The sixth annual Gay City News Impact Awards will be held virtually on November 11 at 7 p.m., marking the second straight year that we will gather for an online celebration recognizing exceptional LGBTQ trailblazers and supportive allies who have made a difference in our community.
The virtual format of this year’s event is intended to reduce risks during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Some of us have lost loved ones, others have gotten sick, and we have all felt the strain of the crisis throughout our daily lives since we were blindsided by COVID-19 last year.
And yet, the perseverance of our community through the dark days of the pandemic reminds us of the importance of bold leadership in trying times. Our honorees are representative of the determination and courage we strive to see across different fields: They include activists, attorneys, designers, doctors, and others who carry out important work while living their true, authentic lives in a world that can be hostile to our community.
As we contend with the enduring COVID-19 crisis, we are also navigating a year of change for all of us — including our team at Gay City News. I stepped in as editor-in-chief following the retirement last year of Paul Schindler, our founding editor. Thankfully, Paul is joining us as host of the virtual Impact Awards ceremony.
The year, however, has also been a time of change on so many other fronts across our city, our state, and our nation. This year alone has brought us a new president, a new governor, and in January we will have a new mayor and City Council. It is up to all of us to make sure our new leaders will deliver for our community — including the most marginalized LGBTQ people, people of color, homeless youth, seniors, and transgender and non-binary individuals — especially in the face of deadly violence and relentless legislative attacks.
Although we are gathering virtually, we hosted an intimate cocktail event for our honorees on October 21 at the Ravel Hotel in Long Island City, where we have previously held our Impact Awards gala. Some of the honorees had an opportunity to briefly introduce themselves at that event, but folks will be able to learn much more about them during our broadcast.
We would like to thank our presenting sponsor, MetroPlus, for their longtime dedication to our Impact Awards, and we also appreciate the generosity of our other sponsors: TD Bank, Breed Evolution Corp., Amida Care, Tusk Strategies, and the East Midtown Partnership.
We invite you to register for our live, interactive Impact Awards broadcast at gaycitynewsimpactawards.com, which will give attendees and honorees a chance to cheer on through the interactive chat function.
Please join us in celebrating our distinguished honorees. Below are the recipients of this year’s Impact Awards:
Founder, Bella Abzug Leadership Institute
Liz Abzug, the founder and executive director of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, has led a distinguished career as a national public affairs and strategic consultant, professor, lawyer, and former political candidate. She is the daughter of the late Congressmember Bella Abzug, who worked with Ed Koch in 1974 to propose the earliest version of the Equality Act.
Liz’s work has spanned across many fields, including politics, economics and urban development, and human rights. In 1995, she formed her own national public affairs and management-consulting firm to provide services in the areas of strategic and business planning, public affairs, management and political and health care consulting, marketing, public relations, and lobbying.
Liz has served in a number of senior level positions in government. Under former Governor Mario Cuomo, Liz was New York State’s chief lobbyist in Washington for the state’s economic development agencies. Prior to that, she served as the vice president of operations of the Empire State Development Corporation and was deputy commissioner of operations for the state’s Division of Human Rights. She helped lead the successful effort to amend the state’s Human Rights law to ban discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
Liz has been involved in numerous other not-for-profit organizations and served on small corporate boards, such as the New York State Commission on Domestic Violence, the Governor’s Gay Rights Task Force, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Liz serves as a senior adjunct professor of Urban Studies and Women and Leadership at Barnard College/Columbia University, where she teaches classes pertaining to cities, urban economic development, and women’s leadership. She is also a public speaker at colleges, universities, conferences, and conventions throughout the United States.
Founder, Ready for Change
Troy Blackwell is a public relations leader, Afro-Latinx voting rights activist, and LGBTQ advocate who founded Ready for Change, a political action committee dedicated to getting out the vote across New York State.
Troy was recently a candidate in New York City Council’s District 15, where he campaigned to raise the market value of a New York City rental assistance program and advocated to increase funds for the state’s End the Epidemic initiative.
A graduate of the City College of New York, Troy has served in numerous capacities across the political landscape. He led press logistics for the Tom Steyer presidential campaign and went on to work in a similar role for then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris ahead of the 2020 election. He worked to get out the queer vote by hosting “Out for Biden” events featuring guests such as actor Wilson Cruz and Pennsylvania State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta.
