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Forty Under 40: Activism

Forty Under 40: Activism


Amy Balliett heads up an impressive list of out activists that includes Tony Biel, Brad Sears, Thai Pham, James Neiley, Christoph Babka, Katelynn Cusanelli, and Timothy Scofield.

Amy Balliett | Internet activist | 27 | Seattle

Amy Balliett is finding it a bit of a struggle to balance the responsibilities of her full-time job in search engine marketing, paying a mortgage, and newlywed life with the work that comes with being one of the most successful gay activists of the 21st century. "I'd be lying if I said this was easy," says Balliett, who with her friend Willow Witte formed the group Join the Impact, which last year organized rallies worldwide in response to the passage of California's Proposition 8.

Since last November, Join the Impact (a netroots hub for posting and promoting LGBT activism) has become a nerve center for events across the country, including the national Light Up the Night for Equality candlelight vigil and the Day of Decision rallies scheduled for the evening of the California supreme court's ruling on Proposition 8 (still pending at press time). Chapters are sprouting up, donations are coming in, and Balliett and Witte have applied for nonprofit status. "The goal is for Join the Impact to become an organization that's run by our members," she says, describing a model that would allow the organization to nimbly expand by having members establish chapters and organize their own events.

While Balliett's day job pays the bills, she wants to move on to a film career by age 40. "I want to direct," Balliett says decisively. "We live in a society where fewer people are reading, so I've always wanted to do film work that would open people's eyes and let them see where our struggle is."

Balliett insists that after all is said and done, if we all woke up one day with full marriage rights, workplace protections, and fair hate-crimes laws on the books, Join the Impact would live on. "Racism still exists. There's a reason the NAACP is still around," she says, drawing a comparison to that organization's mission. "There will always be a need for education and outreach, and that's what I'll always be doing."

Tony Biel | Volunteer organizer | 35 | Los Angeles

Like many people motivated after seeing Milk, Tony Biel was called to action -- in the hills of Malibu and the industrial district of southeast Los Angeles. Biel founded Gay for Good, a community service organization aimed at getting gay people "out of the scene and working alongside other people" -- an opportunity, he says, to start a dialogue sorely missing in the weeks leading up to November 4. A media sales rep by day, Biel also oversees a popular L.A.-based gay hiking group, Take-a-Hike, so he had the e-mail addresses of more than 1,000 potential volunteers when he and friends Steve Gratwick and Frank Roller decided to make Gay for Good a reality. In the six months since Biel launched the project, Gay for Good volunteers have twice gotten their hands dirty with Tree People, helping to reforest the hills of Malibu after last year's fires; they've also stuffed food packages at the L.A. Regional Food Bank. "People have been really supportive -- volunteer organizers especiallyaEUR|knowing what's been going on with Prop. 8, they feel we've been slighted, and they're eager to get us in there." The group's next projects will be with Habitat for Humanity and more environmental cleanup -- this time at the Ballona Wetlands. "[Gay people] need to get out of our insular communities," Biel says. "When we do that, people see we're not scary and that we're frequently working toward the same goals."

Brad Sears | Think tank executive | 39 | Los Angeles

As executive director of the Williams Institute, a think tank on sexual orientation policy and law at the University of California, Los Angeles, Brad Sears oversees a wide-ranging research agenda aimed at providing hard facts about gay people and issues. "We like to be the research center for the movement," Sears says of the institute's role. "The truth will push our rights forward." Among his team's findings: the frequently cited estimates of the number of gay soldiers in the armed forces (65,000) and the number of couples married in California before Proposition 8 forced a ban (18,000); the projected economic boost of same-sex marriage to state economies ($30.6 million over three years in Vermont, for instance); and the percentage of kids nationally adopted by gays (4%) or fostered by them (6%).

The work is immensely satisfying to Sears, a Harvard Law School grad who could've done anything with his career. "People have been working on LGBT issues since the early 1950s, and never has there been so much potential to move forward," he says. "To be the folks who get to reach some of these goals is just incredible."

Thai Pham | Philanthropist | 31 | New York City

A few years ago Thai Pham was ruminating over charitable giving, specifically how he and his friends could contribute to worthy causes even though they weren't pulling in six-figure salaries. Pham remembers thinking, I have a gym membership. I pay $50 a month and don't even notice. Can't I apply that model to philanthropy?

Thus was born the Quarter Share effort, a program that targets 20- and 30-somethings, people not typically active in philanthropy. Pham's idea wasn't completely out of left field: The New Yorker serves as director of events and communications for the Stonewall Foundation, a 20-year-old nonprofit that gifts millions to gay charities like the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Human Rights Campaign. While the Stonewall Foundation is full of donors in their 40s and 50s, Pham knew there was an untapped market for younger people who could still give -- just less. Quarter Share members can donate as little as $25 a month, and the group's 150 members vote on where 25% of their proceeds go (the rest is directed to Stonewall-chosen charities, which are typically large LGBT organizations). Pham says his young do-gooders funnel money to new and emerging groups that can really benefit from a donation of $5,000 or $7,500. In Quarter Share's first two years the group raised almost $50,000 and filled the coffers of groups like Generation Q, a drop-in center serving the LGBT youths of Queens, and Queers for Economic Justice, which works to end poverty among gay people.

James Neiley | High school student | 17 | Charlotte, Vt.

James Neiley had always been passionate about pursuing a career in fashion or business, but after offering emotional testimony in support of same-sex marriage before Vermont's legislature in March, the high school junior says he's now considering a career in activism. Just one week after turning 17, Neiley pleaded for equal rights, arguing: "Without marriage equality, the boys in the locker room during gym class who harassed me are encouraged to believe that my sexuality means there is something different, wrong, and lesser about me." His speech landed him on political blogs and on the front page of several daily papers throughout New England. "His authenticity comes straight through," says Christopher Neff, executive director of Outright Vermont, which arranged for Neiley to deliver his testimony. Response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly positive, but as many 17-year-olds would, he neglected to inform his mom that he was testifying until it was nearly time for him to do so. "I sometimes forget to tell my parents things," he says. "I told her [about the testimony] a day before. She was like, 'You what?' But my family is so supportiveaEUR|I'm very lucky."

Christoph Babka | TV producer | 29 | Los Angeles

Resolutely positive and do-goody Christoph Babka came out of the closet 11 years ago in New Jersey in a relative vacuum. "I didn't really know much about the gay community. I tried to learn as fast as I could from TV and movies," he says, taking cues from Will & Grace and Ellen on TV and the films The Twilight of the Golds and The Wedding Banquet. Perhaps appropriately, Babka now lives in Los Angeles and spends a lot of his time and energy in LGBT volunteer work and fund-raising. And it's in this milieu that he's found his proverbial home. As chairman of the Young Professionals Council at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, Babka, whose day job is being executive producer for a TV promo company, commands a brigade of politically active under-40 gay men and women. He's part event planner, part fund-raiser. With one call on his iPhone, a small army of Hollywood power gays can populate a gala or raise thousands of dollars. The council raised $122,000 in 2008 alone, which went to support the center. "We have little to no overhead for our events and seek the selfless generosity of our peers in the community to actively engage them into becoming donors to the center," he says. "Being gay goes beyond going out and going to parties -- a core part of it is fighting for equal rights."

Katelynn Cusanelli | Transgender advocate | 25 | Missoula, Mont.

When Katelynn Cusanelli got the call from Real World casting that she had been accepted as a cast member for the famous show's 21st season, in Brooklyn, N.Y., she wasn't certain she was ready for the limelight. Ultimately she decided to put her "podunk little life" in Missoula, Mont., on hold to become the first transgender person on the iconic MTV program. The Palm Beach, Fla., native began taping the show while recovering from her gender-reassignment surgery. She says her story wasn't given much airtime over the season -- a mixed blessing, given her belief that regular viewers may not be ready to watch and comprehend her transition, especially on salacious reality television.

Cusanelli had quit her IT job in April 2008 after enduring what she describes as endless harassment and discrimination from coworkers. The situation was especially personal for Cusanelli, who had been lobbying the Palm Beach County clerk and comptroller's office to add gay and transgender protections to an antidiscrimination law, put in place to end to such workplace harassment. Her lobbying was successful, and the law was amended in October 2008.

Now that Cusanelli is back in Missoula with her boyfriend, she's returning to activism, starting with the local LGBT center, which she describes as having too small a presence in the city. She doesn't want to be remembered for her Real World fame. She'd rather be at the helm of a revolution -- fighting for LGBT workplace equality, engaging in HIV/AIDS advocacy, and promoting tolerance -- and happily living a podunk little life.

Timothy Scofield | Foundation executive | 32 | Hickory, N.C.

Timothy scofield is devoted to the preservation of history, though he hasn't yet lived through that much of it. Scofield is founder and CEO of the Velvet Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the goal of establishing a national gay and lesbian museum in Washington, D.C. He says his relative youth is an asset because most older activists are more focused on changing the future than remembering the painful past. "It sometimes takes the younger generation to wake up the older and say, 'Hey, we're going to be preserving and sharing your history when you're no longer around.'E,f;"

He wants the museum -- which he says is about 10 years away -- to not simply be a place where gay people celebrate their own achievements but also an educational tool for the uninformed. "Our history is American history," says Scofield, who worked for the Smithsonian Institution before launching the Velvet Foundation.

As Scofield, who is engaged to furniture hot shot Mitchell Gold, raises funds and collects exhibit items for the museum, he's simultaneously planning a traveling exhibit on the evolving history of marriage. The goal is to remind proponents of "traditional marriage" that, historically speaking, there's really no such thing.

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