40 Under 40

Musicians Tegan and Sara lead the pack of accomplished leaders in politics, sports, science, religion, and the arts. Meet the architects of the next decade.

BY Advocate.com Editors

April 17 2013 4:00 AM ET


Harper Jean Tobin

31 / Washington, D.C.
Director of Policy, National Center for Transgender Equality

As a young transgender woman coming of age in Louisville, Ky., Harper Jean Tobin was grateful for her supportive family and friends within her community. But while she describes Louisville as “the least conservative place in Kentucky,” she was still aware of the discrimination and transphobia that runs deep in many Southern states. That awareness led the lawyer — recently named among the best 40 LGBT attorneys under 40 by the National LGBT Bar Association — to actively fight to improve the lives, visibility, and equality of transgender people by creating inclusive federal policy. And that’s exactly what she’s done in her four years with the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“Gears sometimes turn slowly in this town,” says Tobin of the Washington infrastructure. “But we have seen tremendous progress over the past four years.”

Tobin cites 2010 revisions to federal policy that allowed transgender people to obtain passports that reflect their authentic gender without a requirement for surgical procedures. Tobin also highlights ongoing work to protect transgender prisoners and immigration detainees. Tobin says such efforts have been “quite successful” thus far, but notes that there is still much to do. She hopes NCTE’s efforts signal the beginning of “a larger and very critical conversation in our movement about the ways in which so many of our transgender youth are funneled into these harmful systems by poverty, unemployment, rejection, and discrimination.” @transequality

Photography by Tim Coburn at Number Nine Bar in Washington, D.C.
 

Alex Morse
24 / Holyoke, Mass.
Mayor

When your high school gay-straight alliance faces censorship by the school board, it helps to have the town’s mayor on your side. To be fair, Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke, Mass., founded that group back in his high school days, which weren’t that long ago. He’s only 24.

The Holyoke High School GSA planned an assembly against bullying in February, and in response a board member wanted to move it after school or require an opt-out provision because of its supposed sexual nature. Morse spoke strongly against the idea, arguing that the kids most likely to opt out would also be most in need of training. When he won and the assembly happened, the mayor was a guest speaker.

Morse shows that even a mayor for a city of about 40,000 can make a difference for LGBT Americans. “Legal protections are one thing,” he says. “Changing the hearts and minds of people is another challenge.”
@mayormorse

Amy B. Scher
33 / Monterey, Calif.
Health Advocate & Author

Nothing repels Amy Scher like Indian food. The smell could make her stomach churn. But she heard about an experimental stem cell therapy in India that could help heal her body’s deterioration from an eight-year struggle with Lyme disease. She booked a flight.

Prior to this journey, Scher endured hordes of doctors, pills, tests, and therapies, but nothing worked. The experiment seemed drastic, but necessary. Scher, author of This Is How I Save My Life: A True Story of Embryonic Stem Cells, Indian Adventures, and Ultimate Self-Healing, says she couldn’t help but document her adventure. With her experiences she’s now helping other people with chronic diseases as a therapist and writer.

“I learned how to let go,” she says. “I met my wife, who was there from London. I found myself. It taught me a really essential lesson of how important it is to trust that life is trying to take you where you need to go, even and especially if it makes no sense.”
@amybscher

Cédric Gasaida
(a.k.a. Starving Yet Full)
& Fritz Helder

28 & 30 / Toronto
Musicians

Fritz Helder and Cédric Gasaida (whose stage name is Starving Yet Full), the gay vocalists and cowriters for the four-member electronic band Azari & III, find themselves in a curious place. Their infectious house music — made with Christian Farley (Azari) and Alphonse Lanza (Alixander III) — has netted them gigs at Europe’s Glastonbury and Lovebox festivals, the front row at a Dior show in Paris, and regular spins on L.A.’s KCRW, the radio station that played Adele and Gotye before anyone else. The only thing is that KCRW’s DJ called the group “Azari and Three,” though it’s pronounced Azari & Third, a reminder that they’re this close to a breakthrough, but not quite there yet.

The success they’ve achieved so far “feels surreal,” says Gasaida, who keeps the origin of his moniker a secret. “Honestly, we’re still pinching ourselves, and there’s so much more to achieve and a long road ahead.”

