MAY 2024

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MAY ’24 HOUSTON'S LGBTQ MAGAZINE Championing Equity in HIV Research and Advocacy Pg.44 EMMA BROCKWAY NIKKI DARBY TRAN VANARIN KUCH DANCING INTO SUMMER ‘Newsies’ at TUTS Pg.56 UNVEILING EXPRESSION Travis Prokop performs at Barnstorm Dance Festival Pg.62 AAPI LEADERS COMMUNITY

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Attorney Emma Brockway champions equality and representation both inside and outside the courtroom 40

Artist Nikki Darby Tran’s festive balloon creations enliven local events

Chef Vanarin Kuch’s East End café Koffeteria tempts customers with a wide selection of unique bakery treats

Dr. Bec Sokha Keo’s leadership empowers communities of color impacted by HIV/AIDS 50

Jim Benton’s career has been an unconventional journey

Daniel Zamora’s multimedia projects celebrate healing, ritual, and memory

Adriana LaRue is the busty beauty of Montrose 46

The Houston Tennis Club provides a meeting spot for LGBTQ tennis enthusiasts 62

Choreographer Travis Prokop brings Square Peg, Round Hole to the Barnstorm Dance Festival this month

4 MAY 2024 | 34 52 44 40 36 50 62 MAY 2024 FEATURES
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Governor Abbott has ordered the Texas Education Agency to ignore federal protections for transgender students;

Former Mayor Annise Parker highlights the importance of two May elections in advancing LGBTQ representation in the Texas Legislature ( pg. 22)

Actor Michael Alonzo discusses TUTS’ new production of Disney’s Newsies at the Hobby Center ( pg. 56);

The golden age of beauty pageants is celebrated in Davis Gordon Gilbert’s production of ACES! ( pg. 58)

Varla Jean Merman comes to Houston for her one-woman show ( pg. 64 )

6 MAY 2024 | DR. BEC SOKHA KEO Championing Equity in HIV Research and Advocacy. Pg.44 Photography by Alex Rosa Mural art by “Calligraffiti” artist eL Seed Leaves Mark. Shot at University of Houston campus. MAY 2024 DEPARTMENTS NEWS & COMMENT 20 NEWS
ENJOY RESPONSIBLY ©2024 Anheuser-Busch, Bud Light® Beer, St. Louis MO FCB 813 Richmond Ave Houston, TX 77006 713-522-2365 THANK YOU, READERS! ON the COVER




Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Greg Jeu

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Greg Jeu

Creative Director Alex Rosa

Creative Director Alex Rosa

Copy Editor Howard Maple, Janice Stensrude

Copy Editors Howard Maple, Janice Stensrude

Contributing Writers

Contributing Writers

Olivia Flores Alvarez, Rich Arenschieldt, Bill Arning, Susan Bankston, Connor Behrens, Jenny Block, Sam Byrd, David Clarke, Dick Dace, Blase DiStefano, Andrew Edmonson, Ste7en Foster, Alys Garcia Carrera, Martin Giron, Lillian Hoang, DL Groover, Marene Gustin, Kim Hogstrom, James Hurst, Lisa Keen, Ryan M. Leach, Zachary McKenzie, David Odyssey, Joanna O’Leary, Lilly Roddy, Terri Schlichenmeyer, Gregg Shapiro, Janice Stensrude, Sheryl Taylor, Terrance Turner, Grace S. Yung

Olivia Flores Alvarez, Rich Arenschieldt, Bill Arning, Susan Bankston, Connor Behrens, Jenny Block, Sam Byrd, David Clarke, Dick Dace, Blase DiStefano, Andrew Edmonson, Ste7en Foster, Alys Garcia Carrera, Martin Giron, Lillian Hoang, DL Groover, Marene Gustin, Kim Hogstrom, James Hurst, Lisa Keen, Ryan M. Leach, Zachary McKenzie, David Odyssey, Joanna O’Leary, Lilly Roddy, Terri Schlichenmeyer, Gregg Shapiro, Janice Stensrude, Sheryl Taylor, Terrance Turner, Grace S. Yung



Edgardo Aguilar, John-Paul Arreaga, Victor  Contreras, Dalton DeHart, Yvonne Feece, Frank Hernandez, Ashkan Roayaee, Alex Rosa

Edgardo Aguilar, John-Paul Arreaga, Victor  Contreras, Dalton DeHart, Yvonne Feece, Frank Hernandez, Ashkan Roayaee, Alex Rosa

Operations Manager Michael Gurnas

Operations Manager Michael Gurnas

Sales and Marketing Dept.

Sales and Marketing Dept.

Local Advertising Reps 713.520.7237

Local Advertising Reps 713.520.7237 Tom Fricke, Chris Lew, Gene Mikulenka

National Advertising Representative Rivendell Media - 212.242.6863

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Publishers of OutSmart Magazine 3406 Audubon Place • Houston, TX 77006 713.520.7237 • 713.522.3275 Fax O ut S mart is published monthly. Estimated readership in Houston and surrounding areas is 60,000. OutSmart Media Company is not responsible for claims and practices of advertisers. The opinions and views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the staff or management of O ut S mart . Inclusion in O ut S mart does not imply sexual orientation. ©2023 by OutSmart Media Company. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part without permission of the publisher is strictly prohibited. Unsolicited material is accepted. No manuscript returned without SASE. OutSmart Media Company NOW PUBLISHING IN OUR 30TH YEAR! Support local LGBTQ independent media. Make a tax-deductible donation at Steve Markham REALTOR-ASSOCIATE® 713.823.4729 STEVE.MARKHAM@SOTHEBYS.REALTY Considering Thailand can anywhere seamless THE community, Ben the Reaching out to families struggling to find nursing compassion opportunity know And HarrisHealth_Campaign_Outsmart-4.875x7.25.indd 1 9/2/23 9:47 AM Lesbians Over Age Fifty have a good time! LOAF provides opportunities to socialize several times throughout the month. Activities range from: L.O.A.F. - LESBIANS OVER AGE FIFTY • We try to have something for everyone. Come get involved and make new friends or reacquaint with old ones. Community is good for the soul. • Guest speakers • Theater • Museums • Restaurants •Hikes •Axe throwing •Pickle ball •And much more! 8 | AUGUST 2023 | Steve Markham REALTOR-ASSOCIATE® 713.823.4729 STEVE.MARKHAM@SOTHEBYS.REALTY
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As May rolls in, OutSmart is highlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)

Heritage Month, a celebration dedicated to honoring that community’s rich contributions and influences on our nation’s history. We’re featuring five outstanding LGBTQ leaders from Houston’s AAPI community that you’ll want to read about.

First, we introduce Emma Brockway, an attorney practicing labor and employment law whose advocacy for LGBTQ visibility and representation inspires us all. Emma balances her professional aspirations with community service, drawing inspiration and support from her out-and-proud Aunt Michelle.

Next, meet Trans artist Nikki Darby Tran, whose balloon art business has garnered both success and community support. Nikki openly embraces her transgender identity while impressing clients with her unique creations, including the balloon art featured at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner gala in

downtown Houston.

John Nechman speaks with Chef Vanarin Kuch, the owner of Koffeteria in Houston’s East End. At the forefront of the city’s vibrant café and bakery scene, Koffeteria offers innovative pastries and savory dishes that showcase Kuch’s Cambodian-American heritage and Houston roots. Then writer Ian L. Haddock introduces us to Bec Sokha Keo, PhD, a senior researcher at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work who is a champion of racial justice and community empowerment, particularly focusing on Black and brown communities impacted by HIV.

Also in this issue, Jason Gutierrez interviews artist Missouri Wilkinson about her journey from a childhood marked by food insecurity to her involvement with the local Empty Bowls charity event that benefits the Houston Food Bank.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker highlights the vital impact that LGBTQ voters can have in securing victories for LGBTQ candidates in November. The May 4 and May 28

elections are crucial for candidates Molly Cook and Lauren Ashley Simmons in their bids for the Texas State Senate and Texas House of Representatives, respectively.

Finally, don’t miss interdisciplinary artist Daniel E. Zamora’s upcoming exhibit at the University of Houston School of Art. His multimedia show, titled Joy and Fear on the Homeworld, is a testament to the transformative power of storytelling and art.

We hope you enjoy this month’s issue of OutSmart magazine, which includes these and other stories of resilience, empowerment, and celebration within Houston’s vibrant LGBTQ community.

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Your support empowers the LGBTQ community through essential journalism, helping OutSmart Media thrive in a rapidly evolving media landscape. Your tax-deductible contribution expands our newsroom, compensates dedicated journalists, and invests in the latest media technology. It also funds internships for future writers committed to social justice.

By supporting the OutSmart Foundation, you invest in a platform that amplifies underrepresented voices and promotes equality through storytelling. You help produce journalism that confronts prejudice and embraces diversity.

Thank you for supporting independent LGBTQ media in Houston. Your contribution helps our platform thrive, amplifying diverse voices and stories.

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10 MAY 2024 |
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STAGE May 28–June 1


Barnstorm showcases the vibrancy of dance in Houston with an exciting sampling of dance genres. Three unique programs feature 19 live performance works and five films by dancemakers from across the country.



Step into the dazzling world of Varla Jean Merman, the iconic drag queen who has reclaimed her spotlight despite the odds stacked against her.


Houston Grand Opera hosts an LGBTQ Pride Night featuring themed cocktails and special performances. Get 20% off by using code OUTSMART20.

12 MAY 2024
Tempest McLendon’s dih-loo-zuhn


May 23–June 2



Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s psychological thriller Mayerling returns to the Wortham Theater stage.


May 5


Pride Houston 365 hosts a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Axelrad. Expect delicious tamales, savory crawfish, and vibrant music, as well as the grand-marshal winner announcements for Pride Houson 365’s June 29 Pride parade.


May 2–5 ACES!

The incredible story of five extraordinary Texas women who did the impossible, again and again! Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston.


May 17



Lace up your skates and join Pride Houston 365 for a funfilled day of skating, music, and community. No alcohol, no drama, just good vibes and oldschool tunes.


May 19


Celebrate Access Care of Coastal Texas’ past while looking toward the future. Tickets to the Galveston event include a brunch buffet with open bar. All proceeds support HIV/AIDS prevention in the Greater Houston region.


May 26


The Mahogany Project presents the Black Queer Book Fair & Day Party, an opportunity for authors to share books that our government wants to ban and learn what can be done to keep queer storytelling alive.


May 18


Houston Gaymers celebrate their quinceañera with the Main Meetup at KIKI Houston. Whether you like new VR tech or retro games, Houston Gaymers meetups have something for everyone.


May 30


After the May 30 performance of Newsies, Theatre Under the Stars presents its Out@TUTS reception for LGBTQ theatergoers and friends featuring light bites, drink specials, and live music. Use the promo code OUT@TUTS and get 25% off your tickets!


May 9


Toyota Center welcomes back the one-and-only queen of hip hop, Nicki Minaj, with special guest Monica.


May 5


Celebrate the 504 invasions during Black Pride weekend. This is a celebration of all things Black and all things Pride, Houston, and New Orleans.


May 18


The University of Houston LGBTQ Alumni Association presents their annual Red Dinner, with funds raised supporting UH Emergency Crisis Aid and LGBTQ scholarships. | MAY 2024 13 More Q ueer Things To D o ➝


June 6



Main Street Theater hosts a pre-show LGBTQ Happy Hour and post-show entertainment for Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Taking Steps


June 14


The Houston Ballet hosts a pre-curtain reception for LGBTQ ballet lovers and friends. Get 25% off by using the code OUTBALLET.


June 15


The “Hot Girl Summer Tour” is the HTown hottie’s first headlining tour, and Memphis rapper GloRilla will join her for the tour’s US stops.


June 22


This year’s theme, Rainbow Revolution, is about celebrating progress, embracing change, and igniting a spirit of unity. The festival at Houston City Hall starts at noon, and the parade kicks off at 7:30 p.m. The official After Party featuring DNVRMX is at Post Houston from 9:00 until 2:00 a.m.


June 29


The 46th Annual Official Houston LGBT+ Pride Celebration® Festival and Parade’s theme is You Won’t Break Our Pride. The festival will take place downtown at Houston City Hall starting at 11:30 a.m., and the parade begins at 7:30 p.m.

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Houston’s New Faces of Pride & Save Our Sisters held a Happy Hour at Pearl Bar on March 28, 2024 Pictured are Bryan Cotton, Avery Belyeu, Atlantis Narcisse, Andrea Simonton, and Dan Cato

On April 2, 2024, A Trans Day of Visibility 2024 Rally was held at the Montrose Center. Pictured are Daron Yanes Pérez, CEO & President at Trans Men Empowerment; Carlo Garza, Vice President at Trans Men Empowerment, and Jeniffer Cavazos, volunteer.

Cheers Our Aces! a Kickoff to the show Aces! was held at the home of Brad Odom on April 7, 2024

Pictured are Bradley Odem, Pam Green, Audrey Coe, Lisa Caughorn, Nora Hahn, Kelly Wehrer, Debra Schultz, Davis Gordon Gilbert, and Jeff Gilbert.

National Leather Association Houston’s Spring Iniquity had luncheon was at the Montrose Center on April 13, 2024. Pictured are attendees.



On March 28-30, 2024, Lone Star Volleyball Association held its Classic XXXIII at various locations. Pictured are Jason Fallon, Steven Amedeo, Brian Crumby, Clayton Daniels, Rick Talley, and Travis Grossman

On April 6, 2024, The HRC Houston Dinner themed “Without Exception” was held at Marriott Marquis Houston. Pictured are Jeffry Faircloth, Karen Carlson, and Bunny Carlson

On April 11, 2024, Lambda NextGen held a trivia night at Star Sailor. Pictured are Abigail Reding, Evan Arndt, Paul Morss, Ieuan Lopez, and Ryan Wilson

Equality Texas and GLAAD hosted a Spanish Language Media Training session at the Montrose Center on April 13, 2024. Pictured are Johnathan Gooch Jacob Reyes, Monica Trasandes, Brad Pritchett, Rosie Martinez, Daron Yanes Perez, and Lana Leonard.

Bunnies on the Bayou held its Sapphire Festival (Bunnies 45) at Sesquicentennial Park on March 31, 2024. Pictured are friends who enjoyed the festivities.

On April 6, 2024, The HRC Houston Dinner themed “Without Exception” was held at Marriott Marquis Houston. Pictured are Reymundo Ocañas and Orlando Ocañas-Manzo with their children, Sebastine Ocañas and Joey Rey Ocañas

Greater Houston LGBT Chamber and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership held A Day of Service on April 13, 2024. Pictured are participants.

On April 13, 2024, The


16 MAY 2024 |
Montrose Center hosted Empowering Our Future Gala at the Ballroom at Bayou Place. Pictured are ZsaZsa Stelly, Kennedy Loftin, Marcellas Ball, Chelby King, Dan Cato, Tara Converse, Alex Torres, Taylor Mabrie, and Meleah Jones
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18 MAY 2024 |
EPAH held 2024 Dinner Meeting at Weights & Measures on April 16, 2024. Pictured are Dan DiDonato, James R. Vanya, Oliver Ayala, and Aric Villarreal On April 25, 2024, Mario Castillo, Houston City Council Member, District H held a fundraiser at Julep. Pictured are Mario Castillo, Tena Lundquist Faust, Tama Lundquist, and Matthew Connor
The Montrose Softball League hosted the 2024 North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) Cup April 19-21, 2024. Pictured are Nate Smith, Ryan Holdhusen, Jeff Sloan, Andy Rock, and Mark Sakalares
SATURDAY, MAY 18 RED DINNER All proceeds support the UH LGBT Student Emergency Crisis Aid and Scholarship fund. Featuring Houston Publc Media’s Eddie Robinson as we celebrate and honor Tammi Wallace!

Savor the Taste of El Paso

Indulge in the warm and inviting culture of this thriving border town, home of exceptional eats and the iconic margarita. Whether you’re looking for authentic street tacos, the latest in mezcal and tequila-infused cocktails, or tortillas as good as abuela used to make, El Paso delivers on its title as the Best Mexican Food in the country. Scan the QR on the left to plan your next food adventure.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration Monday after it extended Title IX to LGBTQ students.

Battleground Texas

Governor Abbott’s bold move jeopardizes LGBTQ protections.

“Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texas to ignore Biden administration’s new federal protections of LGBTQ+ students” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency on Monday to ignore a Biden administration rule that expanded federal sex discrimination protections to include LGBTQ+ students.

The Biden administration recently revised the rules for Title IX, the sweeping civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination at federally funded colleges and K-12 schools.

The new rules, which are set to go into effect in August, redefined sex discrimination and sexbased harassment to prevent misconduct based on sex stereotypes, pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation. It codifies initial guidance documents that prompted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue the Biden administration last year.

“Congress wrote Title IX to protect women. Biden, with no authority to do so, rewrote Title IX to protect men who identify as women,” Abbott wrote Monday on social media platform X.

Abbott’s order came the same day Paxton announced he had sued the Biden administration Monday to block the Title IX changes. Texas joins a growing number of Republican-led states that have berated the new rules, setting the stage for a legal fight over LGBTQ+ student protections. They say the Biden administration misinterpreted the intent of Title IX.

In its final interpretation of Title IX, the

Biden administration sought to extend a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case decision related to workplace discrimination to students. The high court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII, a civil rights law that bars employment discrimination on the basis of sex, applied to gay and transgender workers.

The Title IX changes also walk back rules set during the Trump administration that required “live hearings” in which students accused of sexual misconduct could question accusers in a courtroomlike setting. The Biden administration kept Trump-era provisions that allow informal resolutions and prohibit penalties against students until an investigation is complete.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher-education coverage

20 MAY 2024 |

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A Crucial Moment for LGBTQ Representation

Two elections this month could pave the way for November victories.

We have much to celebrate from the March 5 primary election results, where LGBTQ+ voters were key to the success of LGBTQ+ candidates across Harris County. We retained almost all of our LGBTQ+ state and local officials, while opening the door to grow their ranks.

Here are two key dates to remember to get out and vote: Saturday, May 4 and Tuesday, May 28.

If you’re wondering why it is we’re voting again, it’s complicated. So bear with me.

On Saturday, May 4, LGBTQ+ Victory Fund candidate Molly Cook will be on the ballot to fill Mayor John Whitmire’s vacated seat in the Texas State Senate for the remainder of the year. A registered nurse and healthcare advocate, Molly can become the first-ever out LGBTQ+ member of the upper chamber, where

our community faces the most hostility and desperately needs representation.

Then on Tuesday, May 28, we get to vote again! This time Molly Cook is on the ballot for the runoff for next year’s full term, and queer organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons is facing anti-LGBTQ Representative Shawn Thierry in a runoff election. It’s imperative that we win both of these races this month.

Thousands of voters live in both House District 146—where Lauren is running—and Senate District 15—where Molly is running— so there’s a good chance you can vote for both candidates. Visit to make sure you’re registered to vote and verify your polling place. To learn more and support LGBTQ+ candidates in Texas and around the country, visit

Here’s another date to remember: Sunday, May 19.

If you’re wondering what you can do to help fuel more LGBTQ+ wins here and around the

country, come join us for the first Houston Victory Funday!

Supporters will hear from Mayor Whitmire, Council member Mario Castillo, as well as Mondaire Jones—who’s running in one of the most consequential congressional races this year as he seeks to win back the U.S. House seat in New York’s Hudson Valley. We’re also planning to honor the trailblazing legacy of transgender Judge Phyllis Frye, and dozens of out officials and candidates will be in attendance. Don’t miss your chance to meet some of your heroes and support the cause of LGBTQ+ representation. The support LGBTQ+ Victory Fund earns in May will pay off in election victories this November.

You can reserve your Funday ticket today at

See you there!

22 MAY 2024 |


Wilkinson is a proud contributor to Empty Bowls Houston’s annual charity event.

Artist Missouri Photo by ALEX ROSA

There was a time when Missouri Wilkinson would have to face an empty bowl on their dining table. They recall growing up food-insecure and relying on government-assisted funding and their family’s church’s generosity in order to put food on the table.

Today, at 28 years old, Missouri (who uses both she and they pronouns) reflects on their past humbly, realizing a lot has changed. Through the gift of their artwork, they are able to put food on the table as well as secure meals for people they will never meet.

This year will be Missouri’s first time participating in the annual Empty Bowls Houston charity event benefiting Houston Food Bank. The annual fundraiser is a collaboration between the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and Houston-area ceramicists, woodturners, and artists working in all media.

Traditionally the event receives creative donations of over 1,500 one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted bowls made by local artists. Most items are made available for $25 per bowl. With 100 percent of the proceeds going to Houston Food Bank, each bowl sold is able to provide 75 meals for those affected by food insecurity throughout the city. Every dollar donated to Houston Food Bank generates three meals.

Built tough, but forged even stronger. Missouri was born in Texas City but spent most of their childhood growing up in Galveston. They recall food always being a concern for their family. To put it simply, they didn’t have a lot. Reliant upon various government assistance programs, their family rarely had fresh food on the table. “I remember saying once, Why don’t we have real milk? I don’t want this weird, watery powdered milk and I’m sick of Tang. I wanted different or better snacks. I was a kid. I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize why things were the way they were until a certain point, one day in middle school.”

Throughout elementary school and into middle school, Missouri received school lunches for free, based on their family’s income level. That was until the family received an increase in household income. This increase helped make certain ends meet but didn’t make the family foodsecure. However, numbers are numbers, and

Missouri was still cut off from the food-assistance program in school.

“They told me no. The people in the cafeteria that have known me and my situation had to tell me no. They could not give me food anymore. Not only was I food-insecure, I was emotionally insecure. I didn’t know what to think or feel knowing I wouldn’t have food in front of me on a regular basis. It was a sudden awakening of realizing you’re different.”

This feeling of vulnerability is one that they have carried with them into adulthood, but not in a negative way. They use their experience as


One of Houston’s best-loved grassroots fundraising events, Empty Bowls Houston, will return for its 18th year on Saturday, May 11. Empty Bowls is an international effort to fight hunger, and implemented in Houston to benefit the Houston Food Bank. Since the inception of the event, Empty Bowls Houston has raised $1,054,599 for the Houston Food Bank.

The event will be held at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in both the indoor gallery spaces and the outdoor garden. There will be live outdoor artist demonstrations throughout the event, and live music in the garden. All attendees who purchase bowls will enjoy a simple soup lunch.

What: 18th annual Empty Bowls

Houston, benefiting Houston FoodBank When: Saturday, May 11, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Where: Houston Center for Contemporary Craft Info:

a reminder to appreciate what they have and help others along the way.

“Food plays a big part in my life. I’m a server at JUN, and most of my friends love food or create food for others. We enjoy eating together and talking over meals. It’s become a big part of my life and even in my art, crafting vessels with my hands.”

Bowls and vessels were a natural draw for Missouri’s artistic talent, and they’ve always been drawn to the beauty of a vessel being used for something productive—or just sitting empty while still maintaining its beauty.

“Growing up, we had very few physical possessions. I used to put a lot of value on the items that we did have. I’ve worked in beautiful restaurants with beautiful things and enjoy watching people’s experiences. I don’t have access to those experiences, so I try and create other experiences with my art.”

With every vessel crafted, Missouri is also learning more about their personal growth as their hands run through the clay and the work takes its final form. As a member of the LGBTQ community and identifying as nonbinary, Missouri is becoming a vessel of hope through their community service.

Missouri attended Texas A&M University at Galveston, where they studied marine science. They’ve now traded wading through Gulf waters for a sea of rich artistic opportunities in Houston.

Having lived in the city for only three years, Missouri is proud to call Houston home. Although it seemed like an endless sprawl of concrete and lights at first, Missouri has found a tight-knit community and circle of friends who love both the arts and the artists who make the city so vibrant. Michelle Heinesen has become Missouri’s mentor who has encouraged them to grow as an artist—and get involved with the annual Empty Bowls charity event.

“This makes me very emotional,” Missouri says. “My work is translating into actual food for someone, so it’s not just an artistic vessel. The pieces I am donating are two of my very favorites. I made them when I first started making pottery, but have never had anywhere for them to go. But look, they had a beautiful destiny and can actually help my community.

“Going from a child feeling helpless to someone who is now being helpful is incredible. I don’t want anyone to be told ‘No, you cannot eat.’”

Keep up with POTCLUB on Instagram @potclubtx. | MAY 2024 25 COMMUNITY

The Caretaker’s Journey


long-term care for aging seniors can be a challenge.

While living longer can have many benefits—such as the ability to spend more time with family and friends—one of the downsides is that both physical and cognitive health often start to fail. Eventually, this could require assistance.

When a loved one needs care, it can impact the entire family—and particularly the individual’s primary caregiver. Providing care to another individual can take a toll physically, as well as emotionally and financially. So, it is vital to have help and resources available. Having a plan in place ahead of time can be extremely beneficial.

The High Cost of Caregiving

According to the AARP, family and friends who provide care to an elderly loved one spend an average of $7,000 out-of-pocket each year. This is in addition to the physical and mental exhaustion.

Many care providers must also either cut back on work hours or quit their jobs altogether, which not only leads to loss of income, but also reduced retirement savings and ultimately less in future Social Security retirement benefits. Based on a MetLife study, this equates to an average overall financial loss of more than $300,000. In some cases, caregivers may even have to take out hardship loans or take early withdrawals from their retirement accounts to cover their expenses.

But having a plan in place before a loved one needs care can help to alleviate some, or possibly even all, of this burden.

Documents to Put In Place

When developing a plan for your own (or a loved one’s) future care, there are some items that should be in place, such as:

• Powers of Attorney

• Will

• Other Estate Planning Documents

Powers of Attorney – Having powers of attorney in place can better ensure that an individual’s wishes are carried out if they become incapacitated. There are instances where it may make sense to have POAs effective now

before incapacitation. The reason for this is because, as we age, ordinary tasks become challenging, and we may need assistance from our trusted agent to take care of business for us. A durable power of attorney (POA) names one or more persons or agents who act on an individual’s behalf for financial, real estate, and legal transactions.

A healthcare power of attorney designates one or more individuals, such as a spouse or other loved one(s), to make important healthcare decisions on a person’s behalf in case they are not able to do so on their own.

Will – A will is a legal document that describes an individual’s wishes for the distribution of

their assets, and names the people who are to receive them. Wills may also outline how dependents, such as a special-needs child, are to be cared for upon the individual’s passing.

Other Estate Planning Documents – This can include certain types of trusts that could be beneficial in planning ahead for long-term care needs—which, in turn, can help ease the strain on one’s caregiver(s).

Other Care and Payment Options

Even with the best of intentions, a caregiver cannot be available 24/7. They also may not be qualified to provide all of the care that

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As your public health system, we’re here for those in need. In a region with so many unable to afford insurance, it’s a monumental responsibility. And a distinct privilege. We provide all our patients exceptional medical, mental health, dental and vision care, along with vital outreach programs and resources. Because it protects the health and safety of our entire community. Because it’s the right thing to do. You may not know our name. And that’s okay. YOU’LL KNOW US BY THE WORK WE DO.

a loved one requires. So it is possible that other care options will have to be considered, such as hiring a home healthcare professional or moving the individual into a long-term care facility.

But this type of care can be expensive. According to the Genworth Cost of Care Survey, the monthly median cost of a home health aide in 2023 was nearly $6,300. And the average cost of just one month in a skilled nursing facility was $8,669 for a semi-private room and $9,733 for a private room. These expenses can quickly deplete assets, so it is important for both a care recipient and a caregiver to have additional payment alternatives available. Some possible payment solutions can include:

• Long-term care insurance

• Medicaid

Long-Term Care Insurance – Today’s long-term care insurance policies typically cover a wide range of care options, including skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, as well as home healthcare services.

Some plans will reimburse the insured for the cost of care (up to a certain daily or monthly maximum amount) and others will pay a flat daily or monthly benefit. There are many different variations of long-term care insurance, so it is important to determine which will best fit your potential needs.

As with other types of health insurance, it is essential to apply for long-term care coverage before one becomes ill or cognitively impaired. Otherwise, it is likely that the insurance application will be denied. Additionally, the earlier one obtains coverage, the more cost-effective it will be, as age is one factor that is taken into consideration during underwriting.

Medicaid – Medicaid is a jointly funded federal and state program that pays for certain long-term care services—but only if an individual meets both health and financial criteria, including having a low income and asset level.

Although the names sound similar, Medicaid and Medicare are two different programs. Medicare offers health insurance coverage to qualifying individuals who are over age 65 (as well as those under 65 who have certain health conditions). Medicare pays very little (if anything) for long-term care services.

In order to qualify for Medicaid’s financial criteria, a single individual must typically have assets of $2,000 or less, not

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including certain assets such as their home, a vehicle, and term life insurance coverage.

For married couples, the asset limit is higher, depending on the state. However, even assets that are jointly titled count towards Medicaid’s resource criteria for the spouse who is applying for benefits. So qualifying for Medicaid can cause financial hardship for the “healthy” spouse, as well.

Items to Consider

Providing the best care for a loved one can be difficult, and for those in the LGBTQ community, it can pose some added concerns. Some key items to consider are:

• Friendly caregivers and facilities. For LGBTQ or ethnically diverse families, it can be challenging to find places or care providers that are a good fit. For instance, there may be cultural differences, such as language barriers and food preferences. Also, individuals need places where they can feel safe as minorities.

• Legal capability for making decisions. If an individual does not have a spouse or other blood relatives available, who has the legal capacity to make decisions for him or her?

Caregiver Resources

Caregiving is a tough job physically, emotionally, and financially, so don’t be afraid to reach out for assistance from family and friends. It is also essential for caregivers to remain socially active so as to have an outlet for their own personal needs.

Some additional helpful resources for caregivers include:




Grace S. Yung, CFP ®, is a Certified finanCial P lanner practitioner with experience in helping LGBTQ individuals, domestic partners, and families plan and manage their finances since 1994. She is the managing director at Midtown Financial Group, LLC, in Houston.Yung can be reached at Visit letsmake or

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Attorney at Law Schwartz Immigration Law, PLLC

Principal Office: 2417 Dunlavy St. Houston, TX 77006 (713)337-5270

Austin Office: 106 E. 6th St., Suite 900-123 Austin, TX 78701 (512)322-5270

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May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, an annual observance that recognizes the influence and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to our nation’s history, culture, and achievements. OutSmart is joining in this celebration by highlighting four local LGBTQ leaders from the AAPI community.

First, meet Emma Brockway, a dedicated attorney who balances her advocacy work for LGBTQ visibility and representation with her many personal and professional aspirations.

Then get to know trans artist Nikki Darby Tran, who found success and community support in her balloon-art business after

fully embracing her transgender identity while continually striving to impress clients with her unique artistic creations.

Next, we introduce you to Chef Vanarin Kuch’s Koffeteria in Houston’s East End, which is making its mark on the city’s thriving café and bakery scene by offering innovative pastries and savory dishes that reflect his Cambodian-American heritage and Houston roots.

Finally, Dr. Bec Sokha Keo, a senior UH researcher, leverages their Cambodian heritage to champion racial justice and community empowerment, particularly focusing on Black and brown communities impacted by HIV through community-led interventions. | MAY 2024 33
Houston’s LGBTQ Magazine


Emma Brockway champions equality both inside and outside the courtroom.

Attorney Emma Brockway has some big irons in the fire. She just started working at a new firm, she is engaged, and she is looking to buy her first house with her soon-to-be wife. Somehow she still manages to find time to give back to the community.

Brockway recently moved to the law firm of Fisher Phillips, where she represents employers in all areas of labor and employment law. Her primary focus is on employment litigation. Brockway graduated from the University of Houston Law Center in 2021. She decided to remain in Houston after

graduating. Houston is a familiar place to Brockway, who grew up in Northwest Houston and League City.

“I interned at an employment law firm in college,” she says. “During that time, I became fascinated with the law and how it works and evolves over time. I also discovered that I liked helping clients identify their needs and strategizing ways to solve their problems. I feel like I’ve always been an advocate, whether for a client at work or a cause that I’m passionate about.”

Brockway connects with a multitude of identities. She has cultivated a life that, at age 27, most others take decades to develop. This is reflected in the places and people she

focuses on outside of work.

“ I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Prism Foundation,” she says. “Prism is a nonprofit that provides scholarships and grants to students and organizations in the Asian & Pacific Islander (API) LGBTQ community. We have two Prism Foundation board members in Houston—Ahri Yoon and me. Prism has done more for me, as it relates to my API identity, than anything or anyone. As an adoptee, I honestly didn’t feel very connected to the API community when I was younger. Prism has brought me closer to the API community and my Chinese heritage by connecting me with other Prism board

34 MAY 2024 |

members, who are now some of my dearest friends. Through Prism, I’ve also learned more about customs, traditions, and food within various API communities. I’ve also been able to engage with our incredible grant and scholarship recipients, who are doing critical work across the country for the API community.”

Brockway considers the Montrose Center’s LGBTQ youth prom events to be one of the annual highlights of her year. She recognizes that not every person is able to come out at the age she did, nor have the support that she received from a very special person, her Aunt Michelle.

“My Aunt Michelle is my greatest LGBTQ role model. She has always been out and proud,” Brockway confides. “When I came out to her and the rest of my family, I knew she would help me combat the difficulties that come with being gay, especially homophobia. And she did. Michelle’s courage and resilience have always inspired me, and she helped me come to terms with the reality that not everyone would accept me. She also repeatedly reminded me that that was their loss, not mine. It’s been over a decade since I came out to her and request-

—Emma Brockway

ed her guidance, but she still provides me with unconditional support every day. I wouldn’t be the out-and-proud, unapologetic person I am today if it wasn’t for her.”

This is perhaps why it is so important for Brockway to be completely out at work and in the community she supports.

“If one wants to be (and is able to be) out, I think they should be. Visibility and representation are very important. It’s important to have LGBTQ visibility in media, in every occupa-

tion or industry and, of course, in leadership roles. Visibility and representation can also be life-changing for LGBTQ folks who are afraid to come out.”

With all that she has on her plate, it is a wonder that Brockway has time for a personal life. She and her fiancée, Valerie Chacon, have been together for three and a half years and plan to get married next year. They have two cats named Oso and Fig, and the couple can often be found at some of their favorite eateries. As a native Houstonian, Brockway knows all about the great food that her city has to offer. Some of her go-to restaurants are Izakaya Wa, Be More Pacific, Ostia, Mo’ Better Brews, and Korny Vibes, to name just a few.

Brockway is gearing up to have one of the biggest years of her life as she and Valerie prepare to buy their first house in addition to getting married. Professionally, she’s hoping to exceed her billable hours requirement at her new law firm, take more depositions, and have a successful tenure as co-chair of the Texas Freedom Network’s board of directors—another valuable organization she has chosen to support. Houstonians are indeed lucky that this vocal community advocate has made Houston her home. | MAY 2024 35


Artist Nikki Darby Tran ’s balloon creations enliven local events.

Photo by ALEX ROSA

When one thinks of art, they might think of paint and a canvas, sculpture, or photography. But trans artist Nikki Darby Tran has found inspiration through another medium: balloons.

“I saw some things on Pinterest and thought it looked neat,” she says. “Pinterest is not a guide, it just shows images of finished products mostly. But I like to look at things and speculate how they did it. My friend was getting his citizenship and was having a party. I told him I would decorate for him, and he was excited. I attempted balloon art for the first time at his party, and it was an instant hit.”

Whether it’s walkways and arches made from shimmering, colorful balloons or designs that resemble popular brands like Pokémon, Tran stays busy designing pieces for community events in and around the Greater Houston area. The artist admits that she never expected such a strong response and community support.

