OutSmart celebrates these community members and their honorable contributions
by Megan Smith
“I believe if you are a minority, you have a responsibility to yourself and to the future to be an activist,” queer Asian-American comedian Margaret Cho told a group of university students in 2008. “You can’t just be an observer.” LGBTQ Asian-Americans in Houston are hardly bystanders when it comes to the fight for fully inclusive equality—they are leaders in business, art, entertainment, volunteerism, activism, and more. These folks use their unique perspectives that stem from their multiple lived identities to fight invisibility, provide future generations with positive, relatable role models, and educate others on issues affecting the queer Asian-American community. To celebrate the accomplishments of these notable individuals, OutSmart reached out to the community for nominations of LGBTQ Asian-American leaders doing exceptional work in Houston. The list below represents only a fraction of those making such a difference.
During the blazing hot Houston summers, you’ll find Becca Keo-Meier inside with her partner as the two try new recipes, catch up on their favorite TV shows, and spend quality time with their two cats. Or if she feels like embracing the heat, cycling is her activity of choice. But most days, you’ll find Keo-Meier tirelessly advocating for the LGBT community. As a doctoral student in the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, addressing transphobia, trans-negativity, and trans-inclusivity is Keo-Meier’s specialty. In addition to sitting on the board of Alliance (the LGBTQIA and ally student organization of UH’s Graduate College of Social Work), she also serves as a facilitator for youth and adult transgender support groups at the Montrose Center. As an organizer of Houston’s annual Gender Infinity conferences, she also focuses on creating affirming spaces for families, learners, advocates, and providers to advance knowledge and resources supporting gender-diverse youth. Through her work, she hopes to bring more attention to an issue she feels is of great importance to the community—the high rate of suicide and violence in the transgender community. “These stories are being covered more by the media, which helps to increase awareness,” Keo-Meier says. “However, there is more work to be done. I hope that we can all support each other—gender and sexual minorities and allies—in working toward a more inclusive, healing, and accepting society that celebrates gender diversity.” But even the most accomplished activists need support and inspiration. “The courage, strength, and resilience of LGBTQIA communities inspire me to continue my work with these communities advocating for justice, equity, and acceptance,” she says. “My family’s experiences of surviving what many know as the Killing Fields in Cambodia, acculturating as refugees in the U.S., and working hard to ensure that their children and grandchildren find happiness and success (in whatever form that may be) inspire me to reach for my dreams. My mentors inspire me to practice open-mindedness, empathy, compassion, and reason in my professional and personal life. And my partner, with his infinite love, support, and encouragement, inspires me to be the best that I can be.”
Dr. Marcus de Guzman
Dr. Marcus de Guzman always aims to make others smile—and be proud to do so. As a dentist and the owner of Bayou City Smiles, de Guzman has grown his now-booming business from the ground up. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have time to be both a volunteer and leader within the LGBT community. An openly gay man, he started out his volunteerism with AIDS Services in Asian Communities (ASIAC) while he was living in Philadelphia in the late 1990s. During that time, he was named the organization’s volunteer of the year. After moving to Houston, he served as a volunteer dentist at Bering Omega Dental Clinic, providing dental care to HIV-positive persons who were eligible for Ryan White funding. In 2009, he also helped found and served on the board of the now-dormant political and social group Queer & Asian. “I’ve always felt compelled to help out the community ever since I’ve had the ability to do so,” de Guzman says. “I think people in our community need to be more civic-minded,” he adds, and urges others to volunteer with organizations helping to combat the community’s high HIV infection rates. And as for a way to beat the summer heat? “Stay indoors!,” he replies—though he’ll be sweating anyway by partaking in CrossFit, his favorite indoor activity.
You’ll rarely see Yvonne Feece without a camera in her hand. She’s become quite the familiar face in the LGBT community, photographing special events, prominent people, and more. “As a photographer, I treasure meeting people and capturing portraits that show who they are and what they are about,” Feece says. But as an open lesbian, Feece gives more than just beautiful images back to her community. For eight years, she volunteered with Pride Houston (then known as the Pride Committee of Houston) as both a photographer and as magazine chair. “I spent my very first two Pride parades registering voters and signing up volunteers for HRC,” she says. She also served as treasurer for the Houston chapter of NLGJA, the association for LGBT journalists. Feece also encourages others to get involved with the numerous organizations doing work to better the LGBT community—Texas Wins, Out for Education, HATCH, AssistHers, the Lesbian Health Initiative, and AIDS Foundation Houston. “Instead of wasting time complaining about the issues or lack of rights, why not donate whatever you can to help out,” she says. “I adore all of my activist friends who always stand up for truth and justice—those who serve as advocates each and every day.” When she’s feeling burnt out, Feece points to both her partner, Lisa Tran, and traveling as her main sources of inspiration and reinvigoration. “Fresh scenes and new experiences excite me,” she says—which leads to her recommendation on how to escape Houston’s rising temperatures: “Lounge in the pool or run away on vacation to anywhere but here from June through October!”
