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 is our way of honoring the diversity and dedication of so many in the LGBTQ+ community.
Join us in honoring our 2021 Champions of Pride from the South. Be sure to check back each day as we roll out the rest of the regions of Champions.
Last fall, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms selected Malik Brown to be the city’s first director of LGBTQ affairs, a position in which he helps to protect and advance the rights of the community and to set policy; Atlanta is one of the few U.S. cities with this position. He also was Rev. Raphael Warnock’s top adviser on LGBTQ+ engagement during Warnock’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. The victories by Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats, assured the party’s control of the chamber. “Helping to elect Sen. Warnock and watching his work in Congress has been the ride of a lifetime,” Brown says. A 31-year-old Black gay man, Brown pays homage to his immigrant heritage. “My grandmother brought my family to the U.S. from Barbados and Trinidad decades before I was born so that we might have more opportunities,” he says. Now he’s working alongside Mayor Bottoms to help others with actions such as holding a virtual job fair to connect LGBTQ+ Atlantans with affirming employers and resources, and designating numerous city-owned restrooms as all-gender. Bottoms, he adds, is designating the Atlanta Eagle, a venerable gay bar, the Deep South’s first LGBTQ+ landmark.
State Rep. Park Cannon of Georgia rose to national fame this spring when she was arrested for knocking on Gov. Brian Kemp’s office door as he held a private ceremony to sign voter suppression legislation. “I knocked on the door because it was my job,” she says. “Suppressors stooped to a national low when, while they signed in voter suppression under a Southern plantation photo, they arrested a Black queer lawmaker.” Cannon wasn’t charged, and she’s enthusiastically carrying out her work in the state legislature, where the 20-something Democrat is in her third term. “As a community member under the rainbow umbrella, I listen. As an elected legislator, I advocate,” she says. “We have sponsored resolutions honoring Transgender Day of Visibility, Trans Day of Remembrance, powerful organizations doing HIV work, and groundbreaking researchers in [the] HIV community.” As a lawmaker, she has also helped thousands of Georgians with unemployment insurance concerns during the COVID-19 crisis. In her other job, she’s a labor doula, providing emotional and physical support during home and hospital births. Despite Kemp’s signing of the harmful legislation, Cannon’s proud of some turns Georgia has taken politically, going for Joe Biden in the presidential election and voting in two Democratic U.S. senators. “We can finally see what Georgia is — she’s blue, y’all!” Cannon says.
As executive director of Kentucky’s Fairness Campaign, Chris Hartman is driving change from the bluegrass roots up. “Since joining the Fairness Campaign as its first director in 2009, I’ve helped expand the number of municipalities with LGBTQ fairness ordinances — local laws prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations — from three to 21, including our capital, Frankfort; the tiny Appalachian town of Vicco; Kim Davis’s hometown, Morehead; and many more,” he says. Hartman, a 41-year-old gay man, is proud that his state hasn’t been caught up in the tide of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping the country this year. Kentucky ended its legislative session “with no explicit anti-LGBTQ bills passing or really receiving much consideration at all,” he says. Some bills were introduced early on, but “we mobilized more Kentuckians than ever before — in the midst of the pandemic — to speak out against LGBTQ discrimination, and lawmakers listened.” Hartman and the Fairness Campaign are also fighting systemic racism. “Following the police murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, it has become more important than ever for organizations like Fairness and people like me to push the conversation of dismantling systemic racism with white folks.” He attended protests over Taylor’s death and “helped create a more accountable police force in Louisville by standing firm with leaders of color on the work group that helped form a much stronger citizens review board,” he notes.
Pete Buttigieg isn’t the only gay man with a high-profile job in transportation. Jim Gray, the former mayor of Lexington and a one-time U.S. Senate candidate, was appointed Kentucky’s secretary of transportation in 2019 by Gov. Andy Beshear. “It has been an honor to be the first openly gay mayor of Lexington and to be the first openly gay cabinet secretary in Kentucky,” says Gray, 67. “I’m very proud to be able to lead one of the largest agencies in Kentucky state government. This team of nearly 4,500 dedicated employees around the state help maintain around 28,000 miles of roads and bridges as well as overseeing and regulating Kentucky’s waterways, railroads, and airports, and operating the state’s motor vehicle and driver’s licensing.” One of the transportation department’s biggest recent achievements was getting repairs to a bridge on one of the nation’s busiest highways done in a matter of weeks rather than months, he notes. Additionally, Beshear asked Gray to lead Kentucky’s COVID vaccination efforts, and “our state now ranks near the top in doses distributed and administered,” Gray says. He is also part of the state task force to address the pandemic’s economic fallout.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, a North Carolina-based organization that promotes full LGBTQ+ equality across the South by providing resources to those most in need. “Our current priorities include rapid response work to defeat anti-trans legislation, distributing emergency funding to LGBTQ+ people and families impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and increasing access to LGBTQ-inclusive health care,” explains the 45-year-old lesbian pastor. “I am most proud to be part of the community that is on the frontlines of the extraordinary organizing that is happening across the South to defeat anti-trans legislation and to be following the leadership of trans folks in these efforts — not just to defeat bills, but to stand with trans youth in particular and make sure they know they are loved, celebrated, and part of a community.” Beach-Ferrara, who is also a commissioner for Buncombe County, has announced her run for Congress against pro-Trump Republican U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn.
A man with many hats, Mark A. Turnipseed is a gay 34-yearold author, journalist, model, and public speaker, whose memoir, My Suicide Race: Winning Over the Trauma of Addiction, Recovery, and Coming Out, was published in 2021. With his column, My Best Gay Self, Turnipseed says, “I use my experiences to shed light on and bring hope to otherwise seemingly hopeless-feeling states of mind and body.” His column addresses mental health issues common in the LGBTQ+ community including shame around sexuality, addiction recovery, depression, and suicidal ideation. Turnipseed calls his book “the greatest gonzo journalism feat of my life. I set out to write a story about my recovery from suicide attempts and a life of drug and alcohol addiction by attempting an Ironman 70.3 triathlon…I had no idea it would lead to me finally accepting and embracing my sexuality and that it would help launch me into a modeling, speaking, coaching, and writing career.” His advice to others: “Utilizing acceptance and self-compassion on yourself provides the framework to maximize your gifts and spread perfect kindness through an imperfect world.”
“It takes bravery to be authentic in a world still filled with so much hate, especially hate toward the transgender community,” M. Greg Green says. As a diversity and inclusion facilitator and educator, the 37-year-old is dedicated to helping trans folks in his community “get the resources they need for a healthy transition.” Green currently serves on the board of directors at the Harriet Hancock Center, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing LGBTQ+ rights in South Carolina. He was also the first president of a transgender fraternity he founded, served as a moderator for a transgender support group at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, and was the chairman of the Trans Action Task Force on the board of South Carolina Equality. “I didn’t have much help when I was figuring out my path,” so Green says he “collected information to pass on and learned how the system works so to take the anxiety away from those who didn’t.” Late last year, he released a book, Audacity: Memoirs of Transitioning, where he “encourages his readers to go boldly through life, knowing the consequences could be dire, just as you are right where you are.”
Last year signaled a radical shift in how the United States talks about racial justice, and the election of Kristin Graziano as sheriff of Charleston County, S.C., is an example of how ready we are for change. Graziano ran against 32-year Republican incumbent Al Cannon, promising to reform the sheriff’s department, emphasizing accountability, and listening to the needs of the community it serves. When he found out she was running, Cannon demoted the veteran deputy to unpaid administrative leave. Come Election Day, though, she walked away victorious. Graziano is now both the first female and openly gay sheriff in the state. Graziano wants to help build trust and begin to solve the systemic issues of police violence. “First we need to put people in the community that look like the community, and we need to work on our diversity and our inclusion,” Graziano said at a press conference when she was elected.
Being one of the first students to come out as trans in their high school wasn’t been easy, so 18-yearold Aiden Cloud set out to change that for other kids. Cloud is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council and Tennessee SHINE Team. “SHINE students often get the chance to assist trainers in teaching educators how to make their classrooms more inclusive to LGBTQ+ youth, and as a high-schooler who has seen the tremendous difference that teachers can make (positive or negative) for LGBTQ students, I really enjoy helping teachers be that positive impact,” Cloud says. Despite pushback, they founded their school’s first GSA and more recently helped organize virtual phone banking events to encourage legislators to vote no on multiple bills affecting queer and trans youth in Tennessee. They estimate over 800 calls were made at the first event and 600 at a second. “The fact that we were able to make so many calls as a group really amazes me, and I certainly hope we made a difference.”
With over 40 number 1 songs and three Grammy Awards to his name, Shane McAnally has become one of the most sought-after songwriters in the world. He’s written for country music legends like Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, and Kacey Musgraves. He penned “Follow Your Arrow,” which was quickly embraced as a gay anthem by the community. “When we put the line in that said ‘Kiss lots of boys or kiss lots of girls...’ we just thought we were including everyone,” McAnally says. “I didn’t realize how much that song was mirroring my own need to be heard and seen and to be respected for following my arrow.” McAnally struggled for years with where he fit in as a gay man in country music. He found that after he came out, his songwriting was transformed. “There is a vulnerability and an underdog-ness that every human feels but usually hides,” he says. “Coming out puts those emotions right out on the front porch for everyone to see. The best songs come from places that seem too hard or embarrassing to talk about, and growing up different already ripped that Band-Aid off. So I’m a lot more likely to put my heart on the line, and this has really served me in writing.”
“I love helping organize our LGBTQ community and our allies statewide as well [being] as an advocate around issues that directly impact our community, including homelessness, addiction, discrimination, and poverty,” Rosemary Ketchum says about her work in West Virginia politics. Ketchum, a 27-year-old trans woman, was a part of the recent trans wave that led to several trans people being elected to office, including Sarah McBride in Delaware, Stephanie Byers in Kansas, and Taylor Small in Vermont. Last year, Ketchum became the first out trans person elected to office in West Virginia when she was elected to the City Council in her hometown of Wheeling. Apart from being involved in politics, Ketchum is the chief operating officer of Edible Mountain, a holistic youth wellness coalition that uses urban farms and forests to promote healthy food, nutrition, physical fitness, and community among youth in Wheeling. She also serves on the board of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
Imagine being one of the most popular podcasters in America and still having time to be a family physician who primarily works with people facing homelessness in West Virginia and also an assistant professor with a husband, two children, and a cat at home. That’s daily life for Dr. Sydnee Smirl McElroy, the bisexual host of the podcasts Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine and Still Buffering: A Cross-Generational Guide to the Culture That Made Us. For McElroy, podcasting is a family affair. She hosts Sawbones with her husband, Justin McElroy, and Still Buffering with her siblings, Teylor and Rileigh Smirl, and she’s excited for what these collaborations have brought about. “Teylor came out as queer and nonbinary transmasculine before either myself or our sister Rileigh came out as bisexual,” she says. “This past year, they started hormone therapy, and it has been so wonderful to see them being their full, true self. Every day, Tey inspires me with their creativity and intelligence and strength, and I feel lucky to be part of their beautiful life.” In addition to that, McElroy’s family sponsored and participated in their community’s first official Pride celebration two years ago. Now she’s working to develop a clinic specifically to provide health care to trans people in Huntington, W.Va. “For most of my life, I couldn’t put words to who I was because I didn’t know anyone like me here in West Virginia,” she says. “I hope my visibility helps combat that feeling of isolation for some young people in places like West Virginia.”