By Sondra Morris
In the LGBTQ community, religion can be complicated. Many of us have been turned away for how we identify. Thankfully, Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams offers a safe haven in Empowerment Liberation Cathedral (ELC), a church where individuals can worship and build community while openly living their truth.
Bishop Abrams came to ordained ministry while in the midst of another path: having received a BSME in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University. She was two years into her studies at Miles Law School when she accepted through pulpit ministry the call to faith work. In 2001, she was ordained by the American Baptist and Progressive National Baptist Convention and by 2005 she’d earned a Masters and a Doctorate of Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of Dayton, Ohio. In 2012, she was consecrated a Bishop by an Ecumenical College of Bishops.
In 2013, she married Bishop Diana Williams. Her announcement of their same- sex union caused division within Bishop Abram’s former church, Zion Progress Baptist Church in Detroit. She decided to resign, leave Detroit, and continue her calling, eventually founding Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.
A D.C. area church “for all of God’s people,” ELC intentionally welcomes LGBTQ identities through inclusive affirming theology. As ELC’s pastor, Bishop Abrams offers LGBTQ members an opportunity they are often denied: the ability to hold leadership positions—such as Deacon or minister—within the church.
ELC practices baptizing congregants in their authenticity. Bishop Abrams explains, “Many people were baptized as children (before they were able to embrace who they are) or they had to hide their queer identity.” With this practice, Bishop Abrams, who loves serving in her authenticity, provides her congregation healing and a chance to embrace religious commitment in full celebration of who they are as individuals.
By Vickey D. Casey
Sara Knotts wasn’t looking for a role in finance, however she found a job with an organization helping to make Washington, D.C. just a little better. The Greenville, NC native earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in Operations Management from East Carolina University. She joined HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) in 2013 as their Operations Manager and later accepted a promotion to Director of Finance and Operations in 2016. According to their website, “HIPS promotes the health, rights, and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by sexual exchange and/or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance.”
Over time, Knotts watched a tiny six-employee office located in a strip mall grow into a flourishing nonprofit. “When I started, I knew nothing about nonprofit finance, I knew about accounting, but I didn’t know about nonprofit accounting,” she says. The organization invested in her education, providing training and an environment where she is thriving.
Although Knotts doesn’t work within direct services, she takes pride in her team, naming them as the favorite part of her job. Naturally, the role comes with challenges but working with an organization that helps to improve the lives of countless vulnerable people, including the LGBTQ community, is gratifying.
“It’s just so frustrating that we have a system that oppresses sex workers and drug users. We’re all just people trying to get by [and] everybody deserves access to help, care, and love,” says Knotts. “I feel good that I’m involved in part of the solution. I feel frustrated that so many people don’t see evidence based public health responses as a valid tool to support people.”
When Knotts isn’t at work, she is enjoying her Laurel, Maryland home with wife, Elizabeth, and furry babies Smoosh, a Persian flat-face cat, and Violet, a golden doodle puppy.
Elizabeth Lindsey runs a nonprofit organization called Byte Back, where she teaches people how to use computers and use those skills to get jobs in IT and other computer-based careers. Students can begin learning how to send an e-mail, and end up being certified in how to troubleshoot so ware problems. The organization has been in operation for 21 years, and has been featured on NBC’s Harris’ Heroes.
Byte Back is led by queer women of color. On all levels of the organization, there are people, including Lindsey, who identify as queer. “It’s important for the students, volunteers, and staff to see that Byte Back represents and supports a diverse community,” says Lindsey.
They mainly focus on how to train people as IT Help Desk Technicians, Support Specialists, and other general administrative jobs. There are a lot of openings in these careers, and Lindsey wants to give people the technical skills that will bring them success.
“We predominantly train people of color – about 98%. Most of them are unemployed, and 30% have insecure housing,” says Lindsey. Within that group, there are a number of younger people as well, even though the average age of the students is 42. “We’re getting to people who have been left behind by the digital economy.”
After training with Byte Back, students who go on to get jobs will make an average of $24,000 more per year than they did before.
