By Megan Smith
Photos by Alexandre Rosa
Powerful women are a force to be reckoned with—just ask the millions around the world who proudly marched after Donald Trump’s inauguration, with signs and pink pussy-hats in tow. And when these women can come together, embrace their differences, and foster intersectionality, nothing can silence their voices.
The LGBTQ women of Houston exemplify this notion every single day. They’re paving the way in philanthropy, healthcare, social justice, business, and more. To celebrate Women’s History Month, OutSmart reached out to the community for nominations of LGBTQ female leaders making an especially significant impact here in Houston. After an incredible response, we are proud to present our Leading Ladies of 2017.
Kimberly Taylor tries to live every day by the words of her idol, Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” “Michelle Obama inspires me in a way that’s hard to put into words,” Taylor says. “Michelle used her role as First Lady to promote positivity and self-empowerment. I miss her already!” Taylor spreads her own positivity in her work as secretary for Bunnies on the Bayou. She’s served in this role for the charitable organization for the past two years. “Being a member of Bunnies on the Bayou is tremendously inspiring,” Taylor says. “Seeing the faces of our beneficiaries at our check presentations makes all the hard work worthwhile.” Taylor, who identifies as bisexual, is also an advocate for helping to eliminate bi-erasure and bi-phobia from society. “There are still so many people who don’t believe bisexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation, or that bisexuals are confused and lying to themselves,” she explains. “Not feeling accepted by the straight or gay community can lead to higher rates of anxiety and depression in bisexual individuals. I urge others in the community to ask questions and to not minimize anyone seeking support and inclusion.”
While much of Lynette Ross’ involvement over the past several decades may have been “spent in the background,” its impact has surely been felt. For the past 25 years, Ross has been involved with the LGBTQ recovery community at The Lambda Center, where she currently serves as corporate president. An ordained minister, Ross is also a founding member and treasurer of the Faith Leaders Coalition of Greater Houston (which is committed to religious diversity, cultural respect, and advocacy) and has been the senior minister at Cathedral of Hope since 2011. “We have created a safe, welcoming place for people to come and be in community together,” she says. “I’ve been around a long time, and my heart continues to break at the marginalization and discrimination our community experiences, especially at the hands of organized religion,” Ross, who is an out lesbian, says. “I am inspired to help those who have been wounded by the Church to find a place to heal, as well as stand against those who inflict the harm. I encourage everyone to find a community where they feel safe and affirmed.” When asked about her role model, Ross points to another woman with decades of service to the community—Hillary Clinton. “I have admired her for years for her unrelenting work on behalf of women and children,” Ross says. “We live in a world that is still incredibly sexist, and over the decades, her perseverance to continue to serve her country, despite the never-ending misogyny, has been inspiring.”
Admittedly “immersed in geek culture,” proud pansexual transwoman Kaylee Senn’s role model is Anita Sarkeesian—the founder of Feminist Frequency, a website that explores representations of gender, race, and sexuality in pop culture. “Taking cues from feminist author bel hooks’ insistence that popular culture is where the pedagogy is, Anita has been a model of how to encourage creators and consumers to critically examine the ways they contribute to social injustice and how to make our culture more inclusive,” Senn says. Following Sarkeesian’s example, Senn is taking her own steps to make society more inclusive and welcoming to LGBTQ people. For the past two years, she’s served as a transgender support-group facilitator—for both trans adults and youth—at the Montrose Center. Senn also acted as the remote-action coordinator for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance campaign, and has since lent her time to Equality Texas, the ACLU of Texas, and to her own independent community-building and organizing. “Author and activist Alice Walker said it best: ‘Activism is my rent for living on the planet,’” Senn says. “I feel that I have been very fortunate, not only in my structural privileges, but in having had incredibly supportive family and friends. Others in our larger transgender family and in the LGBTQ community have not been so lucky. I want to be part of the fight against intersecting systems of oppression wherever I can, and to help build a more just and fair society.”
Tammi Wallace is a powerhouse within Houston’s LGBTQ community. Not only does she serve on the board of the Montrose Management District, the Mayor’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, the Hollyfield Foundation, and the Victory Fund, but she’s also the cofounder and cochair of the newly revived Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “I believe that we should constantly strive for fairness and justice,” Wallace says. “There is too much inequality in this world, and we are leaving so many people in our society behind. Someone paved the road for us; we now have to pave the road for others so they can pave the road ahead for the next generation.” The best way to do that, Wallace says, is to eliminate apathy and increase involvement. “Until we are all fully protected, we are all at risk, and we can and must be responsive and involved,” she says. “Getting involved can mean something different to each person—some volunteer time, and others give dollars. Now is the time to do one or both, at levels like we’ve never done before. Align your passion to make a difference, find an organization to support, and make it meaningful. Be bold!” Wallace’s role model is another bold woman—Marie Curie. “Here’s an incredible woman who won two Nobel Peace Prizes, and she dealt with obstacles every step of the way, including sexism, throughout her career. Even women questioned how she could have a family and career at the same time. But she persevered because she had vision and she took risks. She saw what could be, and did not let any obstacles stand in her way. Women like Marie Curie paved the way for other women to succeed and break barriers. I honor her legacy.”
