Pride Month: Brave Woman Highlights
By Melanie Gasmen-Fleck
June is Pride Month! We’re honored to share the stories of four resilient women from the LGBTQ+ community. Each woman encourages inclusivity, visibility, and equality through their work.
1. MARSHA P. JOHNSON
Human rights activist & LGBTQ+ icon
Image from Petcor80
Marsha P. Johnson was an LGBTQ+ leader and a key figure from the Stonewall Riots, a pivotal turning point for the gay rights movement. She was a transgender woman, drag queen, and performer, and lived with fierceness. The “P” in her name stands for “Pay it no mind,” a phrase she would use when people judged her.
Marsha was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After graduating high school and serving for a brief time in the Navy, she booked it to New York City with just $15 and a bag of clothes.
Soon, people in Greenwich Village recognized Marsha and her expressive, colorful, and scrappy outfits. She was also known for her kindness and generosity. Even though she had little, she’d use her sparse earnings to buy others’ meals.
Throughout the 1960s, Marsha was arrested many times—simply for who she was. But on the night of June 28, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar that many gay, lesbian, and transgender people frequented, she resisted arrest. Alongside a crowd of people, she rioted against police and their unfair treatment toward the LGBTQ community. In the days that followed, she led protests to demand equality.
Marsha became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and helped organize the first-ever Pride parade, held on the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. With her friend and fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, Marsha co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
STAR supported and provided shelter for homeless transgender adolescents—the first organization in the U.S. to help LGBTQ+ youth. New York City officials would later honor Marsha and Sylvia with their own monuments in Greenwich Village (set to be installed by 2021).
Outside of advocacy work, Marsha performed with the drag theater group Hot Peaches, where she recited poetry, sang songs, and shared her gift for making people smile. Marsha even caught the eye of Andy Warhol, who included her in his Ladies and Gentlemen series.
In 1992, Marsha went missing and passed away—her death is still unknown. But her legacy lives on. Today, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute continues Marsha’s work and focuses on protecting and defending the rights of Black transgender people while creating a safe community for healing.
In her hometown of Elizabeth, a statue of Marsha will replace a Christopher Columbus monument after hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition to do so. The Mayor of New York also renamed a state park in Brooklyn to Marsha P. Johnson State Park. This is the first state park dedicated to an LGBTQ+ historic figure and a transgender woman of color.
2. DR. LAUREN ESPOSITO
Arachnologist & conservationist
Image by Arachnerds
Scorpions, and spiders, and venom—oh yes! With over 20 years of academic and fieldwork experience, Dr. Lauren Esposito is the go-to expert for all things arachnids.
As the Curator of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Lauren researches and documents the patterns and evolution of scorpions and spiders. She’s also one of the only, if not the only, women scorpion biologists in the world. How cool is that?
Lauren currently lives in San Francisco with her partner and two kids. For most of her career, she had never met another openly LGBTQ+ person in her field. So in 2018, Lauren co-founded 500 Queer Scientists. This project shares self-submitted biographies, photographs, accomplishments, and the sexual and gender identities of LGBTQ+ people worldwide who work in STEM. 500 Queer Scientists has now shared the stories of over 1,400 LGBTQ+ people.
She also created this group so individuals could feel more seen and less alone. It’s also an easy way for those in the community to connect and network with each other. The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals awarded her the 2019 Walt Westman award to recognize her advocacy work.
Years before 500 Queer Scientists, Lauren also co-founded Islands & Seas, a conservation nonprofit that creates small field stations worldwide with minimal environmental impact. These research stations will help scientists and local communities learn more about the biodiversity around them, and how they can best protect it. Islands & Seas’ first field station is in Baja California, where they worked with environmental groups and the public to stop an underwater mine from being built.
Lauren grew up in El Paso, Texas, where she loved exploring the desert climate, often studying and collecting bugs. Her parents, both biologists, nurtured her love for biology. They frequently visited her grandparents, who lived on a remote island in the Bahamas. During these trips, she would observe marine life daily.
