We would be remiss not to acknowledge that 2016 has been a deeply tumultuous year for many obvious social and political reasons.
We would be remiss not to acknowledge that 2016 has been a deeply tumultuous year for many obvious social and political reasons. To add to the list, our community lost significant individuals this year. Before we celebrate the accomplishments of those who have defined this year we would like to take a moment to remember poets Monica Hand and Michelle Cliff, activist and philanthropist Joan Nixon, writer Gloria Naylor, pioneer Jeanne Cordova, DJ and party curator Ellie Conant and psychic advisor Youree Dell Harris, known as “Miss Cleo.” May they all rest in Strength.
And now we proudly announce our eighth annual Top Queer Women of 2016. These are lesbian, bisexual, or queer women, or non-conforming, non-gender-binary identifying individuals who have contributed something of note in the areas of academia, activism and the arts. We would like to let our readers know that every year we ask the community of peers for nominations. And, we continue to follow the conventions of not repeating a name from years past, and this list, although numbered, is not hierarchical—the names represented here are of all equal importance. Many thanks to our honorees for all your dedicated, thoughtful and thought provoking work. Happy holidays from Velvetpark.
1) Mahoyo: Farah Yusuf and Pia & MyNa Do – Filmmakers / Photographers / DJs / Club organizers / Stylists
The Mahoyo Project has been traveling the globe in 2016 to promote their documentary which aims to break stereotypes of gender, race and location. Mahoyo collaborates with local artists who all have counterparts in the creative scene in Stockholm where the collaboration continues. The documentary traveled to Johannesburg. Check out the trailer to see a budding movement where norms and stereotypes are challenged.
2) Elle Hearns – Activist / Community Organizer
Elle is a strategic partner and organizing coordinator of #BlackLivesMatter. As BLM has evolved, gender justice has emerged as one of the four main branches of the movement for which Hearns has become a vocal component. Elle Hearns has appeared on MTV, as well as on CNN and Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. Elle is also the Central Region Field Coordinator for GetEQUAL and has been creating safe space for transwomen in her home state of Ohio for the last few years. A staggering 23 trans women were murdered in 2016, the need for safe space, solidarity, and Elle’s tireless work cannot be overstated.
3) Arlan Hamilton – Entrepreneur / Investor
Arlan is the founder of venture capital fund, Backstage Capital, dedicated to investing in women, minorities and LGBTQ folks with high-potential business ideas. Why have white men continued to dominate tech industries with startup ideas? Simply because other white men invest in them and promote them. Hamilton represents a small but growing group of women venture capital managers dedicated to diversifying the startup industry. Backstage Capital makes $25,000 – $100,000 investments in pre-seed and seed funds. This past year she backed 19 companies and hopes her fund will soon support 20 more. Backstage Capital is a true rags to riches story, that blew up this year by securing capital from legendary silicon valley investors. Hamilton also has stayed true to ethics, she recently refused to take $500,000 from an investor tied to Trump-supporting, Peter Thiel. The cure to predatory capitalism is the equitable distribution of wealth to which Backstage Capital is providing the tincture.
4) Alicia Anabel Santos – Performance Artist / Producer / Playwright / Activist / Writing Coach
Alicia is a self-identified Latina Lesbian Writer who after reading one too many stories about women she could not wholly relate to, decided to write her own tales. Alicia Anabel is a proud New York-born Dominicana who is passionate about writing works that empower and inspire women to find their voices, speak up and demand that they be respected. Alycia is founder and CEO of NYC Latina Writers which in 2016 has celebrated its 10th year anniversary!
5) Ovidia Yu – Novelist / Playwright
Ovidia is an award-winning playwright and novelist living and working in Singapore. She has been writing since the late 80’s on subjects pertaining to identity and is known for her strong female characters and is considered to be one of the most influential feminists in her country. Yu has had more than 30 of her plays produced and this year she published her 3rd novel in a series of mysteries called Aunty Lee’s Chilled revenge. If her written accomplishments don’t say enough, She is out in a country in which LGBT people have no rights, and being queer is criminalized.
