is proudly queer, she said, and a leader of Relationships Unleashed, a thriving nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering LGBTQ people.
When she was younger, she squandered energy and time she should have been using for her development. An older mentor helped change that self-destructive trajectory. “Once I took back my own power, that’s when I really began to flourish as an individual,” she said. Only then could she use it in service to others.
Clemons, 57, co-founded Unleashed in 2014 with her son, Davin Clemons, who is also gay. Their passion and focus are on issues related to HIV/AIDS and people who are transgender.
Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable
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Davin Clemons is a deputy Shelby County administrator and a minister and COO at Progressive Pentecostal Cathedral of Praise Church in Memphis. A former Memphis Police officer, he now serves part-time as a reserve LGBTQ liaison for the department.
Davin Clemons has also been a catalyst of change for his mother. Gwendolyn Clemons, who in the past has called mainstream religion “kryptonite for gay people,” is also now a minister at Cathedral of Praise, which she described as “inclusive and affirming.”
The concept of being “unleashed” is important “because it means a sudden eruption of power being released,” Clemons said of the name she and her son chose. Unfortunately, The Unleashed’s eruption was not as sudden as the Clemonses would have liked. Most of the early work was done out of the mother-son duo’s own pockets.
The last few months have brought in funding from multiple sources, Clemons said, including grants from Gilead Compass Initiative, HEPConnect, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and Centers for Disease Control Foundation.
The Clemonses were recognized this year by GLAAD Media Awards for the organization’s work to help people affected by HIV in Memphis, a city that continues to have high rates of HIV. The awards honor media “for fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues,” according to its website. The duo also publishes a magazine with national circulation and has hosted a radio show.
“Trauma-informed care” is at the center of their work, Clemons said. People always ask, “What’s wrong with you?” Instead of asking, “What happened to you?” Asking what happened to a person is care that does not blame the individual, she said.
Clemons has even more time now for the work. She recently retired after 25 years with the Shelby County Division of Corrections. Her latest venture is The Unleashed Academy, where she serves as a “transformation coach,” helping people in the LGBTQ community find their power and use it for growth and joy.
From chaos to clarity
Clemons talked about her early years as if speaking of someone else she called “Young Gwen.”
“Young Gwen was really angry and unsure about where she fit in this world,” she said. “I was queer. I knew I was queer. But it was a part of me I suppressed because it wasn’t accepted. You knew you were different, and you didn’t want to be subjected to that ridicule.”
The Booker T. Washington High School graduate said the “rough” school environment where she became a basketball standout “taught me to be a fighter.” Still a die-hard BTW fan, Clemons said the school reflected the symptoms of poverty and neglect in the community.
The youngest in a family wracked by domestic violence, Clemons had a trans sister, Jewel, who was more than a decade older than she. Young Gwen looked up to her sibling, then and now.
“ I protected her. I wouldn’t let people say things about her … but we never had a conversation like, ‘Hey. Let me talk to you about this. …’”
But Jewel, who died in 1991 of complications from AIDS, has had an invisible hand in all that Young Gwen later accomplished, Clemons said. “I would say she was a pioneer because she lived her life openly as a woman in the ’70s and ’80s when that was totally taboo in the Black community,” she said.
Young Gwen tried to fit in. For her, that meant getting pregnant at 16. “Becoming a teen mother was not an anomaly where I came from,” Clemons said. “In actuality, it was predicted and expected. (But) I didn’t understand how to be a parent, let alone a mother.”
Her parents and a “village” of other relatives stepped up to help care for the baby. Clemons graduated high school and attended LeMoyne-Owen College between 1981 and 1984 on a basketball scholarship, she said.
While in her 20s, Clemons worked at a corner store and partied with her “tribe” of queer friends at night while others raised her son. That was her chaotic, untethered life. Then, she met a woman named Iola Woodson, who was a lieutenant in the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
Woodson saw a young woman wasting her potential. “She kinda kept mentoring me about being ‘more,’” Clemons said. “She introduced me to law enforcement.”
That changed the trajectory of Clemons’s life. Davin Clemons, by then a preteen, came to live with his mother. Young Gwen took back her parenting role.
By 1996, Clemons was hired as a corrections counselor, working with inmates in the Shelby County Division of Corrections. In training, she had to learn things she had never known about the dysfunctional behaviors that had defined her own early life. The angry young woman wasn’t sure she was fit to teach inmates about anger management, behavior modification and conflict resolution.
“From then on, I began to realize that my source of pain could become a source of inspiration,” she said. “When I began to understand more, I realized, ‘I gotta go back and heal that child.’ When that child got healed, then the adult could show up.”
Clemons realized her son needed that adult. So, together, mother and son, developed a trust “where he knew he could talk to me about anything without me blowing a fuse or judging him.”
Still, there was one thing Davin Clemons did not tell his mother right away — that he was gay. The revelation came after he was in college. “I did not know,” his mother said. Clemons had the same question her own sibling had for her: “Did I have anything to do with this?” Davin Clemons’ answer was the same as Clemons’ was to Jewel — “No.”
“I gave him the same speech my trans sister gave me,” Clemons said. “‘This is gonna be tough. You’re Black, you’re a man, and you’re gay. You’re already a minority; now you are a triple minority.’”
‘A phenomenal woman’
The mother who had taken bad advice from peers found that her son was better equipped to deal than she had been. He went to college and earned a doctorate in theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. “He blazed the path much better than I did,” she said.
Clemons went back to school in 2011 and earned degrees from Strayer University in public administration, management and marketing, and a master’s in business administration. And she fell in love and got married. She has been married for seven years to Rashandra Clemons.
Her son taught her to love a God she had thought was poison to queer people, she said. “Davin was able to teach me that I was not an abomination, that my life was not a sin, and that those scriptures were misinterpreted; that I did not live in conflict with my sexuality and my spirituality.”
Davin Clemons and his husband, Darnell Gooch Jr., together lead the Cathedral of Praise Church. Clemons is now an ordained “elder” minister there. “You couldn’t have told Young Gwen any of this would be happening right now,” she said. “Not in a million years. She would have punched you out.” She laughed at the irony.
Clemons and her son are closer than ever in their shared work. “We talk four to five times a day and it’s one of the most rewarding feelings because I know he listens and values my opinions,” she said.
Together they hope to revive the radio show that stopped during the pandemic and continue to work on stopping violence against trans women, addressing substance abuse and homelessness and targeting anti-LGBTQ legislation in the state legislature.
Davin Clemons is not only his mother’s colleague, but a fan. “In the words of the late Maya Angelou, she is a phenomenal woman,” he said. “Without her, we wouldn’t be where we are today. She is one of the smartest women I have ever known.”
Clemons is at peace. So much so, she sometimes wonders if it is real. “It’s just a calm feeling that everything is OK; that I’m OK. When you turn inward and begin to love yourself and forgive yourself and heal yourself, that’s when you can give it away. You begin to own your own power.”
She wears her transformation on her body. Literally. She had T-shirts printed that proclaim in bold letters: “My Pain Made Me Change.” She wears the phrase with pride.
“The early part of my life was filled with pain. It doesn’t have to define me anymore, but it was a catalyst for my change.
“That’s my testimony.”
Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.