Previously, Troy interned at the White House under President Barack Obama, serving in the Office of Public Engagement and working on LGBTQ policy. Troy also completed a research fellowship through Stanford University aimed at developing economic and legal solutions in response to the financial crisis in Puerto Rico.
In September, Troy joined the board of directors for the Big Apple Performing Arts and New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
President, East Midtown Partnership
Rob Byrnes is the president of the East Midtown Partnership, which is a business improvement district encompassing all or parts of 47 blocks of Midtown Manhattan.
Since 2002, Rob has led the organization’s efforts to improve the quality of life in the district and promote commercial activity. Over the years, he has brought inclusionary programming to East Midtown, including a Lunar New Year event highlighting Asian culture and, more recently, a month-long celebration of WorldPride/Stonewall 50 in 2019.
That event included a block party with SUNY Pride, displays of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt at sites throughout the district, and fundraising activities with The Trevor Project, among other components.
Rob is a former co-chair and longtime member of the board of directors of the NYC BID Association. He is also the author of six novels, including “When the Stars Come Out,” which won a 2006 Lambda Literary Award, and “Straight Lies,” a 2009 Lambda Literary Award finalist.
In 2016, Rob was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, for which he funds an annual Emerging Writer Award, and he serves on the steering committee for The Publishing Triangle, an association of LGBTQ people in publishing.
A native of Rochester and graduate of Union College in Schenectady, Rob previously served as chief of staff to two New York State assemblymembers and director of business Services at the Madison Avenue BID. He currently lives in Jersey City with Brady Allen, his partner of 18 years.
Founder, The EveryMAN Project
Tarik Carroll is a fashion, music, and commercial photographer from Brooklyn who uses his work to embrace body diversity and break down barriers imposed by toxic masculinity. Tarik is the founder of the EveryMAN Project, which aims to confront the status quo with an ongoing fashion photo series about the relationships men have with body image. The project highlights cis and trans men of all backgrounds and allows subjects to steer their own narratives and take a stand against feelings of shame due to their body, sexuality, or race.
Having worked with international recording artists such as Azealia Banks, Cupcakke The Rapper & Diana Gordon, Tarik was recently featured in a GQ France editorial about plus-size men of color.
On the EveryMan Project website, Tarik writes about growing up with feelings of isolation and self-consciousness due to his appearance — especially when in public — but once he started working in fashion, he came to the realization that “perfection and beauty are purely subjective concepts.”
“Listening to male models with bodies that rival Greek gods tell me that they too suffer from body image issues was equally eye-opening and jarring,” he writes. “Hearing damaging childhood stories of isolation, fear and obsessive self scrutiny made me realize that as men, we had more in common than I previously believed.”
Tarik has a B.F.A. in graphic design from the New York Institute of Technology.
THOMAS “TJ” CHERNICK
Director, National LGBT Chamber of Commerce-New York (nglccNY)
Thomas “TJ” Chernick is the director of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce-New York (nglccNY), where he has worked since June of 2014.
TJ oversees the NGLCC’s New York-based efforts and helps lead the chamber’s national mission to drive economic advancement in the community at the local level. In New York, TJ handles the local chapter’s memberships and advocates for NGLCC-certified businesses — thanks in part to NGLCC’s successful campaign to push for the certification of queer-owned businesses in the city.
TJ rose to become the organization’s director after previously serving as the NGLCC’s director of membership and engagement.
Outside of NGLCC, TJ has experience coordinating international gender-based projects in Iraq with the International Human Rights Law Institute. He once worked as a program officer for the International Fulbright Scholar Program.
An avid writer and traveler, TJ is interested in issues pertaining to sexual minorities in the context of international human rights — and he has lived in Morocco and Iceland, where he performed research. He enjoys playing cello in his spare time.
TJ has a master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Co-CEO, Tusk Strategies
Chris Coffey is the co-CEO of Tusk Strategies — a new role he started in October — after previously leading the organization’s New York and New Jersey practice.
Chris has spearheaded legislative campaigns and major media blitzes for political leaders and businesses throughout his career. He has worked with prominent politicians, including former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and recently he led Tusk’s work on Andrew Yang’s bid for mayor.
His background, however, extends beyond political campaigns. Chris has successfully steered media operations that have generated significant attention in the news cycle, including campaigns for Uber, the Times Square Alliance, and Bird.
