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Champions of Pride 2021 From New England
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 New England 2021 Champions of Pride. Be sure to check back each day as we roll out the rest of the regions of Champions.
Chion Wolf - Connecticut
Anyone who is tuned into Connecticut Public Radio has very likely heard Chion Wolf over the years. A gay cis woman, Wolf is the host and producer of Audacious on WNPR, where she "highlights the uncommon experiences of everyday people." A former member of the advisory board for Connecticut Voice Magazine, Wolf worked with the publication on an eight-part interview series that featured folks in the state's LGBTQ+ community. Wolf has also volunteered with AIDS Connecticut for more than a decade. She was a volunteer photographer for Love Makes A Family, which successfully brought marriage equality to Connecticut. In 2014, Wolf was a speaker at the Governor's Residence on LGBTQ+ equality in Connecticut. Last year, she began to chronicle the lives of those on the frontlines and the impact of the pandemic on Connecticut's residents with "US in the Time of Coronavirus: A Living History." She says now, "I am so proud of that series. How varied it was, and how it gave an opportunity to take someone from a soundbite - or no voice at all - to an expanded platform where we could get to the heart of their pain, their joy, and how they're adapting in this new world."
Leah Juliett - Connecticut
At 24 years old, Leah Juliett is blazing a trail in the fight against revenge porn, which they say "disproportionately victimizes LGBTQ+ people, Black and brown folks, womxn, youth, and financially disempowered people by tech-based sexual abuse." Juliett is also one of the first nonbinary titleholders in the Miss America Organization as Miss Greater Rockville. They could make history as an LGBTQ+ contestant when they compete for the Miss Connecticut title. Juliett is the founder and executive director of March Against Revenge Porn, which holds national protest marches and works with international victims and survivors to influence legislative action and shift the narrative around digital sexual violence. "I've worked as an activist in the LGBTQ+ community since I was 13 years old, and after being victimized by revenge porn as a young teenager, I knew that my advocacy against revenge porn had to uniquely include the LGBTQ+ community," they say. They also "provided the main testimony on behalf of California SB 23 which extended the statute of limitations for victims of revenge porn." Last fall Juliett, who IDs as queer and nonbinary, was named a Woman of Worth by L'Oreal Paris, which donated $10,000 to March Against Revenge Porn. The money goes to a legal defense fund for victims "with marginalized identities or financial insecurity." Earlier this year, Juliett was honored as a Daily Point of Light award recipient by the George H.W. Bush Points of Light Foundation.
Cat Graffam - Maine
It is difficult for many queer and trans people to see themselves. That's where queer, trans, and intersex portrait artist Cat Graffam comes in. "I document my experience as a trans intersex person through art in the form of self-portraits as well as portraying the love I have for the queer community by painting others," she says. "My paintings serve as a mirror for other LGBT folks who never see themselves represented in fine art. There are almost no other trans women painters who are alive, and I hope to pave the way for future generations in the field." Graffam also works with InterACT Youth, doing advocacy work, writing, and speaking about their lived experiences as an intersex person failed by the medical system.
Geo Neptune - Maine
An Indigenous two-spirit artist and activist from the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, Geo Neptune identifies as queer, trans, and nonbinary. A master basketmaker who was taught the traditional art by their grandmother, Molly Neptune Parke, Neptune was recently named one of United States Artists 2021 Fellows and awarded $50,000 -- something Neptune says will allow them to expand their studio, experiment with larger pieces, and elevate their work. As an artist they say they weave traditional forms with modern influences "because it sends the message that Indigenous people are not in the past; we are contemporary, we are modern, we are still here." As an activist, they protest with Idle No More, speak the Passamaquoddy language, preserve cultural history and traditions, revive two-spirit spaces in ceremony, are visibly queer, and involved in politics. Last year they became the first trans elected official in Maine when they were elected to the local tribal school board. "My Elders tell me that my medicine is to help other people feel comfortable and strong enough to be themselves," they say. They are most proud of honoring their grandmother -- who "made her journey to be with the ancestors in June of 2020 -- with a handwoven basket."
Janson Wu - Massachusetts
As the executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) Janson Wu and his team play an integral part in protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people. "GLAD works in New England and nationally to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation; through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education," he says. Wu, who is gay, is proud of the work that GLAD has done to move marriage equality forward. From "winning the first marriage equality case in Massachusetts in 2013 and then successfully arguing at the U.S. Supreme Court for nationwide marriage equality in the Obergefell [the federal case for marriage equality] case," Wu says. "GLAD has also transformed our laws on transgender rights over decades, beginning in the early 2000s with the first appellate decision affirming that transgender people are protected under sex discrimination laws, which became the foundation for our movement's most recent victory at the U.S. Supreme Court case in the Bostock case." Over the past transformative year, Wu says,"GLAD has deepened and sharped our focus on racial justice work, including through reforming and transforming systems that we know disproportionately harm LGBTQ BIPOC, such as the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems."
Jessica Halem - Massachusetts
With a long history in working with LGBTQ+ folks, Jessica Halem, MBA, was the inaugural LGBTQ outreach and engagement director at Harvard Medical School. Previously, Halem ran the Lesbian Community Cancer Project in Chicago. There she implemented the nation's first cultural competency trainings for the Centers for Disease Control and served on then-candidate Barack Obama's first LGBT Advisory Committee. Halem, who identifies as a Jewish queer femme, also trained in improv at Chicago's famed Second City. She utilizes the knowledge she gleaned there to "coach individuals and teams on dealing with difficult moments," she says. "I like bringing my sense of humor, years of connections and experience, together with great ideas and teams," she says. "I am passionate about helping LGBTQ people take up more space with more confidence and more joy while manifesting the world we all deserve." Currently, Halem, also serves on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which, "launched a microgrants program to get money quickly into the hands of LGBTQ creators, nonprofits, and activists." she says. "I am so excited to see what these partners are doing on the front lines of issues like incarceration, trans youth, queer history, and housing."
Alex Myers - New Hampshire
Alex Myers is a transgender trailblazer who's helping other trans people find their way. Myers, who is transmasculine and queer, came out as a trans in 1995, right before his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in Exeter, N.H., becoming its first out trans student. He was also the first openly trans student at Harvard University, where he worked to change the nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity. He's gone on to teach English at private schools, including Exeter, write novels, and become an advocate and educator on issues affecting trans and nonbinary people. He runs affinity spaces at his school, works with community groups, and trains other educators on how to make schools inclusive for all. "I think I've done some good education, particularly of parents and teachers," says Myers, 42. "I think I've helped them understand gender -- their own as well as others' -- and I think I've helped them know how to support trans and nonbinary students better." Myers, who is married with two cats, says it's been uplifting this year "seeing a trans student I've worked with for three years present a senior project on how to redesign bathroom and locker room space at his school to make trans students feel included, safe, and comfortable."
Jas LaFond - New Hampshire
Jas LaFond is a passionate powerhouse of an activist. The nonbinary genderpunk bisexual is a podcast host, blogger, and producer of drag shows while holding down a job as a mental health counselor. "I host the Ask a Brown Feminem blog, which centers on issues connected to BIPOC, the LGBTQ+ community, other historically marginalized groups, and the intersections therein," LaFond explains. "I also produce drag shows showcasing drag artists from around the country. I am especially excited about the Black Legends Revue, which stars an all-Black cast of drag artists paying tribute to Black cultural icons." Of the Champions of Pride honor, LaFond says, "I like to think that I was nominated because my passion and love for the community is apparent and that I've connected with people in a positive way. I am always happy to uplift my LGBTQ+ family! I hope that I've helped by holding space for members of this community to discover more of themselves on their way to self-actualization. I've worked to educate people who have never known someone like me, people who love someone in the community, or may be a part of the community themselves. I've created shows that center on the joy of drag and the transcendent art that we are capable of." LaFond, 34, is Black and Latine, fat, body-positive, and sex-positive, and has a physical disability. They're remarried to "amazing partner" Steven, and the family includes "two extremely funny kids," a cat, and a dog. This year, LaFond's son came out. "It means everything to me that he felt supported enough to be his authentic self with us," LaFond says, then quips about the past year, "I've also organized my closet."
Rex LeBeau - Rhode Island
A trailblazer, Rex LeBeau became one of two people to change their gender marker on their Rhode Island driver's license to an X last year in a pilot program testing the new system. The genderqueer, nonbinary, and trans LeBeau seemed the obvious choice for the program, as the 35-year-old Newporter didn't fall under a simple binary of gender. It might have been a historic first, garnering national media attention, but LeBeau had long been working to bring about change, equity, and justice in the region. "Much of my life is centered around justice, in my work, in my personal life," LeBeau says. They "spent the first 12 years after college mapping the ocean floor" before gravitating toward activism. They currently work with the Newport Health Equity Zone, where they help assess and address the health, transportation, social, and cultural needs of the LGBTQ+ community. They also facilitate a peer support group for nonbinary adults (now conducted via Zoom) and do everything from editing to drawing comics at Options Magazine, the state's LGBTQ+ publication. LeBeau has also been a key event organizer in Newport, helping launch the city's Pride festival three years ago and arranging a yearly prom for queer teens. During lockdowns, LeBeau invited a disabled trans young adult to live with them until support groups in the area could find him help and housing. LeBeau took the moment to call out the failure of society to meet the needs of marginalized and forgotten people living in the shadows. "It only goes to show how much is broken in our society that he should have ever been in the position to require that kind of help from a complete stranger," they say.
Sherenté Mishitashin Harris - Rhode Island
A two-spirit Indigenous Niantic Narragansett and a citizen of the Narragansett Tribal Nation, at just 20 years old, Sherente Mishitashin Harris is a dual-degree student at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Harris, who uses she, he, and they pronouns, uses their art of traditional tribal dancing as an expression of their gender and cultural identity as well as for "breaking barriers" within the LGBTQ+ and queer Indigenous communities. "I think taking an act as simple as dance and turning it into an act of rebellion is something that surprises people but speaks a universal language," Harris says. Harris also uses her art to preserve her tribe's cultural heritage while at the same time revealing the intersectionality of their own cultural, sexual, and gender identities and experiences. They had performed in the circle their "whole life as a championship eastern war dancer, following the path" of their father, but at the age of 16 decided to honor their mother through her chosen style of traditional "fancy shawl" dance. The dance affords Harris space to give thanks for living authentically as he was gifted at birth, he says.
Gustavo Mercado Muñiz - Vermont
At the Pride Center of Vermont, Gustavo Mercado Muniz wears several hats as the Transgender Program Coordinator, a THRIVE QTBIPOC program coordinator, and a SafeSpace Anti-Violence program advocate. A 27-year-old queer trans nonbinary advocate for LGBTQ+ people, Muniz is "most proud of creating a loving and affirming space for our trans community for yet another virtual Trans Day of Visibility, making sure that our presence is felt both outside the trans community with a trans social media takeover and to each other in the trans community with a social reflection space." At the intersection of several identities Muniz, who is mixed Puerto Rican Latinx, they say, also IDs as "partially disabled, fat and proud, and a bruje/witch." And they bring all their authentic self to the work they do for others. "I work with and for transgender people and queer and trans BIPOC in finding community, educating others about our stories, developing and connecting to resources that will make our journeys more manageable, and ensuring that folks can find care and respect for their full selves."
Becca Balint - Vermont
A state senator and president pro tem of the Vermont Senate, Becca Balint made history as the first woman and the first openly gay person to lead a legislative chamber in her state. "As the leader of the Senate, I represent the interests of all my constituents, but I also use my office to advance legislation that guarantees equality before the law and strives for equity in all aspects of state government," Balint says. "I am known for my work on affordable housing, consumer protections, environmental and climate justice work, workers' rights and protections, the fight against gender and racial discrimination in the workplace, reproductive liberty, minimum wage increases, paid sick leave, and other pro-humanity legislation." A married lesbian mother, Balint is the child of an immigrant and the grandchild of a Holocaust victim, she shares. Vermont recently passed the second phase of two critical amendments; one that removes references to slavery and indentured servitude in the state constitution, and the second which guarantees reproductive freedom for all Vermonters. "I know I have been a role model to many young queer and trans Vermonters who now believe that a life in public service is really possible," she says. "I lead from my core values, and I strongly believe in doing my work from a place of vulnerability, authenticity, and candor. I'm very kind and also fierce when I need to be."