The collective formed in 2008, a self-titled release came out late in 2011, and a remix album followed in February. With thrilling beats punctuated with expressive vocals, it’s no surprise that tunes like “Manhooker” and “Hungry for the Power” caught on with influential people in the music and fashion vortexes. Helder and Gasaida fit very well in those worlds — they’re both cool without pretense. They joke about how everyone wrongly thinks they’re an item (“I guess it’s our chemistry onstage,” Helder says. “I always get asked permission!”) and how a group with two straight men and two gay men are the perfect combination (“If it was all gay, it would be too gay,” Helder says. “If it was all straight, it would get too bro-ey.”). The other two guys want to be gay anyway, Helder claims. “They live vicariously through us,” he says with a laugh. @azariandIII

Amir Dixon
23 / Boston 
Filmmaker

Amir Dixon recently made history when his film Friend of Essex screened at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, one of the nation’s preeminent historically African-American colleges. The documentary drama explores the lives of young black gay men today and “looks at how we are seen in the black community through the scope of religion, how we are seen in the [larger] LGBTQ community, and in turn how we see ourselves,” Dixon says. The film has prompted discussions on race, masculinity, identity, and sexuality. This is what he hopes to achieve wherever Friend of Essex screens. “[I hope to set a] national agenda for LGBTQ people of color that is inclusive of all of our experiences,” he says. “This isn’t about me but about us.” @amirnow

Drew Denny
28 / Brooklyn, N.Y.
Filmmaker, Performance Artist, Musician

Drew Denny’s first feature film, The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On, debuted at the 2012 Seattle International Film Fest to a packed house — a trend that continued when the film screened at both the Mill Valley and AFI Film Festivals in 2012. The visually stunning, earnest film follows two best friends, played by Denny and Sarah Hagan, as they road-trip across the country’s national parks to scatter ashes that actually belonged to Denny’s father. After caring for her formerly estranged father as he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, Denny says the film“ was like an exorcism of grief — in front of my friends and a camera.” The title comes from a favorite saying of her late father’s: “Killing someone is the most fun I've ever had with my pants on.”

The 28-year-old queer femme lives in New York — currently inside a treehouse she constructed in a Brooklyn backyard. But Denny “grew up in Texas, going to Evangelical summer camp,” she says, “where I learned to shoot skeet for Jesus and apologized to Him for staring at my counselor’s nipples when they showed through her swimsuit.” With degrees in film from the University of Southern California and the California Institute of the Arts, Denny is juggling a plethora of projects, including a feature film about two female dancers who fall in love at first touch, another examining sexual assault in the military, and a documentary about a transgender hairdresser who caters to butch women and transmasculine people “in need of tight fades and community.”

“I just want to tell stories,” says Denny. “Make artwork, sing songs, express emotions, challenge prejudice, piss off assholes, and speak truth to power.” @dangitdrewdenny

Olga Rechdouni
39 / West Hollywood
Owner, Duroque

The world of custom furniture may be male-dominated, but Olga Rechdouni hasn’t let that keep her from success. “I grew up in the Ukraine, where my dad had a furniture factory,” she says. “Getting familiar with the custom furniture business from a very young age gave me a big advantage over my male competitors.”

Rechdouni used that advantage as a springboard for her career. She attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she earned a degree in interior design, and then traveled the world before founding the furniture and design business Duroque, which recently opened a new, elite boutique in West Hollywood. The store showcases modern trends in accessories and furniture, some made by Duroque, some by other artisans.

For example, Rechdouni’s elegantly chic dog beds — think 500 types of fabrics, Swarovski crystals, and $1,200 price tags — are so popular they are in the homes of several A-list celebrities. To give back, 10% of all sales go to animal rescue agencies.

Rechdouni continues to push Duroque’s distinctive style to new heights and acknowledges that being part of the LGBT community frequently influences her work: “My first pet bed design was inspired by the amazing pet rescue work done by many members of our community.” @duroqueinterior

Photography by Bradford Rogne at The Black Cat in Los Angeles

Jason Paul Collum
39 / Milwaukee
Filmmaker

Filmmaker Jason Paul Collum — whose latest work is Screaming in High Heels, a doc about legendary B-movie actresses — admits he was drawn to horror movies at an early age because as a bullied teen he identified with the heroines. “They found an inner strength just to make it through one awful day,” he says.“My favorite movie of all time is [the original] Carrie. The ultimate battered teenager who seeks the ultimate revenge.”

Collum created the first gay-themed horror film franchise in history with October Moon and its sequel, October Moon 2: November Son.

“I’ve screened October Moon at many college campuses, and at almost every show I have a student come up to me in tears or asking for a hug,” he says. “I know it’s not for everyone, but those moments when I see the effect it has on some people, I know I’ve done something right, something important, even if only to a handful of people.” Facebook.com/jason.p.collum

Wade Davis
35 / New York 
Assistant Director, Job Readiness, Hetrick-Martin Institute

Wade Davis may be one of the few National Football League players to come out publicly as gay after retirement, but to the students at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, he’s just the guy who helps them find jobs.

Davis played preseason games for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, and Seattle Seahawks. He now works at HMI and is also a member of the board for the Minority AIDS Institute and the advisory group for Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project, where he helps school athletic teams discourage homophobia.“I don’t really think that a kid calling a teammate a ‘sissy’ is necessarily a homophobe, but it’s the casual language that coaches need to stamp out,” he says. The students at HMI, many of whom couldn’t care less about sports, look up to Davis through an entirely different light. “They’re like  ‘I need to find a job. You’re the job guy. You can be famous Saturday and Sunday, but Monday through Friday, I need you here.’ ” @wade_davis28

Danielle Moodie-Mills
33 / Washington, D.C.
Director of Education Advocacy, National Wildlife Federation

If you think you’re busy, you haven’t met Danielle Moodie-Mills. She’s the director of education advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member for the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, and an adviser for LGBT policy and racial justice with Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, an initiative of the Center for American Progress. In her spare time, she maintains a blog (ThreeLOL.com) and hosts a radio show (Politini at BLIS.fm), both of which she manages with her wife. But she doesn’t mind her industrious life. “I’m really passionate about all those pieces because they really reflect to my core, which is social justice and working for equality across the board for all people,” she says.

Moodie-Mills’s latest work with NWF centers on encouraging kids to put down the Xbox and get active, and her latest project with FIRE involves helping LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system. “I’m really proud to do the work I do,” she says. @deetwocents

Marie “Marty” B. Tracy
28 / New York
Veteran and Rider, Long Road Home Project

After two punishing deployments in Afghanistan, Air Force Reserve officer Marie B. Tracy was adrift. When her final mission ended in May of last year, she knew she couldn’t simply jump back into her old civilian life as a grant researcher at Columbia University. A friend told her about the Long Road Home Project, in which half a dozen military veterans were biking across the country to call attention to the dearth of veterans’ services. The project’s other objective was for vets like Tracy “to experience the healing power of the road and the transformative power of long-distance cycling.”

Traveling the 4,200 miles from Washington State to Washington, D.C., over the summer, Tracy, as the only gay person on the ride, spoke to dozens of Americans about what life was like for LGBT soldiers under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“I’d be talking to them about how DADT was so awful and how I want to be OK with myself,” says Tracy, who someday hopes to become a military chaplain, especially now that she can be herself. The reception she got on the trip buoyed her hopes for the future as well.

“You assume people are going to act one way and to have them be so wonderful reminds you how fantastic humanity can be.” @longroadhomeUSA

Aaron Laxton
33 / St. Louis
HIV Activist

When Aaron Laxton was first diagnosed with HIV in June 2011, he felt a wave of shame and worry.

“Initially, I remember telling my best friend, ‘Don’t tell anybody,’ ” he recalls. “It was that knee-jerk reaction to being positive.” Four days after finding out that he was positive, Laxton decided he would stop feeling shame. He recorded his first YouTube video declaring that even though he was positive, he was still Aaron. It quelled his fears, and it got friends, family, and acquaintances talking thoughtfully about HIV instead of gossiping behind his back.

The following year, the military veteran turned party scene-ster turned activist became one of the go-to voices on the Web about being HIV-positive with his blog, Aaron Laxton: HIV/AIDS Activism/Advocacy Report, and his widely watched self-titled YouTube channel. Outside of his day job as a case manager for homeless veterans, Laxton leads HIV activist events across the country. He says it helps to have an idealistic outlook, which he fully embraced as a student of sociology.

“I think every activist has to believe that you can change the world,” he says. “It may not happen in our lifetime, but seeing signs from future generations is a step in the right direction.”  @aaronlaxton

Andrew Maxin & Mark Waier

33 & 31 / Los Angeles
Fashion Designer, Model Turned Attorney  

Andrew Maxin is no stranger to innovation. His family (Maxin has a gay twin) became the first practitioners of the garment repair process known as “invisible mending” in British Columbia after emigrating from South Vietnam in the early 1980s. After coming out and attending design school in Vancouver, Maxin moved to Los Angeles, where he gained experience designing creative campaigns for icons such as Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald.

“When I moved to L.A., I promised myself I would never hide who I was and always be true to myself,” he says. “I believe recognizing the beauty in our differences can be a powerful thing.”Maxin’s desire to embrace and find strength in his differences is shared by his partner, former Ford model Mark Waier, who left the runway behind to attend law school.

“When I was modeling, nobody cared about what I had to say. They just wanted me to stand in front of the camera and be quiet,” Waier says. “That’s part of the reason I retired from the industry, because of how models are treated and perceived. But just because you’re a model doesn’t mean you can’t be smart.” Seeing a general lack of fun and innovation in the industry, the couple last year founded the swimwear and underwear company Vanwolff, whose target market is men who desire to be different. “That’s what Vanwolff as a brand is about, following your instinct, embracing the wolf within, and being true to who you are,” says Maxin. @vanwolff

Jeffrey Jordan
28 / San Diego
Founder and President, Rescue Social Change Group

Even for a 28-year-old wunderkind who started his own marketing company at 17, snagging a $152 million contract from the Food and Drug Administration is a huge deal. Jeffrey Jordan’s Rescue Social Change Group did just that late last year, when the FDA contracted its services for a new effort to combat youth smoking.

Jordan started Rescue Social Change, a company focused on using highly tailored behavior patterns to encourage people to exercise more, eat better, and never pick up a cigarette.

“We can’t have clean-cut, preppy-looking teens talking about being tobacco-free,” Jordan says. “We need this message to come from alternative, punk, goth, hip-hop, and LGBT teens who don’t look like the mainstream.”

Part of the FDA contract will battle tobacco use among LGBT youth, who smoke at estimated 40%–70% higher rates than their straight peers.

“Alternative rock teens smoke significantly more than preppy teens, and alternative rock teens are more likely to be accepting of LGBT teens,” he says. “Many LGBT role models glamorize smoking. Lady Gaga’s alter ego, Madonna in her ‘Girl Gone Wild’ video. As a community, we constantly encourage LGBT youth to start smoking without even knowing it.” facebook.com/rescuescg

Kortney Ryan Ziegler
32 / Oakland, Calif.
Social Entrepreneur

Kortney Ryan Ziegler created the definitive doc on the black trans experience, Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen; his website, Blac(k)ademic, is up for a GLAAD Award; and now he’s starting  Who We Know, a six-month “incubator where trans people of color will come together and create products and solutions to fight unemployment for trans people of color.” The transgender population has a “ridiculous” unemployment rate, says Ziegler, who hopes to teach others that transgender people “are just like everyone else: We learn, we breathe, we love, we have families. I want to remove this stigma around transsexuality.” @fakerapper

Justin Chenette
22 / Saco, Maine
State Representative

To Justin Chenette, the youngest state representative in Maine and the youngest openly gay one in the nation, there’s no time like the present to act on your beliefs.

“I didn’t want to wait 30 years and be told I couldn’t change the system,” says Chenette, who was elected to the Maine legislature last November. Chenette, who this year was named Maine state director for the Young Elected Officials Network, is also happy to be a positive example for LGBT youth. Some vestiges of prejudice remain even in his largely liberal state, he notes, but they’re eroding. “One day, being different won’t be a headline,” he says. @justinchenette

Jordan Bach
26 / New York
Writer and Speaker

It’s rare that a high-schooler counts spirituality as an after-school activity, but that’s exactly what Jordan Bach was doing a decade ago, teaching his fellow students about God. Since coming out at 12, Bach has been speaking about religion. “When you bring forward who you really are, you begin to heal your life. That’s true at any age.”

Now he reaches thousands  through radio, social media, TheBachBook.com, and his viral “God Loves Gays” video. “My intention is to give real gay men practical tools to live more…meaningful lives. There’s no more powerful gift you can give someone than to say, ‘I see you, and you’re enough just the way you are.’ ” @jordanbach

Josean Vargas
30 / Rochester, N.Y.
Designer

It’s not just clothes that make the man. For Josean Vargas — designer of J. Vargas, a line of hip, whimsical graphic bow ties and neckties — it’s the accessories too. “When I moved here to Rochester, I got a job, and I needed work clothes,” he says. “I’m always looking for ways to show who I am, but I also needed office-appropriate clothing.” At his new day job, working for a nonprofit that deals with early education and child care, he soon found himself in his organization’s fabric recycling bin, discovering inspiration for the perfect bow tie.