“My business thrived during the pandemic, and since then I have been creating balloon décor art here and there, bringing joy where opportunities arise,” she says. “I really appreciate people and businesses trusting my ability to create something wonderful for them. Creating art through balloons brings joy to the clients, so I love the opportunity to do it for them.”

What has been more surprising, given

the nation’s current political environment, is the acceptance of her trans identity by the community.

“I started my balloon décor business before I came out as a transgender woman,” she says. “I had fears of appearing as myself when working on an order for clients after I came out. I did this for two years until I couldn’t hide it anymore. However, I have retained 95 percent of my clients for repeat business. Today, I am a proud transgender woman not afraid to live out her truth, being authentic to myself and spreading positivity wherever I appear. Surely there are challenges, but I face it by finding the silver lining in every situation.”

Art has always been a passion for Tran since a young age. She was always crafty growing up, creating things from scraps and turning it into art. Balloon art, she says, is an extension of that childhood love, taking simple pieces of latex and turning them into magnificent sculptures and shapes.

“I love working with this medium,” Tran emphasizes. “A balloon décor artist uses round-shaped balloons to create sculptures and shapes. I do a combination of both in my work, but mainly with the latex round balloons, mylar, and other media. Unlike other art media that can be more permanent, balloon art is temporary and can only last for weeks. Cold weather can make a balloon deflate and lose its original shape, and hot weather can make it expand and burst. As an artist, we adjust the sizing of the balloons based on location (inside or outdoors) and can treat them to keep their

shine and sustainability. A good designer can mold the balloon art to keep its shape even if a few pop. Some of my favorite pieces involve the distortion of balloons, organic garlands, and stand-alone sculptures.”

Most recently, Tran’s work has been noticed by a national representative of the Human Rights Campaign, a moment that’s made the artist feel truly recognized and appreciated.

“The rep encouraged me to create bigger art pieces for future galas,” says Tran. “When people see your art and want a photo with it, you know you’ve hit the mark.”

As she continues to create more art for community events, galas, and businesses, Tran says she hopes to always impress her clients and make them feel as if they have something unique and eye-catching.

“I like to give clients something better than they anticipated with their initial vision,” she says. “I would love the opportunity to create bigger and more extravagant sculptures with new trends and techniques to incorporate in my art. I like to add small details to sculptures, giving them something they haven’t seen and to create something unexpected. I am frequently expanding my knowledge and learning techniques from other experts. Small, everyday experiments can help us reach our goals and get better at the skills that are important to us.”

Follow Nikki Tran on Instagram @mtdesigns and nikkitransballoons. | MAY 2024 37
(l-r) Tran’s balloon wall logo for the HRC’s annual Houston gala, a ten-foot stork for baby showers, and her fruit garland display at a Chicago convention

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From Cambodian Roots to Houston Delights

Chef Vanarin Kuch explores a fusion of flavors at Koffeteria.

Houston has taken its sweet time developing a thriving café and bakery scene, but that scene has finally arrived thanks to the city’s famed cultural diversity. From knafeh, manakish, and conchas made from nixtamalized maize to croissants and religieuses that would make Parisians drool, Houstonians are spoiled for unique pastry choices—and few have spoiled us more than Chef Vanarin Kuch, the out-and-proud Cambodian American owner of Koffeteria, a café in Houston’s East End.

Survivors of the brutal concentration

40 MAY 2024 |
Photos by EVAN SUNG

camps of Cambodia, Kuch’s family settled in Houston in the 1980s and ran a variety of donut shops and restaurants. Most were east of I-69 from the George R. Brown Convention Center, an area that was then the city’s primary Asian district. A product of Jersey Village High School, where he was a gymnast and cheerleader, Kuch worked in the kitchens of his family’s businesses. “I was frying up doughnuts and chickens at an age when it probably wasn’t legal for me to do so,” he laughs.

His interest in cooking was piqued after attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. He worked with several notable chefs before gaining fame as the main pastry chef at Houston’s popular Tiny Boxwoods.

His drive to push boundaries soon whisked him to the Big Apple, where he honed his skills at a variety of Michelinstarred kitchens. He also did a stint on the reality-show circuit, appearing on Top Chef: Just Desserts and Chopped. In New York, he met his husband-to-be, Andreas Hager, which led to a move to Cincinnati where Hager was pursuing a master’s degree. Craving a bigger stage, Kuch became the executive pastry chef at a new boutique hotel in Chicago, where he quickly gained critical acclaim for creations combining his fascination with science, cosmology, and baking.

He soon realized, however, that his first love was Houston, so he convinced his Wisconsin-born husband to move to the hot, humid city of his roots. And in 2019, Koffeteria became a reality. “It was always my intention to return to Houston. This is where I’m from. Where my family is. Koffeteria is a way for me to give back to my community.”

At his mother’s suggestion, he opened in a revamped industrial space on the edge of the booming East End nightlife district where, as a youth, he ran the family’s fryers. “I named Koffeteria after the Houstonian word ‘washateria,’ which is what my grandma used to own in Montrose.”

While Kuch has expanded his reper-

toire of savory dishes and taken his baking talents to new levels, he tries to keep it fun and approachable. “Koffeteria is based on my life experiences and what I grew up eating as a first-generation American.” The menu changes often, and regulars know to check the website the night before to pre-order favorite items that often run out. (And once you taste the delights from this kitchen, you’ll understand why.)


— Chef Vanarin Kuch

Many Koffeteria dishes have become classics, often as stunning to see as they are to eat. A pistachio baklava croissant comes drizzled with lemon syrup. A half-corn, half-flour tortilla is stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs and sweet Chinese sausage, topped with a tangy green papaya pico de gallo. Kolaches burst with beef brisket pho, to be dipped in hoisin and Sriracha. When he ran his pastry program in Chicago, Kuch couldn’t even give away a pastry topped with crushed hot Cheetos and filled with oozing nacho cheese, but Houstonians have embraced this as an iconic local dish. “Hot Cheetos are as Houston as it gets,” he laughs.

Even the drinks reflect Kuch’s humor and loyalty to local purveyors, including coffee made with beans from highly-regarded local roaster Little Dreamer to a latte called the

Salty Cambodian, made with condensed milk, homemade sourdough butter, and sprinkles of Maldon salt.

Kuch is proud of his heritage and hosts Cambodian-themed pop-up dinners at Koffeteria in which he shares the kitchen with family members—including his mother, whose backyard is the source for many of the unique vegetables he uses. “Many plants native to Cambodia, like kaffir limes and lemongrass, do well in Houston,” he says. If they die in the winter, they pop back out once things warm up.”

Kuch views with some trepidation the looming $10 billion rerouting of three major highways through downtown, which will take out large sections of Houston’s East End within a block of Koffeteria. “Construction begins in October of this year. We’ll have to find a way to live with what happens,” he says. “I already know of businesses on St. Emanuel just a block away that were forced to sell to make way for the rebuild. We hope Houstonians will be willing to put up with the hassles to get to us.”

In their free time, Kuch and his husband, who handles front-of-house duties for Koffeteria, enjoy time with their cats Hulot and Biscuits, as well as gardening at home. “Anything from the business that can be turned to compost, we take home and use in our garden,” he says. They also love biking and running, particularly along the bayous of Houston. Being active allows them to pursue other interests, such as the city’s taco trucks, where Kuch seeks out elongated quesadilla-like specialties called “machetes.” The two are also committed supporters of LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, and women’s rights.

Vanarin Kuch is not just a chef. He’s an artist, a visionary, and a part of Houston’s ascendance as a global food mecca. He’s combined his immense talents with the resilience that comes from being the child of immigrants who survived one of the most repressive regimes in world history. He also possesses the pride of growing up as a gay Asian man who has bridged his life experiences into a business that reflects the spirit of the city.

“And Houston is a city I truly love,” he adds.

For more info, visit | MAY 2024 41

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Summer at
—Dr. Bec Sokha Keo


Dr. Bec Sokha Keo ’s leadership empowers communities of color impacted by HIV and AIDS.

Dr. Bec Sokha Keo (pronouns: they and elle) is all about a solid value system. During the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s, Keo’s family faced persecution for being educated. Thanks to Black American and other communties who advocated for the admission of Southeast Asian refugees to the US, Keo’s grandparents, parents, elders, and friends were able to reconnect and rebuild their lives in Houston. While their family and friends embarked on a healing journey together (which happened to be in the context of a Cambodian Baptist Church), their paths in the land of “American dreams’’ presented social and structural barriers such as anti-Asian racism, English dominance, white supremacy, and classism. Despite this, Keo witnessed their family’s commitment to remaining connected to Khmer ancestors, drawing from the wisdom of cultural teachings, and healing together in community. Now thriving post-genocide, it is in Keo’s genes to be a resistor of the same systems, but in today’s context.

Growing up, Keo could see how their parents selflessly gave themselves to the community around them. Their dad led the music ministry at the church, while their mother would prepare traditional Khmer food and feed people from the church every week, not to mention ensuring there was space to build their familial structure and understanding of the need to fight for the underdog.

With all the power and promise that came out of their household, Keo’s values have also been shaped by their personal lean into a sense of community rooted in shared values, cross-movement solidarity, and principled action.

As a senior researcher at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s SUSTAIN COMPASS Coordinating Center, Keo applies their community-based values and approaches to partner with and empower communities to find solutions developed by and for community. The main focus of their scholarship and community practice is on structural factors affecting the most minoritized and oppressed people. Unapologetically, their work centers Black and brown communities living with and most systematically impacted by HIV. “When we zoom out and consider organizations and services for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ people, many offerings are founded in white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy or male dominance. Many organizations, services, and research or knowledge production sources are exclusionary simply because of the origin story,” they say. Because of this, you will often find Keo developing their research with people who have lived experiences as co-researchers, an approach they learned from a fellow trans and PoC social-work researcher Trey Jenkins.

This stems from Keo’s deep belief that innovation in research and structural interventions begins with community and a racial justice framework. Even as an Asian American, their lens on liberation starts with Black, queer, and transgender freedoms. Through this, Keo partners with organizations, thought leaders, community advocates, and community members across the South to develop and implement programs that let the community lead.

“The HIV epidemic in the US South must be understood as an outcome of the systems of power and control,” they say. “These are settler-colonialism, anti-immigration values, patriarchy, and Standard American English, to name a few. Trusting the wisdom of Southerners living with and most systemically

impacted by HIV is key to innovative strategies and interventions.”

Keo’s work at SUSTAIN, alongside the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, the Southern AIDS Coalition, and Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity has helped to train over 10,500 people and work with 350 community partners. These organizations have served over 300,000 people across the US South. This work represents a continued awakening for Keo as they push for equity in research and community movements that value the wisdom of people with lived experiences, pay people for their labor, and expand the leadership and capacity of people with intersectional lived experiences.

As Asian American and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day approaches on May 19, Keo considers their roots, values, lived experience, and community wisdom that they have garnered and perfected over their time while working and living in the communities they serve. “The impact of HIV on AAPI communities is often unspoken, unseen, and unaddressed. This is due to misinformation, stigma, and a lack of culturally resonant resources, services, and groups. Looking to the power of long-lasting movement work of the Black and Palestinian liberation they reflect,” says Keo, ”we need to engage more in cross-movement solidarity and principled action.”

Still, Keo shows up to work ready to dismantle any systems contributing to oppression and disenfranchisement. Their progression in this work will be due to their ability to explore, dissect, and develop complex relationships into opportunities for the collective win. This—to everyone’s benefit—will always start from their solid value system.

Keep up with Dr. Bec Sokha Keo on Instagram @keo.becsokha. | MAY 2024 45 AAPI LEADERS

Over the past five decades, Jim Benton has been active as a music instructor, a caterer, and a florist. Now 70 years old—at a time when most people are thinking of retirement—Benton has reinvented himself, opening a new practice as a certified clinical sexologist. “This is absolutely where I am meant to be,” he says.


Small-Town Texas Upbringing Benton’s ancestors came to Texas from Scotland in the 1800s, and he grew up in a west-central Texas town known as Santa Ana. “There were about 900 people in that town, and 33 other students in my senior class,” Benton says.

