The Advocate's Champions of Pride in the Midwest Come to Life
Champions of Pride: Midwest
For the first time in The Advocate's history, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march, we're spotlighting our diverse, queer-identifying Champions of Pride with the help of Snapchat's stunning Augmented Reality and Lens creator community.
The AR experiences occur via Portal Lenses. These Lenses allow Snapchat users to enter a portal or doorway into another world by being able to move freely around the entire scene as they get to know our Champions.
How to view the "Champions" through Snapchat's custom Portal Lenses:
Desktop: Open Snapchat on your mobile device and point your phone's camera to the Snapcode (the special images for each region found on the left) on your computer screen. Then, press and hold on the Snapcode on your phone's screen to scan it. Finally, follow the pop-up prompts to view the Lens!
Mobile: If you're reading this article on a mobile device that you're also signed into Snapchat on, simply tap the region link below and you will immediately be directed to the Snapchat Lens. From there, feel free to snap away and send to friends. Click HERE to read the full list of Champions as well as the other regions!
Circle back to Advocate.com as we profile each Lens creator and roll out longer versions of our Champions of Pride.
Minnesota: Rick Gomez
Rick Gomez is executive vice president and chief marketing, digital, and strategy officer for Target Corporation. The proud gay Latino continues to use his position to make the world a better place for LGBTQ+ people, despite periodic threats of boycotts from right-wing religious groups. Under his leadership, Target has recently vowed to donate $100,000 to the queer youth advocacy nonprofit GLSEN as it begins its #TakePride campaign. -- Desiree Guererro
Minnesota: Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham
Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham made history in 2017 when both Black trans politicians were elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Cunningham has directed efforts to create more affirming spaces for youth. Jenkins is also an accomplished poet, performance artist, and veteran activist. -- Donald Padgett
Iowa: Liz Bennett
Iowa State Rep. Liz Bennett, who is bisexual, in 2014 became the first queer woman elected to the state's legislature. She's passionate about LGBTQ+ causes, having been involved since high school, but she emphasizes that she's passionate about many other things as well.
"When I ran, I held a competitive training position at a large tech company, so it was news to me that I didn't know anything about what it takes to succeed in today's workforce, the challenges facing graduates, etc.," she says. "It's also aggravating to have to balance perception, as people are willing to reduce you to one aspect of your identity. Experts in education, agriculture, or labor don't have to justify their focus on those issues, whereas I believe that LGBTQ folks and members of other marginalized groups almost always do."
She's committed to working in solidarity with those other marginalized groups. But Bennett, a Democrat who represents a district in Cedar Rapids, in northeastern Iowa, recognizes the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility too.
"I want every person in Iowa to know that there's someone in their State House who might know how they feel and who is fighting for them," says Bennett, a veteran of the marriage equality movement and a former organizer with One Iowa, the statewide LGBTQ rights group. She notes that "being bisexual has its own set of challenges," as she's encountered biphobia and has also been told she's not really part of the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to dealing with those aforementioned reductive attitudes.
When she came out, she says, most people said they already assumed she was bi. But "telling my conservative parents was somewhat of a trip," she recalls. "I think my dad already knew because a few months before, my then-partner and I attended my brother's wedding in color-coordinated outfits. I wore a pink top and she wore a matching pink tie. It was very cute and probably pretty obvious to most that we were the gayest gays who ever gayed. I did have to officially come out to my very conservative mom, though, and she asked in puzzlement: 'Well, what's the difference between this and being friends?' That was awkward."-- Trudy Ring
Iowa: Nate Monson
Nate Monson is executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, which seeks to assure that LGBTQ+ and allied youth in the state have safe, supportive, and nurturing learning environments and communities. But to the far right in Iowa, he's public enemy number one, a label he wears with pride.
Working at Iowa Safe Schools "is really an amazing job to come to every day and see the difference we make, all while being total badasses," he says. Sometimes the young people involved with the group get typed as badasses without meaning to be, as when in March they were kicked out of the state capitol during a lobby day because a trans male student had used the men's restroom. But they and Monson remain committed to their work.
Monson, who identifies as queer, has been executive director of Iowa Safe Schools since 2007, and it's one of the largest statewide LGBTQ+ organizations in the nation. The Iowa native was motivated to become an activist after witnessing bullying and experiencing discrimination in high school and college, and being a victim of a hate crime that institutional authorities ignored.
"It really made me want to make a difference for youth who can feel like they don't have a voice," he says. "I'm outspoken and have had a great family who is immensely supportive, which has allowed me to feel comfortable using my voice to fight back for LGBTQ youth."
This Pride is special to him, he says, because of the progress Iowa Safe Schools has made toward bans on conversion therapy for youth and for the gay and trans panic defenses. Neither measure has passed yet, but they have received bipartisan support. "I don't know of another Republican-run Midwest state that has this kind of momentum, and it is truly thanks to all the students and staff from Iowa Safe Schools," he says. -- TR
Missouri: Jay-Marie Hill
Jay-Marie Hill is an activist and musician whose work ascends beyond gendered and racialized norms. Together with the ACLU of Missouri, they co-launched the group's transgender Education and Advocacy Program in the state. This year, they helped train over 250 people across the state to fight back against 19 anti-trans bills while also helping to raise over $20,000 to aid hundreds of queer Missourians in need during the pandemic.
"Being a Champion means loving yourself and those around you enough to demand more in the here and now," they say. "Being a Hero means learning the systems and then pulling whatever levers are necessary to shift the material conditions of people you care about."
"Don't assume you have try to do anything on your own," she advises young activists. "Find a group or organization and learn from the work that's already being done, then build your vision and community on top of that. Trust those who have dared to exist and struggle before you and lean into your local community -- our stories are our strength. And then celebrate everything you all accomplish together along the way to make sure there is an archive -- no one can tell your story better than you. It matters that you are here." -- David Artavia
Missouri: Jolie Justus
Though Jolie Justus didn't win her recent bid for mayorship of Kansas City, Mo., the out lawyer has already served constituents in the Kansas City Council and the Missouri Senate. At 49, Justus is ready for her next chapter. "Serving as an openly gay elected official wasn't always easy, but the rewards far outweighed the heartache and I will always be thankful for the opportunity." -- Neal Broverman
Wisconsin: Helen Boyd
Helen Boyd is an author, speaker, and activist known for chronicling her relationship with her spouse, transgender actress Rachel Crowl, in the autobiographical books My Husband Betty (which earned her a Lambda Literary Award nomination) and She's Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband.
Alongside her friend Nate Wolff, Boyd co-created the first National Coming Out Day for Appleton, Wisc. It was the first time the city and local businesses flew the pride flag. Boyd's team fundraised to train canvassers, design a logo, and buy pride flags for local businesses. She wrote about the experience on her blog My Husband Betty.
As an activist, Boyd provided important testimony to city council that resulted in getting gender identity and expression added to the city's NDO. A conversion therapy ban was put in place in the city this past spring. -- DG
Wisconsin: Baltazar De Anda Santana
Baltazar De Anda Santana, 43, helped form Orgullo Latinx LGBT+ of Dane County, an organization whose missions is to provide a safe, ethnical, equitable, and socially just place for the Latinx community in the state's second-most populated county. (The Spanish word "orgullo" translates to "pride" in English.)
"Our Latinx community has many many barriers in this country. Many of us are recent immigrants and are looking for a place we can call home. Orgullo Latinx is that place where I feel at home," Anda-Santana about why it was important for him to be a part of the forming of the organization. "A place where I can be myself. A place where I know I am not going to be criticized for my sexual orientation. This was very important specially for the 16 years when I was undocumented. It was great to be at a space where I was not going to be criticized for being undocumented or my sexual orientation. It felt like home."
Orgullo Latinx specializes in education, outreach, and other community engagement initiatives, and while he says queer Latinx people in Wisconsin still face a number of challenges -- like being tokenized and patronized, being discriminated against by opponents of same-sex families, and being reduced to just a "research tool" -- he offers some advice for how the larger queer community can be more supportive of queer people of color, especially Latinx folks.
