OutSmart introduces Houston’s emerging LGBTQ women leaders
by Megan Smith
In the words of admired historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” LGBTQ women have been the movers and shakers in our fight for equality for decades—refusing to let their voices be silenced and never backing down on their beliefs. Sylvia Rivera, Judith Butler, Gloria Anzaldúa, Annise Parker, Phyllis Frye, and many, many more defined an entire generation of revolutionary women.
Now, a new group of LGBTQ women are entering the scene to continue the fight that their elders started. As we observe Women’s History Month in March, and as a way to introduce these incredible women to our readers, OutSmart reached out to the community for nominations of emerging LGBTQ women leaders making an exceptional difference in Houston. The list below only scratches the surface.
With a smile that lights up a room, Marshella Abrams exudes confidence. Growing up, however, she was the exact opposite—until she found volunteerism. “I love volunteering my time helping people in the community,” Abrams says. “Volunteering helped me come out of my shyness.” And break out of her shell, she did. For over two years, she has dedicated her time to serving on the board of Kindred Spirits Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing women’s lives in Houston and surrounding areas. In addition to helping organize that group’s community events, managing online and media communications, and recruiting volunteers, she has been heavily involved with the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Houston and the Montrose Center. As an open lesbian, Abrams aims to ensure that all people are safe being who they truly are, are treated fairly, and can live without fear or shame. When asked who she considers her role model, Abrams responds, “Maya Angelou, because she is a strong woman, and her great literary work inspires me to learn more about other people, cultures, and perspectives in my life.”
Self-identified feminist and lesbian Kim Cook points to another great female writer when describing her role model—Mary Wollstonecraft. “I have always looked up to Wollstonecraft for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and being one of the first proponents of women receiving an education,” she says. Cook’s passion for the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities has led her to serve as the project manager for the Young Men’s Affiliation Project, an HIV study with the University of Texas School of Public Health focusing on young gay men and HIV/STD risk related to social-network analysis. “I get up every morning knowing that the research I do directly benefits the LGBT community and helps in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” she says. Cook stresses the importance of each and every member of the community knowing their HIV status. “It is incredibly easy to get tested and be linked into care,” she says, and explains that the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, the Montrose Center, Houston Area Community Health Services, AIDS Foundation Houston, Bee Busy, Inc., and Legacy Community Health Services provide free and local HIV testing. But Cook’s work doesn’t stop there—she recently became a board member and the social director for Lambda NextGen, Houston’s LGBTA young professionals network. In addition to coordinating the group’s monthly social events, Cook is also planning the group’s newly added sporting events, cookouts, and end-of-the-year banquet.
Melanie Espinosa Pang
To say that Melanie Espinosa Pang likes to give back to her community would be a vast understatement—it’s hard to find an organization that has not been touched by her commitment and devotion to helping eradicate homophobia, poverty, racism, classism, and sexism. And she’s been at it for years. During her undergraduate studies at the University of Houston, Pang, who identifies as queer, served as president of the campus’ LGBT organization for two years, making her entrance into the world of activism. “I didn’t know it then, but it put me on an incredible path,” she says. After interning for the Houston Food Bank and documenting how people ended up needing food assistance, Pang says she could no longer simply write about injustice—she had to do something about it. She has since graduated from UH’s Graduate College of Social Work and is now a licensed social worker. Pang has worked with the Salvation Army assisting those experiencing homelessness, served as a case manager to unaccompanied refugee minors in foster care through Catholic Charities, and worked as an intern with the HIV/AIDS community at Legacy Community Health Services. She’s helped escort clinic visitors safely to and from their appointments at Planned Parenthood, volunteered at Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals forums to help immigrants with their paperwork, lobbied for inclusive policies at the Texas Legislature with Equality Texas, met with Houston City Council members and testified in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and protested locally against the injustice surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Most recently, she has done community engagement work to help reduce and prevent childhood obesity through CAN DO Houston (Children And Neighbors Defeat Obesity)—some of the most life-changing work she’s done thus far, she notes. Her passion for giving back to the community has even translated into her full-time job as the training director of First Person LLC, a Houston-based consulting firm that provides strategy and smart leadership for nonprofits and socially responsible organizations. But who does such an admirable leader admire? Other than her mom (“Mom is always number one!,” she says), Pang answers with Malala Yousafzai. “It’s humbling to look up to someone 10 years younger, but if they have brilliant courage and are being the change they wish to see in the world, why wouldn’t I admire her?” And how do we start changing the world? Pang says it’s simple: “Register to vote—and then vote!”
Pride Houston 2015 Female Grand Marshal nominee Britt Kornmann’s reason for getting involved in the LGBT-rights movement was a deeply personal one. After realizing she was a lesbian—and the implications of what that meant as a freshman in the Air Force Academy during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—Kornmann ultimately made the decision to leave the Academy and fight against its discriminatory policy. After DADT was repealed, Kornmann began working tirelessly as an advocate for marriage equality “not just because of the equality it creates for same-sex couples, but also because of the more than 1,000 different rights that come with being able to be married.” As an LGBT financial planner at Ameriprise Financial for the past 10 years, Kornmann has seen firsthand “the very real financial burdens and intricacies that LGBT couples face when denied the opportunity to get legally married. Now, as more and more progress is made, I can’t help but focus on the fact that, despite the inevitability of nationwide marriage equality, we still have a lot of work to do—and we can’t leave any member of our community behind.” Kornmann adds, “Violence against the transgender community, bullying in schools, the resurgence of HIV/AIDS, underemployment/unemployment, the exportation of hate abroad, LGBT youth homelessness—these issues are all too prevalent in our community.” The youngest member of HRC’s national board of directors, Kornmann is also an advocate for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. “Until all people in Houston can feel comfortable being who they are, without fear of discrimination in their jobs, homes, and public places, we can’t consider ourselves the number-one city at anything,” she says. “The rest of the world looks to us as a leader, and we need to show that we can lead from the front.” Kornmann adds that the female leader who inspires her the most is Texas legend Ann Richards, “the woman who first made me proud to be a Texan. I can only hope that we’ll have someone as brilliant, giving, and courageous as she at the helm of our state sometime soon,” Kornmann says.
When community activist and mentor Atlantis Capri reflects on the struggles she’s experienced in her lifetime, she is nothing but energized—energized to help others, that is. “I made myself a promise that if anyone ever truly needed help, I would be there for them,” Capri says. “Therefore, all those tears I shed wouldn’t be in vain. The truth of the matter is that we all need someone, and sometimes that someone may be a stranger, but their help is genuine.” For the past 17 years, Capri has made it her mission to help eliminate the stigma surrounding both the transgender and HIV/AIDS communities. “We are all human and equal, so realizing this is the first step to removing stigma,” she says. Capri currently sits on the board of the Misfits Series, which has included a town hall discussion on being gay and transgender in the black community. She is also the founder and leader of the House of Capri. When asked about her female role models, Capri responds, “Any female that has taken the steps to exist outside of the ‘social uniform’ is a role model, no matter how small or big the step is.”
Politics is one habit Margarita Perez will never be able to quit—a habit she credits to her time spent as an intern with the Houston Equal Rights Alliance and to her mentor Tammi Wallace. A proud and out lesbian, Perez has used this passion to help recruit people of color to provide testimony to City Council in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. She’s also made it her personal challenge to encourage Latina women—specifically Latina mothers—to get to the polls. “A large part of my life has been grounded in the idea of citizenship and what that means to me and my family,” Perez says. “We are a first-generation Mexican-American family, and we lived the struggles of so many undocumented immigrants who have made this country home. It’s truly a personal quest to invite and even challenge Latina mothers to exercise their right to vote, because what’s at stake are issues that directly affect our own mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles—everyone we love. I can’t find a better reason to vote than to ensure the happiness and access to opportunity for my family, and it’s as simple as starting those conversations with the people in our own circles.” Most of her days are also spent advocating for the HIV/AIDS community in Houston. Five years ago, Perez founded Her Destination Unknown, a social networking group for women with a philanthropic mission that includes food drives, toy drives, and an annual fundraiser that has raised more than $50,000 for AIDS Foundation Houston and AIDS Walk Houston. To her surprise, when Perez walked into AIDS Foundation Houston two years ago to drop off donations from Her Destination Unknown, she didn’t just leave with the satisfaction of doing good—she left with a job. “I actually got hired when I stopped to turn in our funds two years ago,” Perez says. “I was in workout shorts, a T-shirt, and a ponytail. Super unexpected, super exciting, and totally meant to be.” One promotion later, she now serves as the development manager for AIDS Foundation Houston. And while she notes that her colleagues inspire her every day, her greatest source of inspiration is her mother. “If she would have been given the opportunities I was afforded through her and my dad’s sacrifice, she would be running this town,” she says.
Talk about a power couple—Margarita Perez’s partner, Jessica Frinsco, is an equally impressive leader within the LGBTQ community. For the past eight years, Frinsco has served as a board member for Kindred Spirits Foundation, Inc., coordinating volunteer support for the organization’s major fundraising events which help provide health- and human-services assistance to underserved women in Houston. In May, Frinsco testified along with Perez in front of City Council in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and engaged individuals in discourse about the importance of the ordinance’s protections. As a full-time instructional specialist for new-teacher support for a local school district, she’s also set a personal goal to participate in more activism surrounding LGBTQ youth and education within the next year—an issue she feels is extremely important. “For educators, my advice is to continue advocating for safe spaces in classrooms and to educate and engage students and staff in productive dialogue that promotes practicing respect for all members in the school community,” Frinsco says. On issues like equality and respect, Frinsco is never scared to stand up for what she believes in—a quality for which she credits her grandmother. “She was an amazing woman—open-minded, accepting, and never afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She was a feisty and wise woman who acted out of love and was such a great listener. One of the best compliments I have ever heard is that I remind people of her.”
Spinning some of the slickest beats for Houston’s LGBTQ community is Athena Armylagos, also known as DJ Athenz. For two and a half years, Armylagos has been involved in the community’s entertainment and nightlife scene, providing bumping beats for folks at Pearl Bar, Meteor Lounge, FBar, and more. But her work isn’t confined to the community’s club scene—she’s participated in events with HRC Houston, Pride Houston, and was awarded OutSmart’s Gayest & Greatest Award for best female DJ in both 2013 and 2014. “The passion for music has always been there,” Armylagos says. “Being able to deliver it and connect with others without having to say a word is beyond fascinating, and inspiring in itself to me. The willingness to do better, be better, and share it with others just by being me is what keeps me moving forward.” Staying true to herself is very important to Armylagos, and is one of the qualities she admires most about her role model, Rosa Parks. “She stood firm for what she believed in,” she says. “She put her mind to something and would get it done no matter the consequences, because she knew within herself that it was right.” LGBTQ youth homelessness is one of the most important issues worth standing up for right now, Arymlagos adds, and recommends others join in the fight by contacting and getting involved with the Association for Family and Community Integrity, Inc. (AFCI).
Christin Dietze is definitely in-the-know when it comes to all things Houston. A former employee of the Houston Press, Dietze now works for both Live Nation Entertainment and as a tour guide for Bayou City Bike Tours, leading historical tours of downtown Houston for visitors and locals. “Being in an industry in which you have to always be in-the-know about Houston happenings has proven to be one of the most fulfilling experiences, because it’s really forced me to go out and find all of the best things Houston has to offer,” she says. “I pride myself on being a bit of a Houston expert, and I love living in a city that has so much worth exploring.” After losing her parents at a young age, Dietze was raised by a grandmother who taught her to keep her head up and her motivation strong, she says. “She’s had the misfortune of losing several loved ones throughout the course of her life, but has remained one of the strongest women I have ever known,” Dietze says. “It’s too common that hardship brings out the bad in people, and my grandmother helped me see that it’s better to let it motivate you to be the best person you can be rather than to let it bring you down.” Dietze, who identifies as a lesbian, also serves on the steering committee for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s Bayou Buddies young professionals group, and as the director of communications for Lambda NextGen, Houston’s LGBTA young-professionals group. As an environmental advocate, she stresses the importance of greener methods of travel and helping Houstonians adopt a more positive attitude toward public transportation. “We should all make a conscious effort to consider other options like walking, biking, or using the Houston METRO system,” Dietze says. “The city is working to improve these alternatives through projects like METRORail expansion and the Houston Bikeway Network, but our support is necessary for any major change to ever happen.”
Stephanie Saint Sanchez
Artist and happily married out lesbian Stephanie Saint Sanchez has been making “queer-tastic” media for as long as she can remember. A media artist, filmmaker, curator, instigator, and vinyl DJ (performing as DJ ESteph), Saint Sanchez has her hand in all aspects of Houston’s queer art scene. The founder of Senorita Cinema, Texas’ first all-Latina film festival, Saint Sanchez has also served as a board member and festival administrator for QFest, Houston’s LGBTQ film festival, since 2012. This year, she’s also working as a coordinator and curator for the Philadelphia-based transgender film festival, Gender Reel, which will be expanding to Houston for the first time in 2015. A former Hatch kid, Saint Sanchez has also volunteered with the group’s Digi-Hatch digital literacy program, working with the youth to create media of their own. “I think artists and entertainers have an opportunity—moreover a responsibility—to empower and help people,” she says. And when artists help others, they should be rewarded with equal respect, Saint Sanchez adds. “As an artist, I believe in a living wage for what we do. And the best way to help with that is, if you are in a position to hire, to treat an artist as you would any other professional who has spent time and money honing a craft, and [provide them with] proper compensation.” In her own artwork, Saint Sanchez is interested in documenting the inspirational lives and stories of our LGBT elders to share with future generations—a project for which she is looking for volunteers and grant writers. When asked who else inspires her, she responds, “As a woman of size, I have always been fascinated and inspired by any big woman that puts herself out there in the public eye, for better or worse—from Big Mama Thorton to Mama Cass, Pat Ast to Liz Torres, Candy Crowley to Melissa MaCarthy. I remember once I had to do an on-camera interview and I was feeling especially nervous and self-conscious thinking about the extra pounds TV always adds, and as I was sitting in the parking lot, the Queen song ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ came on. It’s one of the few fat-positive songs, and I cranked it as I put on a last coat of paint, and it has since become my ‘Eye of the Tiger.’”
Tamira “Augie” Augustine
As an openly lesbian and feminist activist for the past 15 years, Tamira “Augie” Augustine could be described as a Renaissance woman within the LGBT community—she’s always somewhere doing something for the greater good. That work has earned her a nomination for Pride Houston’s 2015 Female Grand Marshal. She’s worked with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Pride Houston, Houston Splash, GLSEN, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Human Rights Campaign, among others. “I don’t want to leave this community, our community, especially LGBT young adults and youth, the way I found it,” Augustine says. “I want them to be empowered, energized, supported, and mentored to be the next leaders of the LGBT movement.” In 2010, her activism work became more concentrated when she founded Epsilon Xi Gamma, Inc., the nation’s first and only Greek order for lesbian and allied collegiate, military, and non-traditional students. With this Greek family, Augustine has since worked with the “We Need You to Survive” project surrounding LGBT incarcerated and homeless youth, the Lesbian Health Initiative (LHI), the T.R.U.T.H. Project (Telling Real Unapologetic Truth through Healing), AIDS Foundation Houston, and more. When her work seems especially tough, Augustine often turns to an Audre Lorde quote for extra motivation: “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” “I fight for youth and this community, because there are still so many factions of it without a voice, who are terrified to speak,” Augustine says. “We cannot afford to leave any faction of our community behind.”
When asked her mantra in life, Laurel Gravesen responds with the words of her role model, the great Ann Richards: “I have very strong feelings about how you live your life. You always look ahead, you never look back.” And just as Richards fought for the representation of all people, not just the privileged few, Gravesen aims to do the same. “[Richards] consistently managed to express herself honestly through her own brand of searing humor and practicality,” she says. “Additionally, her story of recovery and her tenacity resonate with me in my own endeavors.” As the newly appointed director and operations chair for Lambda NextGen, she hopes to expand the group’s already noteworthy network of LGBTA young professionals, as well as provide more lesbian visibility to the group’s leadership alongside Kim Cook and Christin Dietze. Visibility, she notes, is key for the LGBTQ community. “I’ve seen people in my own life that have gone from what I call ‘politely homophobic’ to supporting the advancement of LGBTQ rights and issues because they know and love me,” Gravesen says. “We all can have that sort of impact. We just can’t be quiet.”
Anna Marie Garza
A part-time punk rocker and a full-time feminist and queer activist, Anna Marie Garza is one revolutionary woman. In addition to being the founder and executive director for Girls Rock Camp Houston, a feminist-minded summer music camp for girls ages 8–18, Garza is also the newly-appointed youth services associate for the Montrose Center’s Hatch Youth program. Somehow, Garza also finds spare time to volunteer with numerous grassroots people of color, feminist, and social-justice organizations. “I was born with the desire to help others and to make the world a safe space for all,” she says. As a personal mission, she aims to increase visibility for people of color within and beyond the LGBTQ community, to advocate for reproductive rights, and to raise awareness of violence against transgender people. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also active in the local punk-rock music scene and has played with The Busy Kids, Vivian Pikkles and the Sweethearts Über Alles, and The Ex-Girlfriends. Garza points to another punk musician as her source of inspiration—Kathleen Hanna. “In the ’90s, Kathleen and her band Bikini Kill were credited with co-creating the Riot Grrrl movement,” she says. “They combined feminism with punk rock and made no apologies for demanding respect for women, queers, and feminist issues.”
During the past year, OutSmart has highlighted several other emerging female LGBTQ leaders for their extensive contributions to the community. Make sure to check out their names in our archives: