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Making Art to Make a Change: Championing LGBT Artists Across the Country

Recently, the White House honored nine LGBT Artists who are empowering their communities as Champions of Change

On November 23, the White House honored nine Champions of Change for their use of art to advocate for the LGBT community. The Champions shared their stories about how they use various art media to illuminate the experiences of LGBT Americans and create opportunities for dialogue, inclusion, and understanding.

Through the panel discussions during the day, Champions shed a light on the importance of artists in the fight for equality and in securing real, lasting change in the way that communities accept and understand LGBT people. Whether it was photography, filmmaking, arts education, or curating multicultural arts events, the Champions explained the link between their artistry and truly making a difference in how LGBT people are treated.

The event also featured remarks by Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett and Secretary for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. We were also joined by members of the cast and crew of Amazon Studios’ television series Transparent and Focus Features’ film The Danish Girl, as well as representatives from the Ally Coalition.

The event also marked an important day in the LGBT community, Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was observed on Friday, November 20. Secretary Castro announced a Proposed Rule from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on gender identity and equal access to sex-segregated facilities, including homeless shelters, for transgender and gender nonconforming Americans.

Here are some personal reflections that the Champions shared with us before the event:

Steven Romeo

I got my start as an organizer in my high school years. I worked very closely with a teacher to raise awareness and funds for cancer research with Relay For Life, but what I did not realize is that I would become a progressive organizer and use my talents as a photographer to create change. My first collection, Embody Progress drove me to found The Change Project, and has over 150 images in the collection. It just felt necessary to highlight the voices of southern queers. We get so little recognition for national media, and it is time that people start realizing that LGBTQ people want to thrive here too.  I hope my artwork shows that.

The Change Project recognizes that each person's experiences are uniquely theirs and believes that all people should be able to share their story. The Change Project brings greater visibility to the experiences of all LGBTQ people and raise awareness of the privileges individuals may carry within all aspects of their identities. We also highlight the intersectionality inherent in human identity and demonstrate how understanding this intersectionality is important in order to achieve social equality. By supporting LGBTQ people through highly-visible campaigns, we counteract stigma and prejudice against LGBTQ people. By sharing the stories of individuals of diverse backgrounds, we seek to destabilize the societal obstacles for LGBTQ people of multiple, concomitant identities. Finally, by creating educational resources that are driven by lived experiences, we can create a world where LGBTQ people feel safe and secure.

Steven Romeo is the Founder and Director of The Change Project, founded in 2012.

Lee Levingston

For as long as I can remember, I have been bringing people together. I founded Makers Lab in 2014 because I wanted to build community on a larger scale. Through Makers Lab, I create experiences that celebrate life, art, and queer culture. I am passionate about designing a variety of safe, accessible spaces where queer people can come together to share, connect and celebrate. Makers Lab events include everything from art showcases to film screenings to dance parties. It’s been incredible to connect with other creative to curate events designed by, for, and about queer communities.

It wasn’t until Makers Lab that I began to consider myself an artist, activist, and community builder. This work is so important and I am honored to be recognized as a Champion of Change. I look forward to growing Makers Lab, collaborating with amazing people and creating even more dynamic experiences.

Lee Levingston Perine is the Founder of Makers Lab.

Marco Castro-Bojorquez

I made my new documentary, El canto del colibrí, because of the lack of family acceptance in most marginalized communities. Some families of color lack the resources to understand their children’s journey as they come out of the closet or as they transition. Two completely different experiences that most of the time are lumped together.

I wanted to create a film that reflected the strength and the resiliency of Latino immigrant fathers, their families and their communities. I met amazing people whom without much difficulty, opened their hearts. We certainly were able to perceive their sophisticated and simple approach to parenting—all centered in the love that parent and child have for one another. But a type of love without limits or conditions. They said that what they felt for their children is absolute and it made them a better person. 

There was a lot of heartbreak during the process of making the film. During post-production, I learned that my own father was gravely sick and I had to go to Mexico immediately. He never saw the final product, but I told him about it. I’ll treasure that moment and I’ve dedicated the film to him, Camilo Castro from La Reforma, Sinaloa, Mexico.

Marco Castro-Bojorquez is the Community Educator Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office. Most recently, he directed the documentary El canto del colibrí (The Hummingbird’s Song). @Bojorquez @DelColibri @LambdaLegal

LJ Roberts

When I was 15-years-old— a student at an all-girls boarding school in Maryland, there was an optional field trip to see the AIDS Quilt on the Mall in Washington DC.  It was 1996 and the quilt had gotten so large that this occasion would be the last time the quilt would be laid out in its entirety.  I was the only student who went to see this massive display. The magnitude of the quilt was sobering; so many people had passed away, not only from the biological effects of the virus, but from being denied health care, treatment, and services that would have enabled them to live.  The quilt gave me my first glimpse of queer images, symbols, and vocabulary.

Twenty years later, my work continues to critically engage with urgent issues tied to the ongoing AIDS epidemic.  Currently, I am excited about two projects that are in production.  One is an experimental film titled, “Inflamed: A Litany for Burning Condoms.”  I created this film with Niknaz, an Iranian feminist film maker, and two other collaborators, Chaplain Christopher Jones, and activist Theodore Kerr.  This experimental film, shot on 16mm, is based on a poster made by Jones and Kerr for poster/VIRUS—a project out of Toronto. We hope to show the film at upcoming festivals and gallery exhibitions.  I am also thrilled that I’ll be collaborating with several other artists and activists in conjunction with the organization, Visual AIDS to make a sex positive women-centered safer sex kit as part of their PLAY SMART series.  The kit will be distributed for free as part of the Agitprop! exhibition at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

LJ Roberts is an artist and writer who splits their time between Brooklyn, NY and Joshua Tree, CA.

Fiona Dawson

I'm one of those people who grew up wanting to "save the world." I left my home in England at age 21 to volunteer in Bangladesh and ended up moving to Houston, Texas in 2000. There, I worked in the nonprofit sector helping people living with HIV/AIDS and promoted LGBT causes. In 2012, when I realized that the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" did not allow transgender people to serve openly I was outraged. Many of us had poured our blood, sweat and tears into that work, and yet our mission wasn't complete. It was then I truly came to see the difference between sexual orientation and gender inequality, and I started the TransMilitary project.

Today, as a bisexual woman it's important for me to be visible with my own sexual orientation to help end bi-phobia, but my work is focused on advocating for transgender rights. Through TransMilitary I wish to not only assist in lifting the ban on transgender people serving, but also contribute to changing how people are viewed in general. I believe when we come to know a diversity of mighty soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines honorably serving our country, society can see that they and their civilian counterparts deserve the equal rights and respect they so fiercely protect.

Fiona Dawson is the founder of the TransMilitary project and Director and Producer of “Transgender, at War and in Love,” commissioned by The New York Times 

Jess T. Dugan

For the past decade, I have been making photographs that explore issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and community. I believe deeply in the ability of photography to tell stories, encourage dialogue, and inspire social change. 

For the past two years, I have been traveling throughout the United States making To Survive on this Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender-Variant Older Adults.  This project combines photographs of transgender and gender-variant people over the age of fifty with interviews about their life experiences and provides an intimate view into the complexities of aging as a transgender person. I intentionally seek out subjects whose lived experiences exist within the complex intersections of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and geographic location. Every narrative exemplifies both struggle and joy, often complementary aspects of the same experience. 

For the interviews, I am collaborating with Vanessa Fabbre, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, whose research focuses on the intersection of aging and LGBTQ issues. To date, we have photographed and interviewed 42 people throughout the country and plan to present the project as both a book and a fine art exhibition. 

Jess T. Dugan is a fine art photographer. 

Joanna Hoffman

I’ve been writing poetry from a young age. As I got more involved in the spoken word poetry community, I became increasingly conscious of how being given a microphone in a room full of people, whether at a conference, a performance venue, or a classroom, is an opportunity, a responsibility and a privilege. In my poetry, I’m only qualified to speak about my own experiences as a white, queer, cis-gender woman, and I know that my voice being heard may mean that others aren’t.

When I perform my poems, either as individual pieces or as my one-woman show, The Personal is Political: These Simple Truths, I’m sharing my experiences with internalized homophobia, hate crimes, mental health and substance abuse in the hopes of sparking dialogue and encouraging the audience to write and share their own stories. I love facilitating writing workshops with LGBTQI writers, which I’ve had the honor of doing through the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, and watching how a discussion can lead to artistic creation.

I don’t believe that “it gets better” for everyone. I think it’s up to all of us to make it better by working to create and support truly safe spaces for essential stories to be heard so that people feel less alone in their experiences. It’s my dream to use poetry and performance art as tools to effectively counter bullying in schools, because I believe that art has the potential to inspire empathy, compassion and change.

Joanna Hoffman is an award-winning spoken word poet, author of Running for Trap Doors, and teaching artist living in Brooklyn, New York. She works at non-profit organization Peace is Loud.

Pidgeon Pagonis

My work is rooted in being born intersex and experiencing irreversible non-consensual “normalizing” surgeries. Intersex is an umbrella term for people born with biological sex characteristics that don’t fit neatly into typical binary notions of male or female. The UN recognizes these surgeries as human rights violations, and estimates that between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits. The higher estimate is similar to the amount of red heads which means if you’ve met someone with red hair then you’ve probably met an intersex person as well!

To help create a more just world for intersex people I focus on education, empowerment and organizing. I raise awareness by sharing my experience with media, in print and in presentations. I empower my community by facilitating workshops and hosting online events focused on unleashing participants’ inner storytelling power. I organize global Intersex Awareness Day events and actions and am the former InterACT Youth Coordinator for Advocates for Informed Choice’s leadership program for young intersex advocates.

Pidgeon Pagonis is an intersex person, filmmaker and organizer based in Chicago, Illinois and orchestrated the recent #IntersexStories twitterstorm where they co-launched a ‘We The People’ petition.

AJ King

As a child, I always had a passion for the arts. I remember as a 7-year-old boy, I wanted to star in horror movies when I got older. This passion followed me into my teen years, where I took drama classes, and eventually joined a non-profit theatre and social justice organization called City at Peace. This program opened my eyes and heart around social justice issues, and a passion around not only the arts, but also creating change around LGBTQ issues.

As I was developing the “Breaking Ground” program, I was reflecting on how I could reach out to my LGBTQ youth of color in an artistic way, that way that would also create change. I’ve had years of working with LGBTQ youth of color and their stories needed to be heard! I could no longer sit stagnant as the world ignored the important and unique issues this community dealt with as young people, from HIV/AIDS to homelessness and much more. I also knew these young people needed a platform to tell their stories, and provide a positive resolution. The healing is a necessity!

AJ King is currently the Sexual Wellness Youth Developer at Latin American Youth Center, as well as Vice President of Impulse: DC through the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.