Forty Under 40
BY Advocate Contributors
April 07 2010 5:00 AM ET
Click here to read the Forty Under 40 cover story interview with political strategist Chad Griffin.
26 / Brooklyn, N.Y.
Keyboardist, Vampire Weekend
“Being Iranian and gay are two aspects of my identity I embrace,” says Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. Neither have they compromised success for the gentle-voiced musician, whose career couldn’t be hotter. Besides producing and playing keyboards for one of the most acclaimed rock bands today (VW’s Contra hit number 1 on Billboard’s album charts, and they’ve appeared on Saturday Night Live twice), Batmanglij performs with his side project, electro-pop duo Discovery. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” is their much buzzed-about single, and he is optimistic about the song’s potential as a gay anthem. “The lyrics subconsciously comment on my own life. I wasn’t fully aware of their double meaning while I was writing it.” he says. “Growing up, there were artists like Tchaikovsky that I felt connected to before I knew they were gay or before I knew that I was gay.”
35 / Los Angeles
When Robert Rave left a successful career in public relations to devote himself to writing full-time, people weren’t quite sure what to make of it. “Some people don’t understand,” he says. “If you’re not making crazy money, it’s a foreign concept to them.” But Rave says he felt like he “was pushing everybody else’s passions and just sort of ignoring my own.” So he moved from New York to Los Angeles to work on his debut novel, Spin, a fictionalized look at the world of PR in the vein of The Devil Wears Prada. He sold the concept as a pilot to Sony Pictures Television, but the option eventually expired, and Spin was published last year by St. Martin’s Press. Rave’s follow-up, Waxed, is due out from St. Martin’s this summer. He says that while he has no regrets about leaving the world of PR behind, every so often, when a friend asks for help, he’s happy to oblige. “That part is fun for me, especially if it’s for friends. But I don’t get paid for it.”
35 / Brooklyn, N.Y.
Executive director, Queers for Economic Justice
More people are getting by with less these days, and Kenyon Farrow’s job is based on the fact that it’s not just straight people feeling the heat. Queers for Economic Justice is also pinching pennies (an expected $40,000 in funding was being held up by the gridlocked New York State legislature, but donations from supporters prevented layoffs, he says). Nevertheless, QEJ continues to provide shelter, support groups, and economic services to thousands of low-income and homeless LGBT people throughout New York City. Farrow came to QEJ in December after years of working on AIDS advocacy and prisoner issues and fighting homophobia among African-Americans; he’s already had several victories including a joint effort with the Audre Lorde Project, Housing Works, and Sylvia Rivera Law Project to help transgender people gain better access to city welfare programs.
29 / Atlanta
Mia Mingus has a refreshingly sunny disposition for someone who spends every day speaking against the big isms and phobias of the world—racism, homophobia, ableism (discrimination against disabled people), sexism, and classism. At the dozens of universities, events, and conferences where she speaks each year, Mingus, who uses a wheelchair herself, focuses on building strength in alliances, stressing that gay rights aren’t isolated from accessibility rights for people with disabilities. Mingus says she’s been lucky to make a living in activism and grassroots organizing. The next step in achieving equality, she says, is beyond getting diverse groups to show up at meetings. “Just being able to physically get into the door and communicate at meetings is a step,” she says of increasing disabled people’s involvement in LGBT advocacy. “But we have to move beyond access. It’s not enough to just be in the room, but we all have to be in on the conversation.”
Mid 30s / Brooklyn, N.Y.
You may know Gloria Bigelow best as a stand-up comedian, but when she isn’t touring the country with her act, she’s working with underserved kids. In years past Bigelow’s focus has been on the arts. But this year students at EBC/East New York High School told Bigelow what they really wanted was to cheer for their school’s basketball team. “I call them my Chocolate Cheerios,” she laughs. “They make up their own cheers, costumes. They feel like a part of something.” And the schedule—she works 10 hours per week—allows time to work her comedy chops at clubs around New York and on the occasional tour. Though she says comedy is opening up to more women—and to women of color who are gay—it’s still a man’s world. “If I go [see an act] that is not a gay show, I’m going to hear things like ‘faggot.’ I’m going to hear a black joke.” Still, she says, she’s completely honest about who she is in her act. “Robert Klein gave me some advice. He said, ‘Wait until they fall in love with you, then hit them in the stomach with the gay. Once they adore you, when you say you’re gay, you’re really going to flip their world.’ ”
28 / Pasadena, Calif.
Blogger, real estate agent
Most gay people like to make things pretty. This desire, real estate agent and blogger Brigham Yen explains, is why they often lead the charge in urban renewal, and it’s what fueled his passion to help turn downtown Los Angeles from a no-man’s-land into a 24-hour district. Yen developed a love for cities while growing up in un-urban Utah (yes, Brigham is his real name). After college he moved to Los Angeles, where he became engrossed in the city’s effort to clean up its blighted downtown and expand its transit system. Yen began attending planning meetings for new buildings and subways, made contacts with politicians, and was soon hired by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District as an economic development associate. He was part of an effort to convince residents and businesses to move downtown, including a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and a trendy sneaker store. Now a real estate agent, he leases retail spaces and sells condos in neighboring Pasadena, where he lives with his partner. His enthusiasm for sustainable cities recently led him to launch Pasadena Real Estate With Brigham Yen, a popular blog on the city’s pedestrian-friendly developments.
34 / Rapid City, S.D.
Sure, it’s funny when the Little Britain character claims to be “the only gay in the village,” but imagine being “the only gay in the nation.” For indigenous peoples, such isolation within Native American nations or tribes isn’t really all that funny. Coya Artichoker, a Sicangu Lakota who grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, is working to bring together LGBT people living alone or in small numbers through her organization Sacred Circle, a resource center to end violence against Native American women. Artichoker said her work was influenced by watching a friend endure a same-sex relationship that was violent for years. “It was heartbreaking to watch,” she says. “The typical things would happen to her, as in any other violent relationship, but because they were queer, people didn’t respond in the same way. It wasn’t taken as seriously.”
28 / Washington, D.C.
Executive director, Servicemembers United
President Obama’s State of the Union pledge in January to end a policy that “denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are” put Alex Nicholson’s schedule into overdrive. The Servicemembers United executive director, who was discharged from the Army in 2002, has been aggressively lobbying Capitol Hill, especially now that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal bill has been introduced in the Senate by Joseph Lieberman. Nicholson has pushed for the Pentagon to deliver a clear mandate from its yearlong review process about allowing gays to serve openly and honorably. “We believe their intentions are sincere, though their strategy isn’t necessarily the best,” he says of military leaders’ review of the DADT policy. “[On Capitol Hill] the risk of waiting until after the midterm elections or until other volatile issues pass is just too great.” But Nicholson is optimistic—and is considering rejoining the military as an attorney should Obama’s promise become a reality.
38 / Atlanta
Public defender, activist
A lot can change between generations, but for Jamie Roberts’s family, the differences are staggering. While her parents attended segregated public schools in suburban Atlanta, now their bisexual, transgender daughter works as a public defender in Georgia’s five-county Coweta judicial circuit. Since she was a child, “a lot of things have changed for the better,” Roberts says of her home state, and through her visibility and advocacy, she has played a role in that progress. Roberts provides pro bono legal services to domestic abuse victims and the elderly and is active with numerous LGBT nonprofits, including Georgia Equality and MEGA Family Project. Her confidence has helped keep her largely immune to discrimination at work, to say nothing of the fact that she’s whip-smart and ambitious. Roberts believes her gender identity informs her abilities as a defense attorney: “Being raised as a future white male leader and then transitioning to female has deepened my empathy for those who didn’t have the advantages I had growing up—I know what it feels like to be an outsider.”
29 / Brooklyn, N.Y.