Prior to his time with Tusk, Chris spent 12 years working under Bloomberg, first helping on his political campaigns and subsequently serving in several posts for the Bloomberg administration. While working at City Hall, Chris rolled out a new digital office within the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and co-authored the Roadmap for the Digital City, a digital blueprint for New York City.
Chris frequently appears on NY1 to discuss New York politics and he serves as a guest lecturer at New York University.
A resident of Cobble, Brooklyn, Chris chairs the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy and is on the board of Women in Need, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Trevor Project.
Chris lives with his husband and their two children.
Executive Director, New Pride Agenda
Born and raised in New York City, Elisa Crespo is a transgender advocate and the first executive director of the New Pride Agenda, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group in New York.
Elisa took over at New Pride Agenda earlier this year after mounting an historic campaign for City Council in the Bronx. Elisa was the first out transgender woman of color to be on a ballot in New York State and would have been the first out transgender lawmaker in the state.
In an interview with Gay City News last year, Elisa said she was motivated to run for City Council because she wanted to address poverty and unemployment in her local community, saying that she “couldn’t sit idly by and not do anything about it.”
Since joining NEW Pride Agenda, Elisa has overseen the organization’s advocacy efforts on issues such as age-appropriate comprehensive sexual education, the decriminalization of sex work, and legislation that would require utility companies to respect the names and pronouns of its customers. Elisa has also advocated for the need to improve conditions for incarcerated transgender individuals.
Previously, Elisa worked as the education liaison for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. She also held internships in the City Council and under Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Elisa graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
DESMOND IS AMAZING
Film/TV Actor, Drag Artist
Desmond Napoles, whose stage name is Desmond Is Amazing, is American’s teen drag superstar. They are an LGBTQ advocate, outspoken gay youth, model, public speaker, performer, designer, actor, and published author.
Desmond also founded their own youth drag house, the Haus of Amazing, and they are the author of “Be Amazing: A History of Pride,” which shows other LGBTQ youth how to overcome adversity and embrace their identities.
They have performed on stages across the country, walked the runways for designers at New York Fashion Week, and collaborated with brands such as Brussels Airlines, Converse, GLAAD, Google, Marc Jacobs, and Heritage of Pride.
Earlier this year, Desmond participated in a Gay City News webinar during which they elaborated on their strong bond with their mother. Desmond said their mother has provided them with the freedom to express their gender, saying, “She just lets me be me.”
Desmond lives in New York City with their mother, father, cat, and parrots. Their hobbies include coding, scripting, playing video games, experimenting with makeup, and hiking.
When they grow up, Desmond would like to be a roller coaster engineer or video game designer.
Their motto is to “be yourself, always.”
Daniel DuGoff is a fashion designer and founder of HOMOCO, a direct-to-consumer brand that produces colorful swimwear and other apparel for queer people and their friends.
DuGoff has led a successful professional career in the fashion industry after graduating from the College of Architecture at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He worked for designers Patrik Ervell and Marc Jacobs before going on to launch a men’s wear brand — DDUGOFF — prior to beginning HOMOCO.
In 2016 — the same year he started DDUGOFF — Daniel joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) Fashion Incubator program, which is a business development initiative for emerging American designers.
Driven by his love for print and color, Daniel started HOMOCO in 2018 and sought to expand the brand’s focus beyond designing and selling clothing. HOMOCO frequently collaborates with LGBTQ artists and organizations, including the Tom of Finland Foundation, and the brand utilizes a sustainable and ethical supply chain featuring recycled plastic for printed swim trunks and Tencel for camp shirts.
The name HOMOCO reflects the queer angle of the brand and stems from the name of Daniel’s family’s gas stations in Washington DC, known as Homes Oil Company — or HOMOCO for short.
Partner, Selendy & Gay PLLC
David Flugman, a partner at Selendy & Gay PLLC, is an attorney with a wide-ranging background encompassing international and domestic cases, including prominent LGBTQ rights cases.
Flugman has secured significant legal victories throughout his career across industries such as private equity, consulting, and retail, and he has extensive experience handling insolvency, corporate, securities, complex commercial, and business tort disputes.
David has devoted his public interest practice to advancing LGBTQ rights. He wrote substantially on conversion therapy when he was a law student, and he went on to lead the team that secured a victory in New Jersey when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected efforts to reverse the state’s ban on conversion therapy.
David’s also represented four law professors as counsel of record in the US Supreme Court last year in the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case urging the court to retain the test for determining whether a law violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
In addition to his legal practice, David spearheads Selendy & Gay’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
David is member of the Judiciary Committee of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Greater New York (LeGaL) and the National Leadership Council for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. He has also delivered speeches about LGBTQ legal issues at multiple law schools.
David grew up on Long Island and attended Yale University before receiving his JD from Harvard Law School.
He lives in Manhattan with his husband, Eugene, and their Cavapoo, Theodore.
STEPHANIE M. FRIERSON
Registered Nurse, Brooklyn Plaza Medical Center (Rising Heights)
Stephanie M. Frierson is a registered nurse at Brooklyn Plaza Medical Center who prides herself on serving individuals in communities disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, homelessness, and substance use.
Stephanie has provided patients with medical care and social service programming, including housing assistance, HIV prevention, and wellness services. Many of the patients she cares for are members of the LGBTQ community, including people living with HIV/AIDS.
Stephanie strives to maintain a compassionate approach by communicating with patients to understand their needs and collaborating with physicians and other health professionals to coordinate care.
Stephanie received her first Bachelor’s Degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington before receiving an Associate’s Degree in nursing from the Phillips School of Nursing at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. In 2018, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in nursing from the University of Texas Arlington.
Among her qualifications, Stephanie is certified in basic life support, infection control, child abuse prevention training, and IV peripheral skills.
Co-Founder, Brighton Beach Pride (RUSA LGBT)
Lyosha Gorshkov is the co-founder of Brighton Beach Pride and a leader of RUSA LGBT, which brings queer visibility and advocacy to the Russian-speaking community in New York City.
Lyosha is from Russia but was forced to flee the country in 2014 after facing persecution as an out queer professor and LGBTQ rights advocate. Lyosha arrived in New York City and quickly became active in the Russian LGBTQ community in Brighton Beach.
Lyosha leads the annual Brighton Beach Pride March along the Riegelmann Boardwalk in southern Brooklyn. The march unites queer immigrants of all backgrounds and delivers an intersectional message of support to marginalized queer folks, including people of color, as well as transgender and non-binary individuals.
During the fifth annual Brighton Beach Pride March earlier this year, Lyosha said, “Brighton Beach is changing very slowly, but they know we are here. All of a sudden, homophobia has been exposed in Brighton Beach — and that’s the major achievement.”
Lyosha currently serves as the director of LGBTQ initiatives at Colgate University. Prior to that, Lyosha was a tenured professor and deputy dean at Perm State University in Russia; the care manager at the Alliance for Positive Change in New York; visiting scholar at Indiana University; and assistant director of the Pride Center and Women’s Center at Slippery Rock University.
MICHAEL T. MARINO
Board President, The HIV League
Michael Marino has spent years in the non-profit and higher education sectors as a fundraising leader and advocate through his work benefitting people living with HIV/AIDS, the LGBTQ community, and park preservation.
Michael has helped to produce the annual AIDS Walk and Dance-a-thon events in multiple cities across America, worked as a development officer at GMHC, and served as the director major gifts at the Empire State Pride Agenda.
Among other roles, Michael was the first associate director of development at BroadwayCares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) and was the managing development director at the Point Foundation, an LGBTQ scholarship fund.
He is also the board president and treasurer of the HIV League, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering the HIV community through scholarships, wellness, and education. The group has supported 90 students living with HIV, allocating nearly $300,000 since 2017.
Michael has spent the last decade and a half working in higher education, where he currently serves as the executive director of special projects at Long Island University.
Outside of his professional career, Michael is the founder and leader of a non-profit volunteer group called Friends of Corlears Hook Park, which helps preserve, beautify, and maintain a public park located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Michael holds a bachelor’s degree of Fine Arts from Pace University and a master’s of Public Administration from the New York University Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.
Pat Martin is the CEO of HarlemYES Inc., a community-based not-for-profit organization she founded in 2015.
Pat was born in South Carolina and raised in New York City, where her grandmother introduced her to community service and organizing.
In 1985, she left the corporate world to work as the project coordinator for a pilot program to integrate homeless children and families into programs and services provided by the Agency For Child Development and Police Athletic League.
She later founded “The Learning Connection 2001 Inc,” to bridge gaps between home and school by working with education officials to offer student-led workshops focused on building esteem, developing critical thinking skills, and resolving conflicts.
At HarlemYES, Pat works with her wife, Paulette Martin, and their team to create and produce several intergenerational programs and events for LGBTQ people and allies, including the first NYC Black Pride Women’s Forum, the Harlem Youth Entrepreneurial Spirit, Girls Empowerment Summit, and the LGBTQ Women of Color Summit.
In 2018 Pat co-founded the Masculine Identified Lesbians of Color Collective (MILCC), which provides a safe space and offers events and programs for lesbians of color who present as Masculine Identified/Masculine of Center.
Pat also enjoys producing a “Song of Legends” concert series for seniors. She sits on the executive board of the Arturo Schomburg Democratic Club and serves as chair of the club’s LGBTQ Committee. She is a member of Community Board 11.
ARMEN H. MERJIAN
Senior Staff Attorney, Housing Works (HIV Law Project)
Over the course of more than two decades with Housing Works’ HIV Law Project, attorney Armen H. Merjian has conducted impact litigation on issues involving HIV/AIDS, homelessness, public benefits, disability, gender, and housing discrimination.
Armen has litigated numerous landmark cases, including Hanna v. Turner, which gave homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS the right to receive same-day placement in emergency housing; and Henrietta D. v. Bloomberg, which established that failing to offer reasonable accommodations is an independent form of disability discrimination.
Among other cases, Armen helped land a victory in Bumpus v. New York City Transit Authority, which concluded that 40,000 transit authority workers would not be exempt from the city’s human rights law. He also worked on Wilson v. Phoenix House, which found that drug treatment programs must abide by New York State human rights law and respect protections for transgender individuals.
Armen is a co-author of the national treatise on AIDS, “AIDS and the Law,” and serves as a member of the American Bar Association’s HIV/AIDS Impact Project. He is a contributing author of the “Civil Rights Litigation and Attorney Fees Handbook” and “Tenants & Landlords NYC: Not a Love Story.” He is also the author of 18 law review articles on human and civil rights.
Prior to joining Housing Works, Armen was a solicitor at Herbert Smith and Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam, and Roberts. Armen graduated from Yale University and Columbia University Law School.
LUCCIANO E. REBERTE
Director of Community Engagement, Oasis Latino LGBTQ Wellness Center (Latino Commission on AIDS)
As a gay Latino immigrant living with HIV, Lucciano Reberte has been advocating for the rights of LGBTQ folks and people living with HIV since moving to New York City from Cordoba, Argentina, 11 years ago.
Lucciano is the director of community engagement at the Latino Commission on AIDS, where he leads a network of Latinx men who coordinate national, regional, and local LGBTQ initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS.
Among other posts, Lucciano is on the executive team of the OASIS Wellness Center, an initiative of the Latino Commission on AIDS, and he contributes as a volunteer for a group of HIV and LGBTQ activists working to address the impact of social determinants of health in his native Argentina.
Lucciano has long emphasized the importance of educating others as a way to combat HIV/AIDS. He starred in the first-ever Spanish-language TV ad for an HIV treatment in the United States, which he described as a milestone in his goal to destigmatize HIV/AIDS in the Latinx community.
His advocacy work has led to roles on multiple panels, including the New York City Latino Health Advocacy Day and the New York State AIDS Advisory Council Subcommittee on Latino Gay and Bi Men. Lucciano has also presented at the United States Conferences on AIDS, the New York State HIV Summit, and the International AIDS Conference.
LGBTQ and Social Justice Activist
Brian Romero is an activist, political leader, and educator who is the chief of staff to Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas of Queens.
As the assemblymember’s chief advisor on legislative and political affairs, Brian has supported her work in advancing legislation for LGBTQ rights in the chamber, including legislation for which she has been the prime sponsor.
He previously worked as the policy and census manager at GMHC, where he advocated for healthcare, immigration, criminal justice reform, and harm reduction policy at the city, state, and national level with a focus on HIV/AIDS policy. During Brian’s tenure at GMHC, he successfully advocated for the passage of legislation to provide free PrEP to survivors of sexual assault, as well as the Restoration of Honor Act and the repeal of the so-called “walking while trans” ban. He led the organization’s efforts in ensuring that communities of color and LGBTQ communities were counted in the 2020 Census.
Last year, Brian was also president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City. Under his leadership, the club mobilized hundreds of members to phone bank and get out the vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020.
He is passionate about building political power among LGBTQ communities of color and currently serves on the advisory council of Equality New York and the board of directors for the Latino Leadership Institute. In his local community, Brian is a member of Queens Community Board 1.
Brian is a three-time CUNY graduate and obtained his Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, where he has taught as adjunct faculty. He resides in Ravenswood, Queens.
Executive Director, Ali Forney Center
Alexander Roque is the executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and support services to queer young people.
Alex first joined the Ali Forney Center 2011 and worked to triple the organization’s budget, bolster programming and administrative capacity, and introduce corporate and community relations programs.
Following the departure of the organization’s founder, Carl Siciliano, Alex took over leadership of Ali Forney Center last year and has helped the group navigate the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic at a time when marginalized communities have bore the brunt of the crisis.
Previously, Alex worked in the foster care system, leading development and operations for a health charity. He mobilized a national field fundraising and operations model to raise funds for research, family services, and development.
Alex has also worked for the Center for Anti-Violence Education, an organization dedicated to uplifting women who have experienced sexual trauma, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of gender-based violence. In the past, he also worked with The Fibromyalgia Care Society of America, where he helped raise awareness about people living with fibromyalgia.
Three years ago, Alex was named to the board of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, leading him to work with the foundation’s leaders to support youth across the country and globally.
Alex resides in Brooklyn with his husband and their seven-year-old son.
Executive Vice President, Anat Gerstein, Inc.
Jeff Simmons, executive vice president at Anat Gerstein, Inc., has more than three decades of experience in private and public sector communications, media, and journalism.
In his role at Anat Gerstein, Jeff works with non-profits that advance social and racial justice and equity issues. Notably, he has worked over the last five years with Alliance for Positive Change, which provides support to New Yorkers impacted by HIV/AIDS, chronic health issues, and substance use.
Jeff currently hosts radio shows on WBAI 99.5 FM—Driving Forces on Thursdays at 5 PM and City Watch on Sundays at 10 AM — where he regularly focuses on issues important to underserved communities and consistently books prominent leaders in the LGBTQ community.
Jeff previously served as senior vice president for communications at the Alliance for Downtown New York and ran communications for former New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. While at the comptroller’s Office, he regularly spotlighted the agency’s efforts to ensure Fortune 500 companies adopt policies barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
A born and bred journalist, Jeff formerly worked at The (Bergen) Record of Hackensack, New York Post, New York Daily News, and NY1, where he led the station’s Pride coverage. It was during his time at The (Bergen) Record that Jeff penned a guest column for National Coming Out Day to educate readers about LGBTQ issues and his own personal journey.
Jeff lives with his husband, former New York City Council candidate Alfonso Quiroz, and two Brussels Griffons in Queens. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @JackHites.
NORMAN C. SIMON
Partner, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP
Norman C. Simon is a trial lawyer whose work has also included notable leadership roles in LGBTQ legal circles.
Norman is a partner with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP and serves as co-chair of Kramer Levin’s advertising litigation group. He works on behalf of brands in false advertising cases and he has long worked as an advertising attorney.
Norm’s other commercial litigation experience includes employment, contract and licensing disputes, and internal investigations.
Norm has complemented his successful corporate work with an impactful pro bono practice, playing a role in prominent LGBTQ rights cases of the past decade. Most recently, Norm was an author of an amicus brief on behalf of numerous major religious organizations in the Bostock v. Clayton County Supreme Court case.
Norm authored amicus briefs other major LGBTQ-related Supreme Court cases, including Lawrence v. Texas, US v. Windsor, and Obergefell v. Hodges. Norm also led a team of Kramer Levin lawyers in the litigation seeking marriage equality under the New York State Constitution.
Norm was previously the chair of the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda and has served for years on Lambda Legal’s national leadership council. He is also a member of the LGBT Bar Association of New York.
Program Director, Institute for Community Living
Lex Soto is a non-profit leader who has dedicated their career to helping LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and mental health issues.
Lex is currently the program director at Institute for Community Living (ICL), where they run an Article 31 outpatient clinic serving 68 individuals living with severe mental health issues. In this position, Lex has worked to advocate for the needs of LGBTQ people and give them a voice in spaces where they are often dismissed.
Lex has also worked with the agency to create trainings and programs to educate folks on how to best provide services and care for LGBTQ individuals.
Lex has been driven to help others since high school, but the most significant motivating factor came when their best friend was kicked out of her house after coming out as lesbian to her parents. From that point forward, Lex embarked on a mission to create safe and equal spaces for LGBTQ people.
Lex went on to major in women’s studies at the University of California, Riverside, working as a peer mentor for LGBTQ students struggling with their identities. As an intern working with homeless LGBTQ youth through the Ali Forney Center, Lex assisted individuals in obtaining stable housing.
One day Lex hopes to open their own non-profit to help queer folks who are in crisis and need immediate services that are not necessarily available at traditional clinics.
DR. JESS TING
Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai (CTMS)
Dr. Jess Ting is a trailblazer in gender-affirming care and heads up Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.
A native New Yorker, Jess originally pursued a career as a classical double bass player. Shortly before graduating from Julliard, however, he set his sights on becoming a doctor — a life-changing decision that would pave the way for a groundbreaking career in health care.
Jess worked in plastic surgery after graduating at the top of his class at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He shifted gears again in 2016 to focus on gender-affirming care and introduced a new, innovative approach to surgery that helped serve as a model for others in the medical field.
He performed the hospital’s first genital reassignment surgery in 2016, and the following year he launched a fellowship in transgender surgery.
Jess’ team has now logged over 2,000 gender-affirming surgeries for trans and non-binary patients, leading to recognition in a feature-length documentary called “Born to Be,” which received two Emmy nominations.
Jess has developed a strong reputation among patients for providing comprehensive, compassionate care, and he is known for his devotion to helping aspiring medical students as they prepare for their careers. He is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Founder, Black Trans Nation
TS Candii is an activist in the movement for social justice for Black and Brown transgender individuals in New York City.
As a former sex worker, TS Candii uses her first-hand experience with racial and transgender profiling, as well as employment and housing discrimination, to expose the roots of transphobia and white supremacy.
Last year, TS Candii founded Black Trans Nation and Black Trans Nation NY, which are organizations that seek to uplift Black and Brown trans people and gender non-conforming people by advocating for policy changes and working to elect trans people to public office.
TS Candii was instrumental in generating support among state lawmakers for the successful movement to repeal a state law known as a ban on “walking while trans,” and she has been a leader in the broader movement to decriminalize sex work. She also leads panel discussions on sex work, safety, and other issues.
TS Candii has been active in the community at critical junctures in LGBTQ activism in recent years, including when she delivered a fiery speech at the Stonewall Inn in June of last year just hours after the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the landmark Bostock v. Clayton County case.
EDUARDO “EDDIE” VALENTIN AND CASIMIRO VILLA
Co-Owners, Friend’s Tavern
Casimiro Villa and Eddie Valentin are the co-owners of Friends Tavern, an LGBTQ Latin bar in Jackson Heights that has operated since 1989.
Casimiro and Eddie started Friend’s Tavern as a neighborhood bar, but the establishment’s success translated into an expanded clientele that included individuals from across the city and around the world — including folks forced to flee persecution in their home countries. With a friendly staff and a vibrant atmosphere, the bar has become a mainstay in the community.
Casimiro and Eddie each carved out their own respective paths leading to their ownership of the bar. Casimiro is a Colombian immigrant who moved to New York in 1968, first starting as a laborer in manufacturing plants while simultaneously taking classes to learn English. He went on to work at Stouffer’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue before spending 15 years working at Pan-American Airways. Prior to the emergence of cell phones, he opened his first business, Tele-Express, to help New Yorkers call and send money to their families in Latin America.
In the meantime, Casimiro saved enough money to fulfill a dream of starting a gay-owned bar with bilingual staff, and he put an emphasis on cleanliness after he noticed many other LGBTQ bars — particularly those that were not owned by members of the queer community — were not appropriately maintained.
A year and a half after he founded the bar, Casimiro met Eddie, sparking a new chapter in the bar’s history and paving the way for the
partnership that remains strong today. Eddie was born in Williamsburg to Puerto Rican parents who purchased a home in Ridgewood, Queens, where they raised him and his five siblings. Eddie became as a tutor and worked jobs in financial planning and at the United Nations.
Casimiro and Eddie set out to make the bar as friendly as possible — hence the name Friend’s Tavern — and to carry out that mission they hired extra staff to keep the establishment in top condition for customers.
The bar also has also played an important role in spreading public service messages in the community. The team at Friend’s Tavern has worked with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to push for HIV testing and counseling and to promote the HIV prevention drug known as PrEP. The bar also donates costumes to kids in the neighborhood on Halloween, helps sponsor the LGBTQ prom in Queens, and supports toy drives for orphanages. During the coronavirus pandemic, Friend’s Tavern played host to the Love Wins Food Pantry.
The bar has been a source of consistency in an ever-changing city landscape: The only times Friend’s Tavern closed its doors were for renovations in 2013 and for three months during the coronavirus pandemic when they had no choice but to shut down.
Now Friend’s Tavern is entering a new phase. With support from Steve Garibell of TD Bank, Tom Grech of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz of Queens, Casimiro and Eddie are purchasing the building that houses their bar.
Financial Services Representative, New York Life, Long Island General Office
LJ Vogel, a financial services representative for New York Life in Long Island, is keenly aware of the economic challenges facing the LGBTQ community. LJ has experience helping queer and trans folks plan for financial hurdles, including gender-affirming surgery, legal name changes, adoption, and surrogacy.
A graduate of St. Johns University, LJ tutored youth at a community homeless shelter as part of the school’s Ozanam Scholars Program. While in college, Vogel launched the Social Justice Exchange, an independent student-run website where students share their perspectives on current events both on and off campus.
He later traveled to Puerto Rico to learn more about the experiences of people on the island who were facing financial and environmental hardship. LJ strives to use his background in finance to uplift disenfranchised people and help them build generational wealth.
LJ has also used his voice to stand up legislative attacks LGBTQ youth, including when he spoke and at a conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016. During his remarked, Vogel discussed the harmful effects of anti-trans discrimination and dispelled other transphobic narratives.
Ahead of the 2021 school year, Vogel helped kick off a local school supply drive. He is now co-facilitating a fundraiser to help raise money for caretakers and patients living with dementia at the New York Memory Center.
Co-Founder, Identity House
Lee Zevy is co-founder of Identity House, where she has spent five decades helping to lead the all-volunteer community non-profit in its work to provide counseling to LGBTQ adults.
Lee has served as an administrator, clinical director, and director of training at Identity House, in addition to her ongoing roles as therapist and supervisor.
Lee has been involved in activism for most of her life — which she attributes to her mother’s teachings and the circumstances of her upbringing during the fifties. She snuck in to watch longtime LGBTQ activist Randy Wicker deliver a speech at her college campus, and she went on to join the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She participated in the March on Washington, emboldening her activist spirit.
Lee attended Gay Activists Alliance meetings and became deeply involved in women’s rights initiatives, but subsequently focused more on a career path in social work to provide counseling to gay people, leading to the emergence of Identity House.
Lee pursued a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University and trained gestalt psychotherapy at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, where, as a fellow, she now teaches and supervises. In 1979, Lee left her job in social work with the City of New York and went into full-time private practice as an out lesbian therapist.
Lee continued to expand her expertise in 2001 when she became certified in integral coaching to assist clients working to build their careers.
Lee married her longtime partner, Lucy Ianniciello, in 2013 — 46 years after they met at Chelsea’s old French Hospital. Lucy passed away in 2017.
G. STERLING ZINSMEYER
Sterling Zinsmeyer spent his early career working for legendary theater and classical art producers Sol Hurok and Saint Subber. However, his career took a new turn following the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when he started creating special needs residences for people living with HIV/AIDS.
As a founding member of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, Sterling initiated meetings at the White House and Department of Housing and Urban Development to address housing issues pertaining to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Sterling also became active in local political circles, rising to serve two terms as president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City.
Nearly a decade ago, Sterling returned to the arts and started developing independent films. He served as an executive producer on the award-winning 2003 film “Latter Days,” the 2005 film “Adam & Steve,” the 2007 film “Naked Boys Singing!“ and other movies highlighting queer themes.
Sterling later created, developed, and produced the chamber opera “Fellow Travelers,” which explores the issues facing a closeted diplomat and a younger man working in the Senate during the McCarthy era. The New York Times featured the opera among “The Best Classical Music of 2016.”
Sterling is a board member of the Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe.
Sterling and his husband, Louis Bixenman, split time between New York and San Antonio.