It is with great pleasure thatVelvetpark announces our seventh annual Top 25 Queer Women of 2015. Each year we ask members of our community to nominate queer identified women and/or non-gender-binary persons who have contributed something noteworthy in the categories of the arts, academia, and activism. As with past years we endeavor not to repeat any honorees from previous years—even while those individuals continue to contribute significantly within their fields year after year. Our list is multi-national, intergenerational and we seek to honor both emerging individuals and those who have had long illustrious track records. Lastly, this list is not in hierarchical order.
Without further adieu, the Top 25 Queer Women of 2015:
1. “No Holds Barred” – Daunasia Yancey, activist / organizer
Daunasia Yancey’s activism began at age thirteen, when she fought to establish a gay-straight alliance at her school. Now twenty-two, Yancey has stepped up as one of the chief organizers for Black Lives Matter Boston, often leading the charge there against anti-black racism and police brutality. Yancey first drew national attention back in August, in a viral video in which she and fellow activist Julius Jones confronted Hillary Clinton about the candidate’s record on the so-called war on drugs and the devastation it has wrought on black communities. (Clinton dodged the question, instead offering her opinion of the BLM movement.) Since then, Yancey has appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” and continues to organize rallies and marches in Boston, where she’s working to make life safer and better for queers and people of color alike.
2. “The Godmother of Women’s Music”– June Millington, rock star / mentor
June Millington picked up her first guitar as a young teen shortly before immigrating to the States with her family from the Philippines. And the rest as they say, is rock history. A co-founding member of the ‘70s band Fanny, the first all-female rock n’ roll band to ever release an album on a major label, in 1986, Millington went on to found the Institute for the Musical Arts (IMA) with her longtime partner, Ann F. Hackler. Housed on a 25-acre farm in Goshen, MA the institute features a recording and performance space, and offers regular workshops and a summer program geared at fostering musical training and opportunity for girls. Millington’s autobiography, “Land of a Thousand Bridges”, which includes a cultural history of women in rock n’ roll from its earliest days, was successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2014, and was released in June of this year.
3. “Breaking the Silence” – Jennicet Gutierrez, activist
In June of this year, Jennicet Gutierrez, an undocumented trans woman and activist, made national headlines when she interrupted President Obama in the middle of a speech. This act of protest came during a White House reception celebrating National Gay Pride Month and touched off a fierce debate within the queer community about the nature of activism and the politics of respectability. It also did what Gutierrez had hoped—drawing attention to the plight of undocumented trans women in U.S. detention centers, who at the time were being forcibly housed according to their birth gender, making them easy targets for mistreatment, abuse, rape, and torture. One week after Gutierrez’s White House protest, immigration officials announced a policy change that allows trans women to be housed according to their gender identities. Though she has downplayed her role in this change, Gutierrez says her experience was politically galvanizing. “I was afraid of getting arrested and deported,” she says, “but now that I confronted the president I’ve broken through a chain of fear and shame.”
4. “Desire on Fire” – Desiree Akhavan, filmmaker / screenwriter / actor
Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan‘s parents immigrated to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, initially landing in New Jersey before eventually settling into New York. The Horace Mann School, Smith College, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Queen Mary, University of London provided her education and foundation in filmmaking. From her first short film (“Two Drink Minimum”) to her web series (“The Slope”) to her debut film (“Appropriate Behavior”), Akhavan has garnered accolades and acclaim for her insightful storytelling. Her work even caught the eye of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner who cast her on season four of Girls.
5. “Master Podcaster”– Jenna Weiss-Berman, media producer / journalist
When Buzzfeed wanted to get into the podcast business, they turned to Jenna Weiss-Berman who had come up through the ranks at NPR, Facebook, and Simon & Schuster. Projects like The Moth, StoryCorps, The New Yorker, The Organist, and Death Sex & Money fill the lines of her resumé, so she’s got some serious game. But, despite that rather high-brow portfolio, Weiss-Berman perfectly threads the Buzzfeed needle of humor and humanity with Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour and Another Round with Heben and Tracy—the only interview Hillary Clinton did prior to the first Democratic debate.
6. “Disorienting the Occident” – Kate Rigg & Lyris Hung, musicians / writers / performers
What do you get when you cross hip hop, rock, spoken word, and electro clash with two street-smart, wise-ass Asian-American chicks? “Slanty Eyed Mama“, of course. When violinist/beat master/producer Lyris Hung and actor/writer/comedian Kate Rigg (aka Lady K-Sian) met at the Juilliard School, a collaboration was born. The Slanty Eyed Mama duo has served as artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institute, the Perth International Festival, and L.A. Grand Performances, with numerous other raved about appearances on PBS, LOGO, and City TV, as well as women’s music festival and Pride events around the world. On the side, Rigg can often be found on a TV show or a comedy stage near you, while Hung is frequently spotted on tour with Indigo Girls. The duo wrapped up their year with a one week run of “Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show” at La Mama Theather in New York.
7. “Queer ingenuity” – Genya Shimkin, organizer
It was 2012 when Genya Shimkin first came up with the Q Card idea. She was working toward a master’s degree in Community-Oriented Public Health Practice at the University of Washington and wanted to “create a simple communication tool that could improve healthcare for queer youth.” As the Q Card evolved, Shimkin involved all stakeholders in the process, placing clear and easy communication between the youth and their caregivers as her top priority. The Q Card was but the latest in a long line of community-oriented public health projects that Shimkin has undertaken, from New York to St. Petersburg, Baltimore to Seattle. She is currently the Team Lead for the Youth Access to Care project of Teen Feed in Seattle.
8. “Form follows function” – YK Hong, author / artist / activist
When your passions run as deep — and as deeply — as YK Hong’s do, more than one job title is in order. Author/artist/activist comes close, but speaker/facilitator/organizer also can’t be ignored. Hong’s work in the areas of anti-oppression, strategic planning, and grassroots fundraising goes back to 1998 and it holds consciousness raising as an equal to organizational development. For Hong, non-attachment, mindfulness, and cross-culturalism are just as important as code, data, and technology. As an artist, the American-born, Korean-raised Hong works across various mediums to create politically provocative pieces that reflect her multi-cultural, sometimes paradoxical, impressions of the world.
9. “Raconteuses ” – Amanda Lee Koe, writer
Being chosen as one of Singapore’s Rising Stars Under 30 was only the latest notch on Amanda Lee Koe‘s proverbial belt. Previously, her short story collection, “Ministry of Moral Panic”, won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction and made the long list for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The stories within its pages take on contemporary Singaporean identity, a topic near and dear to Koe’s heart. Before that, Koe served as the 2013 Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She currently splits her time between Singapore and New York City, various editorial gigs (including Esquire Singapore), and Columbia University’s Writing MFA.
10. “Protector-in-Chief” – Linda Capato, environmental activist
With so many problems and policies demanding so much of our attention and outrage, Linda Capato chooses to focus on the environment through her work as the Fracking Campaign Coordinator at 350.org in San Francisco. The Keystone XL pipeline building, the New York fracking bans, and the Line 9 pipeline expansion are a few of the pressing issues that have come across her desk in the past few years. Capato and company have led the charge for climate justice on all our behalf and, often, been successful. And, as if that weren’t enough street cred, she was also in an all-girl rap group in college.
11. “Cosmic Nuwaubian Princess” – Juliana Huxtable, performance artist
Described by VICE magazine as “a transgender DJ, multi-media artist, and nightlife ‘it’ girl,” Juliana Huxtable’s rise in the New York art scene was cemented in November when her two-night MOMA show sold out so fast that a third night was hastily added. She is a member of the House of LaDosha (a queer arts collective), the co-founder of a weekly queer party called #ShockvalueNYC, and has recently caught the admiring eye of Vogue magazine, among others. Noted for its gorgeously lush, regal, and futuristic aesthetic, Huxtable’s work explores the intersectionality of being a queer and trans person of color through poetry, photography, and performance art. At the heart of her work (and her house-chosen last name) lies what she terms “a wounded attachment to the fantasies of a black American aristocracy.” The Huxtable family (from The Cosby Show), she explains, “represented a very specific and powerful moment that I was raised in the spirit of… My name is my armor and it’s an agency to create myself in the image I see fit.”
12. “Art in Action” – Rachel Levitsky, poet / professor / publisher
Rachel Levitsky represents the trifecta of our top 25 in that her work and career intersect the arts, activism and academia. Rachel came of age as a activist during the AIDS crisis, participating in the rough and tumble actions of ACT UP in the 90s. She later found her voice as a poet and has published numerous works of prose and poetry. Rachel serves as one of the founding faculty (along with Christan Hawkey) of Pratt Institute’s new MFA in creative writing. The program, which completed its first full school cycle this year, is particularly important in that it takes a multidisciplinary and experimental approach to the written word along with a focus on social justice and engagement. Rachel is also the founding member of Belladonna* a feminist avant-garde non-hierarchical collective dedicated to publishing and promoting the works of adventurous women writers.
