They came to kill: the LGBTQ pioneers

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LGBTQ people unite every June, Pride Month, to celebrate milestones like the Stonewall Uprising and activists who have made significant contributions to the advancement of gay rights.

However, the unsung heroes of color who broke new ground and continue to make strides are often overlooked. In a year in which at least 29 transgender and gender nonconforming people have been killed, and as states move to restrict the participation of transgender women and girls in sports, artists, performers, entrepreneurs and designers LGBTQ blacks use their talents to protect and heal, as they have for years.

“I’m ready to help anyone, I don’t care,” said Brenda Holder, transgender activist and famous prom performer. “Due to the struggles and trials and tribulations that I have been through, I will not let anyone else go through this.”

Ms. Holder is not alone in working to help LGBTQ people. She and four others featured here have worked for decades to open doors through their art, activism, entrepreneurship and mentorship. Collectively, they have created a legacy of empowerment.

Kevin Aviance’s debut as a drag performer was in fifth grade in Richmond, Virginia. He won a talent show singing “I Will Survive”.

By his late teens, he was a club kid and had joined the House of Aviance, a ballroom based in Washington, DC at the time. Mr. Aviance moved to Miami and then to New York City, where he appeared in the video for Madonna’s 1994 single “Secret”.

“It changed everything for the rest of my life,” said Mr. Aviance, 53. The exposure led to bookings, including frequent performances with Junior Vasquez, a DJ, at his popular weekly Arena Parties at the Palladium, Manhattan’s nightclub.

“It was fierce,” Mr. Aviance said. “It was amazing. I was a performer. I had one of the biggest stages in New York, had one of the biggest audiences in New York, every week. It was kind of magical. In addition to working with Madonna, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston as a party host, Mr. Aviance had three Billboard No. 1 dance club hits, including “Din Da Da” in 1997.

“I never stopped dreaming – I still dream today,” he said. “I just feel like it kept my head in a nice space.” He said he opened doors for others just by being himself.

“I always thought that growing up being black and gay was always a gift,” he said. “Stand up for yourself,” he added. “Stand up for your people and be there for your other homosexuals. “

Mr. Aviance recently released a new song, “Mary (The Lamb) featuring Samuri DJs” and is planning an album for the fall. “I just want to keep spreading my art and still do and be Kevin Aviance,” he said. “I can’t do anything but be Kevin Aviance.”

Recognizing the changing landscape of Brooklyn and keen to give opportunities to unknown fashion designers, Rick Davy in 2004 founded the BK Style Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports emerging designers and offers programs to young people interested in a career in fashion. An outgrowth of the foundation, Brooklyn Fashion Weekend, has become Brooklyn Fashion Week, a biannual show that showcases the work of aspiring and established designers from around the world.

Covering the inaugural event in May 2006, The New York Times wrote that the collections “have defied expectations.” Mr Davy – who refused to give his age, saying only, “I am not a young man but I am not an old man” – said more than 100 people had benefited from the foundation’s courses and projects community design. , and that more than 500 designers have shown their work at Brooklyn Fashion Week over the years. “We have changed so many lives,” he said.

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Davy took film and television courses at New York University before finding work as a music video production manager. He switched to modeling photography and styling, then joined a friend in styling for the syndicated talk show “Forgive or Forget” and the BET countdown music video show “106 & Park”.

“I think my biggest achievement is the non-profit organization and seeing how it grows and how it helps support so many young people,” Davy said, adding that it had inspired many to start their own. brands and become entrepreneurs in Brooklyn. Each fashion week presents “SlayWay”, a day dedicated to LGBTQ models and designers.

“We want to showcase LGBTQ creators because the spotlight isn’t always on them,” Davy said. “We really want to stand up for this.”

Brenda Holder, whose stage name is Brenda Continental, made her New York City ballroom debut in the early 1980s, when she was 15. She claims she was the first female performer to win the vogue femme queen – a feminine style of vogue – and has been mentored by Paris Dupree and other ballroom legends.

Ms. Holder, 54, born in Guyana, began her transition in 1989, after four years in the military. He was told it wouldn’t be easy. “Back then, society viewed trans people as the lowest scum on earth,” she said. “And to me it was like, no. I can’t accept this. I can not. And I did not accept it.

When she was growing up and during her transition, there were no spaces or centers dedicated to black and brown LGBTQ people in New York City, she said. She persevered despite setbacks and trauma, including homelessness, drug addiction and the HIV / AIDS crisis, and calls herself a “survivor”.

Now living in Brooklyn, Ms Holder said she speaks to anyone in need, especially those looking to make the transition.

“The work I do, I don’t do it for accolades,” she said. “I do it because I love my community. I believe in my community. So why not help my community present the best version of itself, because no one else will. “

Jerry Jordan-Brown has worn multiple hats over a three-decade career: runway producer, stylist, entrepreneur and casting director for Brooklyn Fashion Week. Mr Jordan-Brown, 64, who also worked in NYU’s finance department for 20 years, says he was inspired to pursue a career in fashion by watching his mother work as a dressmaker and hairdresser. From the mid-1980s to the 2000s, he worked in production for New York Fashion Week and also with Essence magazine to help produce shows.

Through it all, he found ways to guide others. “I think my biggest achievement is just helping people and giving everyone a chance when no one would give them the chance to be good at what they do,” said Mr. Jordan-Brown, who lives in Brooklyn. “With the skills I had, I was able to give people the opportunity to do what they loved to do. “

As he grew up, Mr Jordan-Brown said, he felt pressure to act like someone other than himself. It was painful, he said. Now, he said, he’s doing what he can to create access for other black LGBTQ people.

“If I can build confidence and strengthen young people, then everything will be fine,” he said. “They will know how to defend themselves. “

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you could see Lee Soulja working the dance floor at some of New York’s most exclusive clubs, including Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage.

Originally from the Bronx and now living in Harlem, Mr. Soulja, 55, is a visual artist and performer who has performed off Broadway as well as at Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theater. After the death of a close friend of AIDS in the early 1990s, Mr. Soulja became an HIV and AIDS activist, volunteering with community organizations to connect with troubled LGBTQ youth. He then became a promoter and creator of events.

In 2009, Mr. Soulja established the NYC Center for Black Pride, which took over Black Pride, an annual event that will run this year from August 19-23.

“I created this NYC Center for Black Pride to give more visibility to LGBT people of color, saying that we have a voice, we have contributed to the history and culture of this country,” said Mr. Soulja. The center is partnering with organizations such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to create exhibits for Black Pride that showcase the many contributions of LGBTQ people of color, in hopes of engaging gay, bisexual and transgender youth to recognize the value of their lives.

“When I talk to young people, I try to empower them,” Soulja said, adding that he hears from people all over the world, sometimes in countries with restrictive laws governing the privacy of LGBTQ people.

“I tell young people that coming out doesn’t have to be an announcement to your family or friends,” he said. “It was when I accepted myself that I came out.”

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