Darius Stubbs is known for two main roles — one as an actor at Cleveland Public Theatre and one as an advocate for LGBTQ rights.
Often, they converge. On this day, he’s helping to lead a gender-training course at Heights Christian Church in Shaker Heights for about 35 professionals on the subject of at-risk youth in the LGBTQ community. Halfway through the four-hour discussion, a woman asks Stubbs for the central issue of transgender identity.
“I think the issue that most trans people face is that we don’t talk about it,” Stubbs says. “That it’s some sort of mental illness. But for most of these people? You can’t put them in a box.”
Stubbs was assigned a female gender at birth. His mother, Priscilla, raised him mostly on her own with his sister, Erin. His sister served as the primary audience for the budding perfomer. “I would memorize movies, then quote them to her,” he says. “I just wanted to be onstage; I wanted to be performing.”
By the time he was in seventh grade at St. Edward Elementary in Youngstown, Stubbs was beginning to find his voice. When a gym teacher unfairly singled out Stubbs and three other African-American kids for disrupting class, they staged a walk out and told the principal. “After winter break that year,” he recalls, “she was gone.”
Although a teenage Stubbs identified as a lesbian, a three-year stint at the University of Troy in Alabama affirmed his true gender. “People used to say that I was a girl, and that I was attracted to women,” he says. “So, that’s what I was. When I told my mother, she threatened to put me in a mental institution.”
There were other difficulties. Troy’s acting department had few roles for a “very masculine black female,” he says. So in 2006, he dropped out, moved to Cleveland and spent the next nine years in “stealth mode” transitioning.
But it was a tumultuous time. He was taking testosterone supplements, had few friends in Cleveland, was nearly estranged from his parents and struggled to find acting gigs. “It made me question myself a lot,” he says, “even sadly whether or not I should be alive.”
In 2007, Stubbs got a break — a job working as an actor at Cleveland Public Theatre. Under the tutelage of CPT director Raymond Bobgan, Stubbs earned a series of parts at Great Lakes Theater, Near West Theatre and the Beck Center for the Arts. In 2011, he joined the CPT staff part time in the educational department and things started falling into place for the next stage of his career.
About the same time Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was acquitted in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, Stubbs was given a feature role in Station Hope, a celebration of African-American art at a former stop on the Underground Railroad. “I thought to myself, I can’t really be in Into The Woods anymore,” he says. “I needed to be doing something of substance.”
Since then, Stubbs has presented at TEDxCLE, been featured in Catherine Gund’s documentary Dispatches From Cleveland and has been working on his first one-act play on the subject of black women in America.
Yet, ask Stubbs which role he’s most comfortable in, and he laughs. “I don’t know if activism makes me feel more like myself,” he says. “The reason why I do both, and one and not the other, is because I’m a person who needs to. One is expression. The other is just responsibility.”