Vargas, originally from Puerto Rico, markets the line with his partner, Michael Rodriguez, through shops and fashion events in N.Y. as well as the company’s online store. Vargas got his start making dresses for his sister and moved up to designing pageant wear. Now Vargas and Rodriguez are working on expanding their brand with a line of women’s wear. They have big plans for their fashion empire and already have a growing list of rabid fans. And instead of solely relying on his organization’s fabric recycling bin for inspiration, Vargas lets the colors of the seasons influence him. “I just love to do whimsical or happy prints,” he says. “Something that, when a person looks at it or wears it, they get this warm feeling of happiness.” @jvargasdesign

Vanessa Selbst
28 / Los Angeles
Professional Poker Player

When Vanessa Selbst took home her biggest winnings at a French poker tournament, she and her friends paraded around the Cannes airport with the giant cardboard check for $1.8 million. Her sense of humor and emphasis on smart card playing have helped Selbst weather the pressure of professional poker to become the game’s top-earning woman, netting over $7 million so far.

Selbst is proud to be the first out LGBT poker player, but she says gender and sexuality matter little at the table. The Yale Law School grad began working with clinics devoted to LGBT rights, which she plans to soon take up full-time. @vanessaselbst

James Adomian
33 / New York & Los Angeles
Comedian

Laughter isn’t only the best medicine — it’s a powerful bridge. James Adomian’s spot-on impressions, goofiness, and matter-of-fact comedy wins crowds over from coast to coast. “Hate’s a temporary state of mind that we can all get out of with love and laughter,” he says.

Adomian became a breakout star doing sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. But stand-up is where you can hear Adomian in his most raw form. His album Low Hangin Fruit is proof. “I partly started doing stand-up because I’ve been out of the closet my adult life,” he says. “One of my pet projects is finding homophobic clichés and tropes in our culture and highlighting them for an audience. I’m lucky, most people react positively.” @jadomian

Jama Shelton
38 / New York City
Director, Forty to None Project

When True Colors Fund cofounder Cyndi Lauper announced the appointment of Jama Shelton as the first director of the fund’s Forty to None Project — the only national organization focused solely on bringing an end to LGBT youth homelessness — the expert on trans youth homelessness felt the weight of responsibility upon her.

“After nearly 10 years of working directly with gay and transgender youth experiencing homelessness, I’ve seen firsthand the barriers that they face,” says Shelton. “My work will focus on making sure that those young people… have a voice that is sorely missing in society today.” For more than a decade, Shelton, who identifies as transgender, has worked in services for homeless LGBT youth. She’s also a professor at Hunter College and the New York University School of Social Work. @fortytonone

Kyle Richardson
27 / Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Watering Hole Yoda

Owning a gay bar in the Deep South was never something Kyle Richardson planned when he was a student at the University of Alabama, where he began throwing the Pink Party, an annual event that quickly outgrew his apartment. Eventually he saw a void itching to be filled. So Richardson opened Icon, Tuscaloosa’s only LGBT bar, in early 2010.

“Alabama does have a reputation of being conservative,” he says. “Gay life isn’t always perfect here, but I think everywhere has its own struggles.”

“The gay community needed somewhere they could go. Tuscaloosa has plenty of bars, but there was a huge void without a gay bar. Since we opened, our community has grown and is becoming a stronger part of the city.” @icontuscaloosa

Liz Carmouche

29 / San Diego
MMA Fighter

Mixed martial arts competitor Liz Carmouche may not have won her most recent match, but she still made history. Wearing her signature rainbow mouth guard, Carmouche, Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first out gay fighter, took on standing champion Ronda Rousey in UFC’s first women’s championship match. Carmouche put up a longer-than-expected fight, putting Rousey on the defensive before she eventually beat Carmouche.

The former marine gravitated toward MMA after leaving the military in 2009. She quickly became a formidable fighter. And now, she eats, sleeps, and breathes MMA, with a legion of fans known as Lizbos  cheering her on.

Carmouche says she has never faced homophobia head-on during her time in the mixed martial arts world in general.
“MMA has been very accepting. I wouldn’t say that every gym you go to is as open as the gym I’m a part of. But they just accepted me with open arms.” @iamgirlrilla


Joanne Lohman & Lianne Sanderson
30 & 25 / Washington, D.C.
Professional Soccer Players and Philanthropists

Money often becomes the first — and only — line of defense when it comes to helping underprivileged people. But when professional soccer players Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson, partners in business and life, decided to help poor girls in the U.S. and abroad, they knew the most powerful currency they could give would be confidence. Toward that end the couple founded the JoLi Academy, which gives girls a place to learn soccer skills and play in a supportive environment. They believe if you give a young girl a chance to not only play a sport but excel, she will gain an unparalleled sense of self-esteem and confidence that could eventually help elevate her out of poverty.

