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 Territories. Be sure to check back each day as we roll out the rest of the regions of Champions.
Before the global pandemic hit, Tuisina Ymania Brown was a licensed intellectual property attorney overseeing the legal, HR, and intellectual property departments for an IT group based in Sydney, Australia. But when they offered the proud Faafafine trans woman of color a buyout, she signed the offer and focused her efforts instead on becoming a fulltime human rights activist.
“I came out from fighting from the shadows of fulltime corporate employment and raising my kids (now aged 22 and 15) to the glare of public scrutiny and personal attacks as a trans woman,” Brown says of that period.
The self-described ‘half centurion’ has been working tirelessly in the Pacific Islands region ever since on issues like the decriminalization of homosexuality, gender identity recognition, and other issues of importance to not just the LGBTQ+ community in the region and beyond, but humanity in general. She was the first trans woman of color elected to lead the ILGA World when she became co-secretary general in 2019. She has served on the ILGA World Board since 2014. She’s also served as the co-chair of the International Trans Fund as well as working with other groups and causes along the way.
“I took my visibility as a Trans Woman of Color leader to another level, because for me, I am no longer sitting on the sidelines, visibility is crucial to our survival… And yes visibility came with threats to my personal safety and my kids, but I took a calculated risk not to hide anymore.”
At age 70, Benjamin “BJ” Cruz is a gay pioneer in the U.S. political and judicial system. In 1997, he was featured in The Advocate for being the nation’s highest-ranking out gay judge. At the time, he was a justice on the Supreme Court of Guam. It wasn’t an easy road. Initially, Republicans assailed him for his sexuality during his 1984 confirmation hearings to become a superior court judge.
But Cruz stayed the course and later received a unanimous confirmation to the Supreme Court. In 1999, he rose to the position of chief justice. Afterward, Cruz launched another trailblazing career as a senator and then speaker in the Guam legislature. At present, he serves as a public auditor.
“I hope that my 40 years of public service as an openly gay man will cause more LGBT individuals to come forward to serve their communities,” Cruz says. One of those who have come forward include Cruz’s own nephew, Josh Tenorio, who is the first out gay man elected to the position of lieutenant governor in Guam and the nation.
“I am proud of the growing number of LGBT individuals stepping forward to run for office or otherwise serve their communities,” Cruz says.
2018 was a history-making year for Guam. That year, Lou Leon Guerrero was elected the U.S. territory’s first woman governor. And her running mate, Joshua F. Tenorio, became the first out gay lieutenant governor in the nation. His election was part of the “rainbow wave” that swept more than 150 LGBTQ+ candidates into office.
Tenorio, 47, has had a long career in politics. He was a legislative assistant to Representative Robert A. Underwood from 1993 to 1998, and afterward worked for Governor Carl T.C. Gutierrez as deputy chief of staff, among other posts. Later, he served as the executive director of Guam’s Democratic party. And in the 2008 presidential election, he was Barack Obama’s campaign manager in Guam.
As lieutenant governor, Tenorio has worked to improve Guam’s criminal justice system and lessen racial disparities in incarceration. He also received acclaim for his environmental work, garnering the 2021 National Lieutenant Governor’s Association Energy and Environmental Stewardship Award.
Tenorio also hopes his accomplishments can help increase acceptance. “Working to ensure that Guam is safe, fair, compassionate and prosperous is what drives me on a daily basis,” he says. “I hope my example will help parents of LGBTQ youth to support their children, embrace their aspirations, and celebrate their achievements.”
Sharmaine Noel Casquero is working on the ground in the Northern Mariana Islands in a variety of ways. In 2018, she organized the territory’s first Pride event, held at a nightclub in Garapan, the islands’ capital and largest city. A professional beauty stylist, she organizes many LGBTQ+ pageants in the Marianas, volunteers for environmental causes, and assists her fellow immigrants from the Philippines. A 50-year-old gay femme Filipina, she is also a member of the Saipan Unity Lions Club, an affiliate of the well-known international service club that helps the needy everywhere. “As a person who grew up being not rich, I’ve learned to share what I have with other people,” Casquero says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic came along, Tyra Lyn Sablan, like a lot of us, had time on her hands — but she made a particularly productive use of it. “I saw this as a perfect opportunity to pursue my passion in helping my community,” says Sablan, a former Chanel sales rep who describes herself as “a proud 41-year-old Asian-Pacific Islander transgender woman.” She saw that the Northern Mariana Islands ranked low when it comes to protections for LGBTQ+ residents, so she began lobbying territorial legislators for antidiscrimination and hate-crimes laws. She also founded the Marianas LGBTQ+ T-Project to advance the cause, and the group hopes to eventually open a community center on Saipan, the largest of the islands. She’s been reaching out to student LGBTQ+ organizations and helping them connect with each other, plus she assisted marginalized people affected by the pandemic in finding services. And she met with the CEO of Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., which operates the territory’s only hospital, to help assure that trans residents have access to all the care they need.
It didn’t take long for Ted Bedwell and Chris Richardson to become a fixture in the LGBTQ+ community of St. Croix of the U.S. Virgin Islands. They own and operate the Sand Castle on the Beach, one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly resorts in the region the Sand Castle on the Beach on the island of St. Croix. In the four years since they purchased the property they’ve managed to survive two hurricanes, three months on generator power, and a global pandemic. Regardless of the unforeseen obstacles thrown in their way, they’ve still found a way to give back to the community in the darkest of times.
“We sponsor events such as STX Pride, hosting drag shows as well as The Weezy Awards – a charitable drag event to promote exposure to alternative lifestyles in our island community,” the happy couple explained of their recent efforts via email to The Advocate. “We also strive to be a safe zone for our fellow LGBTQ+ family who may not live in a tolerant family environment. However, our doors are open to anyone in need, whether related to “gay issues” or because of domestic violence. We continue to support our Women’s Coalition on St Croix, Community First of St Croix, the WINGS Foundation of American Airlines, Kayak for Kids, and other organizations providing support to people in need from all walks of life regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The couple are especially pleased that despite all the challenges of the past two years, they’re especially proud that they were able to remain open for both their guest and employees.
“We have been able to keep our employees on payroll, be a safe place for tourists – through our COVID protocols implementation - and a good neighbor to our fellow islanders.”