However, queer youth continue to attempt (and unfortunately, succeed at) suicide, and many teens are at risk for drugs and/or alcohol abuse. There are staggering HIV rates in the African-American and gay communities. Issues of hate-crime violence toward LGBTQ folks continue to make headlines. Despite greater acceptance, many queer individuals have had to develop considerable resilience over the years.
Living in a tolerant city as large as Philadelphia, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that individuals growing up in small towns or rural communities do not have visible gay role models. But even LGBTQ youth struggling to come out in the Philadelphia suburbs or New Jersey can have trouble finding a mentor or someone to talk to about being different.
In recent interviews with folks ranging from Kelby in the film “Bully” to Lance Bass, I heard the refrain that, had folks known more out and proud gay people, their journey to self-acceptance would have been easier.
So who do people in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community look up to and why? I asked 12 people who inspires them. The responses I received ranged from the personal to the professional to the political.
Adrienne N. Williams, co-founder of Elements Organization, found her role model, Audre Lorde, when she was introduced to the writer/activist’s work at age 12. She effused, “I absorbed her poetry like a sponge, and admired the way she stood by her convictions as a self-proclaimed ‘black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior.’
“She was my first role model because she was an activist, educated, artistic woman and I could see myself in her. Learning that it is OK to live authentically is a freedom some many people in the world will never experience as they seek to conform, and Lorde taught me just how boring uniformity truly is.”
Now a dual master’s degree student at Widener University studying human sexuality education and social work, Williams has incorporated the life and work of Lorde in her own life and continues to honor her legacy as a self-identified queer woman of color.
Likewise, when performer, theater technician and model Alia Hatch came out 11 years ago, she had a number of influential black artists in her life. But very few of them were out lesbians. Luckily, she recalls, “I had the good fortune of meeting Aishah Shahidah Simmons. A dynamic filmmaker, activist and cultural worker, she showed me what it was to be a proud, powerful African-American feminist lesbian artist, and she used her art to create social change. Her presence and influence gave me hope that one day I too would be able to artistically contribute to the world around me and be my full, true self.”
Visual artist and educator Gabriel Martinez sees writer-activist and provocateur Larry Kramer as his hero. “Although he’s been criticized for his outspoken and controversial perspectives on the gay community, no one has ever fought so consistently and vehemently for our rights and well-being,” he said.
“Kramer is the co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the impetus for the formation of ACT-UP. I truly believe that the fury and rage demonstrated within his written works and political activism stem from the deepest sense of love and compassion for his community. His words illicit strong reactions and he has angered me in the past, but as I get older I realize the truth to his sentiment. Our younger generation has much to learn from him. We can all use a healthy dose of his brazen call to arms during this era of complacency and pride in assimilation.”
Joe Ippolito, a psychologist, filmmaker and trans activist who has been fighting for LGBTQ rights for close to 20 years, said he’s had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people along the way. “In some respects, I have dozens of trans-identified role models, but if I had to choose two, those two people would have to be Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Jamison Green.
“I have known Miss Major for close to 10 years and continue to find myself mesmerized by her passion for trans activism and people. Miss Major, who is almost 70, has spent the past 40 years, since Stonewall, advocating for the lives of trans people, regardless of their age, gender, race, culture or class. She is extremely smart and highly compassionate. The work she does for our community far exceeds most people’s expectations.”
Of his second role model, Green, Ippolito said that, in the 10 years that he’s know him, he finds himself “continuously amazed by his intelligence, dedication and love for the trans movement.”
“Jamison is an amazing writer, an awesome advocate and a wonderful friend. In my opinion, the primary reason Major and Green stand out from all the rest is their unique ability to advocate hard for an issue, for example, but do so in a diplomatic, professional and transgressive manner. Their ability to do this is uncanny, and that is what I appreciate most about them.”
Elisabeth Flynn, senior communications manager at Mazzoni Center, is a big reader, so nearly everyone who came to mind for her was a writer. But she said her role model is Alison Bechdel, author of “Dykes to Watch Out For,” “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?”
“Bechdel is working in a somewhat underappreciated medium [first comic strips, now graphic novels] and has managed to do what I think all great art does, which is to take a very personal and specific subject and transform it into something universal about the human experience. If you’ve read her book ‘Fun Home,’ you know that it’s unflinching, courageous, deeply sad and beautiful all at once. And it has the power to speak to anyone who picks it up about the nature of family, identity and truth. She went from having a small but dedicated following for years to suddenly reaching a very wide audience with that book, but she’s done it on her own terms, through a tremendous dedication to authenticity and craft. I really admire that, and I think it can apply regardless of what your particular calling or profession is. It seems like a worthwhile approach to life.”
Stephanie Haynes, community coordinator for Philadelphia Family Pride and board member of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, named a more personal mentor. “I came out at the University of Miami in 1990, at a time when the only out lesbian I knew of was Martina Navratilova. When I overheard a student talking about going to play softball with a group of women, I invited myself along, and went from knowing zero to 15 lesbians in a day. The woman who came to be my lesbian ‘mom’ shortly thereafter was Martha Fugate, one of the softball mainstays.