Sanderson’s experience running a soccer academy in her home country of England and Penn State–educated Lohman’s business acumen have helped the duo take JoLi Academy (which is headquartered in Washington, D.C.) to small schools, universities, and girls’ soccer leagues across the U.S. as well as to train girls in Jamaica and India. Their workshops give children something nearly as important as financial help: time and moral support. The work is exhausting, but Sanderson says working with her partner makes it worthwhile.

“We’re so lucky that we have each other,” Sanderson says. “There’s times when we’re in India where we find it hard to just keep going. I might feel hungry, or tired, or run-down, but Joanna is just there for me, to remind me to keep going.” @joannalohman  @liannesanderson

Aneesh Sheth
31 / San Francisco
Actress

Transgender actress Aneesh Sheth says her life shows why you should always follow your dreams. “When I transitioned, I didn’t think I could be an actress,” says Sheth, a performer from an early age, who studied musical theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. So at 26 she went into social services, working as a counselor for LGBT youth with the Trevor Project. Then she got a call to be a guest star on the NBC sitcom Outsourced, playing the first South Asian transgender character on network TV.

A board member for the HIV organization The Stigma Project, Sheth is currently developing a TV series about a transgender woman. She’s forging ahead in her personal life as well, with plans to marry fiancé Michael Schumpert in June.

“Whatever path you choose to go down,” she says to LGBT youth, “don’t lose sight of who you are. You can still do what you want to do.” @ashneesh

Scott Norton  
31 / Mission Viejo, Calif.  
Professional Bowler

When bowler Scott Norton won the 2012 Professional Bowlers Association’s Chameleon Championship in Las Vegas, he did what most people would — he burst into tears and laid a big one on his significant other. But Norton’s spouse is a man named Craig Woodward, and when ESPN aired the footage at the end of the year, it was a watershed moment in professional sports. Norton soon appeared on the sports media circuit, endearing himself to fans and reporters with a warm smile and self-effacing manner. Norton, who is also an attorney, may be modest, but he’s also ambitious.

 “My biggest goal is to be PBA Player of the Year,” he says. “At the time this will be written, I am one of a very few number of front-runners for that.” The California native was raised in bowling — which he says is more blue-collar than macho — by his mother, United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Virginia Norton.

“It would be amazing if my mother and I are the first mother/son in the Halls of Fame,” he says. @norton_bowling

Ryan Spahn
32 / New York
Actor and Student

Ryan Spahn happily acknowledges that his partner of four years, Michael Urie (of Ugly Betty fame), has the more recognizable face of the couple. In fact, he’s banking on it. Spahn’s first feature film, in theaters this May, is sardonically titled He’s Way More Famous Than You. He wrote the film with Halley Feiffer, with Urie in the director’s chair. Both Spahn and Urie star in the film, along with Tracee Chimo, Jesse Eisenberg, and But I’m a Cheerleader’s Natasha Lyonne.

While completing preproduction for Famous in 2011, Spahn penned a screenplay for another upcoming film, Grantham & Rose, a coming-of-age story featuring Jake T. Austin as 17-year-old Grantham, who commits a petty theft that lands him in the unexpected company of The Jeffersons’ Marla Gibbs, as a feisty 81-year-old woman named Rose.

Spahn is also a third-year drama student at Juilliard. Urie, a Juilliard alum, encouraged his partner to attend, promising the education would change his life. Indeed, Spahn says he’s found funding for and self-produced all three of his feature film and a short film projects since enrolling.

“It was unexpected and thrilling,” says Spahn. “So it was more of a juggling act of scheduling the films to fall during my holiday breaks. I am a hard worker, so I managed to balance the workload of Juilliard against these filming schedules.” @ryan_spahn

Ruben Gonzales

36 / Washington, D.C.
Deputy Vice President for Resource Development, National Council of La Raza

As the first openly LGBT person to serve on the management team of the National Council of La Raza in its 45-year history, Ruben Gonzales knew he had some stereotypes to dispel. The nation’s largest organization advocating for Latino civil rights had generally avoided LGBT issues, seeing them as separate from those affecting Latinos. But that all changed when Gonzales joined NCLR in 2009, bringing his out and proud politics — and his husband, Joaquin — into the visible forefront of the organization.

