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Vital Stories

Celebrating LGBTQ+ Activists During Pride Month

Vital Strategies
Bottom left to right: Heezy Yang, Jason Jones 
Top left to right: Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Pamela Sneed, and “the everyday queer person who is not necessarily known or famous but is living out their authentic life in their own context and is also an integral part of the community.” 
Illustrator: Ludi Leiva 

This Pride Month we are celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other (LGBTQ+) activists who have advanced the rights and well-being of LGBTQ+ people in their countries and around the world.  

Originally marked as a month to remember the Stonewall uprising in New York, Pride Month is an opportunity to reflect on the efforts of generations of LGBTQ+ people who made tremendous progress in the journey toward equality—while also highlighting that we have much further to go. 

Many of the people we are highlighting were touched by the AIDS crisis—both personally and as organizers who were instrumental in fighting it. To this day, LGBTQ+ people continue to be disproportionately affected by AIDS and face a higher prevalence of certain cancers, HPV infections and sexually transmitted diseases. Addressing the unique health needs of LGBTQ+ people is a public health priority.   

We are also honoring the people whose work improved the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people—by helping to create safe spaces for LGTBQ+ people through art, by fighting legal battles to challenge discriminatory laws and achieve legal recognition for those who don’t identify within the gender binary. 

Heezy Yang 

Queer artist and activist 

Yang was born in Seoul, South Korea. He performs in drag as “Hurricane Kimchi” and founded the Seoul Drag Parade, an annual celebration to bring visibility to LGBTQ+ people in Korea. Yang also founded the organization and group “LGBTQIA And Allies In Korea,” which connects Korea’s LGBTQ+ community with English-speaking supporters all over the world and helps bring international support and attention to issues facing LGBTQ+ people in South Korea. Yang frequently hosts queer art events, drag shows and fundraisers for Korean queer organizations. Yang also writes and contributes thought pieces about issues facing LGBTQ+ people in South Korea. Most recently, he published an article on how LGTBQ+ people in South Korea were targeted with hate and homophobia after a pocket of COVID-19 infections was linked to a large gay club in Seoul. In his view, it was reminiscent of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.—where gay men were blamed for the health crisis.  

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi 

Transgender activist, dancer and actress 

Tripathi was born in Thane, India. She is part of a centuries-old transgender community in India, the hijras. While hijras were revered in the country in ancient times, they have since become marginalized in many parts of the subcontinent. Tripathi is a leading voice for the rights of hijras in India. During the early days of the AIDS crisis, Tripathi was one of the first activists to demand that the government include hijras as a distinct category in their anti-AIDS programs. In 2002, she became one of the founding board members of Dai Welfare Society, the first registered and working organization for hijras in South Asia. She later founded her organization Astitiva (existence) to promote the welfare of sexual minorities. In 2014, Tripathi was the plaintiff in a historic lawsuit, winning legal recognition of a “third gender” from the Supreme Court in India. Tripathi frequently works with the United Nations to advance the rights and health of transgender people. She was the first transgender person to represent the Asia-Pacific region at the U.N., and is currently working with UNAIDS on “IASTITVA” (I exist), an app that will help track services and facilities to connect transgender people with HIV care. 

Jason Jones 

LGBTQ+ and human rights defender 

Jones was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago to an English mother and Trinidadian father; he refers to himself as “Tringlish.” As a child, he developed a love for the arts and moved to London to study theater and acting. Upon his return to Trinidad, he participated in a drag show that made the front page of the newspaper and angered his family, who kicked him out leaving him homeless. It was at this time that the AIDS crisis was spreading around the world, and Trinidad had the highest mortality rate per capita. Jones co-founded the organization The Lambda Group,” which focused on fighting AIDS and for equal rights.   

