Lionel Cantu Queer Center director receives lifetime achievement award

Deb Abbott
Deb Abbott, shown during the 2014 Pride parade in Santa Cruz, has received a lifetime achievement award from the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County.

Deborah Abbott, director of the Lionel Cantú Queer Center at UC Santa Cruz since 1997, has received an LGBTQ Lifetime Achievement Award from the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County.

The awards, the first given by the Diversity Center, honor community members for exceptional contributions to the local LGBTQ community. They were presented earlier this month during Santa Cruz Pride 2014 events. In addition, Abbott received special recognition from the California State Senate, the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors, and the Santa Cruz City Council.

Abbott, who grew up in Monterey, recalled that her earliest activism was in junior high when she joined United Farm Worker's Union founder Cesar Chavez’ grape boycott picket line at Safeway. At 17, she moved to Santa Cruz to attend UC Santa Cruz. After graduation, she became a member of the Santa Cruz Women's Health Collective. She said she became aware of her lesbianism as she worked with lesbian members of the collective on issues involving women's reproductive rights and lesbian health inequities.

She came out to her husband, friends, and family in her mid-20s. "I realized there were no resources to help married lesbians or bisexual women in their complex coming-out process," she said. In 1995, she co-authored From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life, an anthology of 43 women's stories. The book became a "lesbian best seller," she said.  Abbott raised two sons during a time when there was lack of acceptance by both straight and queer communities. Abbott led advocacy efforts to support other queer parents and to increase acceptance of LGBTQ families.

Abbott later became founding executive director of WomenCARE — a local resource center for women with cancer where she developed outreach projects to ensure the organization’s resources were accessible to queer women with cancer.

Abbott received a master’s degree in clinical psychology and became licensed as a psychotherapist in 1990; she has maintained a private practice for the past 24 years, specializing in working with LGBTQ clients. She was one of the first therapists in the region to work with transgender clients.

Over her 17 years as director, the Cantú Queer Center has served thousands of students, Abbott said, and UC Santa Cruz is consistently ranked one of the top universities for LGBTQ students. Under her leadership, the center has provided extensive advocacy, trainings, resources, and services to the campus community. “The Cantú” as it is commonly known, publishes QConnect, a highly rated weekly e-newsmagazine. The center also hosts a library, the GALA Gallery, a study center, tutoring, drop-in support, more than 13 student groups, and cultural programs throughout the academic year.

In addition to Abbott’s LGBTQ achievements, she was recognized for activism around disability causes. Abbott was a long-time volunteer whitewater river and sea kayak guide for Environmental Traveling Companions, an organization specializing in taking people with disabilities on wilderness adventures.  She was also a volunteer board member of the Central Coast Center for Independent Living and has been involved in education around disability and deaf issues much of her adult life.