"Stop patronizing us. Stop tokenizing us. Partner with us. Build a relationship with us. We are not a subject to be studied. We are equal partners," he said. "Don't give us the opportunity to have a voice. We already have a voice." -- Raffy Ermac
Illinois: Jill Rose Quinn
In November, Chicago attorney Jill Rose Quinn is expected to become the first openly transgender elected official in Illinois, as a judge filling a vacancy on the Circuit Court of Cook County. She won the Democratic primary in March, and there's no Republican running for the position in the general election. Becoming a judge is an achievement she once thought impossible. "I always wanted to be a judge, but I thought as a transgender woman, I didn't have a chance to be selected as an associate judge or elected as a circuit judge," she says. That changed after she attended a National LGBT Bar Association convention in 2012 and met Phyllis Frye, the first out trans person appointed to a judgeship in the U.S., and Victoria Kolakowski, the first openly transgender elected judge. "Judge Frye said she was tired of there being only two transgender judges at the conventions; she urged me to become a judge, she said we had to be visible, we had to show people who we are," Quinn recalls. "So the next time I had the opportunity, I applied for a position as associate judge, and then I decided to run for circuit judge."
Quinn has extensive experience as a lawyer in private practice. "I'm a child of the '60s and the civil rights era. ... I wanted to become a lawyer so I could fight for people's rights and fight against rich people," she notes. Despite her father's warnings that she would go broke, that's what she did. "I became a lawyer who represented people, not corporations or governments," she says. "I helped people solve problems that threatened their families, their liberty, their homes."
Quinn says she knew she was female since age 4, but she suppressed that part of her identity for more than 40 years, except for occasional cross-dressing. "I counted off in my mind on a calendar, the days I had left before I died, until I realized that I could be who I wanted to be," she remembers. Her marriage fell apart, her daughter was devastated, and she feared losing her clients. But she and her daughter eventually made up, her practice endured, and she "found love and true self-expression," she says, and is now engaged to her partner, Stephanie. Once Quinn began living as her authentic self, she says, "My life got better, and I have never regretted my decision." - TR
Illinois: Kelly Cassidy
Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy has served a district on Chicago's north side since 2011. She ran for office after stints with the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women, in a state senator's district office, and in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. "Over the years, my work has taken me from direct action and organizing to legislative advocacy to working to effect change by working within systems to press for change," the Democrat reflects. "Coming into the legislature in 2011 presented the opportunity to combine all the skills from each arena into a new toolbox." She's rightly proud of her many legislative achievements. "I've loved working on coalition bills where the stakeholders truly drove the policy instead of the more traditional top-down approach; I've passed bills that have directly saved lives, and when I hear of these stories, it's still breathtaking -- examples include passage of Good Samaritan legislation protecting people from prosecution when they seek medical help for someone experiencing an overdose, co-pay-free skin cancer screenings, and bullying prevention laws," she says. Over the course of her entire career, Cassidy, a lesbian, has been involved in "every legislative achievement impacting the LGBTQ community at the state and local level here as an activist, advocate, or legislator," she notes.