Born in 1954, fair-haired Benton remembers learning music from his grandmother, who lived right across the street. “I would sit in her lap as she showed me how to play the piano.” By the age of ten, he was playing the organ at the local Baptist church, where his mother was the secretary.

In high school, Benton participated in the marching band and the football, basketball, and track teams. “I knew I was not like everyone else,” he says, “but I had no way of identifying as gay because I did not know that there were other options. Sexuality was not talked about back then. There was no language for it.”

Into the Larger World

After graduation from high school, Benton enrolled in Howard Payne University, a Baptist college in Brownwood, Texas, to pursue a degree in music education. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1977.

The year prior, Benton married a young woman with whom he had appeared in a local production of The Sound of Music. “She played a nun and I was a German soldier,” he remembers.

Qualified to teach music in grades kindergarten through 12, Benton moved with his new wife to Kingsville, Texas, in 1979 to accept a job offer there. He was given the responsibilities of a choral-activities director for an entire Class 5A school district.

The couple had three sons and eventually gravitated to the Corpus Christi area, where he began to work in the catering and florist fields. In 1989, Benton and his wife had an amicable divorce after realizing there were personality differences that could not be reconciled.

That same year, the oil business in Corpus Christi went bust. Faced with child support and the need for a new job, Benton moved to Houston. As he drove across the Brazos River near Sugar Land, Benton looked at the Houston skyline and thought to himself, “You better figure out who you are.”

A Journey from Musician to Sexologist

The unconventional path of Jim Benton ’s career transformation.

Coming Out

In 1985, when Benton was deep into the Corpus Christi florist and catering world, he began to realize he had never really addressed his sexual orientation. One day, after working three weddings in a row, he watched the guests having a good time at their reception. “I realized I was the only person in the room who was not happy,” he admits. “I had always been a giving person—and I had given so much for so long that the well had run dry.” He continued to work, but knew he was running on empty,

pushing himself onward but feeling numb. Benton says he always sort of knew he was gay, but did not feel like he had the permission to come out. But after moving to Houston, Benton was introduced to Bering Church in the Montrose area by the manager of the floral shop where he had found work. The congregation was largely made up of LGBTQ members. “I finally discovered this was where I needed to be,” he says.

At one point, Benton was asked to fill in for the florist who provided the altar

46 MAY 2024 |
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flowers for the church. “I ended up doing them for the next 17 years,” he says. Eventually he oversaw the floral and food ministries and worked with the choir. Every Thanksgiving he assisted with the a church dinner provided for persons living with HIV. He also helped with the annual Bering & Friends fundraisers at Stages Theater.

From 1991 to 2020, Benton operated the Jim Benton of Houston catering firm. He was also in great demand to play the piano at private parties. He continued to work with music students—most often, helping them prep for competitions—and at times served as an accompanist.

Benton was a popular performer, appearing regularly at Ovations Night Club in Rice Village with his act Bewitched, Bothered &... Benton He also helped produce an annual Broadway parody, Night Court, for the Houston Bar Association.

Benton holds several leather titles—Mr. Prime Choice 2013/2014 and Mr. Texas Leather 2014—and was in the top 15 at the International Mr. Leather competition. He also served as president of the hugely popular annual fundraiser Nights in Black Leather.


Asked when he first thought of reinventing himself, Benton says jokingly, “Every time I looked at Cher!”

The truth, though, was much more somber. In 2020, while COVID was ravaging the world, Harris County shut down large public events, and the ordinance went into effect just 23 hours before an event Benton was to cater for 500 guests. From then on, it was crash-and-burn for his business.

Although Benton was faced with no livelihood, his life was now a clean slate. Several friends suggested he train to be a certified clinical sexologist. The school of choice was Sex Coach U in Los Angeles.

After contacting the school, Benton knew he did not have the financial resources to enroll, but the school encouraged him to at least sit for an entrance interview. Several days later, the admissions director told him that renowned sex coach Dr. Patti Britton was so impressed with his interview that she wanted to offer him an 80% scholarship. The remaining 20% could be paid off if he helped organize special events and work with the school’s alumni.

After two and a half years of study, Benton earned a master’s degree in clinical sexology. Currently he is a doctoral student and PhD candidate at the International Institute of Clinical Sexology in Miami.

Sexual Wellness

Benton now runs his own clinical sexology practice, known as Everybody Needs Somebody. His services include individual counseling, couples counseling, clinical hypnosis, workshops and retreats, and a group-therapy experience he calls a “party lab.”

Benton works with men, women, and transgender individuals who are college age and older. “People come to me and wonder if they are normal,” he says. “Normal is just a setting on a washing machine. It is important to be who you are and to be in love with your authentic self.”

Benton is not locked into a particular treatment template, but rather provides therapy in many different forms, whatever the need is. One of his therapies is vocal coaching for transgender individuals who want a voice that more authentically matches their gender identity. Many of his clients are referrals from other health professionals who feel a specialist is needed.

In his practice, Benton works across a wide spectrum of issues, such as fear of dating, poor body image, and erectile dysfunction. Some clients cannot have sex without the use of drugs. In some relationships, there is an unequal at-

traction between the partners. He asks clients what they want to be, and then helps them set goals to get there.

“There is an epidemic of loneliness and isolation these days, especially for seniors,”

Benton says, echoing the 2023 Surgeon General’s report. “But I can see healing in people’s lives, and this is what makes my new career so rewarding. I help people get their heads and hearts in line with each other.”

A Blessed Life

Benton says he has been fortunate to have lived a well-rounded life. He has seen cathedrals in Europe, climbed down a waterfall in New Zealand, visited with people in Russia, watched a Pride parade move down the canals of Amsterdam, and catered an event for a US president.

Benton and his ex-wife are still best friends and keep in close contact. Their three sons have successful and meaningful careers. His sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren are all supportive, and they live within ten miles of each other in the Houston area. “I have been incredibly blessed,” he says.

Keep up with Jim Benton on Instagram @jimbentonens.

—Jim Benton
48 MAY 2024 |



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Kenneth Jones discusses what makes Houston Tennis Club so special.

Love may literally mean “nothing” in tennis, but at Houston Tennis Club (HTC) there is plenty of love to go around. The local LGBTQ sports group has grown into one of the city’s most successful social clubs since its inception in 1980. Kenneth Jones, PharmD, AAHIVP, president of the board of directors, explains that the success of HTC is due to the incredible support of its members, the hard work being done by the board of directors, and the organic camaraderie that is formed when people gather in the name of friendly competition.

The nonprofit organization promotes a sense of community as well as competition among its members. The vision of the club, according to their website, is to “increase visibility and create a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ athletes in tennis by providing leadership, support, positive experiences, and charitable opportunities.” Jones reflects on the mission statement and adds, “We’re just all about having fun and enjoying the sport that we love.”

Jones was a standout on his high school tennis team when an injury benched him for roughly six years. “When I moved back to Houston for pharmacy school in 2014, I was looking for a group of people to play tennis with. Being away from the sport for so long, I realized that I had lost all of my practice partners and the normal contacts that I would hit up for a match at the last minute,” he recalls.


“I searched high and low for a social club where I could integrate playing tennis back into my normal fitness routine. I found HTC by just browsing online, and the rest is history.”

The club meets three times weekly (Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) at Memorial Park Tennis Center, or another public location such as Homer Ford Tennis Center when availability at Memorial is limited. “Unlike other sports clubs or leagues, members sign up and show up as they please. Depending on the number of players that show up, we divide everyone based on skill level and they play either singles or doubles,” Jones explains. “Every time you show up, someone new could be there, so it’s a lot of fun and allows for practice with a variety of playing styles and different personalities. We also meet up for inter-club competitions for those who are interested.”

Although the commonality between the club’s members is rooted in a love of tennis, the board of directors works throughout the year to offer group socialbonding opportunities. “We like to take things off the court for different events each month,” Jones says. “We’ve done volleyball, pickleball, pool parties, and watch parties for major professional tennis matches.”

—Kenneth Jones

While HTC is open to all, regardless of gender or sexual identity, Jones explains that due to court scarcity in the city, they don’t have the capacity at this time to teach the basics to those who have never picked up a racket. “As long as you have the basic skill set, know the rules of the game and how to keep score, then we definitely have members in our club that are on your level.”

As president, Jones explains his job consists of three pillars. Collaborating with his fellow board members, Jones and the team “work harmoniously to get HTC’s name out there, while providing a safe space for fun and to make a difference in our community.

“My second job is making connections in the community for possible sponsorship opportunities.” One such sponsorship includes Legacy Community Health, where Jones works as manager of their Montrose pharmacy. “I’m really thankful to have gained sponsorships from such large organizations. It allows us to run a successful club, a successful tournament at the end of the year called HouTex, and to donate to deserving beneficiaries that align with our community values. The last part of my job as president is to be open to feedback and make changes to the club to ensure that everyone is having fun.”

With a goal of reaching even more LGBTQ tennis players in the community, Jones and his board have high hopes for this year and beyond.

Aside from the organizational responsibilities that the leader happily executes on a weekly basis, it’s a love for the game and his community that truly keep Jones coming back to the courts every week. “As president, I’ve been able to make fitness a part of my normal routine and I’m incredibly grateful for that,” he says. “Not only was I able to get active with tennis again, and even travel for tournaments, but I was also able to gain some of my best friends. I encourage anyone interested to come check us out. We have the time, and it’s our job, to make sure that your first experience with the club is seamless. Best of all, your first session is free!”

For more info, visit | MAY 2024 51
Courting Community Houston Tennis Club members (top row, l-r) TJ Weaver, Nicky Gaytan, and Chris Shepard; (bottom row, l-r) Roberto Alvarado and Kenneth Jones

Bringing Storytelling to Life

Daniel Zamora’s multimedia projects celebrate healing, ritual, and memory.


Whether creating art through sculpture, photo-based illustrations, or performance art as a spirit fox from a haunted realm, interdisciplinary artist

Daniel E. Zamora has used his creativity to process his former substance abuse issues and other challenges in his life.

“This summer, I will celebrate ten years of sobriety,” he says. “That journey has informed my art, and I consider my art practice a healing practice. Being able to share experiences through my work has been an honor.”

Zamora’s healing journey through his art is now culminating in a new exhibit titled Joy and Fear on the Homeworld, which will open at the UH College of Arts’ Elgin Street Studios on May 2.

Currently an MFA candidate in the University of Houston’s College of Arts Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms graduate program, Zamora received his Bachelor of Science degree in global art, design, and construction from Texas A&M University.

Art has always been a passion of Zamora’s from an early age. “I grew up in a house

where sports was the way of life,” he says. “In contrast, I really loved reading, drawing, and building things from an early age. My parents completely supported these things. Eventually, I went to a fine-art academy for elementary school. That was really where I began to understand that there are specific environments that support creative education.”

The openly gay artist has taken his experiences from life and created a distinct storytelling style that lends itself to magical realism and touches on the intersection of healing, timelessness, ritual, and memory. Those themes are represented through several media, including his performance art.

“There are various manifestations of my art,” he says. “I recently performed a show at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum called Luca of the Dream, which is a multipronged project. I created a series of stories around a central character, a spirit fox named Luca. He is a creature from a haunted forest realm who has transformed into a healed being and has come to our world to share stories and different perspectives. Sound engineering for this project has been an exhilarating experience. From writing music, scoring tracks, and working with a vocal encoder to create unique effects, learning these technologies has brought this vision of storytelling to life.”

The closer one looks at his visual art, the more multifaceted it becomes. This is evident in his piece titled La Ayuda Que Tenemos (The Help We Have). In it, a male subject is sitting on a bed as objects fly around him in a bedroom setting. Giant, outstretched hands reach out toward him as flowers blossom on the ceiling, while others near the floor start to die.

“This is an example of photo-based art,” Zamora explains. “It’s also an allegorical piece. The outstretched arms represent the past, present, and future. They signify the help that’s always available to us. The flowers that are beginning to blossom represent friends who are in recovery and are beginning to bloom and flourish. The flower on the bottom signifies the fact that many of us die from substance use disorder. Tragically, many of my friends have not made it. The candles represent the years of sobriety. There is more symbolism throughout the work, but this is the way such things are represented.”

Another piece, Infinite Birthday, showcases the intersection of celebration and ritual and the way a man has been able to find joy and sobriety in his life. In it, he sits shirtless and hunched over on a bed with his eyes covered by a cloth floating in the air. He is holding a birthday cake full of simmering candles.

“The theme behind this is timelessness, | MAY 2024 53
Daniel E. Zamora’s La Ayuda Que Tenemos (The Help We Have)

memory, ritual, suffering, healing, connectivity—all these different sorts of things,” he says. “People do heal, and they can find their expression and voice in meaningful ways. I’ve been able to revisit all of these things from my life that now inform the work that’s being produced today.”

These pieces, like much of the work in the show, is the result of Zamora’s nuanced creative process.

“I combine real-life portrait work with composition and illustration to produce an end result,” he says. “This creative process entails working with a model (usually a friend) in a photo shoot and capturing a number of expressions and poses. Then I’ll harvest the best images, make selections, and bring the best of those images into a digital application where the post-production process of illustration, composition, and harmonization begins.”

Zamora has also begun writ-

ing a graphic novel, adding a new dimension to his art practice.

“More will be revealed in time,” he adds.

Zamora’s goal for anyone who attends his show is that they walk away remembering that art is a powerful means of telling a story and documenting one’s life.

“I hope my deep love, enchantment, and passion for storytelling is evident in the work,” he concludes. “I hope people are moved by the fact that there are stories to be shared—and a myriad of ways to share our stories. They have the capacity to heal and strengthen us.”

Follow Zamora on Instagram @daniel.e.zamora_art

What: Joy and Fear on the Homeworld

When: May 2–10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Where: Elgin Street Studios, UH College of Art, 3700 Cullen Blvd. Info:

54 MAY 2024 |
DANIEL E. ZAMORA Zamora’s Infinite Birthday

Dancing into Summer

Extra, Extra: Newsies takes the stage at TUTS.

Theater Under the Stars (TUTS) welcomes the summer season with their brand-new, self-produced production of Disney’s Newsies this month. The invigorating, danceheavy musical is loosely based on the New York City newsboys’ strike of 1899. The show follows a group of brave young underdogs who boldly unite against New York’s rich and powerful to demand fair wages and safer working conditions.

“It’s a story that still exists today,” says Michael Alonzo, who plays the villainous Oscar Delancey. “Once a company knows who’s trying to organize, the company begins unionbusting by removing those people entirely. We saw that with Amazon workers a year or so ago, and now we see the same thing happening with Starbucks workers around the country.”

In Newsies, audiences witness physical violence utilized to demoralize and discourage the young heroes from fighting for what’s right. “Fortunately, we’re not necessarily seeing that in the United States,” explains Alonzo. “These are kids fighting for wages, safety on the job, and sustainable work hours. Now, thankfully, there are laws in place where kids aren’t working because they should be in school. If they are having to work, they shouldn’t be in an unsafe work environment.” Protections like these for the youth of America are the legacy of the reallife newsboys’ strike, whose ripples included the introduction of urban child-welfare practices decades after the strike ended.

“I think another parallel we can draw is with the pandemic and essential workers,” Alonzo notes. “These were people working at gas stations, grocery stores, and hospitals. With all of these positions, had they just stopped, the world would have completely crumbled even further than it did. We absolutely need to be protecting these people and giving them the same access as the person that has the highest standing in the company.”

Despite being set in July 1899, a timely topic that the production addresses is visibility

56 MAY 2024 |
Photo by LIGHT IN TEXAS PHOTOGRAPHY Newsies cast member Michael Alonzo

of and equity for people with disabilities.

“The first character we meet is this gentleman named Crutchie, and he mentions that he’s had more difficulty every day with walking,” says Alonzo. “What’s been really cool to see in the rehearsal process is that Crutchie dances in the show. It’s not one of those situations where, ‘Hey, here’s the principal or here are your dancers, and then we’re going to stick you off to the side.’ No, he’s involved with the dances, and he’s in the center of some of them.”

“Crutchie also gets his own monologue song in Act Two, where it’s just about his character, his plight, his worries, and what he’s going through,” Alonzo explains. “We don’t get that in music theater at all, so to see that character be on stage can mean so much for so many who are experiencing disability or feeling disadvantaged.”

As a musical designed to be enjoyed by families and audiences of all ages, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that there aren’t any explicit instances of queer representation in Newsies But queer audiences may find themselves reflected in the show’s camaraderie among the news boys, which is presented as a chosen family of sorts.

“We do see a lot of this brotherly love. There is definitely this bonding that’s happening since they’re working together, and they’re coexisting together,” says Alonzo. “With my gay, lesbian, and trans friends, I hold so much love for them because we are doing the same thing. We’re artists. We’re

Michael Alonzo

doing theater. We’re all trying to excel in our careers. We’re all trying to make it better and safer for the next generation coming in. And we see that with the newsies themselves. They’re wanting to make sure that the future generations are going to have the same access as they did, and that they’re not going to be penalized because of their current actions.”

If you still need convincing to see Disney’s Newsies, you have an opportunity to see the next generation of Houston’s homegrown talent from the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre in this production. “They are the best and brightest performers I’ve gotten to work with. I think the world of those teenagers,” Alonzo says. “They’ve been trained here in our own city. There’s some great education happening at TUTS.”

On a personal note, Alonzo is looking forward to exploring Houston while he’s in town for this production. “I love taking dance classes, so I’ll be at the Houston Dance Center.

There’s so much art, culture, and life here. I’m excited to explore the cuisine, the humidity, and get to just spend time outside, as well.”

He also looks forward to connecting with Houston’s queer community during the May 30 Out@TUTS event. “My fiancé and I enjoy finding ourselves in situations where we realize we’re with our people—people who understand us, who get us, and we don’t have to feel like we have to have reservations,” says Alonzo. “We love knowing that we’re going to be surrounded by this wonderful, loving, amazing community of people who want to socialize, who want to meet us, who love the theater as much as we do. We find ourselves excited about getting to meet all these people.”

WHAT: Disney’s Newsies

WHEN: May 21–June 2

WHERE: Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street Info: | MAY 2024 57
The cast of TUTS’ new production of Newsies

All That Glitters Is Texas Gold

ACES! imagines a lively reunion of six Texas Miss USA winners.

While they may not be as prominent as they once were during the excesses of the 1980s, beauty pageants are still a vibrant part of Texas’ cultural landscape.

Playing May 2–5 at Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH), ACES!—by Lake Jackson-based playwright Davis Gordon Gilbert—blends the thrills of the golden era of Texas pageants with the titillating spectacle of a modern reality show’s reunion episode.

The new comedy imagines a scenario where Kim Tomes, Texas’ Miss USA 1977 winner, hosts a live television special featuring the five consecutive Texas winners of the Miss USA crown: Laura Elena Martinez (1985), Christie Fitchner (1986), Michelle Royer (1987), Courtney Gibbs (1988), and Gretchen Polhemus (1989). In this format, the audience gets to hear the now-seasoned women reflect on their younger selves and share their stories. Yet, when the cameras cut to commercials, the audience is also treated to the less-polished and less-poised sides of these celebrated women.

“My family and I used to watch pageants on Saturday night. It was a huge thing, and of course, we always wanted Miss Texas to win, but she rarely won until 1977 with Kim Tomes,” says Gilbert regarding his inspiration to write the play. “I watched it for eight more years, and Miss Texas still didn’t win until Laura won, then Christie, then Michelle, then Courtney, and then Gretchen!”

Winning the Miss USA pageant is no easy feat. The women had to meet stringent eligibility requirements, including being a full-time college student or retaining full-time employment, never having been married, and never having given birth to a child, among others. Then there’s the grueling coaching the women undertake to ensure they never lose their poise, luster, and wit under pressure.

“The training that these ladies had to go through to be the first in almost every category and win each year against 50 of the most astounding women in our country is just

58 MAY 2024 |
ACES! cast members (l-r) Nora Hahnas as Kim Tomes (1977), Pam Green as Laura Elena Martinez (1985), Audrey Coe as Christy Fichtner (1986), Amy Gustin Millin as Michelle Royer (1987), Lisa Caughorn as Courtney Gibbs (1988), and Kelly Wehrer as Gretchen Polhemus (1989)
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truly remarkable,” says Gilbert.

“The training that they went through with these two guys—they called them GuyRex—sounds really tough. Walking up and down stairs with your eyes closed in high heels; I mean, nobody could do that,” exclaims Nora Hahn, who plays Tomes. “Think about how poised these women are when they go into a business meeting, appear on a television show, or whatever.”

For many Texans, beauty-pageant winners are the closest we come to royalty within the state. The glittering gowns and crowns only add to that princess-like allure. “These are real Texas women who did some amazing things. Some of it was modeling and television hosting or what have you, but all of it was pretty darn amazing,” states Hahn. “To inhabit them for just a little while and think how all eyes were on these people for just a short amount of time—and still are, in some ways—is fun, exciting, and an honor.”

“I think that in pageants, so many times, everyone seems to look the same,” adds Lisa Caughorn, who plays Courtney Gibbs. “But in our characters, and in each one of these women that we’re portraying, they are so diverse.”

This may be best exemplified by the

Lisa Caughorn

character of Laura Elena Martinez, who was the first Hispanic and the first naturalized citizen to wear both the Miss Texas USA and Miss USA crowns. “They’re not just all white women with blonde hair or light brown hair. Here’s this gorgeous Latina, and she nailed it right off the bat,” Gilbert notes. “I think her winning brought a lot of young Hispanic girls to the realization that if it can happen for her, it can happen for them.”

With the women of ACES! all being “ladies of a certain age,” audiences may find the play

has the same comforting appeal as The Golden Girls or Designing Women without the chaos of a Real Housewives reunion. “There is drama, and you’ll see that escalate through the show,” admits Caughorn.

“I do think they keep it civil,” adds Hahn. “We want to pay homage to them, and not take it too far.”

“We play around, we exaggerate, and we have fun with accents,” Caughorn says. “Some things we do take very seriously, because these women had some difficult things that happened to them, but other things we just throw around, have fun, and play.”

Texans love their state’s history, especially when it’s presented in a well-crafted and wonderfully performed play. Just look at Margaret and Allison Engel’s Red Hot Patriot: The KickAss Wit of Molly Ivins or Holland Taylor’s onewoman show Ann that brought Governor Ann Richards to life onstage. “I think it should be part of Texas history,” Gilbert concludes, “and I definitely think it should be part of Texas women’s history what these five young ladies managed to accomplish.”


WHEN: May 2–5

WHERE: MATCH, 3400 Main Street


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Finding a Place to Show Up Queer

Travis Prokop brings his performance to Barnstorm Dance Festival.

When Dance Source Houston’s Barnstorm Dance Fest opens the last week of May, one of the choreographers featured will be Travis Prokop. Houston dance audiences may recognize him as a dancer with NobleMotion, Hope Stone, and other companies, but his choreography has mostly appeared in other festival settings or in previous cities where he’s taught—most recently Lamar University in Beaumont. He recently became an assistant professor of dance at the University of Houston, where he intends to step back from performing to concentrate on choreography. Prokop traces his life in dance back to his childhood in Clovis, New Mexico. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who watched a lot of musicals. This sparked his interest in

movement, and he was put into a dance class.

“It’s been dance ever since,” he says. Prokop earned his bachelor’s degree at West Texas A&M University (Canyon), and his master’s degre at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

Neil Ellis Orts: Tell us a bit about the piece you’re showing at Barnstorm.

Travis Prokop: It’s a solo called “Square Peg, Round Hole.” Essentially, it’s a dance referencing how people (and more specifically, queer people) are looking for a place where they can fit in. Originally, this is a number I choreographed at one of my previous jobs, with a college student, and wanted to explore the choreography with a little bit more mature dancer, so I’ll be utilizing my boyfriend, Dwain Travis,

courtesy of Houston Contemporary Dance. It runs the audience through some queer topics such as traditional versus nontraditional relationships, referencing how queer people have to find their place and exit the closet. Then I researched a lot of coping mechanisms and used that research to implement some choreographic choices—what the character would do, how the character would react to feeling boxed in, accepting, and of course, thriving afterwards.

Talk about working with your boyfriend in this process.

Dancers that you want to work with, that you appreciate their movement quality, are few and far between, so luckily I got the chance to work with my boyfriend. It’s been

62 MAY 2024 |
Photo Dancing in the Street Horse Latitudes by Jane Weiner

interesting in having to find the equilibrium between being boyfriends who are also here to get a job done, and that level of professionalism. In a way, it enhances the work because there are certain things I don’t have to tell him since he’s also experienced them as a queer artist. It’s also done wonders in how we communicate with each other in our personal relationship. I think both of us are more open to communication, feel more comfortable sharing our vulnerabilities in every aspect of our relationship, from physical to emotional.

Queer people seem to gravitate toward dance.

I would say that seeing queer people inside of dance is not unusual, but I would also say that subject matter or themes that accurately portray queer life in a specific way are harder to come by. I think the arts are very welcoming to queer life, but I think (especially living in Texas) what we’re seeing sometimes is an abstract representation of queer life. I do feel it would be nice to give a lens into our lives, especially to our allies—and people who might not be allies. I think it was Harvey Milk who said, “How can they change their minds about us if they don’t know who we are?” That’s kind of been my mission statement.

What are some of your thoughts about the Barnstorm Dance Fest?

I enjoy Barnstorm. It’s a chance for a multivaried level of artists to show work in a professional theater. Barnstorm and the MATCH is an outlet where up-and-coming or emerging choreographers can show their work next to people like Social Movement or Houston Contemporary or NobleMotion, some really top-tier names in the Houston community. It gives a chance for everybody to be seen.

How would you introduce yourself to the OutSmart audience?

In introducing myself, I always say my brand is “rainbow irreverence.” I feel like it’s my duty to continue a legacy of queer artists in Houston. I understand our forefathers—I call them forefathers like they are old—like my mentor Jonathan Charles Smith (who has unfortunately passed away), but I also give homage and power to Jhon Stronks and Adam Castañeda and Rivkah French, all the queer artists who are trying to make the community strong. I just want to be a part of that. I’m here and ready to show queer art. I’m aiming to do a show in the spring of 2025 highlighting the “hanky code” and other secret forms

of communication between queer people back in the day, and equating that to new forms of communication like social media and dating apps. That’s where I’m really diving into now. We used to say “Love is love,” but I’m starting to think that’s not the case. It’s OK that our love is different. I want to bring that to the surface so that people can experience that and not be so taken aback by it. I think that starts with seeing not only a duet with two men that showcases the power of two men together, but showcases the romance and intimacy that two men can have. Do that with women, with trans dancers, with nonbinary—the community is vast! I want audiences to see those stories and allow the audience to know that these are queer characters and not just queer dancers who are dancing roles.

You brought up your mentor, the late Sam Houston State University dance professor Jonathan Charles Smith. Do you see yourself mentoring young artists at UH?

I do. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a couple more of our students feel comfortable coming out and filling out in their own skin. One student who is super near and dear to my heart, Jayden Thomas, is just coming into her own confidence and exploring what her place inside our community is—that is, being a dancer and a queer person. That’s what Jonathan taught me, and if I can pass that on, I’m happy to do so. I don’t want to tell people how to live their lives, but I want to be a good example of feeling safe and comfortable in your skin and being OK with being yourself. I’m sorry that sounds so ABC Afterschool Special, but I guess it’s still true.

Keep up with Travis Prokop on Instagram @prokop_theory.

WHAT: Barnstorm Dance Fest WHEN: May 28–June 1 WHERE: MATCH, 3400 Main Street Info: | MAY 2024 63
Step by Step
Travis Prokop teaching at Bailando International Dance Festival

Stand By your drag

Varla Jean Merman takes center stage in Houston.

Jeffery Roberson, most famously known as drag queen Varla Jean Merman, has dazzled and entertained audiences for decades. While there will be comedy and fun at the star’s upcoming Stand By Your Drag show in Houston, there will also be a deeper message on the importance of gay art amidst looming drag bans and antiLGBTQ legislation.

“I want people at the show to walk away realizing that drag was sabotaged and is being used for political advancement,” he says. “Drag is love and laughter! You will witness both at the show!”

Starting at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 3, at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH), the one-woman show pinpoints the origins of the drag bans throughout the history of the art form. The show will be a call to arms for anyone who loves drag, while still retaining Robinson’s signature humor and wit.

“I love making people laugh,” he says. “I find it is very healing for myself and the audience. I did this show mainly in support of my Florida sisters. I am lucky that I get to travel all over the country. Friends of mine who only perform in Florida were devastated when no drag queens were allowed to perform at Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride last year. Pride is a lucrative time for drag queens. But also to feel not invited to an event paying homage to the 1969 drag riot that changed life for all gay people in the United States was a slap in the face.”

Roberson first started doing drag in college

at Louisiana State University, where a good friend introduced him to John Waters movies.

“Being from New Orleans, I was introduced to drag at a very early age,” he says. “Straight and gay people did drag for Mardi Gras! The character of Varla was born after reading Ethel Merman’s autobiography, which has a chapter entitled ‘My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.’ You turn the page, and it’s blank because they were married for only 38 days. I always believed that

if they would’ve had a child, Ethel Merman would’ve sent it to an orphanage in Louisiana because a child was too painful of a reminder of her sour, broken union. That is how Varla was born!”

Audiences will also get to hear Roberson talk about his famous “Tic-Taccident,” where the performer fell on a Tic Tac and injured himself, ending up in a wheelchair.

“’There is definitely some truth to the phrase “laughter is the best medicine,’” he says. “I really did it all for myself to process it. Even though I laugh at it, it was a traumatic event to suddenly be in a wheelchair. I have total, utmost respect for anyone dealing with a physical disability, short or long term. Out of tragedy comes great art—or a dancing Tic Tac box that tries to maim me!”

Roberson has accomplished many things in his career. He starred in the musical Lucky Guy opposite Leslie Jordan in New York at the Little Schubert in 2011, guest-starred as Varla Jean on Ugly Betty in the final season, and was also featured on Season 5 of Bravo’s Project Runway What has been most rewarding, however, is traveling the country and making audiences laugh. The performer says he has no plans to slow down.

“I have been on Broadway, sung at Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera house, and made multiple television appearances,” he says. “But still, performing on a plywoodcovered pool table in a dive bar can be just as satisfying. I am very happy exactly where I am!”

64 MAY 2024 |
For more info, visit ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT


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APRIL 4, 2024

The Trans Day of Visibility rally at the Montrose Center attracted over 200 individuals who gathered to show support for their trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming friends. Montrose Center CEO Avery Belyeu emceed the event, and there were impassioned speeches from Joelle Bayaa-Uzuri of The Normal Anomaly, Inc., Charlie Ritchie of Hatch Youth, and Daron | MAY 2024 67 Out ▼ There Photos by DALTON DE
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Yanes Perez of Trans Men Empowerment. Adding to the festivities was music from DJ Fanci, and cold treats were provided by Kona Ice.
68 MAY 2024 | Lynette Lew • 713.582.2202 Residential and Commercial Realtor Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Gary Greene Gary Greene Commercial Properties | 713.957.3672 Just Outside the 610 Loop in Houston! 11804 Hempstead Rd., Houston, TX 77092 FOUNTAINS & STATUARY OPEN 7 DAYS Disappearing Fountains • Glazed Urns Fountains • Birdbaths • Decorative Precast Rock Waterfalls • Fiberglass Garden Ponds • Bowls • Tables & Benches • Pumps & Tubing • Planters • Pedestals • Flower Pots • Fountain Tops • Religious Statues • Concrete Animals, Fish, Birds & Reptiles • Talavera Style Mexican Pottery GARDENING/ NURSERY SUPPLY 3 MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT A CRIME In partnership with The Harris Center and law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office ensured 4,000+ mentally ill, non-violent offenders received mental health treatment instead of going to jail. If someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call Harris Center for Mental Health at 1-713-970-7000


The Empowering Our Future Gala at the Ballroom at Bayou Place celebrated LGBTQ youth services of the Montrose Center with an Animation Nation theme. Guests donned cartoon character costumes to add a playful vibe while drag queens Miss Conception, Muffy Vanderbilt III, Amya Jackson Ross, and musician Eric Michael Krop elevated spirits, along with emcee extraordinaire Reign LaRue and DJ Fauci. Attendees donated to

enable a brighter future for LGBTQ youth, showcasing the power of community and compassion. Speakers at the event included the Montrose Center’s chief executive officer Avery Belyeu, Kim Gustafson, Charles Calvin, Clark Caperton, and ZsaZsa Stella. The gala served as a beacon of hope in the journey toward inclusivity and understanding. | MAY 2024 69 Out ▼ There
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APRIL 4, 2024

The Human Rights Campaign held its annual HRC Houston Dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel downtown, hosted by comedian Dana Goldberg. Rice Pride was honored with the Trailblazer Award, actor Kevin McHale won the Visibility Award, and co-chair Rey Ocañas was presented with this year’s Leadership Award. Later, the after-party got rolling with beats by Marti Frieson and performances by some of Houston’s drag royalty. | MAY 2024 71 Out ▼ There
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MARCH 16, 2024

Warehouse Live Midtown was the venue for the 2024 edition of the Black Queer AF Music Festival. The entertainment lineup included headliner LaToya Luckett, RaeShanda LiasLockhart, Damez, Thot Squad, and TazDaRealist. This year’s theme was “Homecoming,” which was especially meaningful as the weekend’s festivities also included the grand opening of Houston’s only standalone Black LGBTQ drop-in center in Houston’s Third Ward. | MAY 2024 73 Out ▼ There Photos by PISCES310 PHOTOGRAPHY
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Houston’s Versailles Party

Matt Johns and Nick Puccio ’s big day channeled the ’70s glamour of Studio 54.

Inspired by the infamous 1979 Versailles Party at Studio 54, Matt Johns and Nick Puccio’s postnuptial fête brought to Houston the glamour of France’s Sun King interpreted through the lens of disco. While Marie Antoinette may not have actually uttered “Let them eat cake,” you can be sure that Matt and Nick had plenty for everyone at this soirée.

Matt, 38, is marketing director for Palacios Murphy and oversees several different brands under the corporate umbrella of the firm’s hospitality group. Nick, 32, is a senior community lead at WeWork. “We met working,” says Matt.

“I was doing a party for a client, and Nick was working the party for that client.”

“I would just say that you can’t really ignore Matt. He has a wonderful presence when he’s in the room,” admits Nick about their first meeting some six years ago. “I remember seeing him—he was wearing this incredible denim kimono that I love.”

“You were just friendly,” Matt chimes in. “Bossing everyone around in the friendliest way possible. Nick was just smart, cute, and sweet. I feel like that’s a lot to ask for these days.”

Their first date began with a trip to David Shelton Gallery, owned by a friend of Matt’s,

for a show opening by artist Kelly O’Connor, who is currently a neighbor of theirs. “We had drinks with everyone from the opening, went to Nobie’s for dinner, and then to Bar Victor,” explains Nick.

Despite their obvious admiration for one another, neither Matt nor Nick can pinpoint the specific moment they knew the other was the one. “When you’re together that long, you just realize that this is happy, safe, and feels good,” Nick offers.

“I just knew I didn’t want to go back to dating people again,” Matt adds as he admires Nick.

The love and support they offer each other

76 MAY 2024 |
Matt Johns (l) and Nick Puccio

helps keep them grounded. “Work is my love language. It’s my favorite hobby,” says Matt. “Nick really forces me to relax and enjoy life. That, for sure, is my favorite part of Nick. He’s like my vacation.”

“Matt is the most creative person that I know, and he brings out creativity in everyone,” adds Nick. “He is extremely hardworking, compassionate, and he just has a lot of heart.”

“Cold heart,” Matt interjects.

“He wants you to think it’s cold,” Nick volleys back while Matt laughs heartily. “When he gets in the moment, he’s so warm.”

Now, one may wonder why they threw a Versailles-themed party to celebrate their wedding. “During a trip to Paris, we got engaged at the Petit Trianon in Versailles,” Matt explains. “Paris is my favorite place in the world, and Nick had never been. It was so fun to go there with him.

“Then Nick found this photo of a party that Karl Lagerfeld had thrown at Studio 54 in 1979. It was all inspired by the Sun King and the conception of Versailles. We knew we

didn’t want to have a normal wedding, but we weren’t really sure what that meant, and it took a really long time to figure that out.”

The couple opted for a small, intimate morning ceremony at Rothko Chapel to honor Nick’s love for the British Royal Family and their mutual respect for Mark Rothko. “Rothko Chapel is such a special place for both of us,” states Nick.

“And I love that you can’t take pictures inside at the Rothko,” interjects Matt. “It was really nice going into this super-important life moment where it wasn’t going to be documented. Everyone had to be present, pay attention, and participate.”

The ceremony was followed by a brunch with their immediate families and a couple of their closest friends at Hugo Ortega’s Backstreet Café. Then, that evening’s decadent party was held at Numbers. “It’s just such a special place,” Nick says of the famed Montrose nightclub. “I always want to pay attention to the LGBTQ history of Houston, and Numbers has played such a big part in that history.”

“My favorite thing that happened was that

Rudy put us on the marquee. It said, ‘Congratulations, Nick and Matt,’” Matt recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re on the Numbers marquee!’ That felt historic.”

Experienced at planning and throwing events, the couple opted to plan and execute their wedding on their own. “The advice that I give everyone is, ‘No one knows what the day is supposed to look like in your head.’ They just show up, and they’re like, ‘Wow! Well, this is amazing,’” says Matt. “We took our own advice on that. Really, the important part of any party is who’s invited, the bar, and the music. And we nailed all of those.”

The couple offers high praise for everyone working at Rothko Chapel, Numbers, and DJ Carlos Garcia (aka CarlosKilledIt!). Their photographs were taken by their friend and artist Mackenzie Smith Kelley, known for her commercial and editorial food, lifestyle, and documentary photography.

WANT TO TELL YOUR STORY? Email us at | MAY 2024 77
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OutSmart’s Bar Guide is now on your phone! Scan here to check out our directory of LGBTQ bars and clubs in and around Houston, including your favorites in Galveston, Huntsville, Spring, and College Station. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, we’ve got you covered with this updated guide to the best LGBTQ-friendly spaces.

OutSmart’s Bar Guide is now on your phone! Scan here to check out our directory of LGBTQ bars and clubs in and around Houston, including your favorites in Galveston, Huntsville, Spring, and College Station. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, we’ve got you covered with this updated guide to the best LGBTQ-friendly spaces.

OutSmart’s Bar Guide is now on your phone! Scan here to check out our directory of LGBTQ bars and clubs in and around Houston, including your favorites in Galveston, Huntsville, Spring, and College Station. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, we’ve got you covered with this updated guide to the best LGBTQ-friendly spaces.

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ReBar evolved into Rich’s Houston, a vibe restaurant, lounge & boutique day / night life experience. Voted the Best Place to Watch Male Dancers Tues. and Thurs, – Sunday Nights There’s always something going on at TONY’S CORNER POCKET! 817 W. Dallas 713.571.7870 Nightly Specials – Call for Details Cold Beverages & Hot Guys! Houston’s Hottest Male Amateur Strip Contest Headquarters! BAR GUIDE
ReBar evolved into Rich’s Houston, a vibe restaurant, lounge & boutique day / night life experience. Voted the Best Place to Watch Male Dancers Tues. and Thurs, – Sunday Nights There’s always something going on at TONY’S CORNER POCKET! 817 W. Dallas 713.571.7870 Nightly Specials – Call for Details Cold Beverages & Hot Guys! Houston’s Hottest Male Amateur Strip Contest Headquarters! BAR GUIDE
ReBar evolved into Rich’s Houston, a vibe restaurant, lounge & boutique day / night life experience. 2024 PRIDE FESTIVAL & PARADE June 22nd, Fish Plaza, Wortham Theater Join 350 vendors at Houston's largest Pride Festival and Parade aimed at raising funds for our two benefiting non-profits Tony's Place and Grace Place. Early bird pricing now through 3/1.

ARIES (Mar. 21–Apr. 19)

With your ruler, Mars, traveling through your sign this month, you are more than ready to get on with things. You may not be as patient, and your sleep may be more restless. Exercise can be an excellent way to use this energy. You are more aware of your health with Mars. This is a good time to consider joining a community group and connecting with friends more often. You are more adventurous this month, and you will want company. You are more interested in your finances and ways to eliminate debt from your life. This can be a very good time to try investing or adding to your savings. You may also be interested in expanding your education or pursuing a hobby this year. In the latter part of the month, you are more multi-faceted.

TAURUS (Apr. 20–May 20)

Happy Birthday to the Bulls and Cows! This is your personal new year when you reflect on the past year and consider the potential of this new year. The end of last month was a very intense time when your patience was at an all-time low, but now you are feeling more in control. Career is a big topic this month, and you have been looking for ways to have more freedom in your life. This can be a time when you start something on your own or step away from what you have been doing to explore your own interests. Tensions may rise midmonth, and you may feel you need to make some decisions. This also applies to relationships, either business or personal, that restrict you in any way. In the latter part of the month you are more at ease and more open about how you feel.

GEMINI (May 21–June 21)

This is an important time for Gemini and the mutable signs in general. Jupiter, the planet of growth, travel, expansion, and legalities, enters the sign of Gemini, where it will remain for the next year. This is a time of opportunities for you in all areas of life. You are still working on career choices, and that will be accelerated

Mars Sparks Action

The New Moon in Taurus grounds our plans.

We are in an active month. Mercury finished its retrograde path in April, so now is the time to put your new plans and projects into action. Mars, the planet of action, survival, and protection, enters Aries for the next 39 days. This will really help bring in the spring and summer temperatures and keep us busy. The New Moon in Taurus on the 7th will help our focus on resources and feeling more stable. We are interested in the basics. The Full Moon on the 23rd is an extremely busy day. This is a better time for international business, travel, and exploring new areas of interest. The Sun begins the month in Taurus and enters Gemini on the 20th. Jupiter in Taurus enters Gemini on the 25th, where it will remain for the next year, making this a much busier time for the mutable signs of Gemini, Virgo, Sag, and Pisces.

as we enter June. This is the time to consider taking on a leadership role, doing something on your own, or redefining that part of your life completely. You will find this a great way to be seen and heard. Friends can be especially helpful and inspiring. They can bolster your self-confidence. Toward the end of the month, you are in a time of retreat, resting, and gathering your inner spirit. You will need personal space during this time. Make sure you keep your agenda light.

CANCER (June 22–July 22)

Your career and public life are still active and demanding. With career, this can be a great time to start a new project or take that leadership role you have been thinking and rethinking during the Mercury retrograde last month. It will be harder to control your temper this month. This energy could be put to better use through exercise and improved health programs. Your crabbiness is more visible. This is a more socially active time for you—a much better month to connect with friends, join groups, and find your tribe. In the latter part of the month, you are ready to find more time for rest and retreat. You may be working on a blog or podcast, or getting more involved with social media. You want to share your thoughts and ideas more and more with others.

LEO (July 23–Aug. 22)

Career, public reputation, and financial stability are the main topics for this month. For some time, you have been considering a total shift in your career direction, or letting go of what has been expected from you as a parent. This is also a good time to travel, take a class, or get away from routines. Relationships are going through major shifts as well. You and your partner may relocate, make your life simpler, or go your own way. You express your feelings and views about relationships in a much more open and direct way. If there are problems there, you want them to be dealt with. Even in successful partnerships, this is a time to renew

goals. You will be more open and real in all your partnerships.

VIRGO (Aug. 23–Sept.22)

This continues to be a busy time. Relationships are going through a period of testing and setting new goals. You must respond to problems so you can move forward in the future. It is a good time of commitment since you are taking action with your eyes open. This is a creative time via blogging, podcasting, and TikToking. You have ideas to share. You may also want to take a class and expand your knowledge base. You continue to work on reducing your debt and freeing yourself. In the latter part of the month, your career becomes very active. You may be busier, looking for a new position, getting a promotion, starting something on your own, and taking a leadership position in the community.

LIBRA (Sept. 23–Oct. 23)

As if relationships weren’t enough of an issue with Mercury retrograde last month, you will be looking for change and positive results this month or tempers will flare. If you are single, this is also a great time for putting yourself out there. Your self-confidence shows, and is magnetic. You are definitely looking for closer connections in existing partnerships and generating greater trust with friends. This is a very good month to explore investing and finding ways to reduce your debt. The idea of freeing yourself from this has been especially strong! In the latter part of the month, you are ready to step back and have some fun. This is a better time to travel, explore your genetics, or upgrade your education. The desire to learn and grow will be strong until June 2025.

SCORPIO (Oct. 24–Nov. 21)

Relationships take the lead this month. There has been a lot of activity in this area for the last couple

80 MAY 2024 | SIGN OUT

of months, especially in April. You are now moving into a time of more stability, making choices, and not overthinking your decisions. This is a good time to take your partnership to the next level. And if you are single, this is a good time to meet new people! Exercise and health are going to be strong over the next month. The motivation to make positive changes in your daily routines will help you overcome the resistance to get started. Next month should be a good time for you economically. This will be a much better time for financing a home, car, or lakeside property. You are also more open to sharing deeper thoughts and feelings with your partner and good friends.



Health and work routines are the main topics as the month begins. You have been reworking your workspace to make it as comfortable as possible, and also upgrading your work station. Now is the time to put all those changes into practice. This continues to be a good time to improve your health by making positive changes in your eating patterns and reducing your stress at work. This is also a time when you are more attentive to your pets. You will want to make sure they are in good health, as well. In the latter part of the month, relationships take the spotlight. Your relationships will seem more

enjoyable. If you are single, this is an excellent time to be out socially, and you will be more social, connecting with people who are open to a variety of topics. Home and family come up later in the month and will need your time and attention.


(Dec. 22–Jan. 19)

Although people and obligations are trying to keep you busy, you are looking for time to play and enjoy your life. This is a great time to spend with your children, reminding you how play is healthful. If you are more industrious, this is a great month to put your hobbies or a side gig into play. You can turn this into something that has a lot of potential for real money. You continue to work on getting your daily life in order so you don’t waste your time. You are more likely to say no and mean it. People see Capricorns as the ones who can get things done—that is why people always ask for your help. In the latter part of the month, you are back to routines. You will be making changes at work as you look for a more flexible schedule.

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20–Feb. 18)

Aquarians are going through a time of major changes. Home and family are the big interests this month. You continue to make your home a more comfortable place, and you may be moving or downsizing. You are clearer about the direction you will take this month. Family can

still be dealing with shifts in the power hierarchy, and they do expect you to participate. On a more personal level, you are shedding your old skin and letting go of a lot of the negativity that has haunted you for years. You are more direct in your communication, and your low tolerance will be especially strong this month. Toward the end of the month, you are ready to step back and take a breather. You will want more joy in your life and less focus on responsibilities.

PISCES (Feb. 19–Mar. 20)

The emphasis this month is on personal responsibility, boundaries, clarity about yourself, and exploring decisions about the future of your relationships and career. You are taking control of your life and paying more attention to the personal costs that your choices have, and you want to direct energy to the things that benefit you most. You are reviewing your sense of personal self-worth. You may increase your fees, expect a raise, or look elsewhere for someone who appreciates who you are. You are letting people know your intent. Toward the end of the month, you may be moving, remodeling, or experiencing a growing family. You may have more career options, but that may require a relocation. Do what’s best for you, and allow others to take care of themselves. | MAY 2024 81
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