In 2011, New York became the sixth state – and the largest state at that point – to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure, which advocates had sought for years, made it over the finish line thanks to the behind-the-scenes negotiating of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and, notably, four Republican state senators who crossed the aisle to provide enough votes for a majority.
The victory was reinforced in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, making it the law of the land. Later that year, the Empire State Pride Agenda, a leading New York advocacy group, disbanded, citing the achievement of its primary policy objectives. And since the landmark Supreme Court ruling, public attitudes have continued to shift, with polls showing a growing majority of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to marry.
Yet advocates and experts warn that now is not the time to settle into complacency. Policy battles over bathroom bills and transgender rights are raging across the country. Politicians are exploiting a backlash against hard-won legislative victories. The fight against AIDS and HIV, which has long affected the LGBT community, has not yet been won.
In New York, there are many leaders in the community who are on the front lines. In this list, City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media, recognize 10 individuals who serve the LGBT community in government and politics, through advocacy and academia, and by providing services and care to those in need.
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Borough of Manhattan Community College
A hippie from Berkeley, California, taught young Sheldon Applewhite’s introductory sociology course in college and it was like “the sun poured into the room.” In his next sociology course, it was the first time he had a professor who was black and pushed him to excel and see the world differently. By that point, Applewhite was hooked. He charted a career in sociology focused on the challenges faced by the LGBT community of color he now claimed as his own.
“Being from the community, my research question is guided by looking at positive aspects of black gay lives,” he says. “It’s a different starting point, and the discovery and the journey looks very different based on the research question.”
He has focused on health disparities among marginalized communities, in particular why preventive pre-exposure drug regimens are underutilized by young gay black men.
“Our stories are rarely told from our perspective, in terms of being black gay men, or being LGBT people of color,” Applewhite says. “And I think that I am one of the people who tries to illuminate our stories and provide research and data about our lives.”
As a professor, he now enjoys mentoring young people from urban communities. But it is his research around the resilience of black gay relationships – despite high poverty rates, religious and societal oppression and high rates of AIDS infection and HIV transmission – that makes him most proud.
“It kind of reinforced my beliefs around love, and black love in particular,” he says. “I know black love exists.”
Co-chairwoman, Equality New York
As co-chairwoman of Equality New York, a statewide organization working to advance the causes of LGBT New Yorkers, Eunic Ortiz is working to make the Empire State a more progressive place.
The group is forming a political action committee and will back candidates running for office next year. “Any single legislation can be overturned, any bill or policy can be changed, so if we continue to be vigilant, and continue to fight and ensure we have people in office who will fight for us, that’s, for me, the most important thing we can do,” she says.
Ortiz has been involved in the LGBT rights movement since 2008 when she worked for then-New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
From there, as president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City for three years, she organized rallies and advocated for causes such as ending job discrimination. At Stonewall, she worked to launch a tuition scholarship at Hunter College for students with in interest in LGBT equality who want to work in government or politics. She called the fund, now in its third year, her proudest achievement.
Ortiz, the digital communications director for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, says she didn’t decide to be an activist, but that advocating for family, friends and loved ones shaped her career. The Florida native also sits on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s LGBT Memorial Commission to select a design for a monument following the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
“I will keep fighting until we are 100 percent equal,” she says.
CEO, Hetrick-Martin Institute
Thomas Krever has dedicated his career to working with youth that society may consider “at risk,” but that he calls “at promise.” As CEO of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a nonprofit LGBT youth services organization, he aims to ensure that these young people receive the necessary opportunities to succeed.
When he joined the organization in 2003, one of his first projects involved creating a comprehensive education plan for Harvey Milk High School, which had recently become an accredited public school. The plan defined the school’s focus and curriculum and revamped it to become the institution for “at-promise youth” that it is today.
Krever credits his family for teaching him the values of hard work and advocacy. “I come from a family that was really accepting of who I am, and what I am, and who I love,” he says.
In his job, he has the power to ensure that LGBT youth have similarly nurturing environments. Recently, the institute opened a branch in New Jersey. Krever believes that his organization is a pioneer among LGBT services nonprofits, as it employs a “federated” interstate model, like the YMCA.
Through his work, Krever hopes to provide safe spaces for LGBT individuals, maybe even across state lines.