“Over the rest of my time in Miami, Martha had me over to her house that she shared with her partner. She offered me no-nonsense advice when asked, but mostly listened. In addition to taking care of me, Martha talked about and, shortly thereafter, actually started an organization, the YES Institute in Miami (yesinstitute.org) to prevent suicide and ensure the healthy development of LGBT youth. The group is flourishing and has become a model for other similar groups around the country.”
Jeremy Taylor, president of Philly Black Pride, also found guidance from a friend and mentor. He acknowledged Bishop Yvette Flunder, an openly gay pastor in San Francisco, as his role model.
“She came from a Christian church background that didn’t accept her. This in turn caused her not to accept herself. Many years later, after some self-counsel, she found that there was a better path to live by, and she still maintains her belief system.”
He explained her influence further: “At one point in my life, I was looking at that issue as well. Bishop Flunder taught me that no matter how staunch your upbringing was, the best thing in this consciousness to do is to ‘live in your truth,’ which is why I felt so compelled to come out. I owe my liberated living to her.”
For Tracy Buchholz, operations coordinator of Equality Forum, her role model was a leader on a more local level — former PGN Person of the Year Tami Sortman. Buchholz met Sortman when she was on the board of Sapphire Fund. “I pitched an idea to the board about a women’s dance benefit [Emerge], and Tami came on board to volunteer and oversee marketing.”
Buchholz praised Sortman for being “a strong, creative and brilliant leader,” and fondly remembers Sortman convincing a room full of women to get completely naked and pose for an Emerge palm card photo shoot.
But what she most admires about Sortman is how “she always guided me — offering encouraging advice. But she also gave me the room to make mistakes and learn from them. I’ve known her for 10 years, and I’m still learning from her. I hope to make her proud!”
Bob Szwajkos, board member of Team Philadelphia, selected an athlete for his role model.
“Throughout my years participating in sports, I had no awareness of any ‘gay’ athletes. To the contrary, living an open gay life was not an option. All that changed in 2006 when I decided to attend the Gay Games in Chicago and participate in the marathon. Researching the history of the Gay Games I became inspired by Tom Waddell, one of the founders. His motto was, ‘Doing one’s personal best should be the paramount goal in any athletic endeavor.’
“Tom, like me, had participated in gymnastics and track and field. He brought the dream of participating in Olympic-style competition to the gay community and me. Seeking to share one of the most inspiring experiences of my life, I became active with Team Philadelphia, which organized local athletes to attend the 2010 Games in Köln, Germany. That event has been a springboard for Philadelphia’s LGBT sports’ success in expanding by hundreds of new athletes and joint efforts locally and with other regional teams and national organizations. When I attend the IX Gay Games, running the marathon, I will be sharing Tom Waddell’s dream with LGBT athletes from the world: doing our best in athletics.”
However, some folks have struggled to find role models in their lives. Amanda J. Dean, a bisexual artist and nonprofit professional, grew up in a caring but conservative household in the New Jersey suburbs.
“I learned at a young age that girls ‘being’ with girls was wrong, and that confident, straight woman who openly expressed their enjoyment of their sex lives was ‘improper.’”
Dean remembers seeing k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” music video and being “fascinated and bewildered at the same time. I didn’t understand quite what she was, but what she was stuck with me.”
“When it comes to people I look up to, I think it is two-fold: the ordinary people that live normally in your community but don’t hide who they are, and the more well-known people like Ellen, who just amazes me. When my teenage sister comments on how much she loves Ellen, I think, Wow! Ellen is who she is: a great person, and a great ‘lesbian’ person.
“Role models need to start at home — teaching acceptance and openness, rethinking how we build confidence in children without demeaning them if they are more effeminate or masculine than they are ‘supposed’ to be,” said Dean.
Temple University student Josh Hoagland has a similar outlook on role models. “It’s hard for me to think of a singular LGBT role model for myself to look up to. The ones that I respect most are those that are able to take their sexuality and turn the stereotype of being a part of the LGBT community on its head. It’s not people on a TV screen: It’s those individuals that can be a role model with or without their sexuality.
“I grew up in a very religious South Jersey family,” Hoagland added. “I undeniably knew that I was gay, but being an athlete and college-minded, I felt left out on my own; I didn’t seem to ‘fit’ with any one group and I had no access to LGBT examples that followed the path that I had set for my life. It wasn’t until moving to Philadelphia, being on my own and coming out on my terms, that I was able to really find likeminded LGBT examples.
“My role models — and the example that I hope to be for those that come after me — are those individuals who show you can be gay and you can be a normal and successful member of society. My heart overflows at the sight of elderly lesbians and gay men that have spent their lives together despite the certain admonishment they had received. I never had a gay mentor to tell me what to expect from life, from school, from family, from success; I had to figure it out on my own and make a lot of mistakes along the way. I’m still figuring it out, but I would want to be that in the future, and those that are currently doing that have my utmost respect.”
In contrast, Michael McGonigle, film lecturer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, does look to TV images, and chose Neil Patrick Harris as his role model. “He has turned [his sexuality] all into a delightful joke on American society. Not only does he steal every award show he’s asked to perform in as only a gay man can, but he totally eviscerates straight-guy stereotypes in ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and his cameos in the ‘Harold & Kumar’ films where he plays a relentlessly obnoxious heterosexual horn-dog. When I think of all the straight actors I’ve seen do a limp wrist or speak with a lisp to mimic being gay, this is actually a satisfying revenge.”