Creator, I’m From Driftwood blog
“I am where I am because I was where I was,” says Nathan Manske, founder of I’m From Driftwood, an online collection of true stories by gay people from around the world. LGBT teenagers may be a little less lonely these days, thanks to the Driftwood, Texas–born Manske. He created the site last year after seeing a photo of the late activist Harvey Milk riding in the San Francisco pride parade while holding a sign reading “I’m from Woodmere, N.Y.” The image resonated with the affable Manske, who realized the hopeful message that post–coming out stories can send to isolated, small-town gay teens. The response has been gratifying. “A volunteer for the Trevor Project [a crisis prevention help line for gay and questioning youths] sent me a message saying he refers young callers to my website,” Manske says. Like the people who tell their tales on the site, Manske has had a life of ups and downs, but he takes a positive approach to the hard times. “They’ve all contributed to me becoming a stronger and better person and all led me to where I am right now, which I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
32 / Seattle
International Ms. Leather 2009
International Ms. Leather 2009 is on a mission. “So many people don’t acknowledge sex and sexuality—but once they do, it sets them free,” says Lamalani, whose name that means “heavenly light” in Hawaiian. The leather title, which she won last March in San Francisco (her successor is being selected in April), helps Lamalani continue spreading her message—speaking to varied audiences, meeting an array of people, and teaching them about sex and how to have fun with intimacy. Lamalani was just 21 when she started working at the renowned sex-toy shop Toys in Babeland (now Babeland) in Seattle, where sex education was a part of the job. “It really fed my soul,” she says. Growing up in a family with Chinese ancestry, Lamalani says she was taught not to discuss her sexuality. But as she got more immersed in S/M, she began to notice changes in herself. “For me, it was about acknowledging what I wanted and asking for it—that helped me set boundaries in all areas of my life, with my partners, with people on the street, with people in the store.” When she’s not traveling, the 32-year-old makes rope specifically used for bondage. “It’s a labor of love,” she jokes. But she’s also applying to Ph.D. programs in marine biology. “That’s my girlhood dream,” she says.
37 / Los Angeles
Jimmy Nguyen didn’t set out to destroy the credibility of erstwhile Miss California USA and conservative spokeswoman Carrie Prejean—it just happened. “I simply wanted to represent my client well,” says Nguyen, a law partner in the Beverly Hills office of Wildman, Harrold, Allen, and Dixon LLP, who defended the pageant organization against Prejean’s claim that she had been wrongfully terminated for her religious views. Prejean, of course, became the conservative movement’s poster child for a hot minute when she stood up for “opposite marriage” while answering a question in the Miss USA pageant. But the case revealed that Prejean was no victim; she had repeatedly breached her contract with the pageant and failed to reimburse the organization for her breast implants. The kicker was a story TMZ broke that found Prejean had made sex tapes for her then-boyfriend. Although Nguyen could not discuss the details of the suit and its settlement, he says, “She was being presented as a role model, spokesperson, and fund-raiser, and the events of that case helped to expose her as a hypocrite and discredit her as someone whose voice could be used against the LGBT community.”
34 / Los Angeles
Senior program officer, Liberty Hill Foundation
Liberty Hill Foundation was founded in 1976 on the premise that there were many organizations dedicated to various social changes, but one thing all those groups needed was cash to reach their goals. Groups seeking grants go through a rigorous application process, which is largely the responsibility of Vincent Jones. Jones has worked on a number of gay initiatives, including a Liberty-funded voter education program to help fight California’s Proposition 8. He also works with Lambda Legal, Camp Courage, and the National Teen Leadership Program, creating initiatives to inspire more African-Americans to get involved in social justice philanthropy. As a young man, “several youth programs helped me hone certain skills, realize my potential, get connected to a positive peer network and to think about things I’ve never thought about before,” Jones says. “If more teens access those types of experiences, we’ll have a better world.”
Larkin Mackey & Joshua McBride
36, 34 / Los Angeles
Restaurateurs, Larkin’s and Mac & Cheeza
Boyfriends and business partners Larkin Mackey and Joshua McBride became the toast—er, cornbread—of Los Angeles’s Eagle Rock neighborhood when they opened Larkin’s, a “contemporary soul food joint,” in 2007. “I was never really scared,” Mackey says of diving headfirst into the restaurant business despite never having run a professional kitchen. “I figured it couldn’t be rocket science.” McBride had Mackey’s back: “He is an amazing chef, and I knew he could rock it out, but also knew he needed my help.” They transformed a ramshackle house into a homey restaurant lauded by foodie blogs, magazines, and Pulitzer Prize–winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. The pair has struck comfort food gold again with a new chain of takeout restaurants called Mac & Cheeza, a customizable mac and cheese bar, in downtown L.A. and Bakersfield, with more locations coming soon.
24 / Goirle, Netherlands
Olympic medalist, speed skating
The media spotlight on 19-year-old Ireen Wüst was pretty intense in Turin in 2006, when she became the youngest Dutch athlete ever to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics—for the 3,000-meter long track speed skating event. But that scrutiny was nothing compared to what she felt three years later when she announced she was dating a fellow female skater, Sanne van Kerkhof. Media were so interested in the news that Wüst lost her cool, if only for a moment, asking one reporter why he wasn’t equally interested in the dating life of one of her male teammates. The pressure wasn’t so great for this 2006 Dutch female athlete of the year that she didn’t prove herself once again in 2010, winning Olympic gold in Vancouver in the 1,500-meter event. Understandably emotional on the medal stand, she said she must be “the happiest person on earth.”
