ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Insider NJ has released its 2022 “LGBTQ-plus Power List,” which features 100 spots for the most politically influential members of the LGBTQ community in New Jersey.
“There’s a pronounced and conspicuous glass ceiling for LGBTQs in New Jersey politics,” the introduction to the list reads. “Sure, the gatekeepers are happy to have us as ‘the help’ on campaigns and in government positions. But when it comes to elected office, opportunities are paltry because the gatekeepers and party bosses of New Jersey politics still very much prefer a status quo that’s overwhelmingly heterosexual.”
The point of this list is to recognize members of the LGBTQ community who contribute greatly to their local communities, the state of New Jersey and the country.
“The elected officials on this year’s list — mayors, commissioners, councilmembers alike — have already demonstrated that LGBTQs can win,” Insider NJ political reporter and columnist Jay Lassiter wrote. “Since losing his first election in 1994 for freeholder, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora has compiled a 12-1 win-loss record. Passaic County Commissioner Bruce James is undefeated on Election Day with a 5-0 record. Likewise Rebecca Williams, Union County commissioner and former councilwoman, remains undefeated on Election Day with a record of 4-0. Even this year’s top Republican, Assemblyman Don Guardian, holds a winning record, 2-1, against the South Jersey Democratic machine, the most well-funded political organization in the state.
“My point is that LGBTQ candidates are tough and resilient. When given a chance, LGBTQs have long demonstrated the ability to run and to win,” he continued.
Several Essex County leaders were named to this year’s list. Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis snagged the No. 10 spot, due to his mayoral activities as well as his activism to end conversion therapy, a practice Dafis helped make illegal in New Jersey. The list also recognized Dafis’ advocacy regarding the need for more sensible drug policies, including legalizing cannabis.
Taking the No. 11 spot is Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien, the executive director of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, the largest HIV/AIDS education and prevention organization in the state. Locally, Ahearn-O’Brien co-chairs the Essex County LGBTQ Advisory Board, which was designed to provide advice and guidance on LGBTQ issues to the county’s government. As a result of her work, the county recently created the Essex County Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
Montclair Councilman Peter Yacobellis, the principal organizer of Montclair’s LGBTQ pride event this year, is No. 19 on the list. Elected to his post in 2020 as Montclair’s first openly gay elected official, Yacobellis is also the founder of the Trevor NextGen NYC volunteer organization, a direct response to the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who killed himself after being harassed and bullied for being gay. Yacobellis’ path to leadership was propelled by a 1998 discharge from Air Force basic training under the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; in 2009 he helped organize the March on Washington that led to the policy’s reversal.
Taking spot No. 22 on the list is Elaine Helms, who founded the Reaching Adolescents in Need Foundation in East Orange after noticing the high rate of prostitution among homeless LGBTQ youths. Helms’ organization broke ground recently in Newark’s West Ward on new housing for 11 homeless LGBTQ individuals.
“We need helpers,” Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka said at the groundbreaking. “And I thank God for giving us the RAIN Foundation to be helpers who are making sure that we have housing for a particular set of individuals in our community who have been left out for a very, very long time. Count us in when you’re ready to do projects No. 2 and No. 3, because we will be here.”
Sharronda “Love” Wheeler, board president at Newark Pride Inc. took spot No. 27. She is also a self-employed senior care consultant.
Taking the very next spot, No. 28, is longtime activist Reggie Bledsoe, who chairs the Essex County LGBTQ Democratic Caucus. Bledsoe is also the inaugural director of the Essex County Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
Coming in at No. 39 is Alonzo S. Blalock, a Newark-based performing and recording artist, multimedia personality, entrepreneur and LGBTQ activist. He is the CEO of Dollhouse Unlimited, which seeks to serve LGBTQ creatives with event production and management, merchandising, and marketing. He also serves as the executive vice president of Newark Pride Inc.
Julio Ceaser Roman III, an activist from Newark, took spot No. 42. After helping his mother care for an aunt sick with AIDS when he was 11 years old, Roman became involved in activism regarding HIV/AIDS. Roman also recently published his book, “Out of Space: Creating Safe Spaces in Unlikely Places.”
La’Nae Grant, the director of the Child and Adult Care Food Program for the city of East Orange, made the list at No. 53. A longtime advocate for incarcerated transgender folk, Grant was appointed in February by Gov. Phil Murphy to the board of trustees at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, a prison that has been plagued with allegations of abuse and public records tampering.
“These appointments, combined with the many other reforms and efforts made under our administration, will effectuate improvement in oversight of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility,” Murphy said. “I look forward to working with La’Nae on important prison reform efforts as we move to responsibly close this facility.”
Previously, Grant worked closely with Garden State Equality to ensure East Orange provided comprehensive health care for its transgender employees. Grant was also a principal lobbyist to ban the so-called “panic defense”; with Murphy’s signature on a new law in 2020, this tactic may no longer be used in New Jersey courtrooms as an affirmative defense. Previously and still in other states, a defendant’s lawyer could argue that the defendant was justified in using deadly force because of their fear or discomfort over a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Former South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education member Shannon Cuttle was ranked at No. 58. Cuttle was the first transgender/nonbinary individual elected to state office in New Jersey as well at the first trans delegate to the Democratic National Committee’s quadrennial convention.
At No. 87 is longtime educator and union labor leader Micah Gary-Fryer, the LGBTQ-plus caucus chairperson for the Essex County Education Association.
Danielle Earle, a teacher in Orange, took spot No. 94. Earle is a filmmaker and serves on the board of OUT Montclair, a nonprofit created to raise awareness and provide support for Montclair’s LGBTQ community.
At spot No. 98 is South Orange resident Gary Paul Wright, the executive director of the African American Office of Gay Concerns. Throughout his long career, Wright has done more to fight HIV/AIDS than anyone else on this year’s list, according to Insider NJ, and permanently deserves a spot in the list’s top 10, but was shuffled down so as to allow the list to highlight some new faces.
Among the notable individuals who made the list on the state level is New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette, the first openly gay man to serve in a gubernatorial cabinet in New Jersey’s history. Experienced as a toxic injury and brownfields redevelopment lawyer, LaTourette, who took the No. 3 spot on the list, was a newcomer to state government when he joined NJDEP as its top legal counsel in 2018, quickly moving up the agency’s leadership ranks, eventually becoming commissioner in 2021.
“What every last one of us has in common is the environment we share. Red or blue doesn’t matter,” said LaTourette, the father of two who married his longtime partner earlier this year. “It’s all green — if we do it right.”
Coming in at No. 20 is former military officer Brenda “Sue” Fulton, the chairperson and chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. Fulton was the first, and for a while the only, LGBTQ cabinet member in the Murphy administration.
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey took the final No. 100 spot.
“Most of us know him as New Jersey’s 52nd governor, but for the 8,500 clients he serves at the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, Jim McGreevy is a mentor and a lifeline helping to end the revolving door of prison recidivism in New Jersey,” according to the list’s biography of McGreevey, who also chairs the Essex County Correctional Facility Civilian Task Force.
Lastly, the list gives an honorary spot to “anyone closeted.”
“Even in the year 2022, the closet remains a lonely, damaging place. With all the recent advances on LGBTQ rights, it’s easy to forget that there’s still plenty of anti-LGBTQ stigma out there,” Insider NJ wrote. “We will always bear witness to that loneliness and suffering on this list.”
Photos Courtesy of Insider NJ