13. “Unsuspecting Genius” – Nicole Eisenman, artist
Nicole Eisenman has been bringing queer visibility into mainstream art for decades. Her figurative allegories weave together pop culture, art history, gender and sexuality in provocative and myth-like detail. Esienman is represented by galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and Berlin and her works are collected by major museums around the globe including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Kunsthalle in Zurich. She has been the recipient of the Guggenheim and Tiffany Grants and this year Esienman she was surprised with one of the most coveted prizes, the MacAuthur “Genius Grant”. The MacAurther Foundation cites Eisenman’s role in art as “[restoring] the representation of the human form a cultural significance that had waned during the ascendancy of abstraction in the twentieth century.” (photo. MacAurthur Foundation)
14. “The Real Face of the Revolution” – Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, activist
In a year where we saw yet another mainstream, whitewashed movie about Stonewall in which trans women are woefully underrepresented, it is especially important to recognize the last living trans woman who was actually at the Stonewall riots. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (more commonly known as Miss Major or to many in the trans community, simply “Mama”) is a formerly incarcerated black transgender elder and activist who has been fighting for the rights of trans women of color for over forty years. A long-time advocate as well for people with HIV/AIDS and incarcerated POCs, until late this year, she also served as the director of the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) for over a decade. 2015 saw the release of “MAJOR!”, a documentary about Miss Major’s life and work, which if you’re lucky, you can catch this year at a film festival near you.
15. “High-wire Activist” – Jenny Romaine, performer / activist
Need an award-winning, Jewish stilt dancer-puppeteer-theatre actor-circus performer-activist-choreographer in your life? Then Jenny Romaine is your gal. Through her various works with the Bread and Puppet Theater, Janie Geiser and Co., Ninth Street Theater, Circus Amok, and Great Small Works, Romaine has done all of the above… and then some. The Memoirs of Glückel of Hamelin, Do Chinese Postmen Ring Twice Too?, and The Suicide are a few of the projects she’s been involved in. As an activist, Romaine has worked with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Lesbian Avengers, Milk Not Jails, Klezkanada, and the Island Academy youth prison on Riker’s Island.
16. “From Berlin to Bangkok” – Kirsten Tan, filmmaker
A filmmaker’s job number one is to tell a story, and that’s something at which Kirsten Tan excels. Though she grew up in Singapore, Tan has lived all over the world — citing South Korea, Thailand, and New York as previous and/or current home bases. Tan received the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship while pursuing her master’s degree in Film Production at New York University and has showcased her award- and grant-winning shorts and films at festivals around the globe, from SXSW to Cannes. This year, she earned a National Board of Review student grant for Dahdi. Her latest endeavor, Popeye, was included in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Talent’s Script Station, the Torino Film Lab’s Framework Program, and the Cannes Film Festival’s L’Atelier showcases of feature films in pre-production.
17. “Double Trouble” – Erin Markey and Becca Blackwell, actors / writers
Whether they are collaborating or coupling, Erin Markey and Becca Blackwell make great partners. Markey, who has been hailed as a “magnetic diva” by the New York Times and a Top 10 Cabaret Performer (for three years running) by Time Out New York, has had award-winning works staged all over the country, including her latest Public Theater offering, “A Ride on the Irish Cream”. She also teaches at New York University. Blackwell, an award-winning, New York-based trans actor and writer, portrays the afore-mentioned “Irish Cream” in one of numerous projects that have involved explorations of gender, body, and personhood. The upcoming “They, Themself, and Schmerm” is Blackwell’s latest solo foray into that milieu. (photo credit. Allison Michael Orenstein)
18. “Speak My Name” – Janisha R. Gabriel, activist / artist / web designer
A painter, graphic designer, and web design professional, Janisha R. Gabriel is a board member of The BLK Projek and the Technology & Design organizer for Black Lives Matter. She recently founded the Speak My Name Project, a website and database set to launch in February 2016 that will profile black women and girls who have lost their lives to violence. With the stated goal of seeking “to stimulate intra-racial conversation about violence against Black women and girls, for the purpose of healing, reconciliation, safety, and Black power,” SpeakMyName.org is poised to offer a powerful contribution to the national conversation about violence against black people—news media coverage of which tends to focus on acts of violence against black cis-gendered men.
19. “Liberation Front” – Asha Rosa, activist / poet /student
A third-year African American Studies major at Columbia, Asha Rosa is an organizer for the Columbia Prison Divest campaign, a founding member of Students Against Mass Incarceration, and a founding member and co-chair of the NYC chapter of the Black Youth Project 100. Last year she traveled to Geneva to present a report on U.S. police violence to the United Nations as part of a youth of color delegation called We Charge Genocide, and appeared on MSNBC to speak with Melissa Harris-Perry about this cause. Rosa made headlines this fall (she was even profiled in the Wall Street Journal) after finagling a list of Columbia’s investments from the school, and revealing to the media that they were invested to the tune of upwards of $7 million in prison-industrial complex holdings. “Things might not change overnight,” she says when asked about the impact of activism, “but they definitely won’t change if we do nothing. And things have got to change.
20. “A More Perfect Union” – Katherine Franke, author / law professor
Even as we celebrated the newly won right to marry for same-sex couples, it’s important to note that, as far as rights go, marriage can be something of a mixed bag. A former Guggenheim Fellow and a law professor at Columbia, where she heads up the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, Katherine Franke has long been a voice for continuing to protect and celebrate, alongside same-sex marriage, the relationship structures that evolved over the course of the struggle for gay rights—namely, civil and domestic partnerships. Her new book, Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality, released in November, compares the contemporary struggle for marriage equality to “the experiences of newly emancipated black people in the mid-nineteenth century, when they were able to legally marry for the first time.” In exploring the way that the legal construct of marriage tends to reinforce race and gender stereotypes, Franke continues to do important work in challenging the politics of assimilation.
21. “Healing Our Communities” – Cara Page, activist / organizer
A healer and a black queer feminist cultural organizer, Cara Page has worked for two decades for queer and trans liberation, as well as reproductive, racial, and economic justice. A longtime participant in the National People’s Movement Assembly and the former National Director of the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, Page continues to engage in community organizing with the goal of creating “cultural and political spaces that honor our leaders, movements, communal legacies, and mobilize transformative spaces for the safety and well being of our communities.” In addition to her work through the Audre Lorde Project, she is also the co-founder and former Coordinator of the Kindred Collective, a southeastern network of healers, health practitioners and organizers working to heal violence by the state and collective (generational) trauma.
22. “Post-Punk Meets Prose” – Sara Jaffe, writer / musician
Formerly the lead guitarist for and a founding member of post-punk band Erase Errata, Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in Fence, BOMB, NOON, paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and The Los Angeles Times Review of Books. A recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, RADAR Productions, and the Regional Arts and Culture Council, she is also a co-founding editor of New Herring Press, a publisher of prose chapbooks. Her first novel, Dryland—a coming of age tale about a teenage girl set in the early ‘90s—was published by Tin House Books this fall to rave reviews. Publishers Weekly called it “an exquisite debut,” praising Jaffe’s “fresh, strong voice” and “spare, precise prose.”
23. “Artist in Exile” – Maria Elena González, artist
This cuban born artist is a product of both the Cuban Revolution and ACT UP years in New York City. Her early works were sculptural statements of lesbian and queer visibility, working in leather, plastics, wood and other materials. Since then González’s work has become more conceptual and formal in nature defined by architectural constructions inspired by environmental and polical themes. González has been the recipient of the Bellagio residency, the Pollock-Krasner grant, the Rome Prize, and a Guggenheim. This year as the grand prize winner of the Ljubljana Biennial, in Slovenia, Maria Elena González, was awarded a solo exhibition at the Biennial. González filled Ljubljana’s exhibition space with her groundbreaking sound-sculpture and graphic series, “Tree Talk.”
24. “Lesbian in Ecstasy” – Wynne Greenwood, performer / musician
Queer feminist performance artist Wynne Greenwood melds multimedia components into a cohesive experience which have been featured around the world by the Tate Modern, Whitney Biennial, the Kitchen, Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, and On the Boards. One of her best-known adventures, Tracy + the Plastics, was a multimedia art band that found Greenwood performing live as Tracy with videos of herself as the other band members. Since that touring project ended in 2006, Greenwood has focused on place- and object-based installations, although she also released an album, “A Fire to Keep You Warm”, and teaches workshops and other programs.
25. “History Detective” – Cassandra Langer, scholar / author
Art Historian Cassandra Langer has been writing and teaching for decades, her previous books include “New Feminist Criticisms: Art, Identity, Action” and “Mother & Child in Art.” But what brings her to the fore this year is her recently published biography of the Early Mondern lesbian artist Romaine Brooks. Based on decades of research and newly translated source material, Langer’s book not only sheds new light on this important American Artist living abroad but the coterie of lesbians whom she enjoyed her life with. It takes the dedication of scholars such as Langer to reinvestigate previously accepted narratives in order to reveal a fuller account of our LGBTQ histories, pointing out their true import on our culture at large.
Thank you all!