Artist and activist Koomah is all about pushing the limits and exploring identities—including their own. Self-identified as “intersex, transgender, queer, pansexual, a kinky BDSM switch, leather lover, and mischievous hermaphrodite unicorn,” Koomah expands the minds of others by removing them from what they know and forcing them from their comfort zones. “My summer usually consists of traveling across the nation doing film work, performances, and educational workshops at conferences,” Koomah says. “This year my trips include New Orleans, the Austin International Drag Festival, Chicago, the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, various cities in Kansas, and an Intersex conference in Cincinnati. One stop on my Kansas trip is to my family’s farm, and it is pretty much like The Wizard of Oz in reverse . . . my eccentricities swept away to Kansas to work on a family farm. It’s quite a sight to behold, and it’s my favorite part of summer.” Beyond their art, Koomah has also served on the board of the Houston Transgender Unity Committee since 2011, is a co-founder of the Houston Intersex Society, and a co-organizer of Gender Reel Houston, a transgender film festival coming to Houston in winter 2015. Koomah hopes that their work will draw more attention to issues such as the necessity of equal-rights ordinances, the safety of trans people, issues affecting LGBTQ homeless youth, sex workers’ safety and rights, basic body autonomy rights of intersex folks, and ending infant genital mutilation of intersex babies. “A lot of the volunteer and fundraising work I do is a way for me to give back to organizations and community services that have helped me in the past, such as HATCH, Montrose Center, and the Transgender Foundation of America,” Koomah says. “Other times it is because I want to support organizations that I would have used had they existed in my time of need, like Montrose Grace Place. I’m inspired by people—by other people helping and by other people being helped. I like seeing plans come together and being around people who work to make things happen.” And the first step to making things happen, Koomah notes, is to register to vote. “If you’re not registered to vote, get registered,” Koomah says. “Educate yourself as much as you can about issues that impact all parts of the community, not just the ones that affect you personally.”
A summer day spent on the city’s bayou trails, followed by an ice-cold Popsicle, is near-perfection for queer Houstonian Eesha Pandit. But while the chilly treat may cool her off temporarily, Pandit always has a fire burning in her—her passion for reproductive-justice activism. Pandit works as a strategist and communications consultant for many reproductive-justice organizations, focusing on helping these groups to use strong, clear messages to get their work out there and to make their voices heard. She also serves as co-president of the board of directors for the National Network of Abortion Funds, a national organization that helps low-income women afford abortion care. “I believe that making a family is personal and sacred work, and all of us deserve to make those decisions for ourselves and with our loved ones,” she says. “We believe that just because a woman is poor, she shouldn’t be denied access to safe, quality reproductive healthcare.” Gender justice for all—including for cisgender women, transgender women, intersex people, and gender-nonconforming folks—is always at the forefront of her work, Pandit emphasizes. “I would say that violence against women—cisgender and transgender women alike—is something that we have to talk more about, and work hard to eradicate,” she says. “Whether it’s campus rape, sexual assault, police brutality, intimate partner and family violence, or the violence that happens to women in prisons or immigration and detention centers, there are so many places in our society that aren’t safe for women and girls. Until we decide, collectively, that it’s not okay for more than half of our population to live under siege like this, we won’t be able to reach our full potential as a society.” Additionally, Pandit writes for a blog called the Crunk Feminist Collective, which serves as a place for feminists of color to write about everything from politics to pop culture. “It’s a beautiful and powerful community, and it allows me space to take on the questions about race, class, and gender that show up in everything from hip-hop, to policy debates, to our workplaces and our families,” she says. When asked what keeps her inspired in her work, Pandit responds, “Young feminists—of all genders! People often say that young folks are apathetic—but you just have to look around Houston to see how false that stereotype is. There are young leaders all over our city who want to see justice and fairness win. They push and challenge their families, their communities, their schools, and their religious communities to think about social justice issues including racism, sexism, homophobia, and how all these issues intersect with each other. So many of us face these issues, and yet there’s so much shame and silence. First we learn about it, then we talk about it, and all the while, we fight to change it.”
In 1982, community leader Carl Han came out as a gay man. He was 17 years old and describes the experience as “a very tough time.” But with the encouragement and support of his mentor, Ray Hill, he didn’t let anything stop him from volunteering, fundraising, and founding new organizations for the LGBTQ community. “I honestly think I was the first young Asian/Vietnamese man to be doing volunteer work for the LGBTQ community of Houston back when I started to help the Montrose Symphonic Band to raise money in the ’80s,” Han says. Since then, he (along with his best friend, Gary Giddings) has focused his work on the issue he feels most important to the community—the education of LGBTQ youth. “I feel like high school failed me,” Han says. “I was an excellent student who could memorize all the formulas and information, but once I got out to the real world, I had no knowledge of how to be my own leader. I always felt that if we are to expect the youth of today to be our leaders, we must help organizations that provide support to the youth.” He also emphasizes the need for more scholarship opportunities for these youth, as well as providing them with business and leadership education starting from a young age. To help with this cause, Han often raises funds for the Montrose Center’s annual Hatch Youth prom, has served as both DJ and the “food guy” for the dance, and has volunteered with OutReach United. Being a “food guy,” it’s not surprising that Han’s favorite summertime activity is cooking refreshing meals, kicking back, and relaxing at the beach.
Veronica Mahal Leon
Openly gay Houstonian Veronica Mahal Leon’s advice for others is, “Get angry, get involved, change what you don’t like, and never settle for anything. We can only change the world if we take action.” Leon chooses to take action through her art. She is a co-founder and co-curator of Barbee Manshun, an art space run by three queer people of color with the mission of bringing art back to the community. “Barbee Manshun has been running for a little bit more than a year, all because of the support of the community,” she says. “We know Houston is the most diverse city in America, and we would like for the art scene to reflect that.” Leon also inspires the youngest of artists to develop their own passions as an after-school art instructor for elementary school children. “I just want people to feel inspired, engaged, and loved by the community,” she says. Other than staying inside and creating art, Leon says the best way to cool off during the summer is to “fill a kiddie pool with ice and have a beer. Because what’s cooler than cool? Ice cold!”
Grace S. Yung
Grace S. Yung has a lot of favorite summertime activities—dining out with friends at restaurants that support local farms, seeing comedy shows, attending plays, and visiting Houston’s art galleries. Where she finds the time, however, remains a mystery, as she is definitively a Renaissance woman when it comes to giving back to the community. “I have lived and thrived in Houston for several decades, and I surround myself with a wonderful network of family and friends,” Yung says. “As such, I believe in giving back to the community.” Passionate about equality regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, she’s been involved with the Human Rights Campaign and the Victory Fund for numerous years. She is also focused on the fight against cancer, dedicating her time each year to the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides Against Cancer” campaign. “Cancer is a terrible disease that has affected my family members and close friends,” Yung says. As if that isn’t enough, she also supports AIDS Foundation Houston, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s Houston chapter that partners with Lazarus House. “I also believe in helping to empower women,” Yung adds. “As a blue belt in the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a kickboxing enthusiast, I frequently host self-defense seminars for ladies who want to learn how to defend themselves and to become more confident.” Yung, who works as a certified financial planner practitioner, even uses her professional knowledge for good. “I feel the community is lacking in resources when it comes to LGBTQ financial planning,” she says. “I have found that the best way to help serve the LGBTQ community is to educate the public through seminars, one-on-one meetings, and by publishing monthly articles on financial and legal topics that the community would find relevant and valuable. Because inequality still exists in laws regarding same-sex couples, LGBTQs have to plan more effectively in order to safeguard themselves and to maximize their possibilities.”
When asked about his favorite way to beat the summer heat, J. Feng responds, “Beach and pool, all the way. I can’t even swim all that well and am pretty body-shy, so that’s saying something. Also, Taiwanese snowflake ice!” While shyness doesn’t prevent Feng from being involved in a diverse range of community work, he does prefer to take a quiet, supportive, behind-the-scenes approach. “That can be in a listening role, a caretaking role, a spiritual role, or simply taking a back seat to a more appropriate leadership role,” he says. “People have a sexy notion of what activism is sometimes, but I think the work of real relationships is the vitality for everything else. And real relationships are formed within a commitment to ‘being together.’” For over a decade, Feng has focused his work on the intersection between social justice and spirituality, spending the majority of his time with the Asian-American Christian community. More recently, he’s also expanded his agenda to include solidarity work with people of color, the intersection of race, class, and queer identity, and the spirituality of gender and identity. “It’s rare to find all those things woven together well in a single context, though,” he explains. “So I roam, with respect to each community, with hope of participating in further strengthening and cultivating some of those connections.” Feng has also been instrumental in the building of Casa Blue—an emerging community that works toward long-term movement building—and volunteers with Youth Organizers of Houston, a group that is led by and centered around youth of color. “I get to be the fuddy-duddy adult in the background that cooks and supports them in the social justice work they want to do,” Feng says. He advises others who are interested in similar work to first examine their personal privilege and to then actively work to make space for those who aren’t well-represented or are without privilege. “If we could all do the work of keeping ourselves and our own communities accountable in how privilege and uneven power dynamics play out, I think that alone could bring us a long way,” Feng says. “Where are my fellow Asian-American radicals in Houston?” he adds. “If you’re out there reading, please come find me! Seriously. Please find me. Also, Asian-American youth who want to dive into social justice—you find me, too!”
Over the past few years, OutSmart has highlighted several additional LGBTQ Asian-American leaders for their extensive contributions to the community. Make sure to check out these names in our archives:
John Nechman, Houston attorney, 2013 Pride Houston Male Grand Marshal, and community activist (see OutSmart’s June 2013 issue)
Melanie Espinosa Pang, training director for First Person, LLC, and community activist (see OutSmart’s March 2015 issue)
Jaden Nguyen, Houston realtor and community activist (see OutSmart’s April 2015 issue)