The D.C. metropolitan area’s LGBTQ community is full of liveliness and vigor. Meet eight successful lesbian and queer women who share these traits.
Not only do we get a glimpse of their world, but these women also share insights gained during their professional journeys. Each one is not only a leader in her industry, but also an inspiration to her community.
We are happy to present our 2018 class of enterprising women.
Feature Photography by Denis Largeron
By Anying Guo
Vanna Belton noticed there was a distinct lack of something in the restaurant industry for the LGBTQ community. This thought prompted her to formulate what would become Flavor, a Baltimore-based restaurant that serves craft cocktails and signature fresh dishes.
Belton has worked in the food and hospitality and management industry for quite some time. Her first job was in the fast food industry at age 14 to help feed her family, evolving into traveling and opening steakhouses. Later, Belton and her partner at the time founded LGBTQ-focused Flavor.
With the support of the community, Belton was able to finalize financials after eight long months with the community writing letters of support for the LGBTQ-centered social space. Since then, Belton has seen Flavor grow into not only a restaurant but a successful catering business. Clients include John Hopkins University, University of Baltimore, and various corporations in the area. A second location recently opened in Baltimore’s Center Stage theater.
“What surprised me the most is as open as we are being LGBTQ-owned and operated, every sector of Baltimore has come to support us,” Belton says. “I love seeing everyone coming together under one roof and seeing that diversity in my dining room.”
Belton is optimistic about the future of Flavor. “The most rewarding part—hands down—is when a patron approaches me and says, ‘Thank you for doing this,’” says Belton. “It happens at least once a week and it always takes my breath away.”
By Eboné F. Bell and Vickey D. Casey
There are heroes that walk among us everyday, and Michelle Benecke is one of those heroes.
On July 20, 1993, the day after former President Bill Clinton announced “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT),” Benecke along with Dixon Osburn co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization committed to overturning DADT and providing free legal assistance to servicemembers and veterans affected by the DADT policy.
“I served during the 1980s when witch hunts by the military’s criminal investigators were rampant,” says Benecke. “There were only a handful of women in my branch of 55,000 men, and practically every one of us was accused of being gay and investigated, regardless of our actual sexual orientation.”
In law school Benecke’s research uncovered armed forces not only used the ban to root out queer women, but also to punish those with the courage to report sexual abuse. A journalist reported on the Parris Island witch hunt in which more than four dozen women were discharged or left the service.
Since then things have changed. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers can now live openly, but there is still work to be done for transgender individuals serving our country.
Benecke is dedicated to improving the lives of those around her and the communities she holds dear.
“I’ve simply been living life and trying to make a difference, whether as a military officer, non-profit leader, federal civil servant or in my local community. If that makes [me] an enterprising woman, then there are many of us.”
By Vickey D. Casey
When Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter-Poza was growing up in North Carolina, she could have never envisioned something like ‘Women Crush Wednesday.’ “To me, WCW is about creating an accessible, positive space,” she says. “That means actively trying to make sure people feel welcome, and you’ll find it’s not just me—it’s all of us. Our openness, warmth, and diversity, in all senses, is unique.”
Democratic politics brought Buckwalter-Poza to Washington, D.C. Here she covers the Supreme Court, judicial nominations, and civil rights as Daily Kos’ Judicial Affairs Editor, which she describes as her “dream job.”
The 2016 election inspired Buckwalter-Poza to create this inclusive and safe space for the district’s LGBTQ community. It started in June 2017 as a relaxed happy hour at Trade. Now, over 500 people use WCW to share and host events for D.C.’s queer women.
WCW provides this legal journalist with an opportunity to advocate for the communities closest to her heart, those to which she belongs. “Women and LGBT people, along with the Latinx community—these are the groups whose experiences are most personal for me,” she says. “All day I write about communities and people under threat; the last Wednesday of every month, I get to just be part of our community.”
“It’s not enough to write optimistic essays or develop legal theories that might work in court,” says Buckwalter-Poza. “We’re experiencing these violations now; being part of rallying our community members to embrace love and fight hate is the most immediate productive thing I get to do.”
By Annie Brown
June Crenshaw has devoted more than 30 years of service to D.C.’s LGBTQ community and the national fight for LGBTQ equality. Addressing issues from healthcare access to marriage equality to domestic violence and everything in between, Crenshaw has served on the board of Whitman- Walker Health, and in 2013, she was the first African-American woman to co-chair the Human Rights Campaign’s National Dinner. She currently sits on the board of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
Driven by a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place and be a voice for lesbians of color, youth, and vulnerable populations, Crenshaw says, “I am humbled that I am able to add visibility and to help light—and in some ways smooth—the path for those that need it most.” She is a founding member and the chair of the Rainbow Response Coalition, a grassroots organization that brings awareness to LGBTQ intimate partner violence and local resources available to survivors.
Crenshaw says she most exemplifies the enterprising spirit through her work with young black LGBTQ women through the Wanda Alston Foundation, which provides housing and support services to homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth ages 16 to 24. Soon after starting as the organization’s Interim Executive Director in April 2016, she met a young black lesbian living at the shelter who told her that she had never met someone like her. Crenshaw recalls, “She saw, maybe in me, her ability to overcome her current circumstances, to thrive, to be a spokesperson for her community.”
