The Advocate's Champions of Pride 2021 are the unsung heroes who are making inroads for LGBTQ+ people in their fields of work and in their communities every day despite the risks or challenges. More than 100 changemakers (two from each state, Washington D.C., and the U.S. Territories) have been named to the list.
With trans rights and safety under siege across the country, it’s imperative to amplify and elevate the breadth of LGBTQ+ identities. The Champions of Pride print and digital editions and virtual event are our way of honoring the diversity and dedication of so many in the LGBTQ+ community.
Join us in honoring our Rugged Midwest 2021 Champions of Pride. Be sure to check back each day as we roll out the rest of the regions of Champions.
Although they are based in Minnesota, Chan Chau is an artist with a national profile. The nonbinary cartoonist and illustrator’s current project is an adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club for Scholastic. But their work has been featured in a variety of high-profile projects and anthologies, such as Heartwood, Elements: Fire, and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Sirens. They also worked on Danger & Eggs, an Emmy-winning Amazon Video animated series with LGBTQ+ characters, which was created by Shadi Petosky and Mike Owens. Other clients include Dark Horse, BOOM! Studios, DC Comics, and Flight School Studio. Chau hopes the diversity of their material inspires others to reach for the stars. “The work I do ranges from cartooning, illustration, to product design,” Chau says. “Deep down, I hope to show folks that they’re allowed to do anything and everything. You do not need to specialize in one form of art to succeed!” Chau adds, “To be a nonbinary cartoonist working in the publishing industry during this incredible rise in demand for graphic novel, I’m proud to be a small representation for those who are queer and hoping to make comics for a living.”
Eighty-year-old Don Quaintance has lived a life of service. A gay veteran of the Vietnam War, Quaintance dedicated himself to providing “caring support and awareness of the LGBTQ+ community in our rural area of Minnesota.” He was a founder of the Men’s Circle, a support and discussion group for queer men. He also helped launch the East Central Minnesota chapter of PFLAG and is an inaugural member of the East Central Minnesota Pride planning committee, where he still serves. ECMN Pride was one of the country’s first rural Pride celebrations, and it is held annually in Pine City. Quaintance lost his first love to the AIDS crisis. He met his life partner at the Men’s Circle in 2000; the pair were wed in 2016 after years of advocating for same-sex marriage. “We must keep up the fight to stop the discrimination of all people,” he says. “In 2021, it makes me proud to see how far we’ve come. Yet I realize there is a ways to go and I’m so glad there are others who have stepped forth to continue to do the work.”
Last summer, Sändra Washington, an African-American city councilwoman in Lincoln, Neb., launched Together, One Lincoln “to start conversations about race and racial equity in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.” Organizing discussions and providing materials in multiple languages, Together, One Lincoln ensured the impact of police violence was addressed in the state. “Long term, I’d like Together, One Lincoln to expand to include conversations structured on socioeconomics and the intersectionality of race and class,” Washington says. “Ultimately, these conversations are starting points for making real change in organizational policies and legislative policies.” Before being appointed to the City Council to fill a vacant seat in 2019, the 60-year-old was a Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commissioner, after years of working for the National Park Service, where she eventually rose to midwest chief of planning. Washington, a married lesbian mom, also served for years on the Homestead Girl Scouts board of directors. “When asked to assist, I step forward to help, she says.”
Sara Rips is the legal and policy counsel at American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. Discrimination against LGBTQ+ parents is still ubiquitous and last year, Nebraska judge Douglas Luebe denied an adoption by two married women even though they had both cared for the 3-year-old child since birth. The adoption petition listed “wife” and “wife” and Luebe stated that Black’s Law Dictionary — first published in 1891 — defined “wife” as “a woman who has a lawful living husband,” so he ruled the request invalid. Rips took the case to Nebraska’s high court and secured a swift victory, greenlighting the adoption. “The Nebraska court’s unanimous opinion sent a clear message affirming that adoption equality is the plain letter of the law,” says Rips, a 35-year-old lesbian. Adoption is one of many issues Rips tackles in her demanding position. “In the last year, I’ve advocated for inclusive health standards, protected a trans student’s right to have their name printed accurately in their yearbook, and took that adoption case to the highest court in the state,” she says. “We as a society all benefit when all of our rights are respected and protected. That’s what I work for every day.”
Ben Gourneau is a two-spirit activist living with HIV and is part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in Belcourt, N.D. Gourneau works for the tribe and is developing its Indians LifeWorks program, specifically designed to serve the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, HIV-positive individuals. and IV drug users. He works solo serving all three populations. When he turned 14, Gourneau came out as gay, but didn’t have any role models in the area. He felt a real stigma from the tribe, he says, and at 16 he left. He was later diagnosed with HIV. Eventually, Gourneau decided to return home and develop the program to serve people like him and others. “Everyone has told me that what I’m trying to do by starting the program has been needed for a very long time,” Gourneau says. “Maybe 20 years ago, when I was growing up, if I had this education that this program will provide, maybe I wouldn’t be positive today.” Gourneau adds that LifeWorks is about his life, and to that end he says that he’s completely happy with who he is today.
Carrie Evans burst on to the national scene last September when, as a City Council member in Minot, a video of her lashing into a man who objected to a rainbow Pride flag flown in front of Minot’s City Hall went viral. “I heard from young people living in bigoted communities who felt affirmed and proud when they watched the video,” she says. “And from proud parents of queer kids and even queer people over the age of 80 sharing their experiences.” Evans was elected to the council in 2020 and became North Dakota’s first out lesbian elected official, and she started a new job this spring working with youth who are survivors of human trafficking. Previously, she had tenures with the National LGBTQ Task Force, Human Rights Campaign, and Equality Maryland, leading the latter organization when marriage equality passed in 2012 and helping correct a decades-old omission of trans Marylanders from the state’s civil rights laws in 2014. Evans was diagnosed with MS two years ago and recently divorced after an 18-year relationship, but she looks on the bright side as the proud aunt to 8- and 9-year-old nephews, mom to one cat who is feline leukemia-positive, three rescue dogs, and a fish tank complete with guppies and mollies.
In addition to her day job working at Sanford Underground Research Facility as an infrastructure technician (and operating a fireworks stand with her family in June and July), 42-year-old Alexis June Novotny is the current president of the Black Hills Center for Equality, and a facilitator of the trans support group Transcendence. With the Rapid City-based Black Hills Center for Equality, Novotny, who is a pansexual transgender woman, collaborates with other nonprofits in the region to strengthen the LGBTQ+ community. She recently helped set up a scholarship in honor of her friend Terry Bruce. She has worked with the Iris Clinic to increase trans and gender-nonconforming youth’s access to health care, and has helped raise funds for trans folk seeking legal name changes. Still married to her wife of 20 years, Novotny says, “I am very thankful for my wife for accepting me and helping me blossom into the woman that I have always known that I was meant to be.”
Toni Diamond, a 53-year-old disabled veteran from Rapid City, was the first transgender person to run for the South Dakota House of Representatives. While she did not win her race, she has spoken before the South Dakota House and Senate in opposition to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Diamond serves as the vice president for the Black Hills Center for Equality and is the chairperson
for the city’s annual Pride event. During this past year, she worked with others to feed the homeless and marched in support of Black Lives Matter. She has helped organize and lead protests and is a frequent presence in local media speaking in support of the queer community. “I am always willing to stand up and speak up for, and fight for, equality for all those in the LGBTQIA+ family,” Diamond explains. “I am proud to see our community standing strong and gaining acceptance. I am proud that there are others in our community reaching out to help each other…and working together to bring about change.”
A Black man living in Wisconsin, Keith Borden is not your usual gay activist. He’s a yoga master and teacher who runs his own practice, ReUnion Yoga. A classically trained opera singer, he also plays harmonium and sings spiritual kirtans along with offering bodywork and other healing modalities. He serves on the board of GSafe, an organization that protects queer and trans youth at school. And he helped teammates through the aftermath of the officer-involved shooting death of student-athlete Tony Robinson. Borden and his husband are marriage equality activists and were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state that made it to the Supreme Court.
Marilyn Schuh came out as pansexual a bit later than her peers but once she did, she hit the ground running. She owns Attentive Counseling Services, the only LGBTQ-owned and -operated mental health clinic in Rock County, Wis. But conversations with friends led Schuh and her spouse to found Yellow Brick Road, a community group that offers more resources in their county. It started with a goal to provide Thanksgiving gatherings for LGBTQ+ folks. With the Yellow Brick Road organization, based in Wisconsin, Schuh is dedicated to providing “a safe space for individuals and families to be themselves and not be judged. Our hope is to spread awareness through community events where we can learn from each other and celebrate.” Since 2017, the advocacy group has hosted Thanksgiving events in a Beloit church for LGBTQ+ folks unable to celebrate the holiday with their biological families. LGBTQ+ youth face an especially high rate of homelessness, so a place for them to come together, eat, and feel at home in a place of peace and love feels transformative. Yellow Brick Road also hosts educational panels, LGBTQ+ book clubs, game nights, informative safe sex practice services, and Pride events.