Gonzales was a driving force behind La Raza’s endorsement of marriage equality in 2012, the first time the organization had explicitly endorsed an LGBT cause.

“I think sometimes there is an assumption with Latinos that there are not LGBT people in the community,” says Gonzales, who worked with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Urban Assembly, and GLAAD before joining La Raza. “But there’s millions of us, and we’re strong and we’re loved. You don’t have to sacrifice being Latino or being LGBT to be part of both communities.”

Gonzales, who has been out since he was 17, says remaining closeted would have kept him from making connections and changing hearts and minds, which Gonzales sees as a crucial component to disproving that myth that the Latino community is widely antigay.

“I don’t want people to assume that Latinos are more homophobic or less likely to be supportive [of LGBT people],” says Gonzales. “I’ve even had a chance to push on some Latinos who say, ‘This isn’t what our community does’ or ‘We can’t embrace this.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, don’t blame being Latino for you being a bigot.’ ” @rubenjgonzales
Photography by Tim Coburn at Number Nine Bar in Washington, D.C.

Somáh Haaland
19 / Albuquerque
Political Record-setter

Most college freshmen don’t manage to make history, but most aren’t Somáh Haaland. The University of New Mexico student was the youngest LGBT delegate at last year’s Democratic National Convention. “I’ve grown up around politics,” she says. “And it’s made me realize just how important they are.”

Haaland started pitching in for President Obama’s reelection early, cofounding the Bulldogs for Obama group at her high school. Now a theater major with plans to join the Peace Corps after graduating, Haaland has a girlfriend and identifies as bisexual, but says she’s still exploring her sexual identity.

“I just met my father recently, and my whole life I thought I was supposed to like guys,” she says. “After meeting my father, I’ve kind of stopped caring about attention from guys.” @somahmarie

Terra Tempest Moore
25 / Washington, D.C.
Activist and Healer

Last year Terra Tempest Moore was honored with a Metro Weekly Next Generation Award for her work as a peer educator with the STIGMA (Spreading Truth Is Gaining Mass Appeal) project at Metro Teen AIDS as well as her ongoing efforts with the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League. “I think it’s because I just never said no,” she says. But after her mother died she went back to school for massage therapy — a different kind of helping profession — and now has her mind set on opening an LGBT-specific spa one day. Moore also works with the DC Trans Coalition and Transgender Health Empowerment, and she is on the national advisory board for the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, which is based in San Francisco, where she hopes to move for her gender reassignment surgery. @esoterra

Lauren B. Beach
29 / Minneapolis
 Ph.D. Student

One glance at Lauren Beach’s LinkedIn page and you’ll wonder where she finds the time to sleep, much less hang out at the White House. But Beach, who spends her days doing HIV/AIDS research and studying for her doctoral degree in biology and genetics from the University of Minnesota and just received a law degree from that institution, has done just that. Due to her work with the Bisexual Organizing Project — where she’s spent years as the board chair and since February has been secretary — she’s been to the president’s LGBT Pride Month Reception and learned a great deal at the White House.

Most of that education came from attending policy briefings on issues of interest to LGBT Americans. She also met with a White House liaison earlier this year at Creating Change, as part of her participation with the Bisexual Leadership Roundtable.  “Often people assume that policies benefiting gay, lesbian, transgender, and/or straight people will automatically benefit bisexual people too, but this is not always true,” she says.

“Sometimes evidence shows that the inclusion of bisexual and other nonmonosexual people requires specific interventions that target our populations in particular.”

Next up, she’s pushing President Obama to recognize Celebrate Bisexuality Day (September 23) and putting together the Bisexual Organizing Project’s annual conference.
@laurenbbeach


Felicia Carbajal

37 / Los Angeles
Cannabis Advocate

Felicia Carbajal is the link between marriage equality and cannabis advocacy. While both causes rely on increasing visibility and challenging preconceived notions, Carbajal is the woman in the middle. After California’s Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in 2008, Carbajal married her wife, thrusting her into a divisive battle over Prop. 8. “There were these [campaign ads] of little girls with pigtails and big puppy-dog eyes,” she recalls. “One was Latina, holding up a sign that I knew this girl was too young to even read. It said, ‘Marriage: One Man, One Woman.’ ”

That girl reminded Carbajal of herself growing up. She became a field organizer for the Courage Campaign, where she co-coordinated Meet in the Middle in her Central California hometown of Fresno. Once the flurry around Prop. 8 died down, she had a chance meeting with physician Allan Frankel, founder of GreenBridge Medical Services — which bills itself as a premier medicinal marijuana clinic. He allowed Carbajal to continue her work as a community organizer.