James Duke Mason
18 / Cannes, France/Los Angeles
Instead of making headlines for disorderly behavior and drug arrests like so many other teens from show business families, James Duke Mason has his eye on a loftier goal. “I’m going to use my voice and my power as a human being to change history, even if it’s in a small way,” says Mason, the son of singer Belinda Carlisle and Morgan Mason, a politico turned film producer and agent. The younger Mason, who came out at 14, has been a congressional page, filmed PSAs for marriage equality, written civic-minded op-eds for Frontiers (a Los Angeles–based LGBT publication) and is currently the first openly gay student body president at his international high school on France’s Côte d’Azur. “For me, it’s about knowing every day that I’m doing my part to encourage other young gay people to be proud of who they are,” he says. Mason begins work on his first film, You Can’t Have It All, in April and plans to start college this fall in Los Angeles.
38 / New York City
Its name may seem salacious, but Carl Sandler says his five-year-old dating website, DaddyHunt.com, is tamer than one might expect. “The whole idea of being a ‘daddy’ is owning your age. It’s a playful use of the word rather than some old-school concept,” he says, alluding to a connotation that means something akin to silver fox. Averaging a quarter million unique visitors a month, DaddyHunt is not for the money-hungry and their older admirers, Sandler says, but rather anyone who values maturity over abdominals. That definition includes younger guys seeking older men, older men seeking younger men, and the over-40 set looking for partners their own age. “My generation needs a place online that isn’t just about hooking up,” he says. So, is there a definitive age when a man crosses over from “hunter” to “daddy”? “I’m not a person fixated on a certain role,” Sandler says. He’s looking for a boyfriend too, and all ages are welcome.
32 / Long Beach, Calif.
City council member, educator
Robert Garcia has a distinct voice—authoritative, assured, the product of life experience. Born in Lima, Peru, Garcia moved with his family to Southern California at age 5, and lived with his mother, aunt, and grandmother in a cramped apartment. He later attended California State University, Long Beach, and was elected student body president. When he ran last year for a city council seat in Long Beach, he pledged to improve the lives of the city’s gay and Latino citizens. After becoming the youngest person and first openly gay man elected to the council, Garcia proposed, and the council passed, a measure that requires Long Beach to do business exclusively with companies that provide domestic-partner benefits. Garcia, currently single, has a passion for teaching too—he hopes to earn his doctorate in higher education this summer. It’s not clear, even to Garcia, which field he’ll end up in, but he admits, “I love representing people. I love doing good.”
31 / New York City
Lead singer, Scissor Sisters
“If I had to hide being gay, I wouldn’t have a creative process,” Jake Shears says. “I wouldn’t have a career.” The unapologetically gay lead singer of Scissor Sisters is in full creative bloom, and fans have two of his projects to look forward to. Scissor Sisters will release a new, as yet-untitled album (their first since 2006’s acclaimed Ta-Dah) in July. “It’s the first record that genuinely sounds like us,” Shears says, describing the new material as being “about an imaginary New York that exists only in my head.” Shears also has teamed with Avenue Q playwright Jeff Whitty for another exciting project: the stage musical version of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s beloved novel about a group of friends in 1970s San Francisco. “The characters are so established, strong, and familiar to me that it’s been a pleasure to write for them,” says Shears, who has contributed the music for the production, which is currently in the workshop process.
36 / Los Angeles
As more than two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, the country needs some serious whipping into shape. That’s where Jillian Michaels steps in. Michaels may be known as TV’s flintiest trainer on NBC’s The Biggest Loser, but she wasn’t always a tough cookie. Overweight as a child, she didn’t start to shed pounds until age 13, when she hit the mat at karate class. Twenty-three years later she’s the face of a growing fitness empire, with workout DVDs, best-selling books, a Web community, speaking engagements, and an upcoming NBC show of her own. But Michaels pulls no punches. Her straight talk about her sexuality finally put to rest any question that she plays for Team LGBT. “If I fall in love with a woman, that’s awesome,” she told Ladies’ Home Journal. “If I fall in love with a man, that’s awesome. As long as you fall in love…it’s like organic food. I only eat healthy food, and I only want healthy love!”
25 / Austin
Grassroots organizer, Soulforce
As a queer transgender man of color, Asher Kolieboi understands the workings of “spiritual violence”—oppression in the name of religion. “Both communities are survivors of spiritual violence,” he says of LGBT people and racial minorities. So he’s working for Soulforce, which fights that kind of oppression, as an organizer for young adult activism and codirector of the Equality Ride, an event that finds youths delivering a message of acceptance and inclusion to Christian colleges. St. Louis native Kolieboi, who is of Liberian and American descent, also spread that message while attending the University of Missouri, where he organized a successful campaign to include gender identity and expression in the student government’s nondiscrimination statement. Young activists, he says, are changing how their peers—tomorrow’s leaders—view LGBT issues. “It’s monumental,” he says of those changes in perspective. “We’re really going to see an impact in the next 10 to 15 years.”
32 / Seattle
Law professor, Seattle University
While mainstream gay politics is just learning to deal with transgender issues, Dean Spade says, he’s fighting for a movement that encompasses not only transgender rights but racial and economic justice as well. Spade, a transgender person and much-honored Seattle University law professor, founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in 2002 to fight for rights regarding gender identity and expression, especially for low-income people and people of color. SRLP and other organizations recently persuaded New York City’s welfare agency to adopt guidelines for dealing fairly with gender-nonconforming clients. Victories like this are “just the beginning,” Spade says. “It is important for us to be visionary as activists.” His vision is “a world without prisons, without state enforcement of gender categories, without homelessness or poverty, and where every person can access full health care that includes gender-confirming health care for trans people.”
37 / New York City
Screenwriter, playwright, comic book author
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa might be considered one of the world’s best multitaskers. He’s a writer not only for the successful Marvel comics The Stand, The Sensational Spider-Man, and Nightcrawler but also the HBO drama Big Love, and he’s premiering a play he wrote, Doctor Cerberus, in April. And is if that’s not enough, the graduate of Georgetown University and the Yale School of Drama has just completed a pilot centered on a gay couple for HBO and is writing a musical adaptation of American Psycho. None of this success has taken a toll on his modesty, though. “I’ve been really, really fortunate that I’ve had lots of mentors and people who have believed in me and I have had lots of luck.”
39 / Nashville
Marketing director, Bridgestone Tire
In addition to managing an in-house advertising agency as director of brand and retail marketing for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, Michael Fluck is responsible for the company’s major sports marketing initiatives with the NFL, NHL, PGA tour, Major League Baseball, and the Izod IndyCar series. He also was a founding member of the company’s diversity council, which successfully pushed for the addition of gender identity to the corporate nondiscrimination policy. “We are in our 10th year of being the only tire company that supports the LGBT community,” Fluck says. “Our support comes in the form of having a presence in the community, hosting events, and advertising with gay media companies.” Bridgestone also recently sponsored the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Nashville. In addition to his work with Bridgestone, Fluck is the executive vice president of the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce, which aims to connect consumers with gay-friendly businesses in the city.
30 / Los Angeles
Some of the music videos and commercials directed by artist Molly Schiot are so low-fi (photocopied lip-synchers for Mark Ronson), so askew and self-assured (a pot-smoking Mexican granny for Nokia), that they thoroughly resist their genres. But Schiot wasn’t always so in control of her message. Her first paying gig—she won’t say what—is something she is now “morally and ethically” ashamed of. “Being a young, naive, fresh-out-of-college director and getting momentarily drunk off the Kool-Aid allowed me to pay off a big chunk of my student loans,” she says. “We all learn from experience.” Schiot is now directing her first short film, Pearblossom, featuring Jon Gries (Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite) and Kimberly McConnell. “It’s about eggs, gapped teeth, Koko Taylor, and sex.” Schiot, who is currently single, contributes a column to PaperMag.com called Check You Out, about L.A.’s creative creatures, and is preparing to photograph 92-year-old character actress Frances Bay, a shoot she is “very excited” about.
Luke Montgomery & Nate Guidas
36, 23 / Flagstaff, Ariz.
“We’re not missionaries—we’re just queers on a mission,” says Luke Montgomery of the relief work he and partner Nate Guidas are doing in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Montgomery, who once lived in Jacmel, Haiti, and founded an orphanage for HIV-positive children there, and Guidas were on their way to Haiti within days after the earthquake hit January 12. “I thought my time in Haiti was done, but Mother Nature had other plans,” Montgomery says. The two men brought in food, medicine, and other supplies, and they launched CauseCommandos.com to mobilize other gay people and allies to join in assisting the nation, which was in desperate circumstances even before the quake. They stayed six weeks, and now Montgomery, an activist once known as Luke Sissyfag who later became a media consultant and TV producer, and Guidas, a recent college graduate, are making relief work their full-time job. They plan to go back to Haiti in late May or early June, and they hope to take along others who want to pitch in with tasks such as rebuilding homes for HIV-positive Haitians. “It started as two gay guys with a mission, but we’re going to turn it into something the whole community can get behind,” Montgomery says.
25 / Philadelphia
When Kim Storm graduated from Wellesley College with degrees in feminist political theory and finance, she didn’t give much thought to a career in football—and never considered tackling and diving in her underwear. Storm is the lone out lesbian player for the Philadelphia Passion, one of 10 teams in the Lingerie Football League, a seven-on-seven indoor women’s tackle league. Storm says the stereotypes she held about her teammates when she started the sport, such as “they wouldn’t be very classy or educated,” couldn’t be more wrong. And the women, she says, couldn’t be more accepting of her. “We’re running around in our underwear tackling each other…we’re in the locker room completely naked sometimes. Nobody cares.” Storm spent three years playing for the Women’s Football Alliance’s Liberty Belles. She tried out for the Passion, she says, to bring more attention to the Belles, but never expected girls in only their underwear could actually play football. “Playing lingerie football, anything goes. If I have the ball and somebody punches me in the face, it’s fine,” she laughs. And at the end of the day, her reason for playing is simple. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I love sports and women are beautiful. These girls are all athletes, and they’re very good at what they do.”
29 / New York City
Executive producer, None on Record
The 2004 murder of FannyAnn Eddy, a Sierra Leone LGBT activist who was killed in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association, was a wake-up call for Selly Thiam. Thiam, the daughter of Senegalese parents, now heads a project called None on Record, a sound documentary collecting the stories of LGBT Africans from around the world in order to create a living record of their struggles and successes. “This project definitely threw me into the media arena, made me realize how media is used for social justice and to document stories,” she says.
Doug & Ben Burkman
35, 34 / New York City
The design philosophy that Doug and Ben Burkman employ at their eponymous Burkman Bros. label is a simple one: If they wouldn’t wear it, they won’t make it. Their preppy and casual men’s shirts, pants, outerwear, knits, sweaters, graphic tees, and accessories are inspired with “an eyedropper” of exotic influence informed by their travels throughout Asia. Both clotheshorses as young men, they came out at the same time, at age 17 and 16 respectively, and later worked together at Gap Inc. as designers. “We have always had the same common interests, shared a strong work ethic, similar perspectives on life,” Ben says. “Add in the fact that we’re gay brothers and best friends, and it was a natural fit to work together.” Their latest collections can be found across this country in Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and boutique stores as well as in shops in Canada, the U.K., and Japan.
39 / Kansas City
Missouri state senator
When Jolie Justus became the first openly gay member of the Missouri state senate in 2006, she remembers her colleagues sometimes remarking that they’d never met a gay person. But four years later Justus is amazed at the change in tone. “Those same folks will say, ‘Ya know, I don’t agree with you on this marriage thing, but it’s not right that you should get fired just because you’re gay,’ ” Justus says. She’s made a slow, steady push forward on legislation that would add both sexual orientation and gender identity to Missouri’s nondiscrimination code. Last year a committee heard testimony on the bill for the first time in eight years. This year Justus plans to offer the proposal as an amendment on the senate floor, where it will be debated by the full chamber. “I’m not confident that we can get it passed this year, but I do think we’re starting to change hearts and minds,” she says, adding that her goal is to pass the bill before—winning elections provided—2014, when she reaches her senate term limit. Justus is an example of what a difference it makes to have openly gay representation. “I always say, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
25 / Kampala, Uganda
Chairman, Sexual Minorities Uganda
Frank Mugisha is working for equality in a country where the degree of antigay hatred would shock most Americans. “I became an activist because of the homophobia in Uganda,” says Mugisha, who chairs the nationwide gay rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda. Lately he and fellow Ugandan activists have been fighting the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill proposed in parliament; in a country where being gay is already against the law, the bill would make homosexuality punishable by life in prison or even, in some cases, death. Mugisha, however, thinks activist efforts and international pressure will manage to kill the bill. “I am very optimistic that this bill will not be passed,” he says. Once that’s out of the way, he’ll continue advocating for LGBT rights as well as HIV education and care. “We will still go on with our work,” he says.
32 / Los Angeles
Director, Mississippi Damned
When Tina Mabry started work on her autobiographical film Mississippi Damned, she didn’t plan to include the tag line “based on a true story.” The movie centers on a dysfunctional family confronting themes of addiction, violence, and sexual assault. “I had to decide if I was ready to proclaim that to the world,” Mabry says. But making the film turned out to be cathartic. “I had never talked about this publicly before,” she says. “To share it with my actors in order to get them where they needed to be was very freeing to me.” Since completing the film, Mabry and her life partner and producer, Morgan Stiff, have been having a lot of “good moments” lately. Mississippi Damned has already won 11 awards, including the grand jury prize for outstanding U.S. feature film at the 2009 Outfest in Los Angeles. And as Mabry moves forward, she does so with a sense of completion. “I feel like I’ve closed a chapter on a certain part of my life, and that feels good,” she says.
37 / Oakland, Calif.
CEO and founding partner, Sweet
Eco-friendly lesbian travel company Sweet grew out of a chat between Shannon Wentworth and her cofounder, Jen Rainin, in late 2007. They were searching for a way to tackle global issues in doable, bite-size chunks that motivated participants with good feelings, not guilt. Most of the eco-friendly vacations offered at the time were cost-prohibitive, says Wentworth, who is single and has been a “crazy environmentalist” since she was a teenager. So she and Rainin founded their own charter travel company and have been giving back while having a good time ever since. Their cruises, adventure travel packages, and resort vacations have provided their clients the opportunity to clean beaches in Mexico, donate computers to an e-learning center in Honduras, aid the St. Lazarus School in Nairobi, Kenya, and plant 65,000 trees along the Tensas River in Louisiana. “It made perfect sense to find a way to leave the places we visited better than we found them,” she says.
26 / North Hollywood, Calif.
Photographer, founder of the No H8 Campaign
Adam Bouska became an activist overnight, quite literally. “The night after Prop. 8 passed, we took part in the marches and painted our faces. That morning, at 2 a.m., we got more paint and started taking photos. We didn’t intend for it to be a campaign.” But just over a year later, Bouska estimates he’s taken more than 4,000 photos for his No H8 Campaign. His portraits of people in basic white T-shirts with duct tape over their mouths and “No H8” painted on a cheek blanket social networking sites, and Bouska has photographed people ranging from Jane Lynch to Meghan and Cindy McCain. “[Cindy McCain] was very important. She was a straight person standing up for our cause but also standing up against her husband.” And though the campaign started out about Prop. 8, Bouska says No H8 has become about much more. “We still have ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and discrimination in the workplace. I’ll keep going until we have equality for all.”
23 / New York City
Cocreator, Jeffery & Cole Casserole
Rarely is narcissistic navel-gazing so charming as in the case of Jeffery Self. In 2006, Self moved to Manhattan, where his Internet dating habits became fodder for one-man stage shows like People I Slept With Who Never Called Me Back. With pal Cole Escola, he launched a series of YouTube videos as the “VGL Gay Boys,” hosted by “straight” man Self and constantly derailed by wild card Cole. The pair parlayed their cult following into the Logo TV series Jeffery & Cole Casserole. “For the first season of our show we maintained the exact same production budget and resources as when we were making YouTube videos,” Self says, “which was less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. But those limitations forced us to be a lot more creative.” He’s since performed on Atlantis cruises and appeared on 30 Rock, but says he still has trouble dating. “I watch too much TV to actually go on dates. That is, unless eating pasta in my underwear while watching Live! With Regis and Kelly counts as a date. Does it?”
30 / New Orleans
Owner-chef, Eat New Orleans restaurant
“The best compliment is when customers tell me that they haven’t eaten [a dish like this] since their mother made it, and it brought them back to that time,” says Jarred Zeringue, chef and owner of Eat New Orleans. Zeringue says he was inspired to open the restaurant both by his love of the food he grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother in Vacherie, La., and by his desire to help maintain the culture of South Louisiana. After the Katrina disaster, Zeringue saw restaurants providing free meals to returning businesspeople and to volunteers. “Those lines for food were where people told their stories,” he says. “It gave me a much greater appreciation for the culture and traditions many take for granted.” His BYOB restaurant is noted both for its casual, traditional cuisine and for its camaraderie. In the French Quarter “we have retirees, bohemians, families, gay men, and lesbians. My place is one where they visit and talk about the neighborhood happenings.”