OutSmart’s Top Black LGBTQ Leaders of 2017
By Megan Smith
As Janet Mock, transwoman of color and powerful advocate, stood in front of the hundreds of thousands of women who gathered for the Women’s March on Washington in late January, she proclaimed the following words: “Our movements require us to do more than just show up and say the right words. [They] require us to break out of our comfort zones and be confrontational. [They] require us to defend one another when it is difficult and dangerous. [They] require us to truly see ourselves and one another.”
Houston’s black LGBTQ leaders are doing more than saying the right words. Every day, these inspirational individuals are out in the community fighting for better visibility, access to healthcare, against homelessness, and declaring that Black Lives Matter. As a way of honoring these champions, we reached out to the community for nominations of those making an exceptional impact in 2017. Below is just a sampling.
Malachi “Ki” Lee
Malachi “Ki” Lee knows he is just a small part of the greater universe that surrounds him. That’s why his idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day date is a hot-air balloon ride to see the vast Earth below, followed by walking barefoot on land “to feel what we are a part of.” Although he’s a self-identified “newbie” to civil-rights activism, Lee is already a big part of his community here in Houston. He has already volunteered with the ACLU, participated in the Equality Matters Marriage Rally and Day of Love Marriage Protest, was featured in Equality Texas’ Transvisible Project, and was recently cast in a documentary entitled c r e a t i n g s p a c e by the local queer people of color art collective HTX People Project. When asked what inspires him to do this work, Lee responds with “freedom.” “Freedom connects and revives every living being, removing blockages, repression, and most of all, fear,” he says. “People of color have been suffering and have been treated as ‘lesser than’ in this country. Things are reverting back to physical violence to instill fear in our community and prevent a unified country. I know people are tired of hearing about this topic—just as much as we are tired of the deaths of our transwomen of color, brutality toward African-American men and women, and injustice toward women in general. If you want to help and get involved, educate yourself on the current topics, participate in community rallies and nonprofit events to find out what is going on in the community, and volunteer. I believe ignorance is housed in a closed mouth, so speak up and ask!”
Joy Hawkins and Kendra Walker
Tired of seeing the lesbian-women-of-color community underrepresented and ignored, Joy Hawkins and Kendra Walker decided to take action. Four years ago, the two women founded Lesbians of Color, Inc., with the mission of creating a positive, safe place to bring diverse, progressive queer minority women together to have fun, inspire each other, and improve the community. Since then, the group has raised funds for numerous charities such as Be a Resource for CPS Kids (BEAR), The T.R.U.T.H. Project, Big-Up Youth Houston, Toiletries for Families, Epsilon Xi Gamma’s LYFE Project serving homeless LGBT youth, and the Ronald McDonald House. “We strive to give a voice and visibility to our community,” they say. “In order to breed success among the younger queer generation, it is imperative that positive images and activities are curated.” The duo also advocates for the issue they feel is presently most pertinent to their community—mental health. “Our community has a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, drug and alcohol dependence, as well as self-injury,” they explain. “We also experience higher rates of discrimination, violence, hate crimes, and domestic abuse, leading to higher stress levels. Simply discussing these issues among friends and within support groups gives people confidence to address these subjects. Always remember to take care of yourself and have fun.” As for their idea of Valentine’s Day fun, Hawkins loves the idea of a whimsical trip out of town. “You can never go wrong with a little fun in the sun with the person you adore!” she exclaims. Walker agrees: “If I had to plan my dream date, it would be a gondola ride with my girlfriend, Thasia, on the waterways of Venice. What a perfect romantic escape!”
Openly gay Houstonian Daryl Shorter also dreams of a romantic rendezvous this Valentine’s Day—one that would “stretch over a week rather than one day, involve international travel, a beach, and lots of sun!” But as a psychiatrist, Shorter isn’t just passionate about romantic getaways—he cares deeply about the mental health and wellness of his fellow LGBTQ community members. That’s why Shorter currently serves on the board of directors for the Montrose Center in addition to volunteering as a yoga instructor for the Center’s wellness program. “I believe that folks in the LGBTQ community—because of our collective experiences with religious abuse, homophobia/transphobia, discrimination across multiple spheres, and microaggressions and traumas—are especially in need of support, safe spaces to come together to create community, and in some instances, actual mental-health treatment,” Shorter says. “The Montrose Center provides all of these things and more, which is why I volunteer with the organization.” His activism also extends into his work in the medical field, where Shorter teaches medical students and residents about human sexuality, lecturing on topics specifically related to the LGBTQ community and how physicians can provide culturally competent care to people of diverse backgrounds.
For her dream Valentine’s Day, proud lesbian Trilena Amos imagines a trip with her partner to an isolated island, free from the stress of modern technology. There, they would walk on the beach and treat themselves to a fine meal of champagne and lobster. But back in reality, Amos is an avid warrior for LGBT healthcare access. For the past four years, she’s been a part of the team at Legacy Community Health, providing education, assistance, and health-insurance enrollment for ACA Marketplace consumers. She also serves on the board of the Lesbian Health Initiative, helping to eliminate barriers to healthcare for LGBT women and transmen. “As a conscientious listener, the most important issue in my community now is removing the barriers to accessing healthcare, which includes removing the stigma of mental illness, prejudice, and discrimination for those who identify as being LGBTQ,” she says. “My advice for those who want to help or get involved is to be true to the core of who you are. Find out what you are passionate about, volunteer your time, donate money, look for local events that inspire you, and join.”
Ashton P. Woods
“I hate injustice of any kind,” says Ashton P. Woods, co-founder and lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston. “I honestly have no clue where I got that from. I love helping other people, and their relief is what inspires me. The idea of liberation inspires me even more.” His help hasn’t gone unnoticed. Over the past year, Woods has been appointed co-chair of the Black Humanist Alliance under the American Humanist Association, and as a member of Mayor Turner’s LGBT Advisory Board, among other local, state, and national projects. He also runs a blog called “Strength in Numbers” and a project by the same name that focuses on issues pertinent to the black LGBT community. When asked about the issue that’s most important to his community right now, Woods responds, “There are several, but the issue of anti-blackness is one that comes to mind. My advice to anyone wanting to get involved is to find out where they best fit, and what dismantling anti-blackness looks like to them. Get in touch with the folks on the ground and ask for guidance.” Woods, who identifies as same-gender loving, also revealed his perfect Valentine’s Day date: “It would be a night out at the movies, followed by a tour of food trucks and listening to live music at a nice park with good conversation, and end with drinks at a local bar.”
“My passion stems from my own lived experience as a formerly homeless young black trans woman engaged in survival-sex work,” explains Phoebe VanCleefe. It was during this part of her life, she says, that she realized no one was out there advocating for people like her. “[That] caused me to realize that only I could own and utilize my story,” she says. Since then, VanCleefe has been honored by the True Colors Fund for her work surrounding LGBT homelessness. She also serves as an executive committee member with the National Youth Forum on Homelessness, is a trans youth ambassador for Greater Than AIDS, and is an assistant organizer for Saving Our Sisters, an initiative for trans and cisgender women of color to engage in HIV prevention and awareness. Additionally, she advocates for the improvement of “intrusive, triggering, and non-affirming” services for transwomen. As for Valentine’s Day, she likes to keep things simple. “I’d like to catch a good movie,” VanCleefe says.
An innate lover of nature, Robert Ross imagines a private dinner in a secluded garden or on the beach for his ideal Valentine’s Day date. “There is something about nature that feels very spiritual and calming to me,” he says. “I’d consider it the perfect setting for relaxed and intimate conversation.” By “divine order,” Ross also found his perfect career path as the new media representative for the Houston Health Department’s Bureau of HIV/STD Prevention. In this role, Ross works on Houston-specific campaigns to promote PrEP and HIV care re-engagement. Previously, Ross spent 10 years as the public-relations manager for The Ensemble Theatre, and helped establish OUT at The Ensemble, a special LGBTQ-focused mixer that celebrates the theater’s diverse audiences. And for the past five years, Ross has served as a board member for The T.R.U.T.H. Project, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and mobilizing LGBTQ communities of color and their allies through social arts that promote mental, emotional, and sexual health. “It’s been a wonderful marriage between my interests in the arts and in health,” he says. “My inspiration comes from my desire to connect with people,” Ross continues. “I observe, listen, and try to use the skills or resources I have to help solve problems. My parents set an example for me growing up. They were always doing things to help others, be it a family member, a friend, or a neighbor. They weren’t involved in any major organizations; they just did what they could right in their own community. My advice to anyone who wants to get involved in the community is to choose something you are passionate about and connect with an organization where you can invest your time, skills, and resources.”
When out lesbian Tiffany Scales says she lives a life of service, she’s not exaggerating. Seven years ago, Scales founded Toiletries for Families, an organization dedicated to providing personal-hygiene items to impoverished families and individuals. She’s also CEO of The Arts Advocate, works in artist development and marketing for C5 productions and JPM, is a spoken-word artist for The T.R.U.T.H. Project and The Shout, and has volunteered for the past 13 years with St. John’s United Methodist Church’s homeless-outreach and youth programs. “My mother has news articles of me at three years of age volunteering,” Scales says. “I am passionate about serving my community and enjoy enriching lives through poetry and the art showcases in which I am involved. [Art] is underestimated. I am grateful to provide platforms for artists, as well as safe spaces for aesthetes and those interested in what art is capable of doing.” But sometimes, Scales would just like to get away. “I’d love to open a card with a plane ticket inside for a weekend [Valentine’s Day getaway],” she says.
Graham Maio may not have a dream Valentine’s Day date lined up, but he does have passion. Maio is a 2015 graduate of the Positive Organizing Project, an HIV/AIDS advocacy training program founded by his mentor, Venita Ray. He’s also a brother of Delta Phi Upsilon, a community-service fraternity composed of gay, bisexual, and queer African-American men. “Through these two organizations, I focus on HIV/AIDS awareness, including unjust HIV criminalization laws,” Maio explains. “I had a chance to present an art-advocacy event at TSU focusing on HIV/AIDS specifically in the gay black community. For this event, I wrote, directed, and acted in a play detailing the story of Michael Johnson, a young gay black college student from Missouri who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for being HIV-positive—which is a health status, and not a crime.” Maio encourages others to find the advocacy path that best suits their interests and needs. “Not everyone needs to be in front of a camera,” he says. “Don’t be afraid!”
Dr. Keith Clarke and Dexter Williams
Houston gay couple Dr. Keith Clarke and Dexter Williams know about love. That’s why their ideal Valentine’s Day would be spent under a canopy with a breathtaking view. “Just me, my love, and a promise to love,” they say. But for the LGBT community—especially for LGBT people of color—they know that there isn’t enough love. That’s why they started the Keith and Dexter Community Picnic five years ago so that people could come together to build community, have fun, and raise money for nonprofit organizations. “Our goal is to provide a space for people in our community to let their hair down and hula-hoop, pick a team for our provocative relay races, or participate in our design-it-and-wear-it fashion show,” Clarke and Williams say. “There is something for everyone. At our community picnic, everyone is made to feel special, whether you are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or an ally. Because to us, you are special!”
When Nishia Jackson came out as a lesbian in the late ’90s, she had a difficult time finding resources within her community for LGBT women. “Because of this, I’ve always tried to do my part in either providing resources or pointing individuals in the right direction to gain knowledge as it relates to their needs,” she explains. That’s one of the main reasons Jackson helped found Krave, a series of Pride events for women held every Memorial Day weekend. But she didn’t stop there. As an extension of Krave, Jackson (who is a degreed counselor) and her business partner, Queen, started Krave Cares to offer counseling services, home-buying advice, résumé-writing tips, interview training, and more to those in the urban community. “One of the most important needs in my community is the lack of leadership/mentor programs for youth who are just coming out and are in need of positive role models and guidance,” Jackson says. “In order for our youth to eventually become leaders, they must first be properly led.” Jackson’s perfect Valentine’s Day would take place in a nice hotel, with she and her partner having a fine dinner prepared by a private chef, followed by deep-tissue massages for dessert.
A little breakfast on the beach is what openly gay Houstonian Rhys Caraway wishes for this Valentine’s Day. Every day, however, he wishes for growth and progress in his community. That’s why he’s both a brother of Delta Phi Upsilon—a fraternity composed of gay, bisexual, and queer African-American men—and a Black Lives Matter Houston advocate. “The need to strengthen those like me, and the numerous intersections that we [experience], encourages me to do the work,” Caraway says. “I don’t believe that one issue should take precedence over another. As long as [it’s an issue] affecting our community members in a negative way, it’s important.”
Read our Top Black LGBTQ Leaders of 2015 and 2016.
Megan Smith is the assistant editor and web editor for OutSmart magazine.