From poet to bioengineer to bright young activist, our second annual class of intriguing community standouts packs plenty of variety
Profiles by Thomas Blanton, Eric A.T. Dieckman, and Josef Molnar • Photographs by David Lewis
Skip Mercer : Using an enemy against itself is a useful strategy—one that Skip Mercier, a bioengineering doctoral student at Rice University hopes will lead to advances in HIV/AIDS vaccine work. The Houston native is currently focusing on gene-therapy experiments that use viruses to deliver an immune system-boosting genetic payload directly to the initial site of HIV infection: the intestine and vaginal areas. Mercier, 26, is a member of the Bayou City Boys Club, the social organization that gives money to HIV service organizations, and he explains his interest in HIV research is based on a real-world perspective. “Immunity has always been fascinating to me, and HIV research is more relevant to me and people I know,” he says. “It hits close to home.”
If the experiment is successful, people around the world will have another tool to use in the fight against HIV. Mercier says he is happy to have the opportunity to help others, and hopes he can continue the fight against HIV after he completes graduate school. “I think I just lucked out on it,” he says, “but I really enjoy what do.” —Josef Molnar
Sharon Ferranti : Anyone who has seen openly gay filmmaker Sharon Ferranti’s work knows she won’t stop with one hit. After her master’s thesis film A Thousand Miles was named one of the 10 best queer shorts in 2000 at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, she set out to make another movie. Armed with a cast and crew from California, New York, and Texas, the Amarillo-turned-Houston resident headed to the Hill Country near Austin. The result is Make a Wish, a horror flick with a cast of lesbian characters. Ferranti says her hands-off directing style allowed the actors to shine. “A good director creates an environment where everyone can do her best work,” she says, “and if you’re lucky, you won’t get in the way of that.”
Ferranti plans an early 2005 local release for Make a Wish at the Aurora Picture Show—after screening the movie this year at film festivals nationwide, where she hopes to garner exposure and more awards. In her spare time, Ferranti volunteers with Writers in the Schools, which allows at-risk youth to work with experienced writers. Always looking ahead, Ferranti said she has started to gain inspirations for a new film. Can you say Make a Wish 2? —JM
Johnny O. Deal : Eight years ago, Johnny O. Deal arrived at the Harris County Hospital District’s Thomas Street Clinic as a client. Wanting to be more involved, he began attending meetings of the patient advisory committee, eventually taking the position of second chair. He took over as the committee director in June.
In his new role, Deal uncovers the needs of the clinic’s clients and ensures these needs are addressed and met. Additionally, he is instrumental in the clinic’s outreach programs, and often speaks at classes held by the clinic for professionals in the medical field.
“It’s important that people treat those living with HIV and AIDS as people, not objects,” Deal says, adding, “The Thomas Street Clinic really does care about its clients.”
Most importantly, though, Deal wants to raise awareness of the clinic, which cares for nearly 6,000 patients (roughly 60 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in Harris County), so that it is perceived not just as a facility for those living with HIV and AIDS, but as a resource for everyone.
“I want to get the [GLBT] community more involved,” Deal says. “I want to let them know what the Thomas Street Clinic is all about.” —Thomas Blanton
Amber Grant, Robbie Harmeson, and Vada Barnett : Amber Grant and Vada Barnett were disappointed with the greeting-card industry. “We’d both been searching for lesbian products that we felt captured our particular lives,” Barnett says. “We found that not only were there few cards, but that the cards we found were not a match with our personalities.”
After spending more than a year in development and research, the two friends, along with third partner Robbie Harmeson, combined Barnett’s graphic design background and Grant’s writing and photography talents to launch Girl-Co. Their company produces and markets greeting cards, stationery, buttons, bookmarks, and T-shirts geared toward the diverse lesbian community.
Girl-Co currently markets most of its products online (www.girl-co.com) or at community events. Overwhelmingly positive feedback, Bartlett says, has the trio considering expansion options.
“We are currently in the process of expanding Girl-Co from an e-commerce/festival business,” she says. “We hope to have our own storefront in the Houston area, and then branch out.”
Within the next year, Girl-Co plans to add apparel, magnets, and calendars to its growing inventory “We want a company that truly captures the eclectic nature of our entire community,” Barnett says. “We are diverse. We have many facets that are not tapped into.” —TB
Victor Flatt : “Environmental law and gay and lesbian issues are really about the rights to be human beings,” Victor Flatt says. “Being treated fairly is important no matter what you’re looking at.” As the first A.L. O’Quinn Chair in Environmental Law at the University of Houston Law School, Flatt considers himself lucky to be an openly gay man who also happens to be considered an expert in his field. “I feel like one of the duties is to help the environment in Houston and around the world, and I’m happy to do that as a gay man,” he says.
Flatt’s environmental experience parallels his passion for gay-and-lesbian law issues: He has authored a number of reports on the topic, and has been repeatedly tapped by the media as a spokesman for the community. As a national chair of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which led the fight in 2002 to repeal the Texas Homosexual Conduct statute, he also says living in a place where both environmental and gay law issues frequently arise presents an exciting challenge. “I can work on environmental law issues and gay and lesbian issues here,” Flatt says. “Both are near and dear to my heart.” —JM
Shannon Rhodes : Grrl-power has found a new beat every Saturday night at Chances Bar, where Shannon Rhodes, the booking and events manager, gives women a chance. Rhodes took her promotions experience from Arkansas, where she worked with a friend’s band, into the Houston scene to help female-fronted musical groups find a place. “Being part of the gay community and supporting women in music is my way of helping out,” Rhodes says. “Women struggle a lot to get opportunities, and this gives them a place to play, gay or straight.”
Assisted by her girlfriend Debbie Tosh, Rhodes scopes out local and national groups to play at the club, and the Chances website brings in even more groups. “Our goal is to have diversity in music because we try to have a diversity in people here,” Rhodes says. “We’ve created a demand for women musicians in Houston now.” The idea has become so popular, in fact, that Chances has even hired a booking assistant and sound engineer. Although Rhodes helps other women to find their voices, don’t expect to find her on stage. “I have a great love of music and I can play a little,” she says, “but I can’t sing!” —JM
Paige Mahogany : While looking for an avenue to address issues facing transgender individuals, Paige Mahogany came across Community Awareness for Transgender Support, a nonprofit that had recently floundered because of funding issues. She partnered with previous executive director Cristan Williams and other members to transfer the base of operations from Alvin/Galveston to Houston. Mahogany’s eventual goal is to reopen the CATS shelter for homeless trans people while also expanding services to help the trans community with counseling, housing, and financial stability issues.
Mahogany also advocates a more public stance for CATS to help both the straight and gay communities understand transgender people and issues. “We have been portrayed in the media as prostitutes and drag queens, and we have to change that,” she says. “Straights and some gay people need to understand that just because I’m transitioning, it doesn’t make me any less of a person.”
Mahogany has recruited a board of directors that includes members of the gay community who can offer diverse viewpoints. “We hope that the community will embrace CATS as we go around telling people about us,” she says. “It’s going to be a long process, but we’re going to start from the bottom and go to the top.” —JM
Juan L. Garza : The greatest satisfaction Juan Garza, M.D., new medical director of the Montrose Clinic, receives from work is in the daily struggle to improve patients’ health and lives. One such example came in a male prostitute who had been working the Montrose area, getting paid extra for not using condoms. He had no family in the U.S. and had taken to the streets to avoid an abusive partner. The patient was diagnosed with gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV with an initial CD4 cell count of 50.
Over time, he opened up to Garza, expressing his shame and regret at length and explaining how he wished to see his family in Central America but was too ashamed to return, looking as ill as he did. “I am happy to say that in two months and with help of the social work department and antivirals,” Garza reports, “he is doing wonderful with a CD4 of 250 and undetectable viral load and is now planning to visit home.”
Garza says he hopes that in the future Montrose Clinic will expand its role to that of a primary-care setting without losing focus on the HIV community, offering nonjudgmental medical care to anyone in need of it. —Eric A.T. Dieckman
Maria Dukler : The day after her birthday in January 2002, Marla Dukler filed a lawsuit against the Klein School District for refusing to allow her to establish a gay-straight alliance in her high school. As a member of a new generation of young gay activists, the 17-year-old junior decided to bring the law onto her side (with help from the American Civil Liberties Union). She won, and this year the Klein gay-straight group started with 20 members, most of whom are nongay allies.
Dukler said the experience has also helped determine her future direction: She chose to attend Northwestern University in Illinois because of its strong gay-and-lesbian organization. In the fall she will begin study, majoring in political science as she works toward her goal of being a lawyer.
For now, Dukler spreads the word about the benefits of understanding between people regardless of orientation. Last year, she and other students and teachers formed the group NO HATE, which helps others establish gay-straight alliances in the schools.
Dukler reports that the Klein administration and the school board—once her worst critics—now rank among her strongest supporters. “[The principal] even admitted he’d grown in the past year because of the experience,” Dukler says. Now that’s progress. —JM
Fred Walters : The inspiration for the Houston Buyers Club came to Fred Walters during a visit to a health-food store—“when I wrote that $250 check for my monthly supply of vitamins.” Thus was born the nonprofit organization dedicated to providing affordable supplements and nutritional education to persons living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic conditions.
Walters, Buyers Club executive director and “founding father,” studied to become a Catholic priest before moving to Texas and finding a job with the People With AIDS Coalition. In November he led the Buyers Club to a 2,000-square-foot storefront facility on Yoakum. In the new location, Walters and staff will have room to present twice-monthly educational seminars.
“I’d like for the Buyers Club to become a central operation for the entire Montrose community where people can come for their nutritional health needs—especially on Saturdays when our nutritionist is on duty,” Walters says. “We want to address a broad range of health issues.”
This year, Walters will reach beyond Montrose with a new publication, How to Manage Side Effects. The semiannual magazine, supported by Abbott Laboratories, will be distributed across the nation through medical offices, hospitals, and health departments. A Spanish-language version will also be available. —TB
Shaunte Angelo : At age 12, Shaunte Angelo began writing poetry. “It originally started as a hobby,” she says, “but then it became a way to express myself.” After taking several writing classes, she explored getting her work published, finally deciding to do it herself. In 2002, Angelo released her first collection of erotic poems, Trembling Naked (available at Brazos Books or www.smakk.net).
“There are some childhood memento poems in there, too, but the erotic is what inspires me the most,” Angelo says.
After graduating from the University of Houston Downtown with a degree in professional writing, the 29-year-old Angelo saw a need for a local publication focusing on women in the GLBT community and women in the arts.
So she did something about it. Her magazine h.e.r.s. (Houston Entertainment Rights and Sexuality, www.hershouston.com) will hit GLBT-friendly Montrose locations in February. “Our first issue is going to feature Madalyn Sklar of GoGirlsMusic, and we’ll have several short pieces about local women artists.”
Self-publishing a magazine can be a daunting task, but Angelo shrugs off adversity. “I’ve got several good friends with experience in this,” she says, adding, “We’ll see how it goes. I’ve got a printer and a credit card.” —TB
Thomas Blanton, Eric A. T. Dieckman, and Josef Molnar contribute frequently to OutSmart magazine.