Good people doing great work in Kansas City
by Jen Harris
We all know them. They are our friends, our family, our neighbors and our colleagues. They are a collection of diverse, passionate leaders who do not gauge their work in hours, but rather, results. They are tireless and ever-confident in the possibility of transformation, seeing every need as an opportunity for improvement.
LGBTQIA activists, paid or voluntary, are the backbone of the Equality movement. They are the courageous conductors of change. Without the individuals who place the betterment of the whole over the priorities of self, the front lines of the revolutionary movement would be stagnant, or worse yet, nonexistent. Invoking their skills, talents and resources, these individuals are sterling examples of good people doing good work in our community. Starting now and throughout upcoming issues, Community Spotlight will focus its lens on the people behind the logos, the commercials, the rallies, the fundraising and the legislation to acknowledge, with great pride, their efforts that unite our communities and keep equal rights to the forefront of the debate.
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Just seven short months ago D. Rashaan Gilmore joined the KC CARE Clinic as the Prevention Coordinator. This role needed the perfect mixture of ingenuity, entrepreneurism and passion, and Gilmore has it all. In 2011 the KC CARE Clinic received a highly competitive 5-year, $1.6-million dollar grant directly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to fund programs on HIV/AIDS prevention, reduction, education, awareness and treatment.
In conjunction with the Good Samaritan Project, Gilmore took on the role of leadership and coordinated Project I Am as a means to engage young black men who have sex with men (MSM) “in meaningful conversations around safer sex; encourage them to take advantage of HIV counseling and testing services, and empower those men that are currently living with HIV to live meaningfully.” While the grant allows the KC CARE Clinic, Gilmore and his associates to work with the demographic of African-American MSMs from the ages of 13-29, Gilmore focuses his primary efforts on males age 17-29.
“In 2009, for the first time in the history of HIV/AIDS, the HIV infection rate of African-American males aged 16-24 exceeded the infection rate of white males of any age,” said Gilmore. “The 13-17 age range is hard to access for safer sex education because you have to go through their school, which is extremely difficult to navigate. African-American males 18-24 years old have the highest infection rate for several factors including stigma around testing. It is sometimes assumed that because you chose to get tested for HIV/AIDS, you have a reason to get tested rather than just being cautious.
“KC CARE Clinic is the nation’s largest free health clinic but we hadn’t initially done the best job of cultivating relationships with the black community. When I came on board I realized that the missing link was community, building relationships, and because we’ve focused on building relationships within the community we’ve seen huge success in the past seven months than we hadn’t seen in two years.” Gilmore focuses his efforts on the black community but reiterates that “it is not to the exclusion of others. We want everyone at the table to bring more resources, vision and criticism to help us build this project.”
Who: Felicia Kyle
What: Volunteer, Board Member
Where: LIKEME Lighthouse
In 2010 singer-songwriter Chely Wright shook the very foundation of country music when she came out as a lesbian. After releasing her autobiography “Like Me,” a new album “Lifted Off the Ground,” and the documentary “Wish Me Away” following her coming out process, Wright opened a center for the LGBT community in her hometown of Kansas City in March 2012. Enter Felicia Kyle. Since the beginning Kyle has played numerous important roles at the Lighthouse coordinating events, heading up the newsletter, serving as a board member and being a mentor to the innumerable individuals who visit the center every year in search of community, resources, safety, and hope.
“My involvement with the (LGBT) community was limited without the Lighthouse,” said Kyle. “At the former LGBT center, I worked the front desk and ran a book club which met at the center for six years.”
Eventually the center closed and when the Lighthouse opened in Kansas City, Felicia felt inspired to get involved. “Everything that matters to me is in the Lighthouse,” said Kyle. “Every day is different. Somebody comes in and tells me their story and it inspires me. I will have a conversation with anyone about anything, that’s what I do best. I’m the ambassador – someone who speaks for both sides. I think I have to because it’s just the right thing to do. I’m in a place where I can. I have time, resources. I have maturity. I have focus and I want the world to be a better place. This is what I can do.
“It matters that I help make an opportunity for others to thrive because everyone is seeking something, and if I can help them find it through the resources at the Lighthouse, then, by golly, I’m going to do that. This culture needs that. We need to acknowledge the true meaning of community. In certain stages of our lives, when dealing with acceptance of who we are, it’s very much more important to have a support network. If there’s no acceptance within ourselves and no acceptance within our world, home, work, church, wherever it may be – then, we’re at a loss. We (the Lighthouse) want to be a place of acceptance. On a deeper level, it’s about the process of accepting and loving who we are. So, I do what I can.”
Who: Kyle Piccola
What: Senior Field Organizer
Some of Kansas City’s brightest new stars are just that … brand new. Kyle Piccola moved from Denver in November when his partner was transferred to Kansas City for work. Piccola has a long history in government and LGBT advocacy, including being Volunteer of the Year for the Boulder County AIDS Project, working as the Community Outreach Director for the Colorado State Senate Majority and he was the Legislative Aide for openly gay Colorado legislator Pat Steadman. Through his work with Steadman, he assisted in passing Senate Bill 11, the Civil Unions Bill.
“I’ve been pursuing this effort for a lot of my adult life,” said Piccola. “Volunteerism is so important, fighting for something, having a passion, even if people don’t feel like their work is making a difference in the world they can have a passion that they pursue. It’s so important to be a part of something that’s important to you. There are rewards that are so much greater than what you’re giving to the community.”
One month after he arrived in Kansas City, PROMO reached out to Piccola to be its Kansas City representative. PROMO’s formal mission is to mobilize and engage the community by connecting and collaborating with existing organizations and residents to get them involved in legislation on a state level.
“There are two sides to a nonprofit like PROMO,” said Piccola. “There’s the community engagement side and there’s the political side. We balance both. Did you know that in Missouri you can still legally be fired for being gay, regardless of job performance? At the state capital, we are supporting two major bills: MONA, the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act which will include gender identity and sexual orientation into the Human Rights Act of Missouri which protects employment, housing and public accommodations. Race, age, gender, religion and disability are already protected. Another bill that we’re working hard for is Safe Schools Act, and the mission of that bill is to get really effective non-bullying curriculum in all schools across the state.”
Piccola expressed tremendous pride regarding the substantial amount of signatures PROMO has received in its effort to engage businesses in the fight for equality. “We’ve gotten more than 500 signatures from businesses across the state to sign in support of MONA, including six Fortune 500 companies. Sprint and AMC are both on the list,” said Piccola.
Who: Mark Manning
What & Where: Host/Producer, Wednesday Midday Medley, 90.1 KKFI (and former board member) and Coordinator at KCK Organic Teaching Gardens.
If you haven’t seen him on a Kansas City theater stage, perhaps you’ve heard him host the Wednesday MidDay Medley from 10 a.m. to noon on Kansas City’s community radio station, 90.1 KKFI. Undoubtedly you’ve encountered Mark Manning at some point if you’ve been active in Kansas City within the last 25 years. “I joke now that I wouldn’t have become an activist until I got kicked in the head and I did … I had my skull cracked open,” said Manning. “I saw everything different after that.”
He’s referring to July 4, 1989, when, outside a gay bar on Main St., Manning was viciously attacked. “That experience changed my whole life,” he said. “It fueled me to become an activist, to tell the truth, the whole truth, to write it down and act it out on stage, to become a part of my community.” Manning co-founded the Big Bang Buffet in 1990, which serves as safe space with staunch dedication to anti-censorship coupled with the performing arts. His work in theater has received substantial acknowledgement and awards. He remains consistently involved in performing arts, charity and activism work and is active on the music scene, but it’s Manning’s work as the coordinator for the Kansas City Kansas Organic Teaching Gardens that’s a subtle change of pace.
The KCK Organic Teaching Gardens is an initiative of The University of Kansas School of Medicine, Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity, Health Career Pathways Program, K-12. That’s a mouthful! To hear Manning discuss the organic gardens and the students he works with, you’d never know that Manning serves 1,300 students in seven schools in Kansas City, Kan. He’s got that easy, breezy demeanor, but the details are astounding.
“We do three plantings and three harvests during the school year,’ he said. “We have seven raised beds where we plant more than 625 sweet potato plants. Students plant them at the end of the year and they are harvested by the next generation of students. During the school year I do 37 workshops a month including sweet potato workshops, which yield 900 pounds of sweet potatoes from the harvest. The curriculum changes on a month by month basis.”
Who: Ryan Gove
What & Where: Co-founder, Millennial League, Board Member of Hope Care Center, co-chair AIDS Walk Kansas City
Ryan Gove’s enthusiasm for bringing Generation Y to leadership roles in the community is unparalleled. Six years ago, Gove got involved with AIDS Walk Kansas City as a walker and fundraiser. His deep sense of purpose and excitement for community activism began to grow when further research and volunteer efforts led him to the projects like SAVE Inc., The Good Samaritan Project, and Hope Care Center.
“It was really exciting to me to learn that the money we raised in AIDS Walk stayed IN our community to help those with HIV/AIDS find housing, adequate health care and education,” said Gove. “Chadwick Brooks and I co-founded the Millennial League in 2008 when we noticed two things: first, the HIV/AIDS infection rate among young people was increasing, and secondly, we realized the leaders in these community organizations had been doing their jobs for decades and they can’t do it forever, but we didn’t see a lot of people our age (Millennials) getting involved.”
Gove, the director of student life at the University of Kansas Medical Center, decided it was time to give his peers an opportunity to join the fight. “We decided we need to do something about the absence of (young volunteers). One of our goals is to create a new generation of leaders. Everyone on the board of the Millennial League is under 30, and we work to promote and educate our peers on HIV/AIDS,” said Gove. “HIV/AIDS is preventable, and being educated will help you protect yourself. It is also manageable and treatable and that’s where organizations like Hope Care Center come into play. These days, most people with access to skilled health care are living with HIV/AIDS and dying of other diseases, but skilled nursing is essential.”
Playing a swing position and young Dorothy in the recent Late Night Theatre production of “Golden Girls Gone Wild!” Gove was part of a team that helped raise more than $5,000 for the 2014 AIDS Walk Kansas City. “My motivation goes back to being an educator,” he said. “I want people to be aware and understand what’s happening around them. I don’t want people to be bystanders in their lives. Come. Participate. TAKE ACTION! Be a part of something and fight the stigma.”
Who: Sandra Meade
What & Where: State Chair, Equality Kansas and Host, Trans Talk of The Tenth Voice (fourth Saturday of each month) on 90.1 KKFI.
Elected to the position of State Chair of Equality Kansas in January 2014, Sandra Meade served for two years prior as the chair of the local Kansas City Metro Chapter of Equality Kansas. A former Navy veteran and civilian contractor for the Department of Defense and the recipient of a math and science degree from Central Missouri State, Meade is now one of the leading spokespersons in Kansas for LGBTQIA equality.
“I am out publically as a transgender woman” says Meade, who works tirelessly and spends innumerable hours in legislative chambers, at town hall meetings, and in the face of the utmost adversity with the confidence and understanding that the only way to achieve both cultural and legislative change is through visibility and education.
“Equality Kansas is the only statewide LGBT advocacy organization in the state of Kansas,” said Meade. “We do legislative advocacy on behalf of the community by maintaining a presence at state capital when the Legislature is in session and we do local community advocacy such as ordinances and partnerships.”
In February, Equality Kansas played host to a highly successful Equality Day of Action at the statehouse in Topeka alongside the ACLU, Americans United, Mainstream Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign where residents were invited to meet with their legislators and discuss a wide variety of LGBTQIA related subjects. This is just one of the many opportunities Equality Kansas organizes to provide Kansas residents real, tangible prospects for change. For being the epitome of courageousness during such a pivotal transition in our country’s history, Meade is humorous, calm, collected and humble.
“I do what I do for the children,” said Meade. “I’m tired of hearing about another child whose been bullied to death. Growing up, I felt shame and guilt while I was in hiding. I do what I do so that future kids like me don’t have to hide. I want them to be welcomed into a society that acknowledges and respects their dignity.”
Who: Spencer Brown
What & Where: Entertainer/ Femme Mimic: Daisy Buckët, Kinsey Sicks: Trampolina; AIDS Walk Fundraiser, Hamburger Mary’s Charity Host
It’s been eight years since Spencer Brown first transformed into Daisy Buckët and seven years since Team Buckët took AIDS Walk Kansas City by storm, raising more than $100,000 through private efforts. Brown, who’s easy to identify as Kansas City’s most illustrious blond bombshell when in costume as Daisy, (or as the hilarious Trampolina in the sensational Acappella / Beautyshop Quartet, The Kinsey Sicks) is as kind and humorous as you would expect any public figure to be. But this sincerity is just that, sincere. Brown is a graduate of the world-renowned American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York who got his first opportunity to perform in drag after moving back to Kansas City post-graduation. His mentor, Missy Koonce, persuaded him to devise a character during his time as a singing bartender at Bar Natasha.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “Drag has become so mainstream; we’re now the go-to entertainers. Why hire a princess for your 12-year-old’s birthday party when you can hire a drag queen?”
Brown realized the power of his persona when the bookings requests kept coming in, more and more frequently. “I help out wherever I can, especially with charity events. I do Wednesday charity bingo at Hamburger Mary’s for local nonprofit organizations like the Animal Rescue Alliance.” Gushing about his gratitude for his theater parents and mentors Missy Koonce and Ron Megee of Late Night Theatre, Brown credits them with guiding him to where he is today.
“I am so lucky that people have embraced what I do,” Brown said. “I do what I do to increase visibility of the LGBT community. When I host the brunches at Mary’s, 90 percent of the audience is straight. And I think, ‘Why are they there?’ Well, they’re there to have a good time and let loose … maybe see a little bit about what ‘the life’ is like.
“Ten years ago straight parents wouldn’t have brought their kids to brunch at Hamburger Mary’s and given their kids dollars to tip the entertainer. A lot of people have come before me, and I now recognize that there are kids who need positive examples and people who need to feel comfortable being themselves. My goal is connect with that audience.”