Kellan Baker, 28, is one of those how-does-he-find-the-time overachievers whose accomplishments are staggering. He’s been in Washington since 2008 working full-time as a senior policy associate for the National Coalition for LGBT Health while simultaneously working on a master’s in global public health policy and international development at George Washington University.
The Thousand Oaks, Calif., native, who identifies as queer, started aiming high in college where he double majored in astrophysics and Russian literature. He’d read a translation of famous Russian novel “The Master and the Margarita” and felt he wasn’t getting a full appreciation for the nuances, so he learned Russian and eventually spent three-and-a-half years in Moscow working as a translator of scientific papers and later as a reporter.
“I just love Russian language and culture,” he says. “It’s very different. It’s like anytime you’re living somewhere and living and understanding the language and not having this filtered version and not having someone else decide what’s interesting, what’s funny, what’s word play.”
Baker, who’s also fluent in German and French, says he was about 14 when he began to realize he was different. It eventually led him into LGBT activism, a passion that grew more intense during his years abroad. “A lot of issues in the states are completely messed up and completely unfair, but by the same token, seeing what goes on in other countries … it’s exposed me to things that I was able to take for granted in the states.”
There were some practical considerations as well. “At some point I realized nobody wanted to read my devastatingly original thoughts on Dostoyevsky, shockingly, so I got into public health,” he says self-deprecatingly.
Baker lives in Brightwood and is on the board of the D.C. Center. He formerly co-chaired D.C. for Marriage. He’s in a relationship and is happy in Washington where he says he’ll likely stay after graduation, at least for a while though he’d like to eventually live and work abroad again.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have always known that I was different from most of the other little kids in elementary school and from what people expected me to be. The process of understanding what it means to me to be queer and how I express that has been a lifelong process that isn’t finished yet, though I’m 28 now. The people with whom I’ve had the hardest conversations are my mom and dad – we’ve gone through a lot together and are now closer than ever.
Who’s your gay hero?
Bayard Rustin, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement who was also a gay man. His activism for civil rights, justice and peace was informed by his sexuality but not defined by it, and for me, that’s the ideal. Sexual orientation, gender identity, skin color, or whatever might be the issue that drives our passion and gets us out of bed in the morning, should never be the be all, end all of who we are either as people or as activists.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
For getting my dance on, I can never beat a good night at Town. I don’t get out often enough, though, so I’m sure there are lots of great places that I’m missing.
What’s your dream gay wedding?
My dream wedding – gay or not – is in a beautiful, natural setting surrounded by family and friends. A hillside winery in Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California comes to mind, or a spring wedding in D.C. (before the weather gets hot).
What non-gay issue are you most passionate about?
I worked for Special Olympics for a long time both in the U.S. and abroad and have always loved the sense of pulling together and camaraderie that Special Olympics teams have. Everyone’s in it to win it, but also just to have a great time.
What historical outcome would you change?
I would learn how to stop worrying and love the bomb. No, really, it’s hard to pick just one. How about the creation of HMOs by Richard Nixon? I just got a doctor’s bill the other day in which insurance had denied the doctor $400, paid $100, and left me with the balance of almost $200. Isn’t that what we supposedly pay insurance premiums to avoid?
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
The release of the complete seasons of “Sex and the City” on DVD.
On what do you insist?
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
LET THE COUNTDOWN BEGIN: The official match schedule for 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“A Survival Guide to Life with High Femmes: How to Balance Your Mother, Your Girlfriend and Your Cat.”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Start a recruitment drive for Team Queer – since they think they can change us, why not return the favor?
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I’m a cradle Episcopalian, though I’m still not sure what implications that has for my “religious” beliefs about any higher powers. I love the liturgy and history of the Episcopal Church, as well as its insistence on reason alongside scripture and tradition.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Think outside the gay box – work with other movements to focus on issues that impact more than just LGBT people and to show that we really are an integral part of the fabric of all kinds of families and communities.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
Cat food that meets my cat’s demanding requirements, particularly when I’ve been out of town and she’s giving me the cold shoulder.
What gay stereotype annoys you most?
That gay is an acceptable convenient shorthand for the entire LGBT community and that all LGBT people are white and well off.
What’s your favorite gay movie?
“Some Like It Hot”
What’s the most overrated social custom?
That having e-mail and a mobile phone means you should be instantly accessible at all times.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
A MacArthur Fellowship
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That I’m not as important as I thought I was.
I came to D.C. for graduate school after spending four years abroad in Russia and Austria and absolutely love it. I especially love the sense of almost small-town community that can happen in a city only 10 miles square, the varied and distinct neighborhoods, and the trails in Rock Creek Park. D.C. to me is the perfect mix of an intimate, livable city and a hotbed of fascinating domestic and international work.