Lindsey has built an organization that’s helping people in the community to gain skills and move into careers that change their lives.
When Alesia Lucas isn’t working as the National Digital Manager for Service Employees International Union, vlogging about the Eurovision Song Contest, or creating a podcast about a group of queer friends living in Washington D.C., this style icon is creating safe spaces for LGBTQ women of color. Lucas, originally from Northwest D.C., graduated from Hampton University with a Bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism. After graduating, she was responsible for organizing events for DC’s Mix 107.3 and Z104.
She attended many LGBTQ events and realized that the loud music, subpar food, lack of space, and large cover charges were not always ideal. So, she created something a little different. “I thought, can I do something where we can drink, have an open bar, dance, and be 420 friendly?” she says, “Why not?” Lucas describes her parties as “one-part lituation-dance fest and one-part chill music video session with a dash of laughs.”
Along with surrounding her guests with a curated playlist and filling them with delicious food from local vendors, hosting these nights in her home shrouds her guests in a blanket of safety. “When I host parties, I can control the situation,” she says, ensuring a quality experience for everyone. She attributes her success to both gained experience and planning the party she, a young queer professional living in D.C., would want to a end. Lucas does her best to go above and beyond for the community she loves, and her dedication to black queer joy shines through in her work.
Though Jo McDaniel has years of service experience under her belt, she was not prepared for the personal impact A League of Her Own, a queer women’s bar located in Adams Morgan, would have on her.
From the inception of the bar, owner David Perruzza and McDaniel wanted A League of Her Own (ALOHO) as a “conduit for the [LGBTQ] community,” a space specifically geared towards the queer women’s community that could both act as a haven and a place of recreation and interaction. What truly makes ALOHO stand out, not just as a queer women’s bar but a safe space for the LGBTQ community. McDaniel has an unparalleled dedication to putting the community and its needs above all else.
“People throughout the queer spectrum and spectrum of presentation and identity are who we are interested in providing for and protecting, quite frankly,” she explains. “Everyone is welcome at ALOHO. Period.”
She feels “incredibly blessed” to have worked at Apex—a long-standing gay nightclub that closed in 2011—since her early 20s, especially as a single mother. In addition to being a pro in the industry, McDaniel also won Stoli’s Key West Cocktail Classic in 2018, raising $10,000 for Casa Ruby. She was the first D.C. woman to win the competition. “I actually watch the video of my finale performance from time to time, to remind myself of what I’m working towards, and the representative I want to be,” she says.
At ALOHO, she watches “something incredible” happen every day at the bar, grateful for being in the space and community for the past six months.
“My outlook on the queer community hasn’t changed so much as I’m noticing where I can be of service to it,” says McDaniel.
With Monika Nemeth’s strong interest in politics and love for her community, her decision to be a part of her Advisory Neighborhood Committee (ANC) is not surprising. What she didn’t expect was how running for and having the position allowed her to recognize how important her visibility was.
“Politics has always interested me, but it wasn’t that time in my life [to pursue it],” says Nemeth, who is a part of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Party and is an active volunteer for Capital Pride. Prior to her election to the ANC as the first openly transgender woman, Nemeth had run before, losing by just six votes.
“I did have [apprehension] when I first ran,” she says. “Being transgender really wasn’t an issue. I didn’t want it to be the issue – I didn’t want people to vote for me just because I’m transgender.”
But she found herself realizing that being a transgender woman in politics allotted her a new kind of visibility. But under the current administration, Nemeth saw her community come under fire for the simple act of existing and realized just how important her ANC position and visibility would be to others
around her and others like her.
As someone who describes herself as a “very private person,” this change in visibility was difficult. But it’s evident through the trans pride flag outside of her home and on the back of her business cards that she’s fully leaned into her new, highly visible role.
“That has become my mission in life, to be a highly visible trans woman,” she says. “I’ve been here for a long time and have seen a lot of bigotry, oppression, hate, and we should be standing up, being loud and saying we’re here and being highly visible.”
Lina Nicolai and her mother immigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy when she was eight years old. After working in the food and beverage industry for many years, they decided to start their own business. They opened Al Crostino, an Italian restaurant with neopolitan and seafood recipes handed down from the matriarchies of their family.
But more than the restaurant, it’s the second floor of Al Crostino that has made her an enterprising woman. Last year, Nicolai opened XX+ Crostino, an upscale lounge for queer women in the D.C. area. She wanted to create a space that catered to women, a place that could bring together a community. “When I was younger, I would go to Phase One because that was the only place I knew to meet women who like women,” says Nicolai. But after Phase One closed in 2016, there were only one-off events, which made it more difficult to find and keep up with a cohesive community.
But Nicolai has created a way to do just that. At XX+, you can go to a variety of events: comedy shows, art galas, themed karaoke nights, open mic nights, pool tournaments, and film screenings, to name a few. There are always new events, and their calendar stays up-to-date on social media.
But Nicolai doesn’t just let the events soley do the work of creating community – she also takes on the task. “We try to foster a welcoming atmosphere,” she says. “If I see someone by themselves, I get to know them a little, and introduce them to other people at the bar.”
With XX+, Nicolai has created a chic, elegant place to meet new friends or make a date.
Seven years ago, Dr. LaNail R. Plummer-Marcano co-founded EMC2 Educational Consulting & Mental Health Counseling intent on strengthening the community around her. The company’s work is comprised of three services: it provides mental health care to individuals, couples, families, and companies; offers educational consulting to agencies, organizations, and schools along the East Coast; and provides mental health counselors a workplace where they are free to be themselves.
In understanding the struggles of intersecting identities—Black, women, parents, queer—EMC2 offers clients a relatability few other practices can. Dr. Plummer-Marcano recruits a diverse staff to ensure safety and sanctity in healing sessions. She states, “It’s important to provide a place for healing where people can be themselves and talk freely.” Through a range of theoretical applications and therapeutic interventions, Dr. Plummer-Marcano and her team focus on transparency, healing, and processing, while disbanding myths and notions of “defects.”
While her expertise as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC-MD), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC-DC), Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS), and Board Certified-TeleMental Health (BC-TMH) counselor ground her practice, she employs a holistic approach. “When I talk about mental health, I consider more than the chemical situation of the brain: I’m also focused on the mind, body, and identity that were created through multiple sources of self, family, society, politics, and spirituality. I look at the client as a comprehensive person versus the sum of their self-identified concerns,” she clarifies.
Dr. Plummer-Marcano credits this mindset with her own success. Apart from EMC2, she is a wife and mother of two, a US Army Veteran who’s worked with the service’s LGBTQ contingent, a full-time faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctor of Education within the Mental Health Field. She thrives by maintaining her spirituality, trusting her faith, and spending time with her family.
SaVanna Wanzer is a community activist and visionary. She’s the founder of Capital Trans Pride and the new event, “May is? All About Trans.” Both of these draw together members of the transgender community, allies, colleagues, family, and friends. It’s as much as a celebration as it is a place for workshops, networking, and panel discussions.
In her events, Wanzer facilitates discussions about mental health, dressing for success, religion, housing, and HIV/AIDS. Her events include an all-transgender art show, open mic night, and a resource fair. This May, her organization will also have a showing of TransMilitary, a documentary following four transgender service members.
Wanzer works hard to bridge the gap between different communities, because her work is so inherently intersectional. She works with DC Black Pride to create connections between the Black and LGBTQ communities. She believes that in all of her advocacy work, the top three issues facing her communities are mental health, physical health, and justice. She hopes to address them all through workshops, performances, and panels. “I want the community to get a better understanding that this is a ‘we’ thing,” she says. “We’re all in it for the betterment of everyone.”
Working on the business side of a nonprofit as an activist takes a lot of hard work. Acquiring sponsorships and funding for these events is a skill that takes many years to learn. She continually meets with other like-minded organizations to see if their mission statements align with Capital Trans Pride and “May Is? All About Trans.”
From outside the community, she wants trans people to be honored and respected. She also wants to offer the most support possible, so that someday she can “walk into the pharmacy or a doctor’s office and see a trans person behind the counter.”