Upon moving back to the U.K., Jones joined the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group (formerly known as the Stonewall Immigration Group) in a fight—which was ultimately won—for the rights of same-sex partners of U.K. citizens overseas to be granted residency. Later, Jones brought a case to the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago to overturn the “buggery laws” left from British colonial rule, which described “homosexual acts” as being either buggery or “gross indecency”. The law also penalized those accused to 25 years to life imprisonment. Jones won the case in 2018; leading to the decriminalizing of over 100,000 people in the country. His historic win was appealed by the government of Trinidad & Tobacco, in 2025, he will go before the U.K Privy Council to fight this case again. This is the first time the council will hear an LGBTQ+ decriminalization case, his victory there would contribute to the decriminalization of over 50 million people in at least 10 other countries. 

Pamela Sneed 

Poet, writer, performer, visual artist and educator  

Sneed was born in Boston, United States, and later moved to New York to attend college. Sneed, who is lesbian, has said that she knew and embraced who she was early in life and found pride in living her truth. After college, she went on to work as the director for a drop-in center at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth. Since then, she has become prominent in the arts scene, holding countless poetry readings, and publishing several books. Her newest collection of poetry and personal essays, “Funeral Diva,” outlines her experience living during the AIDS crisis and looks specifically at those in the Black, queer community.  The book is important to Sneed because she felt that the stories of women, and particularly lesbians of color, were not given a voice in AIDS narratives at the time. It won the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for lesbian poetry.  

Simon Nkoli 

Gay rights and anti-apartheid activist 

“If you are Black and gay in South Africa, then it really is all the same closet…inside is darkness and oppression. Outside is freedom.” 
— Simon Tseko Nkoli 

Nkoli was born in Soweto, South Africa in 1957 to a family that experienced segregation during apartheid. The era’s Pass laws made it illegal for his family, who were Black, to live together, and they often had to hide from the police to avoid prosecution. During his teenage years, Nkoli realized he was gay. While at college, he joined the anti-apartheid student organization “Congress of South African Students” where he was regional secretary. He experienced homophobia during his anti-apartheid organizing but refused to hide all of who he was. When he joined the primarily white Gay Association of South Africa, he experienced racism. Eventually, he formed Saturday Group, the first Black gay group in Africa.  

He was arrested in 1984 alongside other political activists and faced the death penalty for treason. In 1988, he was acquitted and released from prison. That year, he founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), which organized South Africa’s first Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. He was also a leader in the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, which worked to ensure that protection from anti-gay discrimination would be included in the Bill of Rights in the country’s revised, post-apartheid constitution. He was one of the first African gay men to publicly self-identify as being HIV positive and established the peer support group “Positive African Men” in Johannesburg. Nkoli died of AIDs-related illness at 41.

Reggie Williams  

AIDS Activist 

Reggie Williams was born in Ohio in the United States. In the 1970s, he moved to Los Angeles, California to work as an X-ray technician; it was there that he noticed the number of men dying from what would later be identified as HIV/AIDs.  

By the early 1980s, Williams had moved to San Francisco, where cases of HIV/AIDS were surging. Noticing that information, resources and awareness of the deadly infection were not reaching Black gay men and other gay men of color, Williams hosted the first meeting of the HIV/AIDS taskforce of the organization Black Men and White Men—a network of social support and advocacy organizations. The task force went on to advocate for gay men of color and provide them with resources and services. After securing a contract from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide AIDs prevention services to gay men of color on a national scale, Williams co-founded the National Task Force on Aids Prevention, a national HIV/AIDS organization focused on prevention that was created and led by and for gay men of color.  

In 1986 Williams was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and frankly discussed how his candidness about his diagnosis had a positive effect on the audiences he often presented to and his community. Williams passed away at the age of 47 on Feb. 7, 1998. To commemorate his life and legacy, Feb. 7 was deemed National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.  

We are inspired by the work LGBTQ+ activists are doing to create a more equitable, safe and healthy world. While, the movement for LGBTQ+ rights has faced heartbreak and setbacks, the activists we’ve profiled above illustrate that tremendous progress is possible.  This month and throughout the year at Vital Strategies we celebrate pride, protest and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights around the world.   

About Vital Strategies Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat