Charlene Getchell LU 1503

Tell me a little about yourself.

I always wanted to be a carpenter. I have this picture I drew when I was seven or eight in an activity book: I have a hammer in my hand with a house with nails sticking out of it. I have three brothers and my parents always told me: You can do whatever the boys do. 

I decided to be a Marine, and for eight years, worked as a combat correspondent. I wrote for the base paper and did a lot of photography in the darkroom days. I eventually left because I realized I was gay. At the time, you could be discharged if they found out. I decided I didn’t want to live a double life.

I was living in Chicago, IL, attending community college because I thought I might want to be an architect, but I got tired of being broke. My neighbor was a carpet layer and in the Carpenters Union in Chicago. He sponsored me in because he knew I always wanted to be a carpenter.  In 1996, I officially joined the Carpenters Union.

I think the Marines really prepared me for the carpenters. When I left, only 3% of the Marines were female. As a carpenter, I was the only woman on almost every single job site. Every now and then, I would see a woman electrician, but I never saw a woman carpenter.

How did you become an instructor at Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute (PNCI)?

I was a Sole Proprietor, General Contractor for 2 years before working at the nonprofit YouthBuilders for 10 years. It gave me a lot of insight into residential, diversity, and inclusion. I was remodeling my properties in the evenings and weekends, while I was working at YouthBuilders. I guess you could say I quit because I was tired of working two jobs. Then I got bored and asked about a position at PNCI.

Why is it important for you to be transparent about your sexuality?

I do believe transparency is important for a lot of reasons. How are people going to trust you if you’re hiding a big part of yourself? Being a lesbian is a part of my life, but it’s only part of me. It’s not who I am in my entirety.

There was a big political movement around AIDs back in the 80s. People thought it was something only the gay community was dealing with. There were countless other people affected because it wasn’t easy to be open about who you were at the time. So they decided: Let’s show everybody who’s queer–who it really affects. More people came out and spoke out against the mistreatment of the gay community by the Regan administration. That increased visibility helped people see who was affected by AIDS.

We see a similar scenario with the Black Lives Matter movement. When you stand up as an ally, it helps other people understand how the issue affects everyone, not just one group. When you stand up, you become a part of the conversation with other people.

I have so much trouble with people staying silent because speaking about your beliefs and who you are, leads to improving society. We’re the United States of America. We’re the most diverse country in the world, and we need to embrace it.

Every year, Charlene holds a small BBQ and Pizza Gathering. The event is a small get-together event that helps raise money for Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc aimed at helping support women of color who join the trades. Last year, Lorie Gonor helped pass a motion for the Council to donate $3,000 to the cause. This year, Charlene is looking at new avenues to continue support for the program.

If you had a chance to speak with someone who disagrees with you, what would you want them to know? What would you possibly say to change their mind?

I believe slights and slurs come from insecurity and fear. They think that by providing equality to someone else, someone will take something from them, which is just not true. I would ask them why they believe that? Why would you think queer carpenters don’t belong on a job site? What about my sexuality keeps me from doing my job?

Being older now, I see that to affect the change you want, you have to change somebody’s heart, not just their mind. As you can see, none of the facts matter to anybody, they’re listening to their feelings and fears.

Is there any advice you would give to a person considering this line of work, but afraid they might face discrimination on the job? 

First, if something serious happens, report it to your rep, or even the police. It all depends on how bad the incident is. Some things need to be reported right away.

Second, you don’t have to attack someone who misspoke–that doesn’t solve anything.

Picture of Charlene Gretchell, circa 1998
Charlene Getchell, circa 1998

Sometimes people throw things out to test you and their beliefs. Depending on how you respond, you could play into their viewpoint or have them question their bias. I hate to put that responsibility on anyone (we’re here to work, after all). Still, I definitely think it’s something to be aware of walking onto a job site or any situation where you’re not the majority. You’re going to be challenged because some people want to be challenged.

If you show somebody who you are–you’re hard-working, you show up, you’re open to change… They have this cognitive disconnect. They say to themselves, “I’m supposed to hate this person,” but then they say it’s wrong. They begin to question their beliefs and how they view a group.


Did You Know?

Apprenticeship programs pay off.

Workers who complete apprenticeship programs earn $300,000 more over their lifetime than peers who don’t. Learn More

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