Forty Under 40: Activism

Amy Balliett heads up an impressive list of out activists that includes Tony Biel, Brad Sears, Thai Pham, James Neiley, Christoph Babka, Katelynn Cusanelli, and Timothy Scofield.

BY Advocate.com Editors

May 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

Amy Balliett | Internet activist | 27 | Seattle

Amy Balliett is finding it a bit of a struggle to balance the responsibilities of her full-time job in search engine marketing, paying a mortgage, and newlywed life with the work that comes with being one of the most successful gay activists of the 21st century. "I'd be lying if I said this was easy," says Balliett, who with her friend Willow Witte formed the group Join the Impact, which last year organized rallies worldwide in response to the passage of California's Proposition 8.

Since last November, Join the Impact (a netroots hub for posting and promoting LGBT activism) has become a nerve center for events across the country, including the national Light Up the Night for Equality candlelight vigil and the Day of Decision rallies scheduled for the evening of the California supreme court's ruling on Proposition 8 (still pending at press time). Chapters are sprouting up, donations are coming in, and Balliett and Witte have applied for nonprofit status. "The goal is for Join the Impact to become an organization that's run by our members," she says, describing a model that would allow the organization to nimbly expand by having members establish chapters and organize their own events.

While Balliett's day job pays the bills, she wants to move on to a film career by age 40. "I want to direct," Balliett says decisively. "We live in a society where fewer people are reading, so I've always wanted to do film work that would open people's eyes and let them see where our struggle is."

Balliett insists that after all is said and done, if we all woke up one day with full marriage rights, workplace protections, and fair hate-crimes laws on the books, Join the Impact would live on. "Racism still exists. There's a reason the NAACP is still around," she says, drawing a comparison to that organization's mission. "There will always be a need for education and outreach, and that's what I'll always be doing."

Tony Biel | Volunteer organizer | 35 | Los Angeles

1027 TONY BIEL 40 UNDER 40 X390 (GRAHAM SMITH) | ADVOCATE.COM

Like many people motivated after seeing Milk, Tony Biel was called to action -- in the hills of Malibu and the industrial district of southeast Los Angeles. Biel founded Gay for Good, a community service organization aimed at getting gay people "out of the scene and working alongside other people" -- an opportunity, he says, to start a dialogue sorely missing in the weeks leading up to November 4. A media sales rep by day, Biel also oversees a popular L.A.-based gay hiking group, Take-a-Hike, so he had the e-mail addresses of more than 1,000 potential volunteers when he and friends Steve Gratwick and Frank Roller decided to make Gay for Good a reality. In the six months since Biel launched the project, Gay for Good volunteers have twice gotten their hands dirty with Tree People, helping to reforest the hills of Malibu after last year's fires; they've also stuffed food packages at the L.A. Regional Food Bank. "People have been really supportive -- volunteer organizers especially…knowing what's been going on with Prop. 8, they feel we've been slighted, and they're eager to get us in there." The group's next projects will be with Habitat for Humanity and more environmental cleanup -- this time at the Ballona Wetlands. "[Gay people] need to get out of our insular communities," Biel says. "When we do that, people see we're not scary and that we're frequently working toward the same goals."

Brad Sears | Think tank executive | 39 | Los Angeles

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As executive director of the Williams Institute, a think tank on sexual orientation policy and law at the University of California, Los Angeles, Brad Sears oversees a wide-ranging research agenda aimed at providing hard facts about gay people and issues. "We like to be the research center for the movement," Sears says of the institute's role. "The truth will push our rights forward." Among his team's findings: the frequently cited estimates of the number of gay soldiers in the armed forces (65,000) and the number of couples married in California before Proposition 8 forced a ban (18,000); the projected economic boost of same-sex marriage to state economies ($30.6 million over three years in Vermont, for instance); and the percentage of kids nationally adopted by gays (4%) or fostered by them (6%).

The work is immensely satisfying to Sears, a Harvard Law School grad who could've done anything with his career. "People have been working on LGBT issues since the early 1950s, and never has there been so much potential to move forward," he says. "To be the folks who get to reach some of these goals is just incredible."

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