April Blair — better known by her pen name, Skyy — had no idea she was even writing a book six years ago when she wrote the draft of her first book, Choices. She was just writing to combat depression, but after a friend read the manuscript, that friend convinced Blair to publish. This past June, Blair released Full Circle, the fourth and final book in her "Choices" fiction series. (The second and third books are titled Consequences and Crossroads.)
The books follow the lives of four women navigating lesbian life at a fictional Memphis college. At the center of the story are Lena and Denise, a pair of roommates whose relationship progresses beyond friendship but not without a cost. Lena was engaged to Brandon, star of the men's basketball team, until Denise shakes up Lena's world. The Flyer recently spoke with "Skyy" about her pen name, her fans, and her future. — Bianca Phillips
The Flyer: So, a friend convinced you to publish?
April Blair: That friend was sitting at my computer, and I asked her what she was doing. She said, "Reading this book you wrote. This is even better than the last Eric Jerome Dickey book I read. You should do something with it." I started researching how to get published, and I came across an independent lesbian book publisher called King's Crossing.
Has King's Crossing published all your books?
They published the first two, and they ended up going out of business. But by then, I had been featured on the Michael Baisden radio show, and my books had taken off. Carl Weber, who owns Urban Books, an imprint of Kensington, then wanted my books. He'd been selling them in his bookstores, and they were flying off the shelves.
Where does the pen name Skyy come from?
I originally started calling myself Skyy, because I have a tendency to daydream. In the gay community, if you join gay houses or families, they give you your own name. So I said I'd be Skyy.
Are the books written for the lesbian community, or do they have a broader appeal?
They were originally written for the lesbian community, but after I did The Michael Baisden Show, I learned that I had a lot of straight readers — men and women. The characters almost become gender-neutral. I think that's why the books appeal to so many. You don't love these people, because they're gay. You love these people because of who they are.
What's next for you?
One of the main things my fans want is a movie or TV series based on the books. I hope that's coming soon. The geek in me wants to write sci-fi books. And I'd like to assist other lesbian and gay authors to get their work out there and be seen.
Memphian Kal Dwight is easily one of the most active young people involved in the local fight for LGBTQ rights. At age 21, he's already a veteran of the equality movement, having co-founded the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center's Gen Q group for college-aged LGBTQ people and their allies. Gen Q offers a place for young people to socialize and get active in the fight for equality.
On March 12th, Gen Q members will be in Nashville taking part in the Tennessee Equality Project's "Advancing Equality Day on the Hill," an annual day of lobbying in favor of LGBTQ-friendly bills and lobbying against those bills that would harm gay people and families. Kal took a few minutes to chat with the Flyer about Gen Q, activism, and his undying love for Elton John.
Flyer: Why did you help start Gen Q?
Kal Dwight: Originally, when my best bro Ray and I started it, we were 19 and too young for the bars. This was before Spectrum (gasp!). But we knew we wanted to be involved. We also knew that there were others like us. There isn’t much to do in Memphis if you’re under 21, whether you’re gay or straight. If you’re not in college or a church youth group, it’s hard to go out and meet people. So we started in early 2010 at the MGLCC.
What's the goal of the organization?
To create a healthier, safer environment for young adults while strengthening the local gay-straight alliances (GSA). We meet every Friday, and we reserve the second Friday of every month specifically for college GSAs to come and create events together.
You're currently fundraising to take Gen Q to Nashville for "Advancing Equality on the Hill Day." Why take the group?
Memphis young LGBTQA people rarely get a chance to go to Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) events in Nashville because of the cost and distance. Every year that I have been, it has been all Middle Tennessee kids and other adults. It’s time for our presence. I also hate being the youngest person at every event, so I’ve made it my mission to target young adults to get more involved. I can’t honestly keep bitching about it unless I do something. As for our fundraising goal, I think we’ve almost reached it. People keep donating every day.
Are there any particular bills in the state legislature that you're very concerned about?
I am always concerned with the “Don’t Say Gay" bill [Senator Stacey Campfield's bill that would ban discussion of homosexuality in grades K through 8]. I can’t wait to be rid of that one for good. Not only is it a threat to our kids, it makes us look so bad in Tennessee!
You're probably the most active young person in the LGBTQ equality movement in Memphis.
Haha … I am older than Justin Bieber at least! I might be the youngest but not for long.
When did you first get involved in the LGBTQ equality fight in Memphis?
When I moved home from L.A. and decided that this is where I needed to be, specifically for activism. I was all fired up after Prop 8. I knew that I couldn't represent anything I didn't know, and all I know is the Delta. I remember my first trip to the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center. I was glad to find a place that I now consider home.
Younger people tend to be more accepting of equality, but are there any issues that you face trying to convince the younger generation to get involved? Is there a lot of apathy?