6) Malkia Cyril – Activist
You may recognize Malkia Cyril from her appearance in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th now playing on Netflix. In the documentary, Cyril is one of the esteemed experts (along with Henry Gates Jr. and Angela Davis among others). DuVernay interviewed to articulate the systemic criminalization and incarceration of the black community since the end of slavery. Cyril has civil justice in her blood, her mother was a Black Panther, and Cyril grew up in Harlem learning to read at the Liberation bookstore. Today Cyril serves as the executive director of Center for Media Justice in Oakland CA, which is dedicated to the democratization of society through universal access to media and technology, as well as communication rights, and fair media representation and ownership. Cyril is actively involved with other organizations that protect digital rights and freedoms, net neutrality, and racial and economic justice in the digital age. Cyril regularly contributes to Politico, Huffington Post and the Guardian. This summer Cyril was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award.
7) Clarity Haynes – Artist
Clarity is that special breed of artist who finds expression and meaning through the human form in the most traditional of all mediums, paint. In this digital age of instant representation and pixel driven imagery one might wonder what would necessitate an artist to spend hours, days, years painstakingly to represent stroke by stroke, color by color something easily caught on one’s phone. When you see Haynes work, you immediately understand why the genera endures. Haynes is known for her large-scale representations of female bodies. One of her most notable works have been an ongoing series of women’s torsos she calls the “Breast Portrait Project”. This year Haynes’ work was represented on the cover of Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations, and she was a finalist in the National Portrait Gallery’s “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today,” on view until January 2017.
8 ) Grace Chu – Photographer
Chu has been documenting queer women’s culture, lifestyle and art for almost two decades. She has been a regular contributor to AfterEllen.com, Curve Magazine, Jezebel, Huffington Post and others. Her queer party shoots have given us glorious and riotous scenes of lesbian nightlife. And with her ear ever to the pop cultural pulse, she has also been a beloved writer of a time-honored tradition of TV recaps, covering shows such as the Amazing Race to The Real L Word. With the change of hands at what was once the most widely read lesbian site AfterEllen. Chu continues her work in the mainstream press shooting for the likes of TimeOut.
9) Jeannine Kayembe – Poet / Artist / Urban farmer
Jeannine is the co-executive director of Philly Urban Creators, a North-Philadelphia based non- profit transforming blighted landscapes into dynamic safe-spaces that cultivate connectivity, self-sufficiency, and innovation. In 2009, Jeannine moved to Philadelphia to perform spoken word poetry where she has become a motivative speaker, poet, and community activist in and out of Philadelphia. In 2016, Jeannine was featured in a spread on where queer lives and farming intersect by Neal Santos, an exhibition in Glasgow called “My Little Corner” featuring stories of radical queers in the 60’s n 70s. She was also open plenary speaker for a national environmental conference, which after realizing it was sponsored by corporations who promote monopolies and genocide through food deserts, like Monsanto, she took over the conference demanding a re-evaluation of priorities and purpose. Jeannine also co-coordinates HoodStock––a full-day block party festival of art, live music, farming, and social consciousness.
10) alyce b emory and Kim Ford – Co-Founders of the Black Lesbian Conference
alyce d. emory and Kim Ford, two LGBT and community activists & workers co-founded the Beyond Bold and Brave organization which held the national Black/African Descent lesbian conference in March 2016 at Barnard College in New York City. The elaborately catered conference included a keynote address, panels, workshops, and roundtable discussions. It’s goal was to be, “The Evolution of Our Community,” as a gathering of Transgender and Cisgender Black/African Descent Lesbians to Celebrate, Assess, Connect, and Create and to increase the visibility of Black/African Descent Lesbians.
11) Alixa Garcia &Naima Penniman – Performers / Environmental Activists
Alixa and Naima make Climbing PoeTree and raised over $50k on their Kickstarter campaign in 2016 ($7k over their goal) after over 10 years of incessant touring and relentless cultural activism bridging the gaps of artists and musicians internationally. They have organized 30 national and international tours, taking their work from South Africa to Cuba, the UK to Mexico, and throughout the U.S. including 11,000 miles toured on a bus converted to run on recycled vegetable oil. In 2017 Climbing PoeTree will be touring nationally with their forthcoming album, INTRINSIC, a collaboration of over 30 artists.
12) Amanda Lugg– AIDS activist This summer Amanda Lugg walked out in protest of a 193-nation member UN Resolution meeting to eradicate HIV/Aids by 2030. Why? Because almost 50 of those nations refused to recognize LGBT organizations in that fight. Many of those countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran deny the existence of LGBT folks or worse, criminalize LGBT identities, in some cases with the punishment of death. Amanda is the director of advocacy at the African Services Committee, an organization which was founded in 1981 to assist immigrants and refugees to the U.S. from across the African Diaspora. Lugg herself is a newly minted U.S. citizen having given up a UK passport, so that if she were ever arrested for civil disobedience she would not be deported. Lugg has been a social justice advocate for over 25 years, fighting for HIV/Aids rights since 1994. Amanda serves on a number of boards and workgroups including the New York City HIV Planning council.
13) Brittani Nichols – Comedian / Writer / Actor
We love her because she is sickeningly funny and in these trying times, we cannot forget to laugh. You probably have never seen her writing on the internet (Autostraddle, Jezebel, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed) or on the television (Billy on the Street, The Collective, The Xperiment) but it’s there. Brittani’s pilot, Words With Girls, premiered at HBO/BET’s Urbanworld Film Festival and is now available online at Color Creative TV. She’s a recurring character on Season 2 of Transparent. Also, she went to Yale and feels weird about mentioning it but wants you to know. She performs stand-up, sketch, and improv (Charm School and Dunkmore).
14) Alexis Clements – Culture Writer / Community Documentarian
Aside from being a regular contributor to Hyperallergic, her writing has also appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Bitch Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, The Guardian, Nature, and Two Serious Ladies, among others. She is currently working on a documentary film about physical spaces where queer women gather. For 2016, Alexis edited the 101 issue of Sinister Wisdom, the Multicultural Lesbian Literary and Art Journal, where she featured emerging and established writers, including: Elvis B, Trish Salah, Fran Winant, Susana Cook, Leah Gilliam, Clarity Haynes, Stacy Szymaszek, Damien Luxe, Ariel “Speedwagon” Federow, Sara Jane Stoner, Dale Wolf, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, Imani Sims, Merril Mushroom, Erica Cardwell, Alexis Danzig, Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective, Rae Theodore, Barbara Ruth, and Liena Vayzman. Learn more about her work at alexisclements.com. Follow her @alexisclements
15) JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard – Poet / Author / Educator / Curator
If you say black lesbian & poetry in NYC, you say JP Howard. She is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and author of SAY/MIRROR, a debut poetry collection published by The Operating System (2016, 2nd ed and 2015, 1st ed) and a chaplet “bury your love poems here” (Belladonna Collaborative*, 2015). JP has been nominated as a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Lesbian Poetry Category for SAY/MIRROR. JP was selected as a 2016 Judith Markowtiz Emerging Writers Award Winner from Lambda Literary Foundation. JP also curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a monthly venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. She is the recipient of a 2016, 2015 and 2014 Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Fund Grant on behalf of the Salon. Her December 31st 2016 deadline is approaching to receive writings from Black Lesbian writers for an upcoming issue of Sinister Wisdom.
16) Flavia Rando – Activism / Art Historian / Curator / Educator
Noted as an LGBTQ Pioneer by OutSpoken LGBT Oral history project, Flavia Rando, PhD is an Art Historian, founder of the Lesbian Studies Institute at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, founding member of the Astraea Lesbian Visual Arts Committee, and teaches Women’s and Gender Studies. A lesbian activist since 1969, she was a member of the Gay Liberation Front and Radicalesbians. As an academic activist, she has organized and served on numerous committees, task forces and panels. She is the editor of Portrait of a Decade: 1968-1978, for which she wrote the essay, “Witness to a Revolution.” In 2016, she co-curated, alongside Ann Pachner, Elvis B, Ashley-Luisa Santangelo, and Colette Montoya-Humphrey, the Graphic Activism exhibition of graphic posters from the collection at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which traveled from the Ace Hotel, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts – Robert Blackburn PrintMaking Workshop (Feb – March 2016), and the CUNY Graduate Center (still on display).
17) Gabby Rivera Fiction Writer / Spoken Word Artist /Quirky Rican
A self-proclaimed nerdburger, Gabby Rivera is a round, brown loverboi living in Brooklyn, NY. Her critically acclaimed debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath was listed by Mic as one of the 25 essential books to read for women’s history month, and it was called the “dopest LGBTQA YA book ever” by Latina. Put simply by Roxane Gay, “it’s “F***ing outstanding.” Gabby loves craft beer, making white people uncomfortable, and all things Mariah Carey. She’s represented by New Leaf Literary Media, Inc.https://gabbyrivera.com/
18) Julie R. Enszer PhD – Scholar / Poet / Editor
In 2016, she published her fourth collection of poetry, Avowed, published by Sibling Rivalry Press. Her research examines lesbian print culture with the tools of history and literary studies, reconsidering histories of the Women’s Liberation Movement and gay liberation. Not only is Julie a talented poet, but also, she is a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx, and the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a Multicultural Lesbian Literary and Art Journal. In 2016, she published with a Midsummer Night’s Press and Sinister Wisdom, the publication of Sinister Wisdom 102: The Complete Works of Pat Parker.
19) Jodi Savitz – Filmmaker
Jodi Savitz is an independent documentary filmmaker and bartender based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Jodi’s documentary project, Girl On Girl, has evolved out of her personal struggle to be taken seriously as a lesbian with a feminine gender presentation. By following similarly feminine women, the film will create full and intricate portraits of lesbians who are often assumed to be heterosexual. She grew up in Plantation, Fla., and was lucky to feel safe and supported enough to be open about her lesbian identity as a teenager. Jodi graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in theater and gender studies and a passion for creating innovative and socially relevant work.
20) Moira Meltzer – Civil Rights Attorney
As a criminal defense lawyer, Moira Meltzer is on the front lines in our fight for civil liberties. Many of her cases this past year have been defending protesters from the mistreatment by the police and unlawful arrest. Meltzer has emerged as the legal muscle that helps community organizers continue to fight the good fight. This year, Moira helped defend protesters of the Equality for East Flatbush project (E4F).
21) Roxane Gay – Writer / Professor / Cultural Commentator
Gay came to prominence in 2014 with a book of fiction and a collection of essays on modern feminism, “Bad Feminist.” However, it’s been this past year that brought Roxanne’s voice into the mainstream through her regular columns in the New York Times, as well as TV and radio appearances and her regular and insightful tweets. Gay’s opinion post right after the election put all the chaotic feelings that left most of us confused and tongue-tied, into clear concise words. If ever there was a writer who can explain all the complexity of identity politics clearly, compassionately yet fiercely, it is Roxane Gay. To top this year off Gay became the first black female writer of a marvel comic, “Black Panther: World of Wakanda” co-written with Ta-Nehisi Coates is the first comic to feature a queer female couple.
22) Kim Washington – Screenwriter
Kim Washington is an emerging screenwriter, actor and dancer who left her decade-long international development career in 2015 to pursue her passion for filmmaking. In 2016, Kim debuted, Take the L, her first feature-length screenplay, which she envisions to be the premier installment of a series that explores the love stories and friendships between women. Her ultimate vision is to create engaging films that reflect the voices and spirit of marginalized people around the world.
23) Nia Witherspoon – Playwright / Professor
Nia had been writing and working on the Messiah Complex which debuted this year at BRIC in Brooklyn New York. Witherspoon has made social justice the center of her artistic expression. As a professor at Arizona State University, she involved her academic community in her practice, launching Black Arts Matter in Phoenix, AZ a series of performances and workshops that took place on the campus of ASU. Witherspoon was inspired while involved in an occupation of the Capital Building in Tallahassee shortly after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Witherspoon began wondering what the role of the arts are in this larger social movement, and so went about creating Black Arts Matter. This year Witherspoon debuted the Messiah Complex at BRIC, a play which investigates violence on black queer bodies through the lens of a predominately black, queer and trans cast.
24) Jessie Daniels & Polly Thistlethwaite – Social Justice Scholars
Jessie Daniels is a professor of sociology and critical social psychology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Polly Thistlethwaite is a professor and Chief Librarian at the Graduate Center. These two as a team are co-authors of Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice For The Public Good,published by Policy Press at the University of Bristol, 2016. The text is the first to consider how new technologies can connect academics, journalists, and activists in ways that foster transformation on issues of social justice. Before authoring the text, the two operated as Co-Principle Investigators of the JustPublics@365 project which engaged academics with a variety of social justice efforts through technology and social media.
25) Ariel Goldberg – Interdisciplinary Poet / Artist
This year marks the launch of Goldberg’s latest book project, The Estrangement Principle, a book-length essay which explores the entanglements of labels. Goldberg pays particular attention to the label of “queer art” as it exists in art and literary histories. The Estrangement Principle is a follow-up to Goldberg’s book of last year The Photographer, which explored five years of photographic writing in poetry. You might say Goldberg is an artist’s writer whose meditations on language, seeing and thought are truly unique and thought-provoking. Goldberg is also a professor of creative writing at Pratt Institute and photography at NYU’s Tish School. They are also the beloved curator of the Friday Night reading series at the Poetry Project in NYC.