“It's not to be their voice, they have – we have – amazing voices,” Krever says about his work. “It's around using my privilege and access to make sure that there are spaces so that those voices can be heard.”
Principal, Civitas Public Affairs Group
In the ongoing struggle over LGBT rights, the battles have often played out at state legislatures around the country.
Katherine Grainger was on the front lines in 2011, when New York enacted legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. After serving as a staffer for the state Senate Democrats – frequently representing them in court during the Senate coup of 2009 – she joined the Cuomo administration in 2011 as assistant counsel. While working with the governor, Grainger was integral in crafting and implementing the Marriage Equality Act, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
She also worked as the vice president for public policy and initiatives at NARAL Pro-Choice New York, a group that focuses on public policy advocacy for the protection of reproductive rights issues.
“I think of LGBTQ work as civil rights work,” she says. “As a queer woman of color, it is something that I have personally lived and professionally worked towards. I spent a lot of time learning what I call the master tools – going to law school, working in government – to really advance the rights for the communities I care about.”
Grainger now works as a principal at Civitas Public Affairs Group, where she continues to work on behalf of the LGBT community. But her groundbreaking work on the Marriage Equality Act isn’t the only thing she cites as an accomplishment. She’s also proud of teaching a LGBT policy class at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
President and CEO, Amida Care
Since 2003, Amida Care has been focused on making primary care, behavioral health care and support readily available to the LGBT community, in particular supporting those who are HIV-positive and getting them treated and healthy.
When Amida Care started, the nonprofit organization sought to fill a gap where managed care companies typically lacked providers that were competent with LGBT clients or had experience with HIV, Wirth said. Amida Care now includes 39 federally qualified community health centers, 24 hospitals and about 15 community-based AIDS services organizations across New York City.
Wirth, who served as a top health official for former Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, also worked on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s task force to create a plan to end the AIDS epidemic in New York by 2020. The effort has reduced new infections from about 3,000 per year to below 2,200 new infections as of 2016, with the goal of getting below 750, the threshold to end the epidemic – “with our eye on getting to zero,” Wirth says.
“There’s a critical synergy between the blueprint and Amida Care’s mission: HIV care is about more than pills and doctors visits,” Wirth says. “What we really need to do to make HIV care and treatment effective is we need to pay attention to food security and housing stability, and when folks for any reason drop out of care … Amida Care believes we need to knock on their doors and find out what happened.”
Vice President, Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City
Special Assistant, New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca
“I was told in high school that you could never get paid to argue for a living unless you were a lawyer and really smart,” Bryan Ellicott says with a laugh. “Unfortunately I don’t have money to go to law school, so I found other ways to do exactly that.”
His main place of arguing these days is in the New York City Council, working for City Councilman Carlos Menchaca. “Essentially ... I get paid these days to say no!” Ellicott says. “As the member’s scheduler, my job is to be the buffer.”
While Ellicott is used to saying no to journalists, he’s always saying yes to activism, especially related to his bisexual, transgender male identity. He’s the vice president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, vice president of the Staten Island Democratic Association and a board member at BiNet, an organization advocating for bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer-identified and unlabeled people.
Ellicott once sued the city for kicking him out of the men’s locker room at a public pool, but instead of shying away from city politics, he’s sought to change them. He helped get self-identified gender markers on New York City ID cards, and helped write the law mandating that all single-stall bathrooms in the city must be gender-neutral.
Ellicott has left his mark on the city, but it comes with consequences. “Now all my friends make fun of me every time they’re waiting in line for a gender-neutral bathroom,” he says with a laugh.
Administrative Coordinator, LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent
For decades, Wilhelmina Perry has dedicated herself to a life of faith while combating homophobia and seeking LGBT recognition within the African-American church.
In 2000, Perry traded in her professional academic life for one dedicated to activism as she launched Maranatha, Riverside Church’s LGBT ministry. She was also a co-founder and vice president of the Interfaith Task Force for LGBTQ Homeless Youth.
In 2002, her partner Antonia Pantoja died and Perry fell into a deep depression. She realized she “needed to figure out if (she) was going to continue in this physical world what was going to be (her) passion and motivation for doing so,” she says.