A lot of the younger people that want to be involved are also involved in a million things. I only see the younger ones who come to me asking for projects to work on. I know that a lot have families and have to sacrifice free time to make a living. However, when my dad was in college, they were demonstrating and picketing everything. They were organizing sit-ins and bus boycotts. Okay, maybe dad isn’t that old but you get the point. We are the future, and this country isn’t going to get better until we MAKE it better.
As a transgender guy in Memphis, have you ever faced discrimination?
I’m very privileged to live in my little gay bubble; I have a very strong support system. It is certainly not a walk in the park for everyone though. Memphis is so far behind on trans issues. We are barely scraping the surface of what other places have already accomplished. Physically and mentally, this is a rough place for anyone who is LGBTQA. My biggest problems often come from within my own community. L’s, g’s, and b’s maybe don’t realize how uneducated they are and how much it hurts. My friend and a trans woman said, “Sometimes it seems that, by being trans, it is assumed that you are an open book or a walking educational seminar.” And I can get impatient.
How do you handle those situations?
I am pretty easygoing with the pronoun problem (people calling me “she” instead of “he”) but if I sense the situation could escalate, I just leave. I don’t have time to deal with jerks these days.
And now for some lighter questions: What's your favorite Memphis restaurant?
So you're pretty much the world's biggest Elton John fan. When did that obsession begin, and how many times have you seen him perform live?
OMG elton!! He's the man of my dreams! I first saw him when I was 13. I have seen him four times since then. And once in London! I think that he and David Furnish (his hubby) are so amazing and I'm so happy that they finally have a family. And yes, I will be seeing him next weekend.
What are you reading right now?
This month’s Rolling Stone. I am about to start [Pete] Townshend’s biography.
If you could be a celebrity for a day, who would you be?
Prince Harry. My dad even agrees.
And what are your future plans? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
This is the hardest question. I want to be here, but I don’t think I will be. I want to do event coordinating and planning for nonprofits. I hope to be contracted out one day to the big organizations like in D.C. and L.A. But this is only March. It will probably be a different story next month..
Since 2007, Jonathan Cole has been fighting for equality in various roles with the Tennessee Equality Project, the state's LGBT rights organization. From convincing the Memphis City Council to add workplace protections for city employees to lobbying against anti-gay bills in Nashville, Cole has done it all. He took out a few minutes to talk to Memphis Gaydar:
How long have you been involved with the Tennessee Equality Project?
I’ve been appointed or elected to a number of volunteer roles for Tennessee Equality Project since 2007. I was named co-chair of the Shelby County Committee in 2007 and later served as chair from 2008 until 2010. Anne Gullick is the current chair of TEP’s Shelby County Committee. I was elected to the statewide TEP Board in 2008. I’ve served as secretary, chair, and president and chair of the board. I currently serve as vice president. I’ve also served as a board member of TEP’s Political Action Committee since 2007.
What does your current VP role entail?
I coordinate TEP’s advocacy efforts in West Tennessee. I support the work of our steering committee chairs in Shelby and Madison Counties as we advance local campaigns (like last October’s employment non-discrimination ordinance in Memphis) and state-level efforts to engage the Tennessee General Assembly. Citizen engagement will be essential in opposing anti-LGBT bills in the state legislature in 2013. In the coming weeks, I will be helping to organize West Tennesseans for Advancing Equality Day on the Hill in Nashville on March 12th.
Before getting involved with TEP, what other sorts of activism were you involved in?
From 1999 until 2007, I served on and off the board of Integrity-Memphis, an LGBT advocacy group within the Episcopal Church. Most of my efforts were devoted to challenging the parishes, clergy, and the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee to become more welcoming to LGBT people and their families.
My interests turned more secular when organizing local opposition to the Marriage Discrimination Amendment to the Tennessee Constitution in 2006. Voters were asked to enshrine discriminatory language in the state constitution that year in a referendum on the November ballot. While serving on the board of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, I helped organize grassroots opposition to the Marriage Discrimination Amendment. We lost that battle, but the fight for equal rights for LGBT people and their families in Tennessee continues on other fronts.
You've become one of the most public faces in the local fight for LGBT equality. Did you ever imagine yourself in such a spotlight?
Not really. While I feel blessed that I can play a role in advancing equal rights for my community, my greatest hope is that new leaders will step forward to represent our diverse community. I can’t possibly represent the interests of my entire community.
How have you adjusted to that public role?
I can honestly say that nothing I’ve done would be possible without the love and support of my husband Paul. The political work that I do requires a lot of networking, community organizing, and engaging the media that happens after-hours outside my full time job. This has always meant time away from home and family. Paul helps me stay grounded in the simplest of ways whether it’s making dinner, folding my laundry, or telling me it’s okay to say “no” when that public role becomes too demanding.
What accomplishments are you most proud of from TEP?
I devoted more than five years to advancing workplace protections in Memphis and Shelby County. I am most proud of the LGBT-inclusive employment non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Memphis City Council on October 16, 2012.
We were very close to passing the ordinance in 2010, closer than most people realized. A consensus on the council was ready to pass an ordinance that would add sexual orientation to workplace protections for city employees and job applicants in 2010. But there were not enough votes to add gender identity. I knew then that we’d never get the council to add gender identity in the future if we compromised. We failed in 2010, but we came back again in 2012 to fight for an LGBT-inclusive ordinance. I’m proud that we stood together as a community until we could do the right thing.
I am also proud of the fact that TEP and its allies were able to defeat several anti-LGBT bills in the 107th Tennessee General Assembly when I was president and chair of TEP’s Board: “Don’t Say Gay,” “License to Bully” and the “Police the Potty” bills were the most prominent last year.
What is next on the horizon for the Shelby County committee?
The Shelby County Commission voted for a resolution in 2009 which offers some workplace protections for LGBT county employees and job applicants. County workers deserve the same level of protection in a non-discrimination ordinance that city employees now enjoy.
Interest is also building among city employees for domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian couples (health insurance, family and medical leave, etc.). Our committee is ready to work with county and city employees and community supporters to advance these goals.
Memphis has come a long way in recent years, but are there areas where we still need work?
I would like to see more LGBT people running for office in local and state government in Memphis. In particular, I look forward to supporting an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender African American for elected office. I’ll know that Memphis has arrived when that happens.
On a less serious note, what's your favorite thing about Memphis?
The people of Memphis. Southern hospitality is alive and well in this city. Memphis is the biggest small town in America. I like the fact that people speak to one another here. That doesn’t happen in bigger cities.
Where do you take out-of-town guests?
Paul and I are big foodies. We proudly expose out-of-towners to the best food that Memphis has to offer. I make sure they stay away from what I call tourist BBQ. I tell them to try Payne’s, Cozy Corner, or Central BBQ before going anywhere else. We tend to take guests to places in Midtown or Downtown where we like to eat or drink: Alchemy, Sweet Grass Next Door, Cafe 1912, Bari, Young Avenue Deli, Rizzo’s Diner, Gus’s Fried Chicken, Mollie Fontaine. We also like Acre, Andrew-Michael and Hog & Hominy in East Memphis.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Friends frequently ask me when I plan to run for office. I have no plans to do so. I think I am more effective influencing government and policy makers from the outside. I’m a social worker in my professional life who loves community organizing. I’ll probably be doing the same thing in 10 years.
Several times each month, Memphis Gaydar will feature Q&As with LGBT Memphians and their allies who are making a difference. This week's installment features Kim Daugherty, the executive director of the Friend for Life, which helps people with HIV/AIDS get access to education, housing, food, transportation and healthy life skills training.
Flyer: In a nutshell, what does Friends for Life do?
Daugherty: Friends For Life is a nonprofit organization that supports persons living with HIV/AIDS. Our two main goals are to reduce opportunistic infections in persons living with HIV/AIDS in by assisting them to become medically adherent and remain medically adherent and to reduce and prevent homelessness for persons living with HIV/AIDS.
FFL is the oldest such organization in the south, right? How did it get started?
In the '80s, many people in our community were dying of AIDS. Their friends banned together to assist them to die with dignity, and Friends For Life evolved from that effort. Today, with the invention of powerful drugs that fight the HIV virus people are living long and prosperous lives. We are here to support them.
When FFL was launched, HIV/AIDS was still considered a "gay disease." How have organizations like FFL helped moved past that stigma?
Although many have thought of HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease,” this has never really been the case. This belief developed early on in the epidemic as many of those identified as being infected were gay men. However, we know factually that by the early '90s half of all new infections were children born to mothers who were infected by HIV/AIDS. Fortunately today, very few children in our community are born with HIV/AIDS due to medications and medical procedures used during delivery. Unfortunately, living with HIV/AIDS in our country still carries a great deal of stigma. People tell me regularly that family has asked them to leave their home, or they are rejected by their church family after their HIV/AIDS diagnoses. We are here to help people overcome that sort of experience. We assist them in rebuilding their self-esteem and self-worth so they will care for themselves.
Do you think there's still work to do in educating people about how HIV/AIDS in contracted?
Tons of work is needed to reduce the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS in our community. People really have not gotten the message that HIV is simply a virus. It is transmitted in very specific ways — exchange of blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and mother’s breast milk. You cannot contract HIV through casual contact such as using the restroom after someone, drinking after them, or using the phone after them. Universally accepted HIV testing could really help reduce the stigma associated with HIV.
Do you think the fact that people know now that HIV is manageable might be causing some people to be more reckless?
I occasionally hear younger people say things that let me know that they are not fully informed about HIV/AIDS. Although it is true that HIV is a more manageable, long-term illness than ever before, I must say that we should all do what we can to avoid contraction of the virus. The medications that are taken can have some serious side effects that make them difficult for many to tolerate. Living with a virus that is working full-time to weaken your body and allow infections to invade your systems is something no one should have to live with. The medications designed to fight HIV literally are destroying the virus produced by your body.
Homeless people are at a huge risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. Why is that?
People who are homeless generally have a lack of access to health care, in particular preventative health care, such as HIV testing. They have poor health outcomes and are at risk for early death.
What is FFL doing to combat that?
Friends For Life, in partnership with the City of Memphis, Community Alliance for the Homeless, the United Way and other community partners, are working together to bring housing resources to the community to assist in combating this problem. We believe in housing first — get people off the street and help them work on their problems.
Some people only know of FFL through the huge Halloween party they throw every year. How did that get started?
The agency used to throw a huge party at the end of its "A Place at the Table" party season, and this evolved into the Halloween party. It is a spectacularly fun event that raises between $30,000 and $40,000 annually for the agency.
Enough about serious stuff, what did you eat for breakfast this morning?
I confess I don’t eat breakfast every day. A couple of my favorite breakfast foods are the almond poppy seed pastry at La Baguette and the turkey and egg white flatbread from Dunkin Donuts.
What's your idea of a fun weekend?
I really enjoy going to the Farmers Market and to the Arcade for breakfast on Saturday morning. Sunday mornings, I like to read the paper and watch a movie on TV. I am a huge sports fan so any opportunity to catch the game is great. I love the Grizzlies!!!
Favorite thing about Memphis?
I love Memphis. People here are generous and want to help others. I love that about us!
Last movie you watched in the theater?
Skyfall. I love James Bond. I want all those spy gadgets Q invents for him.
Several times each month, Memphis Gaydar will feature Q&As with LGBT Memphians who are making a difference. For the inaugural LGBT Voices post, we've chosen Will Batts, the executive director of the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC), which has offered programs, services, and support for LGBT Memphians since 1989.
1. How long have you served as executive director of MGLCC?
Since July 1, 2008
2. How did you get that position? Did you ever see yourself heading up a LGBT community center?
It was a long route. I've done many different types of jobs in my life — bookstore manager, high school religion/psychology teacher, psychology graduate student, corporate flunky, small business owner, and now MGLCC E.D. Each job I've had has taught me some skill that I use in this job, whether it's how to keep the books, run a small business, or how to listen effectively to people in crisis. I became involved with MGLCC through the Outflix Film Festival back in 2005. I just never left because I love this organization and the impact we have in the community.
3. What are your favorite things about the job?
I love watching people transform and grow. People often come to MGLCC worried about coming out, looking for support or friends, struggling with job or family issues, or in real crisis. Seeing them find their own inner strength to live free, happy, and healthy lives is so amazing!
4. Anything you don't like?
It's very difficult to hear stories of abuse, despair, attempted suicide, family violence, or rejection. I struggle when I hear young people talk about the things they have to do to survive on the streets. I hate not being able to fix everything. Those are very long days.
5. What has been the most rewarding moment so far?
Lots of things make me happy about my job. But I am most touched when people say, "Thanks for being here. I'm not sure I would have survived without this place." I tear up every time because I know it's very likely true.
6. How far would you say Memphis has come regarding LGBT equality and acceptance? We've come a very long way just since I've been connected with MGLCC. We have so many supportive churches, businesses, and other agencies. We have many LGBT folks appearing openly in the media. Outflix Film Festival grows every year. Pride has become a must-go event. I think we're reaching a tipping point in our community where acceptance of LGBT equality is becoming the norm rather than the rarity. And I love it! It means the people of my community will be safer.
7. Now that the city and county have passed employment non-discrimination ordinances, what do you see as next on the horizon in the local fight for LGBT equality?
Making sure our kids are safe in their schools. Kids are coming out so much younger than my generation did, which often makes them targets. We need to ensure that not only are there strong anti-bullying policies in place but that all adults have the buy-in to protect kids regardless of their own personal beliefs. That and making Memphis a safer place for our transgender brothers and sisters. Education and awareness are keys to a safer community.
8. Okay, enough serious talk. What's your favorite Memphis restaurant?
I could eat at Soul Fish every day!
9. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what 3 things would you want to have with you?
You mean besides a daily meal from Soul Fish? My hubby Curtis, my favorite book The Count of Monte Cristo, and a toothbrush!!!
10. What's on your iPod right now?
Green Day, Johnny Cash, Aaron Copland, White Stripes, The Killers, Patsy Cline, George Winston, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Blondie
11. Last book you read?
Game of Thrones
12. What do you want for Christmas?
Marriage equality … but I'll settle for an iPad. This time.