The mother of three sons, Cassidy was the first queer parent in the Illinois legislature, "which led to some ridiculous questions from folks who had never encountered gay parents before," she says. "Beyond that, I've even seen presumption that I had the kids in a marriage with a man, because obviously that's the only way to have babies." In reality, she is married to longtime activist Candace Gingrich. "I'm married to my best friend of 25 years," Cassidy says. "We each had feelings for the other, but we only figured it out a few years ago. When we told our friends (even those who didn't know both of us), the universal response was 'duh,' so we decided to say 'duh' instead of 'I do' at our wedding." -- TR
Indiana: Abby Henkel
Prominent local LGBTQ+ activist, environmentalist, and classically trained singer Abby Henkel currently serves as the communication director for the Sycamore Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization. Henkel does a beautiful job of consistently weaving her activism with her many talents and passions. In November (postponed from May due to the health crisis), along with her fellow Bloomington Chamber Singers, Henkel will use her stunning soprano voice to honor Matthew Shephard in a moving memorial piece, "Considering Matthew Shepard," written by Craig Hella Johnson. --DG
Indiana: Janae Cummings
Janae Cummings joined forces with Bloomington Pride in 2016 and was promoted to chair the following year due to her fresh and innovative ideas. Under her leadership, the LGBTQ+ org has quickly evolved from a "party organization" that planned the area's annual Pride festivals into a socially-conscious advocacy nonprofit. Cummings says the town's reputation as a liberal, queer-friendly mecca of the Midwest depends highly upon who you happen to be. "I think that if you're brown or Black, if you're trans, if you're nonbinary," says Cummings, "it's not the same town." She focuses on balancing fun with progress by injecting doses of diversity into the area's mostly white, cis queer community. -- DG
Ohio: Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones has become the voice of a generation -- quite literally -- on Twitter. In addition to becoming a go-to source for humor and commentary regarding the latest news on the social media platform, the gay writer was one of the founding cohosts of AM to DM, the BuzzFeed morning show streamed on Twitter that plugged a familiar format into trending conversations. The position followed a meteoric rise through the ranks of BuzzFeed -- Jones was the site's first LGBTQ+ editor in 2013 before becoming its executive editor of culture.
In addition to these digital platforms, however, Jones, 34, has harnessed the power of the pen. His 2014 book of poetry, Prelude to Bruise, received critical acclaim. His 2019 memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, also wowed critics and swept many awards -- including the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction and the Stonewall Book Award -- for gifting the world a beautifully written coming-of-age story of a Black gay man in the South.
In all of his projects, Jones has used his platform to shine a light on the injustices faced by marginalized people. As he told The Advocate, "Our lives hinge on one another's liberation. If I can be useful in any way, it will be in helping more people understand that we have no future worth living if we don't find learn how to set each other free." -- Daniel Reynolds
Ohio: Dr. N.J. Akbar
Winning a seat in November to the school board of Akron, Ohio's fifth-largest city, Dr. N.J. Akbar became one of the nation's few out Muslim elected officials. "In this next year, my hope is that all citizens, including those of us within the LGBTQ+ community, are able to live our lives authentically and unashamedly," Akbar says. -- NB
Michigan: Trevor Thomas
Trevor Thomas is Board Chair of Equality Michigan where he is leading the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign to amend the state's 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include "gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression." Thomas is also on the Board of Directors for the Urban League of Detroit and was awarded for his work on youth suicide prevention with The Trevor Project. -- DP
Michigan: Aimee Stephens
Aimee Stephens took her fight all the way to the Supreme Court. The 59-year-old was fired as a funeral director in 2013 after coming out as a trans woman (with her wife's support). The ACLU got behind her and a series of court decisions led to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that her former employer engaged in unlawful sex discrimination when they fired her. The old boss appealed. Now the Supreme Court could decide the case with broad implications. Unfortunately, the battle took a toll on her health (kidney failure) and she died in May.
She told The Advocate last year, "If I'm going to commit to this, we'll be in it to the end, and hopefully, if for some reason I don't live long enough to see the end, somebody will keep going." -- Diane Anderson-Minshall
Kentucky: Omar Salinas Chacón
At 24, Omar Salinas Chacon is a graduate student at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as a nationally respected instructor to higher education representatives on supporting immigrant students. "In our past, people walked so that we could run today," says the gay DACA recipient. "However, we don't settle for running. We run today so that the future generations can fly." -- DR
Kentucky: Natalie Skipworth
Natalie Skipworth has used her voice to give heat to anti-discrimination measures in Henderson, Ky. In 1991, the city became the smallest in Kentucky to pass an ordinance protecting LGBTQ+ people from employment discrimination, but a year later, commissioners reversed the decision. Skipworth spoke to local media outlets last year about her experience being discriminated against at work as a trans woman, reigniting the dialogue about the future of equality in the rural town. -- DA