RACHEL AFI QUINN
Rachel Afi Quinn has dedicated her life’s work to sharing her knowledge with others. As an assistant professor in Comparative Cultural Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Houston (UH), Quinn teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on gender, society, and feminist theory with a particular focus on globalization, sexuality, the Caribbean and race, and black identity. “Over the last few years, I’ve organized many speakers and community events at UH on topics that range from gender-based violence in the South Asian community to post-Ferguson conversations, digitizing the Chicana feminist archive, and black masculinities,” Quinn explains. “The amazing students I get to work with every day at UH are a tremendous inspiration. Academia can be such a hostile place for working-class people and people of color, and the brilliance of these students who want to learn and share what they know inspires me to fight for a space for them to succeed.” Quinn also recently joined the Houston GLBT Political Caucus to learn how to lobby elected officials and, in turn, teach others to do so as well. “I believe that I am responsible for advocating for the most vulnerable in my community,” Quinn says. “Each of us can encourage our elected officials to make sure we protect the rights of all Houstonians.” As for her role model, Quinn cites another queer woman of color—the playwright and intellectual Lorraine Hansberry. “She was creative and brilliant, and she produced work that has been so valuable to queer black girls like me,” Quinn says. “We were queer not only because of who we desired, but for being bookish and intellectual. She is famously quoted as saying ‘The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.’”
Rice University MBA student Kendall Toarmina knows the power of intersectionality—a major reason why she cites Alicia Garza, one of the Black Lives Matter co-founders, as a source of inspiration and empowerment. “We are in a very tumultuous time,” she says. “I think it is key that our struggles—those of the LGBTQ community, and those of other communities such as African-Americans, Latino-Americans, immigrants, and Muslims—are bound together. We must work together to make progress.” Toarmina upholds these values as the president of Rice’s LGBT alumni organization, Rice Alumni Pride. Additionally, she was one of two students who organized the university’s first-ever Diversity and Inclusion Conference to help teach Houstonians the best practices to lift up historically marginalized groups. Plus, she regularly volunteers with the ACLU and registers new voters everywhere from college campuses to homeless centers and the apartment complex where she lives. As the only openly queer woman in her class year at Rice’s Jones School of Business, she also enjoys mentoring young people from all backgrounds who are interested in pursuing MBAs. “I think I draw on a deep, internal sense of empathy and justice. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to develop that and give it direction,” Toarmina says. Some influential professors and her fiancée, Melanie Pang, have helped guide her along the way. “Melanie is my biggest source of inspiration, every single day,” she says, “She is an incredible force for good.”
Houstonian Karen Morry may have a wild streak to her—that is, if she takes after her role model, Calamity Jane. “While she had a reputation of being a daredevil, she was also known to exhibit generosity and compassion to those around her in need,” Morry explains. “She was an adventurer in a time when adventurers were mostly men. Not only did she survive, but she excelled in that environment.” Over the years, Morry has followed her own passion for giving back to the community by serving on the boards of Pride Houston and AssistHers, an organization that provides nonmedical care to women with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses. Currently, Morry is the founding mother and board member of the Brighter Future Foundation, Inc. (BFF)—a nonprofit organization with the purpose of “preserving our past for our future.” “BFF assists smaller nonprofits by providing the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their full potential, as well as fulfill their mission and vision,” Morry explains. “We do this by providing an array of consulting services—board retreats, professional development workshops, volunteer outreach workshops, special events, and customized consulting services.” As for her advice for those looking to get involved, Morry responds, “We need more volunteers and voices to be heard in all facets of our community. By helping others, we help ourselves. Get out in the community and get engaged. Be part of the solution!”
