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 Other South. Be sure to check back each day as we roll out the rest of the regions of Champions.
Recognized by the National LGBT Bar Association as one of 2021’s Best 40 LGBTQ+ Lawyers Under 40, Jordan Blair Woods has a passion for justice and equality for underrepresented communities. It informs the way he, as a gay 37-year-old University of Arkansas law professor, teaches the next generation of lawyers and policymakers. “My commitment to equality and justice for LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups has been and continues to be my life’s work,” Woods says. “In a state like Arkansas, there is so much work to be done. It makes striving for change and being a visible advocate for the LGBTQ+ community all the more meaningful.” Through the past year, Woods continued to serve the community. “The shift to remote learning added new stresses and feelings of social isolation for many students and faculty. Political unrest and social injustice has taken further toll on students and faculty from marginalized backgrounds.”
Drag superstar Symone captivated RuPaul’s Drag Race audiences with her charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, making her one of the season’s most beloved queens. The 26-year-old from Conway, Ark., is a member of the Arkansas-founded House of Avalon art collective, and spent her time on Drag Race serving up some ferocious looks that drew awareness to worthwhile causes (her “Say Their Names” look is one of the most memorable and timely political messages ever brought to the runway) and bringing authentic representation to Black queens and other queer femme people of color, who still rarely see themselves represented in mainstream LGBTQ+ media. “Growing up in Arkansas, I felt like I couldn’t really be myself. I thought being Black and gay was wrong and that ultimately there was something wrong with me. Drag gave me permission to not only express myself, but also gave me a voice. Creating Symone is one of the single most important things I’ve ever done because through her I have found self-love and the ability to help others find it within themselves. Drag has also taught me that absolutely anything is possible no matter where you come from, what you look like, or the circumstances surrounding you. Through my art, I’ve been able to achieve my dreams and I think that is so important for people to see right now especially for those in smaller or more rural places.”
Kansas State Rep. Brandon Woodard is a trailblazer in the Sunflower State. At age 30, he is the first out gay man elected to the Kansas legislature, where he serves alongside the first out lesbian elected and first trans person. Together, they are instrumental in bringing queer voices to state politics and fighting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. A resident of Lenexa, a suburb of Kansas City, Woodard is proud to be a role model for others in this fight. “I want LGBTQ people to realize that their voice matters and that they belong at the decision-making table,” Woodard says. “Representation is powerful, and our ability to forge relationships with those who may not know people in the LGBTQ community can prevent bad ideas from becoming law and change the hearts and minds of those in power to create policy that impacts our daily lives.” Woodard adds, “As LGBTQ people become involved in every level of government, our ideas and issues are no longer aspirational goals, they are policy ideas that are coming to fruition. We will make ‘all’ mean all in this country.”
Performance artist Jen Harris is a creative entrepreneur. The 35-year-old award-winning poet founded the Writing Workshop KC to help nurture the voices and skills of students while also building communities. What began in Kansas is now open to all budding writers — their workshop is available to anyone with an internet connection through Zoom. The genderqueer lesbian artist and cohost of the Confessing Animals Podcast is reaching out to and uplifting marginalized people like LGBTQ+ folks and the homeless through creative pursuits. As the author of three books of poetry — Slammed, Lust & Disdain, and Unconfirmed Certainties— and the founder of the Kansas City Poetry Slam, Harris infuses their work with first-person accounts of queer life in poor America. “My work is to tend the fire. To be willingly visible,” Harris says. “I am proud of the courageous and vulnerable souls who find their way to me, the ones who have fought with everything in them to finally be seen. Together, we build each other up in quiet acts of great magnitude and go back out into the world to spread the news: It is possible to be whole.”
In June 2020, the Right Reverend Deon K. Johnson made history when he became the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, establishing him as the first out gay Black man to hold the post in the diocese’s 180-year history. From the onset, Johnson made racial justice a priority. In the week following the murder of George Floyd, Johnson, an immigrant from Barbados who describes himself as a Christian and a social justice activist, joined in the peaceful protests. He has also opened the doors of the church to all marginalized people. “I dream of a church where there are no outsiders, where the wonderful diversity of God’s wild love is reflected in all God’s people no matter who they are or who or how they love,” the 43-year-old says. “I hope that my ministry, my work, my presence, in some small ways affirms even one LGBTQIA+ person who is struggling to know that their first and forever name is ‘Beloved’ in the sight of God. We continue to struggle for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ members of the household of God, and the world. I am convinced that love will win the day.”
“I’m proudly Black and hopelessly American,” proclaims Krystle Warren, a queer Kansas City-born singer-songwriter whose work not only gives voice to marginalized people but helps support charitable causes. During lockdown, the 39-year-old musician (abroad in France!) has collaborated with other artists to release The Crew, an EP on which she recorded classic songs like Ray Charles’s “Bein’ Green” and John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” with “the hope of encouraging the rallying cries of the moment: the movement of the people.” Proceeds benefit the American Civil Liberties Union and other social justice organizations. Additionally, her band, Krystle Warren & the Faculty, is planning the release of a new album, with references that range from ACT UP to Audre Lorde to personal experience. Another digital album, Three the Hard Way, also boldly addresses injustice. “What has always inspired me are the artists, poets, musicians, dancers who seek to draw the gaze of the masses to important social issues,” asserts Warren, who refined her voice touring with Rufus Wainwright. “My hope is that in some way, I’m carrying on that folk tradition. What makes me proud in this mad year of 2021 is witnessing what I feel and believe to be real change emerging. Many more of us are waking than sleeping.”
“I’m like an Intertribal love song,” says millennial Jasha Lyons Echo-Hawk. “I’m a proud tribal citizen of the Seminole Nation as well as a member of the Pawnee, Iowa, Omaha, and Creek Nations.” Echo-Hawk is an Indigenous birth worker, and founder of and planning committee member for Indigenous Milk Medicine Week (formerly known as Native Breastfeeding Week). They’re also a married parent of four children and a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma College of Law Indigenous Peoples Law program. Echo-Hawk is an athlete as well, participating in prayer runs in tribal regalia to pay honor to missing and murdered Indigenous people. Echo-Hawk views their birthing work as “a path to collective liberation as well as civic engagement.” These efforts became all the more important during the isolation of the past year. She sees Indigenous Milk Medicine Week as lifting up the “visibility of Indigenous milk experiences” and promoting “body sovereignty, first food sovereignty, and healing and decolonization of breast/chestfeeding.” Echo-Hawk is also active in tribal get-out-the-vote efforts and keeping members informed on the issues. “As a two-spirit person and someone who holds medicine space in a variety of reproductive work, I continually seek equity and challenge learned or imposed norms on so-called traditional practices within my specific Native communities in addition to supporting other Native 2SLGBTQ+ kin in their collective efforts of visibility and reaffirmation of our community roles,” Echo-Hawk says.
Oklahoma State Rep. Mauree Nivek Rajah Salima Turner became the first out nonbinary state lawmaker in the country with her win in the 2020 election. They also became the first Muslim member of their state’s legislature, representing District 88 in central Oklahoma City. This may have been the first time many folks outside the state noticed the 28-year-old Black queer nonbinary Muslim, but they've been making an impact in the Sooner State for a while. They expanded the scope of Freedom Oklahoma, where they sit on the board, bringing in the voices of queer and BIPOC organizers, activists, and community members. “I make sure all of the work I do keeps the lens and input of our queer intersectional communities, specifically BIPOC, because we know that when we fight for and alongside the most marginalized in mind we make a better world than we ever could have imagined with just our own lens,” Turner says. Their recent role as an elected official elevates their past work and “sheds light on the lived experience of those that have been in contact with the other side” of social and economic privilege, they says.