She began speaking about same-sex marriage on behalf of the Empire State Pride Agenda. Realizing that same-sex marriage was not a priority for the LGBT black community, she founded LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent in 2010. The organization unites interfaith clergy, divinity students and faith leaders, facilitating a safe space within the black community. Perry’s current projects include planning for the group’s fifth annual forum, and the annual Day of Transgender Remembrance this fall.
Now 82, Perry is nowhere near slowing down. She is continuing to work at her LGBT faith organization and petitioning for Democratic candidates. Perry remains true to her roots, saying that her main priority “continues to be to show as black LGBT people (we are not) in conflict with the black community, but in fact we embrace the issues that the black communities face, and we challenge them to recognize the problems we face as LGBT people as well.”
Executive Director, Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition
One of the most contentious debates in American politics and society right now is about transgender rights. As a transgender woman herself, it’s an issue that’s personal for Juli Grey-Owens.
Grey-Owens knows all too well the hardships transgender people face on a daily basis. In 2015, she was fired from her longtime job as a plant manager at a manufacturing company in Long Island the day after it was discovered she was transgender.
“They gave a number of reasons why they did it, none of which were connected to the fact that I was transgender,” she recalls. “That’s what ended up getting me full time into transgender work.”
Grey-Owens is now the executive director of the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition, which she helped found in 2005. Among its successes are a 2015 North Hempstead law prohibiting workplace discrimination against transgender people. She also cited the organization’s efforts in organizing a pride parade in Long Beach in June.
She was a board member on the Empire State Pride Agenda for a number of years working to secure legal protections for the transgender community before the organization disbanded. She also leads TransPAC, a political action committee focused entirely on transgender rights, and serves in key roles with the New York State Transgender Rights Coalition and the GLBT Democrats of Long Island. If that seems like a lot, it’s because there’s plenty to get done.
“We’re probably somewhere 20 to 25 years behind the gay and lesbians as far as acceptance goes,” Grey-Owens says. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Supervising Attorney, LGBT Law and Policy Initiative, Legal Aid Society
Kimberly Forte knows that she works within a system that has often harmed marginalized communities. As an attorney, she says she has seen criminal justice officials “oppressing the young people that they were charged with taking care of.” This inspires her to serve as what she calls a “witness to the oppression” – and fight back.
Forte is celebrating her 17th year at the Legal Aid Society this month, where she began the LGBT Law and Policy Initiative in 2011. Through the initiative, the organization provides what Forte calls “culturally competent representation” for young people in the LGBT community, and tackles important issues on their behalf.
Forte calls herself “gay identifying,” and was accepted and supported when she came out. This has also helped inspire her advocacy, as she fights for LGBT New Yorkers who have faced rejection from their families and communities.
Of the many cases she has litigated, Forte is especially proud of the victory in Cruz v. Zucker, which the Legal Aid Society and its co-counsels won in 2016. It allowed for transgender individuals, including young people, to have Medicaid coverage for all transition-related health care needs.
“For those of us who got to be involved in that case, it was life-changing for us,” she says. “We really got to be part of a change that will have an impact on people’s lives for generations to come.”
In her work, Forte’s advocacy ensures that a historically oppressed community can be represented and heard.
Brad Hoylman was elected to the state Senate from Manhattan in 2012, a year after New York legalized same-sex marriage. His predecessor, Thomas Duane, helped get that bill passed. But there’s still plenty of work to do, Hoylman says, and it may require retaking the state Senate.
“Certainly New York was out front on marriage equality in 2011,” he says. “But since 2011, we’ve hit a wall. Not a single piece of LGBT-specific legislation has passed the state Senate.”
Among the bills that Hoylman has pushed for are a ban on gay conversion therapy, tallying more LGBT demographic data and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which gives transgender New Yorkers the same rights and protections as others. Other proposed measures would institute stronger hate crime laws and drop the requirement that same-sex couples who have children through natural means have to go through the adoption process.
As the only openly gay member of the state Senate, Hoylman says that with threats to LGBT legislation in Washington, D.C., and in other states across the country, New York has a chance to lead the way. While the Cuomo administration has taken executive action on transgender rights and limiting the use of conversion therapy, the lawmaker says the state Legislature needs to make them permanent.
“The responsibility lies squarely at the feet of the Senate leadership coalition,” Hoylman says, referring to the Republican alliance with the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference. “Most advocates working on behalf of LGBT issues would say the struggle is far from complete.”