By Sondra Morris
Individuals outside of body and societal norms often worry for their safety in the hands of others. Licensed massage therapist Vanessa Crowley understands the struggles faced by many of her clients when it comes to bodywork. Crowley purposefully works to alleviate these fears, often by being authentically herself. Her education and everyday experience as a queer trans woman allow her to meet her clients on more than one level when it comes to body work.
“Being who I am conveys a sense to my clients that there are things that they don’t need [to] educate me about.” She explains, “For that moment, they can relax that part of themselves that they hold onto so tightly in order to keep themselves safe.”
Crowley found her way to bodywork after experiencing burnout from her deep involvement in organizing and activism for the LGBTQ community, particularly the trans community. Recognizing her need for self-care, Crowley delved into her spiritual practice. She shifted her perspective and in the process filled her world with a sense of magic, awe, and authenticity.
Crowley felt the call to become a healer and her work allows her to marry her spiritual and political experiences: through massage, she serves marginalized members of the community and contributes to the well-being of those currently engaged in activism.
Practicing in a location designed specifically for marginalized people is critical to Crowley’s work, making DC’s Freed Bodyworks a perfect fit. The holistic wellness center’s core statement, “there is no wrong way to have a body,” emphasizes a focus on safe space and respect for all.
By Sondra Morris
Poet, author, columnist, and inspirational speaker, Jeanette “Ms.NightLyfe” Ferrell deals in the power of words. Though she’s been writing since she was fifteen, she didn’t begin to publicly share her work until about ten years ago. After a judge ruled against her at the end of the custody battle for her son, Ferrell began performing poetry, finding healing and connection after the ruling.
Sharing her experience connects her to others who have gone through similar ordeals. “It’s allowing me to have conversations with other people about how they’re healing or even to encourage them to begin healing,” she says. In her most recent book, Reclaiming My Time: A Practical Guide to Self-Care, Ferrell informs readers, “You can put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting other passengers. If you’re empty then you cannot assist anybody fully.”
She attributes her ability to help others to self-care and what she’s coined ‘Productive Struggle’: the process of struggling through life when it’s hard, learning, getting to the other side to find out what it is you’re supposed to learn, and taking in the lesson so you can teach somebody else.
Ferrell’s dedication to bettering the world around her can be seen in her work: educating elementary-aged children, moderating community conversations, and lending her presence to community events. Ferrell founded Sweet Tooth Media in 2010 to create positive press and support for cultural trendsetters and revolutionaries in the community, establishing a space where creation, growth, and healing come together.
By Anying Guo
Sparked by her own dating and relationship experiences, Ashlee Keown, the founder of LezLink and an avid Janet Jackson fan, is creating a matchmaking medium based in Washington D.C. that brings new connections to those seeking (or not seeking) a relationship.
Keown, who has worked as a multidisciplinary business consultant in the art, film, and management sectors, wanted to cultivate a space where women who love women are allotted more opportunities to meet one another and develop new relationships, becoming a passion for Keown since.
LezLink provides in-person opportunities to meet one another, particularly through their signature happy hour events, for singles and those in relationships. Since its inception, Keown has seen the organization “[grow] tremendously,” with monthly happy hours nearly tripling in attendance and the addition of more single events without alcohol as a central point. She cites the monthly happy hour and Scavenger Hunts as her favorite events.
Though the organization places an emphasis on in-person, offline engagement, Keown spoke of a LezLink app that she has been coding almost entirely solo. Through feedback from the community and data collection, Keown sees more opportunity in both the in-person and digital platforms.
“One of the most rewarding moments I have had so far there was a love connection between two of my friends,” says Keown. “I would have never thought [they] would have the amount of chemistry that they do.”
By Vickey D. Casey
On August 1, 1997, a little shop filled with treasures, both old and new, opened in Adams Morgan. Over two decades later, Miss Pixie’s has expanded, bringing in truckloads of goodies twice a week. Pixie Windsor moved her antique shop to bustling 14th Street in 2008 and she can barely keep pieces on her the shelves. “I’ve always been interested in antiques. My great aunt, who I was very close to, was an auction goer and a collector. She was a big influence,” says Windsor.
Although there are very few queer women in antiques, the Cambridge, Maryland native has only good things to say about the district’s LGBTQ business scene. She was impressed with the way fellow women business owners have helped her thrive.
“Not sure I could do it anywhere else,” she says. Washington, D.C.’s ever changing landscape and population have also helped. As shoppers search through the century old pieces and newer ones, many can end their journey at Miss Pixie’s.
While customers meander through the aisles, Windsor and her staff split their focus between finding or purchasing beautiful products and creating a comfortable and inviting atmosphere for shoppers. “Our goal is to make sure that everyone is comfortable when they walk in the door,” says Windsor. “We make it very clear at Miss Pixie’s that we welcome diversity that we are very LGBTQ supportive. And good Lord. We always go out of our way to have a fantastic Pride window in June.”