Kim Watson is a caretaker at heart. “I am passionate about LGBTQ equality, women’s empowerment, and caring for our elders,” she explains. “Therefore, I align myself with organizations and activism in those areas.” Watson currently serves on the board of the Montrose Center, as well as on the Center’s Davidson Hatch Youth and Philanthropic committees. She also volunteers with AssistHers. “Working with AssistHers helps me just as much as it helps the women we serve, because I am able to be a caretaker and give back to the community,” Watson says. “While there has been progress in the LGBTQ community, there is still a long way to go. Houston still does not have a nondiscrimination ordinance, and there is a threat that [legislators in Austin] will try to block not only Houston, but other cities from passing such legislation. This will negatively affect the LGBTQ community—especially the transgender community, an already targeted community. Therefore, whatever I can do to lead or support, I will help.” Watson credits another lesbian trailblazer, Sally Ride, as her source of inspiration. “She is a fellow lesbian and scientist,” Watson says. “It is important for women to have strong role models in science and math fields. Sally Ride was one of the youngest astronauts to go into space and was the first American woman [to do so]. She proved there was nothing a woman couldn’t do!”
Megan Mooney comes from a long line of strong women. “My mom and my grandmother are definitely my role models,” she says. “[They] taught me the importance of education, caring for others, and doing the right thing.” These gifts are reflected in her work as a psychologist specializing in child trauma. “Often, LGBTQ youth are at much higher risk for experiences of victimization and trauma,” Mooney explains. “I seek to help provide safe spaces for these youth to receive mental-health services.” Periodically, Mooney also partners with Lambda Legal to provide consultation and referrals for LGBTQ youth who have experienced trauma. “I have also been working for the past few years with a collaborative group trying to improve care for LGBTQ kids who are in the custody of Child Protective Services,” she adds. As one of the co-founders of Gender Infinity, she also works to create safe, affirming spaces for families, learners, advocates, and providers to advance relationships, knowledge, and resources that empower gender-diverse individuals. “I think it’s critical that mental-health providers and school personnel become more aware of the risk factors for various forms of trauma and victimization that LGBTQ youth are at higher risk to experience. I would encourage educators and clinicians to seek out training in working with LGBTQ youth, including how to create safe and affirming spaces and the use of appropriate language and terminology.”
“My mom is my role model,” says Houstonian Danielle Sampey. “She works until the job is done, and does it with a good heart. She helps the poor, takes care of those who are sick, and embraces those who are lost. She cares more about the well-being of others than about her own comfort. If I am half the woman she is, I’ll be thankful.” Her mother’s influence is more than apparent in Sampey’s work. For the past 15 years, she has worked as the executive director of Lazarus House, helping Houstonians to successfully combat and manage cachexia, or disease-related muscle loss. “We first started serving HIV-positive people in 2002 with the Wellness Program, a comprehensive program of disease-specific exercise, nutritional guidance, and support,” Sampey explains. “I was drawn completely in to their life stories and experiences. I have become grateful to be able to share the journey, and my staff frequently says the same thing—the people are why we do it.” The biggest thing Sampey strives to instill in her clients and the broader Houston community is hope. “We have to keep hope alive,” she says. “You may feel like you have little to give, but if we all did one small act of charity daily, this world would be healed. If we could stop and acknowledge each other, especially with kindness, we would see how connected we really are.”
Katharine Ligon thrives in controlled chaos. And by “controlled chaos,” she means the ongoing 85th Legislative Session in Austin. Since October 2016, Ligon has served as the legislative director for Texas state senator Sylvia R. Garcia from Houston. She has eight years’ experience working in public policy and the legislature, and another five years working at DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston. “Over the course of my career, every job has been very community-focused, whether it’s working in direct-care services with foster families and children, or mental-health and substance-abuse advocacy at the local and state level,” she says. Ligon explains that during college, she took two years off to travel to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to volunteer at Nuestras Pequeñas Rosas, a girls’ home for newborns to young adults who were abandoned and abused. (Sadly, Honduras has an extensive history of being locked into a cycle of poverty.) To continue her work helping families, Ligon earned a master of social-work degree from the University of Houston with a concentration in leadership, administration, and public-policy studies. “My path to social change stems from more than six years of working in direct practice with children and families affected by social injustices (e.g. oppression, poverty, and inaccessible mental and substance-abuse treatment),” Ligon says. “These unique experiences enlightened me to the social, financial, and health inequities and injustices many children and families face, especially in the United States. Since then, I have dedicated my educational and professional career to improving the lives of families by engaging with a spectrum of stakeholders to address social-justice policy issues, including access to healthcare and healthcare disparities.” As for her role models, Ligon points to a number of other social-justice warriors—Barbara Jordan, Michelle Obama, and Malala Yousafzai, as well as “the millions of women who are chipping away at the ceiling of patriarchy and misogyny every day, including stay-at-home mothers.”