 “[Medicinal marijuana users are] just as important of a community to me as being LGBT and Latina.” Carbajal has met several closeted cannabis users, some of whom relied on it to treat chronic pain. Now her job is to get them and other like-minded medicinal cannabis users to keep coming out.  @docfrankel
Photography by Bradford Rogne at The Black Cat in Los Angeles

Mark Ferrandino
36 / Denver
Speaker, Colorado House of Representatives

When Mark Ferrandino was elected to represent Colorado’s House District 2 in 2007, the Denver Democrat was the first out LGBT person to be elected to the state legislature. Six years later, Rep. Ferrandino is now the longest-serving official in the state’s LGBT caucus, which includes a record eight gay or lesbian legislators in the House and Senate. This year, he once again made history when he became the first out gay person to serve as Speaker of the House.

As a child bullied for being in special education classes due to a learning disability, Ferrandino never thought he would wield such influence.

“I pinch myself every once in a while, sitting in the office and realizing what I’ve been able to accomplish,” says Ferrandino. “Of course, we’d love not to be bullied, but I am who I am because of the experience that I went through. And I think a lot of my compassion and desire for [helping] others is because I was so helped to get to where I am.”

While he’s been careful to avoid becoming a single-issue politician, Ferrandino has always been an outspoken supporter for LGBT issues, serving as the leading House sponsor for civil unions legislation that failed by narrow, partisan margins for the past three years. But this year, with Ferrandino in charge of the House, and Democrats in control of the Senate and the governor’s office, civil unions are all-but guaranteed to become a reality in Colorado — likely by May 1, according to Ferrandino. That’s an important step toward equality especially for Ferrandino and his husband, Greg Wertsch, who are currently fostering a baby girl they hope to adopt in the coming months. @markferrandino

Felipe Matos
27 / Tampa, Fla.
Codirector, GetEqual

Since moving from Brazil at the age of 14, Felipe Matos has been a leader in immigration rights for undocumented citizens. As one of the top community college students in the country, he was accepted by two elite universities but was unable to attend because his undocumented status prevented him from obtaining financial aid. To help change the situation, he has become an organizer and online advocate for Presente.org, a national group that aims to amplify the political voice of Latinos in the U.S.

Matos has also been a part of the national coordinating committee for United We Dream, a network of youth-led immigrant organizations around the country, and he helped organize 2010’s Trail of Dreams, a giant protest in which students marched 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., to support the DREAM Act and immigration rights.

Today, he is the codirector of GetEqual, a group formed to demand full legal and social equality for LGBT Americans.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our immigration system,” he says. “This is an opportunity to create a fair system for LGBTQ immigrants as well. We need a fair and direct pathway to citizenship, protect binational families, reform our asylum laws, and stop harsh enforcement that leads to more deportations and detentions.” @f_matos007

Ceara Sturgis
21 / Panama City, Fla.
Inadvertent Rabble-rouser

A cover story about Ceara Sturgis in a Mississippi newspaper got it right. “She’s Not a Troublemaker, She’s Gay,” the headline read. At the time, in 2009, it was an oft-repeated talking point employed by her mom while defending Sturgis’s decision to wear a tuxedo in her yearbook picture instead of a cape like the rest of the girls.

Sturgis and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school district that resulted in a new policy—now everyone wears a cap and gown.

The Southerner again made headlines last summer when she and her partner, Emily Key, wanted a commitment ceremony. The Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, a state-owned facility, had let straight couples marry there regularly, but Sturgis was told no.

“I don’t go looking for things to get into,” Sturgis says. “I’m just trying to live my life.” This time, she joined forces with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the policy was overturned.

“Someone needs to fight for equality,” she says, “and if I’m in the situation, I’m going to fight for it.” Facebook.com/Ceara-Sturgis

—Diane Anderson-Minshall,  Neal Broverman,  Sunnivie Brydum, Michelle Garcia,  Lucas Grindley, Clea Kim, Nick Pachelli, Jase Peeples, Trudy Ring, Christopher Rudolph

To complete our 40 Under 40 list, read our exclusive interview with Tegan & Sara, this month's cover subjects.

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