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Pride in Our People: Profiles in Local LGBTQ Activism - LA Weekly

It's hard to believe that the Stonewall Riots in New York City, an event that most mark as the birth of the gay rights movement, was only 50 years ago. The year after Stonewall, the first L.A. Pride celebration took place, helping to solidify the fight for equality that had been brewing even before that, when the L.A. gay community protested the police raid at queer hangout the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake on New Year's Eve, 1967. The LGBTQ community of Los Angeles has always been strong, vigilant and outspoken, and as the city continues to diversify and grow, so too does the gay community.

As a gay man myself and the writer of L.A. Weekly's LGBTQ column “Time For Tea,” I can't begin to express how proud I am of our L.A. LGBTQ community. There are many LGBTQ people throughout the city who are working for change in their respective fields and with their specific talents. Whether these people are making contributions to the greater LGBTQ community in religion, politics, community, trans rights, entertainment or art, they are promoting tolerance, representation and acceptance in their own unique ways. And these people aren't all rich and famous, either. In addition to those with large platforms, there are everyday people making huge contributions to LGBTQ life in L.A.

In the spirit of this year's LA Pride, L.A. Weekly spotlights local figures who are truly making a difference for the betterment of Los Angeles' LGBTQ community. Of course, there are, thankfully, countless people doing so each day, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. Pride isn't just about celebrating who we are as individuals, it's about doing so for our whole community, who are facing the same challenges and prejudices — but fighting to overcome for all of us. Here, we present a few noteworthy citizens from different cultural spheres who have done so and created change in the process.

RELIGION

The LGBTQ community has always had a strained relationship with religion, especially the religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Of course, there's that infamous Leviticus verse from the Old Testament about men lying with other men being an abomination. Many religious conservatives have used these ancient biblical passages as a license to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, when in reality, they're picking and choosing what to follow. The Bible also “commands” not to eat shellfish (Leviticus 11: 9-10) and to kill anyone who disobeys their parents (Exodus 21:17) or any woman who loses her virginity before marriage (Deuteronomy 22: 20-21).

Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or; Credit: Jordan Ring

Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or; Credit: Jordan Ring

Religion has been used as a guise for prejudice for centuries, but thankfully, we have LGBTQ religious leaders throughout Los Angeles who preach love and tolerance, rather than hate. Like Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, who identifies as genderqueer, and serves as the director of JQ International Helpline and Inclusion Services, the premiere LGBTQ Jewish organization in L.A. “At JQ, we celebrate the lives of LGBTQ+ Jews by helping Jewish communities embrace us for who we are and what we need and want,” says Rabbi RBO. “We do this by providing LGBTQ+ education, inclusive resources, support and community building events. If I had stopped to envision my ideal organization, it would have been JQ. Being a queer rabbi adds even more meaning for me. I can bring all parts of me to JQ.”

Specifically, Rabbi RBO contributes to the L.A. LGBTQ community by answering JQ Helpline calls, teaching inclusion trainings and providing speakers to Jewish organizations. Rabbi RBO also has a valid and more contemporary interpretation of those Leviticus chapters. “These, as well as most commandments in the Hebrew Torah, are aimed at teaching the Israelites not to behave in the unholy ways of the pagans and have nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ relationships we are building today in our community,” Rabbi RBO says, adding that “people are willing to disobey the commandments that say to open their hearts to all people so they won't have to question their own personal prejudices.”

Credit: Courtesy of Maya Jafer

Credit: Courtesy of Maya Jafer

Moving from Judaism to Islam, Maya Jafer's story illustrates the nuances that lie between religious and sexual identity. Born to a religious Muslim family in India, she was assigned the male gender at birth. But when she came to the US in 2000 for her second doctorate in natural medicine, she began to struggle with her identity and even tried to commit suicide twice. After joining a support group and seeing a psychologist, she finally began her physical transition in 2009 and two years later had her gender confirmation surgery in Thailand. Right before, a UCLA student had reached out about filming the process for a documentary short called Rites of Passage, which was eventually turned into a full length documentary feature called Mohammed To Maya (Mohammed was Maya's birth name).

“Through the documentary, I realized very quickly that this is not just about my transition; it is about the plight of transgender people around the world, about how marginalized they are — especially people in the Muslim community, both in the United States and all over the world,” says Jafer, who adds that if she had transitioned in India, her own family could have arranged to have her killed as an “honor killing.”

Her family has since disowned her, but despite this, she is still connected to Islam. “Islam is a religion of peace without a doubt, but it is abused by the wrong people. Terrorism is not part of Islam, anyone who hurts anyone else is not a Muslim anymore, that is not part of Islam,” says the skilled Bollywood dancer and actress, who can be seen in Amazon's Transparent. “I had to reestablish my relationship with God. I am a spiritual Muslim and I do continue to practice. I pray to my Allah everyday, but I'm not a religious Muslim at all. In Islam, there's the religious type and the Sufi. The Sufism is the spiritual aspect of Islam.”

Jafer's hopes that by putting her story out there, other trans Muslims will also be inspired to accept themselves for who they are, explaining, “The intention was to bring about awareness of our transgender people and thereby hopefully bring about equality.”

POLITICS

With the Trump administration and the new wave of conservatism spreading across not only the country but the world, the LGBTQ community is under attack, and the progress we've made is being threatened like never before. Legislative leaders, both local and national, are working to protect our existing rights and to gain new ones as well (it is still legal to get fired from your job or denied housing just because you're LGBTQ). These are some of the Angelenos devoting themselves to the political fight.

Maebe A. Girl; Credit: Chloe Sprague

Maebe A. Girl; Credit: Chloe Sprague

Maebe A. Girl (aka Georgie Pudlo) is the first drag queen elected to public office in California. “When the current administration entered office, I, along with many others, was extremely disheartened and started making my drag performances more political — often incorporating political satire and critique,” says Pudlo. “I decided the best way I can help my community, especially the LGBTQ community, was to run for office and represent. LGBTQ representation and visibility are essential.” The name “Maebe A. Girl” appeared on the ballot and the performer also comes in full drag to all of her meetings and public events as a seat holder on for Region 5 of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council.

“I decided to run as a drag queen because I feel like I have a more powerful voice when in drag,” says Maebe, who is in the process of forming a committee for the council focused on LGBTQ-related issues, including safety, inclusivity, resources and outreach. “For me, dressing up and being feminine is a part of my gender identity. I identify on the trans spectrum as being genderfluid, so Maebe is a part of my identity, not just a costume.”

Fullerton City Councilman Ahmad Zahra did not enter the political sphere until recently. Originally a doctor in Syria before coming to the U.S. to pursue his dream of being a filmmaker, Zahra first ran for office in December 2018. He is the first gay person elected in Fullerton and the first LGBTQ Muslim elected in the U.S.

Ahmad Zahra; Credit: Adam Rogers

Ahmad Zahra; Credit: Adam Rogers

“I'm more aware of the specific issues that affect both [the Muslim and LGBTQ] communities, especially since I've experienced these issues myself,” says Zahra. “This allows me to bring specific policy ideas that could hopefully help address these issues. I'm also an immigrant and have a bicultural Syrian-Mexican family which gives me a broad sense of understanding of the struggles of immigrants and minority communities in our country.”

Zahra has already brought about change to Fullerton. He just participated in a ceremony where the city flew the Pride flag for the first time ever, and he's also set up meetings for the city manager, chief of police and other staff with the director of policy at the LGBT Center OC to offer sensitivity training for city staff and to improve public safety in the city. “Flying the Pride Flag in Fullerton, knowing the history of the city from the days of John Briggs [who sponsored a proposition in 1978 that attempted to remove all LGBTQ employees and their allies from their jobs], was crucial for me,” says Zahra. “We are a diverse city and we need to embrace this diversity in a positive way. [The flag will] will fly annually from Harvey Milk Day [on May 22] through Pride Month.”


COMMUNITY

Those who bring the gay community together socially have as much impact as political figures in terms of improving the visibility and viability of the equality message. Whether it's running nightlife spots or organizing large community events like Pride celebrations, street fairs or festivals, these people are using their ties to the community to improve the lives of L.A.'s LGBTQ population.

Andres Rigal; Credit: Davide Laffe

Andres Rigal; Credit: Davide Laffe

Andres Rigal is a producer of queer nightlife who's helped throw some of the biggest LGBTQ events around the city. His outdoor water park event, SummerTramp, enters its ninth year this Sunday, June 2, at The Escondite Bar downtown. Rigal, along with co-producer Ollywood, is also behind the EVITA party every Friday night in WeHo, which has showcased many RuPaul's Drag Race queens. And perhaps most importantly, Rigal is the co-founder, creative director and a board member of DTLA Proud, downtown's annual Pride celebration that's held in August. He also has a new DTLA space, French Exit & Bar Menagerie, due to open in late 2020.

“As a producer of queer nightlife, I feel that it is my responsibly to create content that not only entertains, but more importantly, connects and elevates the community at large,” says Rigal. “It has always been my objective to create compelling and creative brands that we as a community can build out and grow together.”

Organizing events such as the Venice Pride Sign Lighting & Block Party on Saturday, June 1, as well as public art installations like the Venice Pride Flag Lifeguard Tower, executive director Grant Turck is spreading LGBTQ pride to the Westside full force.

“As the first Pride celebration west of the 405, it's super fulfilling to see other pride groups pop-up like Santa Monica Pride and Pride on the Port,” Turck says. This year, Venice Pride will also feature “Stonewall On the Street” which will turn a parking lot into a beer garden, and he's added a little color to the neighborhood too, right in front of the resurrected LGBTQ bar Roosterfish.

Grant Turck; Credit: Michael Fossier

Grant Turck; Credit: Michael Fossier

“We couldn't be more proud to announce that on Friday, June 28, the 50th anniversary to the day of the Stonewall Uprising … we will be unveiling the new Rainbow Crosswalk at Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Cadiz Court,” says Turck. “The crosswalk is modeled after the rainbow crosswalks in the Castro.”

Moving from Venice to Silver Lake, married couple Charlie Matula and Hunter Fox continue to keep their ties to the S.L. community leather-bound strong. The owners of gay fetish bar The Eagle created the Off Sunset Festival in 2013, with a mission that reads, “We spend time in this incredible section of Los Angeles and we want to give back. It is our goal to support beautification, art and youth programs with an emphasis on the LGBT community.”

Charlie Matula and Hunter Fox; Credit: Jay PG Photography

Charlie Matula and Hunter Fox; Credit: Jay PG Photography

Matula echoes these sentiments. “Eagle LA is not just another leather bar. It also has a very neighborhood–bar vibe, as well as [being] an events gathering place for the LGBTQ community,” he says. “The Off Sunset Festival is a means to take that to a much higher level by recognizing and celebrating our LGBTQ history, the progress we have made and the future that lies before us.”

Phill Wilson; Credit: L.A. Pride

Phill Wilson; Credit: L.A. Pride

And can't talk about community contributions without a nod to the community grand marshal of this year's LA Pride parade, Phill Wilson. And LA-based activist whose career began after he and his partner were diagnosed with AIDS in the early '80s, Wilson has served as the director of policy and planning for the AIDS Project, AIDS coordinator for Los Angeles, co-chair of the Los Angeles HIV Health Commission and a member of the Health Resources and Services Administration AIDS Advisory Committee. He founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999 and was appointed to President Obama's advisory council on HIV/AIDS.

“I am honored to be a part of this year's Pride celebration. The LGBTQI community has come a long way in the last 50 years. It has not been without heartache, pain, sacrifice and growth,” Wilson said in a statement. “I am humbled to be among such a powerful and diverse group of grand marshals. Together we represent how much stronger we are when we celebrate all of what we are.”


TRANS RIGHTS

While the LGBTQ community as a whole has made some noteworthy progress in recent years, the trans community specifically is perhaps the most marginalized and at risk still. Thankfully, activists like the ones below are leading the charge for change.

Allison VanKuiken; Credit: Megan VanKuiken

Allison VanKuiken; Credit: Megan VanKuiken

Allison VanKuiken has done a lot for the L.A. trans community as executive director of Trans Can Work, whose mission is to advance workplace inclusion for trans people through training strategies and workforce development. “In 2017, the Williams Institute did a study that revealed 27 percent of California youth between the ages of 11-17 identify in the 'grey space' of gender,” says VanKuiken. “We need more gender variant folks in the workforce helping lay the groundwork for our changing society. Trans Can Work is doing that work now.”

One of VanKuiken's highlights in her role was a career fair in partnership with St. John's Well Child & Family Center, which helped bring together over 70 inclusive employers with over 600 transgender job seekers.”We have an amazing team with big hearts, who love the work,” says VanKuiken. “From this, we've been able to develop a model jobs program that is helping people, that is ready to grow. And [with] that, we will be able to set even more people up for success.”

Similarly, Ashlee Marie Preston is a leading trans activist in Los Angeles. Formerly homeless, she rose to become the first trans person to be named editor-in-chief of a publication, for Wear Your Voice magazine. She's served in the Transgender Service Provider Network of Los Angeles, as well as chair of communications and media sponsorship for LA Pride and as a community outreach member with the Human Rights Campaign. Preston also worked on the advocacy for the #ThriveOver35 campaign, which calls into attention the average lifespan of black trans women in the U.S.

Ashlee Marie Preston; Credit: Courtesy of Ashlee Marie Preston

Ashlee Marie Preston; Credit: Courtesy of Ashlee Marie Preston

A powerful voice for equality via appearances and her Twitter account, her latest pinned tweet reads: “Thank you to the millions of everyday Americans who support a trans person's basic human right to access safe housing despite HUD & Trump's attempt to block that.”


ENTERTAINMENT

The LGBTQ community has not seen itself reflected on mainstream television networks or in blockbuster movies as much as we'd like, but things are changing. The tired stereotypes are fewer these days, and thanks to the rise of streaming services more diverse people are making more content. More valuable and positive representation is out there thanks, in part, to the following figures.

One can't properly discuss LGBTQ representation in entertainment today without discussing RuPaul's Drag Race and the three gay men behind it: RuPaul of course, and Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, executive producers and co-founders of World of Wonder, the production company behind the show and the recent DragCon. RuPaul has been fighting the fight against intolerance and has been preaching for love and acceptance on a national scale since the '90s; 25 years later, his hit show features the most LGBTQ figures on screen at any one time, sometimes upwards of 14 or 15. The show does a fantastic job at telling their stories, humanizing the gay men's plights, such as child abandonment and body image issues. “Drag is all about constructing an identity, about making fun of popular culture while also celebrating it. You only have to look at the current political climate with its ethos of hate and fear and building walls, and Drag Race and DragCon almost by definition are the exact opposite of that,” says Bailey. “It's about inclusiveness. I think Drag Race and DragCon have become for many people the sharp end of resistance.”

RuPaul; Credit: The MacFarlanes

RuPaul; Credit: The MacFarlanes

Much like Drag Race, actress Alexandra Billings has used both her work and her personal voice to advance the LGBTQ community, particularly trans people and those who are HIV positive. “I am a 57-year-old, mixed-race, transgender, queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian, recovering addict [and] former [female] sex worker living with AIDS, who loves Lucy and Judy and chocolate cake,” Billings says. “I am also an American citizen.” Most known for her role as Davina on Transparent, Billings was the second openly transgender woman to play a transgender character on television.

“When I was 16 years old, I sat in the edge of my bed with a fistful of pills I took from my mother's medicine cabinet. I assumed I was crazy, that the voices in my head were never going to leave and that I was the only one of my tribe,” says Billings, who recounts seeing trans guests on Phil Donahue as a turning point. “So I sat there, pills in hand, and pointed to the TV and said out loud to the universe, 'Oh. There I am.' It was the first time I had seen myself and it saved me.”

Alexandra Billings; Credit: Courtesy Alexandra Billings

Alexandra Billings; Credit: Courtesy Alexandra Billings

Anyone who thinks representation in media doesn't matter should look no further. Billings become a vocal activist for trans and HIV issues and was awarded the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award in 2016. “My job on the planet is to remain in service of others,” she says proudly.

Thanks to the cast and creators of Pose (which premieres it second season on FX June 11), LGBTQ representation has hit an all-time high. The show follows the lives of fictional characters within the New York City ball scene of the late '80s/early '90s. I called it the most groundbreaking LGBTQ show ever last year during its first season.

Pose; Credit: FX

Pose; Credit: FX

It made history by featuring the largest number of openly trans actors in lead roles ever in a TV series: Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Candy (Angelica Ross) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar)- and openly gay characters and actor of color, including Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain). The show also has openly trans directors, producers and writers like Janet Mock, Our Lady J and co-creator Ryan Murphy, who portrays complex LGBTQ characters in all his work, from American Horror Story to Glee.

Linda Perry; Credit: Lina Lecaro

Linda Perry; Credit: Lina Lecaro

Pose's other creator is queer, Afro-Latinx Steven Canals, who moved to L.A. from New York seven years ago. “Historically, we've not seen TV shows portray LGBTQ people positively. We're the sassy friend, the fetish, the punch line or the victim. What is the message being sent when that is the depiction of our lives?” Canals says. “Pose is an authentic portrayal of Black and Latinx queer and trans people. It is a celebration of life — a show about family, resilience and love. Pose is a reminder that we are all so much more alike than we are different, and we all want similar things: to be accepted, to be embraced, to be loved, to be affirmed.”

When it comes to representation in the entertainment world, music may be as important as film and TV, singer/songwriter Linda Perry is one of our most influential L.A.-based figures. The part-Brazilian and out lesbian first gained fame as the front woman to the band 4 Non Blondes before going on to a stellar career as a songwriter, writing hits for Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful”), P!nk (“Get the Party Started”) and Gwen Stefani (“What You Waiting For?”). Aside from music, Perry has worked for the betterment of the LGBTQ community as well, including working with the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center on its “An Evening with Women” event to raise money for programs and services for women at the center.


ART

From Andy Warhol to David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe to Mickalene Thomas, the LGBTQ community has always played an important role in the world of art. Los Angeles' LGBTQ community is no different, with many artists achieving significant milestones in LGBTQ representation.

Credit: Courtesy Austin Young

Credit: Courtesy Austin Young

Viewed by many as the number one drag photographer in Los Angeles, Austin Young's ability to stretch the boundaries of gender and bring out the glamorous side and inner beauty for women and LGBTQ people has not only made him a sought-after photographer for performers, but for many celebrities as well, including Deborah Harry and Margaret Cho.

He has said that his art reconstructs tropes of pop art and pop culture into alarmingly brilliant new icons. In fact, his project “Your Face Here” found everyday people purchasing a portrait that Austin transformed into a glamour shot with makeup and good lighting. Similarly, his project “Tranimal” transforms people from all walks of life into “tranimals,” weird drag-meets-monster–minded living art. “What makes the project is a desire to create. We are artists and we live to make art. Tranimal is chaotic freedom of expression,” says Austin. “Tranimal is an adjective that describes an energy of the people — who are there and the way we come together.”

Sina Grace; Credit: Lauren Renner

Sina Grace; Credit: Lauren Renner

Sina Grace is also making similar waves for LGBTQ representation in his medium: comic books. At Marvel Comics, he wrote three volumes of Iceman, following the character as he comes out to his folks and gets his sea legs with gay dating, all while battling bad guys like the Juggernaut and Mr. Sinister. He also created the first drag queen superhero in the Marvel Comics universe, Darkveil.

“Comic books, in my opinion, make for the best gateway drug to literacy and for teaching complex moral lessons to young kids,” says Grace, who is openly gay and was born and raised in Santa Monica. “So many mainstream comic books are about characters grappling with secret identities…[but] we're in an age where having explicit text is preferred. Let's be honest, how many cis straight white men do you see tucking their junk into brightly colored tights to then hit the streets and fight for what is just? Even the most iconic image of Captain America punching Hitler speaks to the notion of fighting for marginalized groups — in cute clothes with clutch accessories to match. That's pretty gay.”

L.A. Pride Week
begins Fri., May 31 and runs through next weekend. Festivities in West Hollywood, including the Pride Music Festival at West Hollywood Park and the Pride Parade on Santa Monica Blvd., run Sat., June 8-Sun., June 9. More info at lapride.org.


More Pride 2019-related stories:

The Open Road: 30 Fearless Years at Highways Performance Space
Troye Sivan Brings Go West Fest to LA Pride
Video Tour: Lance Bass Takes Pride in Rocco's WeHo