Fierce Advocate

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Tana Christie, a third-generation Texan who grew up in El Paso, has never given a second thought to her belief that everyone should be treated fairly regardless of such characteristics as race, ethnic background, religion and sexual orientation. Her father ran a denim factory in El Paso and in the 1950s integrated the business (most of the sewing machine operators were Hispanic) by hiring a black man to run the print shop.

Over a conversation at BookPeople, she recalled shopping in a Western-wear store in Tucson while she was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona; a black couple was ahead of her in line and no one would wait on them. “I just don’t like to see people treated that way,” said Christie, adding that she left the shop and told everyone she could about the incident.

Not long after Christie and her husband, Joe, moved to Austin, the AIDS crisis was decimating the local and national gay community. A longtime arts lover who majored in costume design, she recalled seeing a poignant spread in Vanity Fair of key members of the arts community in New York City who had been lost to the disease. At that same time, the Austin AIDS Project, which would be reborn as AIDS Services of Austin (ASA) in 1987, was a part of Waterloo Counseling. Christie served on the founding board of the nonprofit and hosted the first major fund-raiser for it at her home in West Austin.

“AIDS Services of Austin will always be my main and first love,” said Christie, who had an art gallery with a few friends from 1980 to 1990. “Every time I’ve been asked to be on a board for other nonprofits, I’ll tell them I won’t raise money for anyone except ASA.”

Because she was part of the West Austin community, Christie knew a lot of people who were never going to touch AIDS; many people told her no, they would not get involved with the issue. She’ll never forget Paul Clover, who was head of education for ASA in its early years: Clover and his “rubber fairies” went to all the gay bars and handed out condoms.

Christie jokingly said she met her husband, Joe, in a bar. “Actually it was a a great steakhouse and bar just outside El Paso in what we called the Upper Valley where I rode my horse” (This was in the days before liquor by the drink was legal in Texas) “I tied my horse outside and went in for a Coke and the owner, a family friend, introduced us.” She wanted her children to learn to make their own fun and not need to be always surrounded by people; their upbringing on a small cotton farm north of El Paso allowed for that. These days, with a 49-year bond to her husband and the children all grown up, Christie is quite happily a grandmother twice over. “We love the opera and the ballet,” she added.

Legendary choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones came to Austin in 1993 to workshop “Still/Here,” a multimedia dance documentary piece that evokes responses around topics of mortality, AIDS and art. Christie, a breast cancer survivor, not only met and became friends with Jones (who lost his partner, Arnie Zane, to AIDS), but a video segment of her talking and dancing about her experience was included in “Still/Here.”

“I’m very impressed with him,” said Christie. “The human body is amazing and he uses it to evoke emotions that are mind-boggling.”

As for her own struggles, which resulted in both breasts being removed and replaced with implants, she waved them off. “I didn’t let it define my life,” she said emphatically. “I was fine and I am fine.”

Beyond her many nonprofit commitments, which include Austin Lyric Opera, Planned Parenthood, and the Texas Nature Conservancy, her time is occupied by reading (she loves English literature and Virginia Woolf), working out (she lifts weights with a trainer three times a week) and her two grandchildren, Lily, 8, and Ivy, 5 (“They both have friends with same-sex parents and it’s not a big deal to anyone,” she added).

“In everything she does, Tana Christie models courage, hospitality, commitment and grace. Tana is what integrity looks like. When Eugene and I argue about the right response, we ask what Tana would do,” said Steven Tomlinson. “It’s not that Tana’s commitment to justice and inclusion are stronger than everyone else’s. It’s just that she seems to get there first.”

Christie loves Austin, treasures her family and is thankful for her health. Her home—the dining room is also the library, and yes, they have the complete Oxford English Dictionary—is a haven and has been the venue for many nonprofit events over the years. She and Joe are excited to be chairing the upcoming 25th anniversary of AIDS Services of Austin. “We have so many good friends and a history here.”

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