She cultivated her interest in arachnology while interning at the American Museum of Natural History, where she returned to earn her PhD in biology. Afterward, she completed a fellowship studying scorpions in the Caribbean. Since then, Lauren has discovered around 30% to 50% of new scorpion species globally—an incredible feat that takes a lot of courage.
3. CHELSEA WOLFE
BMX freestyle rider
Image from Shred Girls
Chelsea Wolfe’s dreams are well within reach, and they’re Olympic-sized. She could be one of the first transgender atheletes to compete in the next Olympic Games, which will feature BMX freestyle events for the first time. Naturally, she’s pulling out all the death-defying tricks to get there.
As an official member of the USA Cycling National Team, Chelsea has traveled worldwide to compete. In 2019, she earned 5th place at the UCI BMX World Championships, which wrapped up her first year of competing internationally. Chelsea was also the first openly trans athlete to make the podium at the Championships. That same year, she placed third at the US National and Pan-American Championships.
In her USA Cycling team profile, she shares how “Qualifying to represent the US national team for the sport that I love is something I consider to be one of my life's greatest achievements. Through so many obstacles in my way on top of the standard challenges that every athlete will face when working for this dream I persevered and the difficulty of this task is why I'm so proud to accomplish it.”
Born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, Chelsea began BMX racing at age 6. When she turned 15 years old, she started freestyle BMX. She swapped her regular bike with a trick bike and began to learn different stunts.
Chelsea then competed in both state and national competitions, and gained BMX battle wounds along the way. Her injuries include smashing six front teeth, a crushed jaw, a fractured leg, a fractured vertebrae in her neck, and a broken nose.
Another blow Chelsea overcame while BMX riding: Cyberbullying. When she came out in 2014 as a trans woman, some of the BMX community disagreed with her competing. While they tried to exclude her, Chelsea stayed focused with her eyes on the prize: making BMX riding a career.
But the leaps and bounds Chelsea had to go through to compete internationally as a trans woman seem more complicated than her BMX stunts. It took her two years to gather and prepare the proper medical records and documents to apply to compete.
Chelsea’s passion for BMX shows through her many jaw-dropping bike tricks and turns. We hope to see her at the next Olympic Games and can’t wait to cheer her on!
4. DEBORAH VANTRECE
Award-winning chef & restaurateur
Chef Deborah VanTrece’s culinary inspiration comes from literally all over the world. Having jet-setted as a flight attendant for three decades, she soon became a fan of different cultures’ comfort food. In her own recipes, she pays tribute to the Southern dishes she grew up with, as well as these global flavors.
Her acclaimed Atlanta restaurant, which she owns with her wife, is perfectly named Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours—it serves soul food with a twist. Her recipes, like seafood beignets, hoisin oxtails with bok choy, and southern fried chicken with sweet potato apple chutney, tell stories through our taste buds. Twisted Soul’s food is all about celebrating togetherness, and her doors are welcome to anyone and everyone, however they identify.
Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Deborah was one of the only Black kids in her school. Her love for cooking started in seventh-grade home economics, and after seeing her passion for food grow, Deborah’s mom let her make dinner often. Deborah always dreamed of becoming a chef, but never saw a Black female chef, so she never thought it was possible.
After attending the University of Missouri, where she studied fashion merchandising, she moved to Atlanta and became a flight attendant. She loved seeing the world and learning about different cuisines. She especially enjoyed re-creating these international dishes at home.
Deborah made her career move in her mid-30s while raising her two-year-old daughter. She attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Atlanta, where she graduated as valedictorian. She soon became the executive chef for a catering company and had the chance to cook for foreign dignitaries at the 1996 Summer Olympics. (They praised her food, of course!)
Throughout her culinary career, Deborah has faced discrimination for being a queer Black woman. She has experienced racism since her time as a budding sous chef. That’s why she’s made it her mission to mentor young chefs, especially those from marginalized groups.
Deborah has a long list of accolades, including recognition from Zagat, Eater, the Georgia Voice, and Thrillist. She’s also made appearances on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. If you want to try your hand at cooking her delicious recipes, check out her first cookbook, The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors.