Gnaw Rocs: Delicioso The Rich Port of the ROC by Reilly Hirst

El Pilon Criollo 

973 North Clinton Avenue 

Rochester, NY 14621 

 There are many reasons to go to El Pilon: a chance to get authentic food in large portions, its pretty cheap, and its clean, as well as a nicely lit take out spot, definitely. However the biggest reason has to do with tasting the culture of 30,000 of our Rochester community. And then there are the pasteles… 

 So, in SF, I had a unique kind of tamale for Christmas from Guatemala, filled with chicken but cooked inside a banana leaf instead of a corn husk.  Available only during Christmas in Guatemala, it was the one time that they would chop up a chicken, bones and all, to make these tamales.  The rest of the year, beans and rice were the staples for the majority.   

 Imagine my surprise then when walking into El Pilon Criollo, a Puerto Rican restaurant, to discover what appeared to be Guatemalan tamales, and in Rochester, where I am pressed to find passable tacos. I was quickly and lovingly corrected: these were pasteles: made with pork and green banana masa, and boiled rather than steamed.   

 But that was far from the only thing at this smorgasbord: a counter filled with aromas and bright colored foods, I happily also ordered the stewed chicken in the small container to go with my pasteles. That remains my recommendation here, in general, get the stewed!  I have since had the baked chicken and the roast pork.  Skip them, there are better versions elsewhere. The sides include yellow rice, green beans, fried plantains, cassava or mangu (mashed plantains similar to mashed potatoes).  

 There are 3 sizes, small ($5), medium ($7) and the I can eat for a few meals large ($9). I usually skip the larger sizes, because besides already getting pasteles, the medium comes with salad. I don’t want salad at El Pilon. I do not come to have lettuce and tomato with some sort of dressing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the large and just gorge on the extra.   

 If you go on a Saturday, you can also have Mofongo, fried green plantains mashed in a pilón; hence the name, El Pilon Criolli or the Spanish Mortar. This differs from the mangu which is much plainer by adding garlic, broth, meat, and sauce. They also carry fritters filled with a variety of sweet and savory items as well as sandwiches.  

 Go to El Pilon, not only because it can fill your belly for the same cost as Nick Tahou’s but with less heartburn and more complex flavor, but also, taste Rochester’s most important living legacy: its inhabitants.  Puerto Ricans are a large almost invisible part of this community except when the festival happens. Then, traditionally, anything bad that happens at the Puerto Rican festival is blamed on the Puerto Rican community, but anything bad at the St. Patrick’s Parade is just a few bad apples, not the Irish population. To know people, begin by experiencing their culture and history. You will taste not only food, but the possibility of what Rochester is and can be. Integration does not threaten what we have but expands what we can be. Eating is a pretty lovely way to humanize a divided city that is poorer for the lines between the people living here.  

Meet Paul Morland, Ensemble “Fiddler” in RBTL Fiddler on the Roof Production

Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of a father from a different time navigating his way through arranging marriages for his three beloved daughters as they risk everything to instead follow their hearts. With an uncertain political climate swirling all around them, this family finds the humor, beauty and dance in tradition and love. This Fiddler adaptation brought to audiences by Tony®-winning director Bartlett Sher and the team behind South Pacific, The King and I and 2017 Tony-winning Best Play Oslo, bring a fresh and authentic vision to this beloved theatrical masterpiece from Tony winner Joseph Stein and Pulitzer Prize winners Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

EC sat down with Paul Morland, an ensemble cast member, “the Fiddler”, to talk about the show that will be bringing him to Rochester December 11- 16.

EC:          I read that you are originally from Colombia?

PM:        Yes, I was born in Medellin, Colombia, was adopted and lived in a few different parts of the country. I’ve lived in New York, California and Colorado.

EC:          Has dance always been your passion?

PM:        I think it has. I started dancing very, very young and ended up taking break. But it was something I loved so eventually I went back to it and ended up dancing every single day. I dance hours upon hours just working to perfect my craft.

EC:          Do have a particular style that you like the best?

PM:        I love contemporary, which is what makes this show so much fun for me. It’s contemporary but fused with many other styles.  I did a lot of work on the concert dance scene, did freelancing throughout 2018 that all led me here. We’ve been on the road traveling with the show for about two months now after almost a month of script reading and rehearsal, every day- all day. We premiered in Philly and are now doing up to 8 shows a week.

EC:          Does it get boring or repetitive?

PM:        No, I actually love it. This is the first time I’ve been a part of this kind of production. But it’s beautiful knowing that you are comfortable, have a routine down pact but that each show is special and new with every different room you step into. The audience gives it a life and personality of its own and their energy in the room changes every performance for us. I remember being 5 or 6 years old and seeing a live production of Beauty and the Beast and just being memorized. That’s what I think of every time I step onto a stage. What kid could be in the audience that I could inspire in that same way. The magic, power and beauty of it all. The way it can transform reality into this imagined world and showcase it in the most incredible way. It can be life changing. So how could you ever get tired of that?

EC:          What is next for you Paul?

PM:        I’m only 22 years old so I’m just enjoying myself, soaking up new experiences. I’m collecting information, experiences and seeing where it takes me. I want to create, to travel and eventually work to build my own pieces. Being able to sing, dance and act is such a beautiful way to experience life!

EC:          Do you have any advice for that inspiring little dancer in your audience that may want to make dance or theater his or her career?

PM:        Through the entire process set goals for yourself but make sure you take the time to love yourself all along the way. And never forget not to get discouraged, there are literally a million ways to showcase your art and your passion. You just have to find yours!


Well Paul, we are certainly glad you found the way to showcase your art and passion right on the RBTL stage.   Fiddler will be running at the Rochester Broadway Theater League beginning Tuesday, December 11 – 16th. For more information and tickets to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, please visit


Get To Know Tam, New Communications Director & Editor of The Empty Closet Magazine


Tam pic.jpg

Our new Editor in Chief and Communications Director for the Empty Closet and Out Alliance is Tamara Leigh. She’ll be putting her own spin on the Empty Closet beginning in 2019 and has big plans for the publication moving forward. We wanted to give our readers the opportunity to get to know the woman known throughout our community as “Tam” a little bit better. 

 What did you do before coming on board at the Alliance? 

My day job was with the City of Rochester, doing HR & Communications/Marketing work for the Department of Recreation and Youth Services. I also own a Public Relations and Brand Development firm called Roc Candy Media. I’ve been able to work with so many entertainers, promoters, agencies and events in Rochester. It has really been an honor. My most important resume credit though is as being Mom to my 15 and 9 year old sons, Zaire & Zayden.  

 You’re involved in a ton of community endeavors. Can you tell us about them? 

Absolutely! I have been fortunate enough to work with so many members of the community, businesses and agencies helping to plan and coordinate events as well as produce some of my own. I was a part of the founding team of Roc the Park. We did Black Girls and Black Men Roc. My own personal projects, #BlackGirlMagic@ the Movies around the opening of the Hidden Figures movie was incredible. Over the summer we produced the “Walk It Like You Talk It” All-Stud Fashion Show celebrating self-identifying “studs” of color which was amazing. I did a “LGBTQ+ Water Wars” event over the summer that invited people to come out and compete in different water games and we had a ball. I also have co-chaired Black Pride Weekend with Adrian Elim which has been so rewarding. My latest project has been a series of Ki-Ki Ball events with Peachez to help revive the Western NY Ballroom scene.   

Who inspires you? 

The people who inspire me are the people who have found the courage and strength to be absolutely unequivocally authentically themselves. Marsha P. Johnson inspires me. People who have fearlessly broken through prejudice and gender lines and everything that is expected and accepted inspire me. Dorothy Dandridge inspires me. Strong women, fighting the good fight inspire me. Kamala Harris inspires me. But I guess most of all I am inspired by the people who came from nothing, fought through everything, beat every set of odds and then turned back to reach for all the people who still sit where they once did to pull them through the fire too. They are superheros in my eyes.  

If you could pick up a new skill in an instant what would it be? 

Photoshop!! I wish I was better at photoshop without actually having to put any effort into learning lol  

 What are you most excited to accomplish as Communications Director at the Alliance? 

I am incredibly excited about working on the Empty Closet magazine. The history is so rich and the possibilities for growth are just endless. But what I really want to see happen from my work here is to help create an environment where absolutely everyone from our community feels comfortable and celebrated here. The Alliance needs to be reflective of our entire community and I’m hoping that many people who may have never thought to come here before, will see themselves reflected in me.   

 If you could choose one song to play every time you entered a room, which song would it be and why? 

Without question, Janelle Monae, “I Like That”. It absolutely gives me the feels. It’s like the soundtrack of my personality. Maybe the Jersey Club remix version at the end lol  

What’s something you want to do in the next year that you’ve never done before? 

Be fearless 

 What superpower will you bring to the organization? 

Not to lack humility, but I am somewhat of a force to be reckoned with. I am extremely good at what I do and when I am passionate about something I am nearly unstoppable. I guess my superpower is my passion and the drive to see that passion come to fruition. So whether that means the power of my pen or incredibly big mouth lol …I’m excited about what we can make happen.  

Anything else you want to share with our readers? 

I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do the work that I love on behalf of a community that I adore. This is in many ways a dream come true for me and the start of a journey I am so excited for and proud of. I invite each and every person reading this page to come along on this incredible journey with me. We need you!! Your energy, your passion and your voices. If you are interested in contributing to the EC, please don’t hesitate to reach out. 

The Out Alliance 2019 Resolution

The Out Alliance was built on a legacy of advocating, educating, and celebrating for the Rochester LGBTQ+ community. For nearly 50 years we have been the voice and safe haven for countless individuals who needed services, support and community that they could find in few other places. Our legacy is a proud and strong one and it has been an honor to be the beacon of light for so many.

The Out Alliance is currently growing in so many powerful directions and we are beyond excited to see what the future brings. The growing process is not always an easy one but provides an invaluable opportunity to create ways to do more of what we excel at and pinpoint the areas in which we could do so much better.

The Out Alliance was created to be an organization that reflects the LGBTQ+ community and champions our rights, basic civil liberties and fights to ensure our unique (and often neglected) needs are met. Not just for some of us, but all of us. The world has made tremendous strides toward equality for Queer citizens but as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “No one is free until we are ALL free.” As we step into the future, this agency unequivocally affirms that the struggle for Queer rights also must incorporate all forms of oppression- racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. Our colorful, beautiful, diverse, expressive, and expansive LGBTQ+ family in Rochester should be reflected in every aspect of who Out Alliance is, and everything that we do.

In 2019, expect to see that reflected in our programming, hiring practices, publications and, agency presence. And if we don’t- we ask you to let us know. The first step in changing the culture is acknowledgement and accountability. The next step is making those words- actions. Our first action point is the creation of an “I.D.E.A. (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Awareness) Committee to give voice to the community and provide input as we evolve. If you are interested in participating, please contact Tamara Leigh ( for more information.

We want you to know that absolutely every color of our rainbow and community is not only welcomed but celebrated here. The Out Alliance was created to stand for justice and inclusivity. As we walk into the future of this agency let it be clear, the first place we will demand those ideals, is here.

Tim N. Tompkins Presented With “Community Partner Award

Tim Tompkins is a very private individual who has always been supportive of the Rochester LGBTQ community.  When I interviewed Tim in 2008 for the Shoulders to Stand On 90 minute  documentary, I discovered Tim’s inner belief and conviction that continue to drive and sustain him to this day.  His early recollections of his family, especially his father who told Tim he could accomplish anything he wanted to, were positive, affirming,  and supportive messages that became ingrained in his very being.  His family gave him the belief in himself to be successful, and the strength of will to never stop trying.  Tim has spent his life living that reality.

Tim, not an out-front kind of guy, has been involved in every major activity and initiative  – legislative, economic, social, medical – working strategically behind the scenes to create  Rochester, NY, a gay friendly city, known for its commitment to cultivating a healthy, safe, inclusive environment for all individuals in the Rochester region.  Tim, unseen by many, has given his support to innumerable people to work hard and to strive for a better life.

Financial success, however, has not gone to Tim Tompkins head.  He has not forgotten the lessons he learned as a young man.  Tim remembers his roots and gives back to the community.

Over the 30 plus years I have known Tim, Tim has never said no to anyone in need who asks for his help.  Tim’s long time friend, Dan Meyers, states: “Tim has built his real estate and mortgage business quietly and soundly.  His entertainment businesses have been as much about adding new, big city options for socialization as they have been about making money.  Tim likes to do well doing well.”  He has shared his business and philanthropic success and knowhow with NYS State, as Economic Advisor to former Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, and with Rochester mayors, and Rochester’s political, economic, social and medical leaders

Early in the AIDS/HIV crisis, Tim was an advocate for services and a leader in fundraising; he has stayed with this cause loyally when many have become fatigued.  He was instrumental in the founding of AIDS Rochester, and volunteered his time and energy to Chair HPA (Helping People With Aids – Dining For Dollars).  Tim supported the efforts of Dr Bill Valenti at CHN, and Strong Memorial Hospital in treating AIDS, and doing research to find a cure.  His support , commitment and leadership in fighting AIDS continues today.

The Out Alliance is proud to recognize Tim Tompkins as the recipient of the 2018 Center for AIDS Research Community Partner Award.  A true – Giant In Our Midst!




Out Alliance Sponsors The Legend of Georgia McBride

From December 1  – 16, the JCC will present the legend of Georgia McBride.  The story has a poignant lesson to learn: BE FLEXIBLE.  You never know what is going to happen in life.  One day your world is pretty well put together and next it falls apart.  What do you do?

In the Legend of Georgia

McBride when a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator, with a pregnant wife at home, loses his gig to a pair of B-level drag queens, the stage is set for a hilarious and entertaining stand-off, complete with sequins, feather boas, and that iconic white jumpsuit.  Before Elvis leaves the building, can a couple of drag queens teach him what it takes to be a “real” man? Casey, the Elvis impersonator, puts on makeup, dons wig and heels to do what he has to do to survive.  Much to Casey’s surprise, he is a natural “drag queen”. His new career takes off, but he is not comfortable telling his pregnant wife.  The Legend of Georgia McBride reveals a very human experience.  Being comfortable with who you are does not necessarily translate into being easy to “come out” to someone else.  Whatever your “coming out” experience is, Georgia McBride makes visible the challenges of changing your persona. The dilemma of choosing the “closet” or being “out” is not just a gender issue.  The issue rears its head in every area of our lives whenever we are challenged to move out of our comfort zone.

Drag queens have long existed within the margins of society, particularly at times when sexual minorities and subversive sexual and gender expression were highly policed and carried the risk of significant legal consequences. That started to change in the late 1960’s and 70’s during the sexual revolution, when drag became more prominent within gay male communities, and eventually, thanks in part to RuPaul, a part of popular culture.  Even though more visible, drag queens experience many challenges including financial costs, time investment, physical demands, and exposure to high rates of discrimination and violence.  Drag queens continue to be marginalized within and without the LGBTQ community.  Verbal and physical rejection are experienced by many members of community’s identified as “dangerous”, “different”, “not like us”.  The choice of being closeted or not is not just an LGBTQ issue.

The Legend of Georgia McBride provides a lens for us to look through to understand the inner turmoil and questioning that comes with “coming out” to yourself and the challenge of sharing that with others.  Rochester’s own Mrs. Kasha Davis and Aggy Dune will make special appearances in the Legend of Georgia McBride. The Out Alliance is proud to sponsor the Legend of Georgia McBride. The Out Alliance recognizes with gratitude the JCC CenterStage for its willingness to present a window through which we can view the drag culture, and to make visible the challenges that confront the LGBTQ and other diverse communities that live between the “closet” and be visible.

Get your tickets to the Legend of Georgia McBride NOW!

Transgender Day of Remembrance

A sobering, continued call to action as we remember the transgender community members we have lost to anti-transgender violence in 2018.

Trans Day of Remembrance began back in 1999, in memory of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman from Boston who was stabbed to death the year before.

This year we remember the more than 20 trans people, primarily trans women of color, who have been murdered in the U.S. in 2018.

It’s difficult to know the full scale of the problem. When a transgender person is killed, each step in the process of accounting for their death risks erasing that person’s gender identity. Many can’t spare the expense of having their names and gender markers updated on government documents. Law enforcement and coroner’s offices are not trained to identify transgender victims. Immediate family members who reject a trans person’s identity often withhold it from authorities. When the press learns of these murders, local reporters often don’t have the knowledge or information to investigate whether the victims were trans. The United States Census does not track transgender people, and while the FBI added gender identity as a category in its annual self-reported hate crimes report in 2014, the agency does not track gender identity along with its homicide statistics.

Because no government agency consistently tracks violence against transgender people, the job is left to a decentralized and largely informal network of LGBTQ organizations and activists to account for trans murder in America.

While the number of transgender homicides each year may seem small, it represents a rate of violence that far exceeds that of the general population. And the trend seems to be rising.

What’s less clear is if the number of violent incidents is actually increasing along with the rate of reports about them. Without a log of historical data, it’ s hard to know how today’s anti-trans violence compares to even a decade ago.

For many trans people, nearly every space brings with it the potential for danger — at home or on the street, with strangers or acquaintances, around their romantic partners or their families.

Advocates for the transgender community call for greater public awareness, the simple recognition of the extent to which trans lives are imperiled in the United States, especially among people of color.

We say their names, remember that they are loved, and recommit to working to stop the insidious transphobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic violence so inherent in our society.


Sasha Wall, 28

Dejanay Stanton, 24

Amia Tyrae, 28

Shantee Tucker, 30

Zakaria Fry, 28

Sasha Garden, 27

Phylicia Mitchell, 46

Cathalina Christina James, 24

Gigi Pierce, 28

Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, 42

Viccky Gutierrez, 33

Tonya Harvey, 35 

Celine Walker, 36

Carla Patricia Flores-Pavon, 26

Antonia “Antash’a” English, 38

Keisha Wells, 58

Vontashia Bell, 18

Londonn Moore, 20

Diamond Stephens, 39

Nino Fortson, 36

Nikki Enriquez, 28

Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier, 31


National Adoption Month: What You Need to Know About LGBTQ+ Adoption in NYS


“We know that we can provide a loving supportive home filled with adventure and joy. We also have amazing friends and family, who are also prepared to love our future children.”

Every day, more and more LGBTQ people are adopting children who need a good and loving home. It can be tough to get started if you are considering adoption either as a single parent or with a partner. In honor of National Adoption Month, we lay out what you need to know about adopting in New York State.

There are four options for adopting a child:

  1. State or Public Agency Adoption. Plan to adopt a child who is in foster care from the public child welfare system. These children tend to be older and have been removed from their birthparents due to abuse or neglect.  A series of classes on how to successfully parent these children is often required.
  2. Agency Open Adoption. Plan an open adoption through an adoption agency;
  3. Open Independent Adoption. Set out on your own to find birth parents who want or need to place their child in an adoption and complete that adoption through an attorney.
  4. International adoption. Adopt a child from another country through an agency or independently.

LGBTQ people have successfully adopted children through each of these methods. However, each road poses its own challenges. For example, in the past some prospective LGBTQ parents who pursue an agency open adoption have found that there is a hierarchy of preferred parents for a child, and they are not on top. It is important to thoroughly research agencies to ensure you will be welcome, and their protocol is compatible with your adoption needs.

More and more birth parents are choosing same-sex couples over different-sex couples and some private agencies report an increase in placements with our community.  Again, choosing an agency that you know will positively represent you to birth parents is essential. It is also important to talk to other LGBTQ adoptive parents in your community about their experiences and for agency recommendations. We have some resources listed at the end of this spread.


The Nitty-Gritty Requirements:

New York has a residency requirement of three months before adopting. This means that would-be adopting parents must live in the state for three months before the adoption is finalized. However, this does not prevent the soon-to-be parents from beginning the adoption process sooner, before they meet the three-month residency requirement.

Any adult unmarried person or adult spouses together at least 3 years prior to filing may adopt a child. Chapter 509 of the Laws of 2010 in NYS codified the court decision to authorize unmarried people to adopt a child together, allowing same-sex couples adoption proceedings before marriage equality was passed in 2011 at the state level and 2015 across the country.

Whether you are single or married, older or younger, renter or homeowner, you may apply to adopt a child. You do not need to have parenting experience, own your own home, or earn a high income.

New York adoption laws provide same-sex/LGBTQ couples with the same opportunity to create a family through adoption as single people and non-LGBTQ couples. 18 CRR-NY 441.24 prohibits discrimination in adoption and foster care based on sexual orientation and 11-0CFS-INF01 (2011) states that unmarried partners are explicitly allowed to jointly adopt.

All states now must permit joint adoption by married couples. As a result of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex couples throughout the United States are now permitted to marry and are thus permitted to adopt jointly.

If you are not adopting in New York State, find your state’s requirements by checking out


What Happens Next?:

One of the most important steps for prospective adoptive and foster parents in New York is the home study. The home study determines whether prospective parents are able to provide a safe, nurturing home to a child.

What is included in the New York home study process?

  • A report of a physical exam conducted within one year regarding the family’s general health
  • Inquiry into the applicant’s experience with children and training to strengthen his or her experience and knowledge in this area
  • Checks with the State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment and checks of out-of-state registries if a member of the household lived in another state any time during the past five years
  • Fingerprint-based state and federal criminal history record checks for all adult members of the household

Who is included in the home study process?

The applicant and any adults residing in the applicant’s home must be included in the home study.

Who will conduct the home study?

The home study must be made by a disinterested person qualified by training and experience to examine the allegations set forth in the application. This includes a licensed master social worker, licensed clinical social worker, the probation service of the family court, or an authorized agency specifically designated by the court to conduct pre-placement investigations.

For an adoptive child under age 18, the adoption will not be finalized until three months after the adoption petition has been filed. A post-placement investigation will be made by a disinterested person, and a report will be submitted to the court within 30 days.

The post-placement investigation will include information about:

  • The parents’ and child’s marital and family status and history
  • The physical and mental health of the family and child
  • The adoptive parents’ property and income
  • Payments made in connection with the adoption
  • Any involvement of either parent in any proceeding concerning allegedly abused, neglected, abandoned or delinquent children
  • Any other circumstances relevant to the determination of adoption

“It is easy to be discouraged, and often difficult for others who aren’t familiar with the

process to understand why it’s taking so long. The right children are out there!”


NYS Adoption Resources and Agencies:

All prospective adoptive parents are encouraged to do their own research to find the right agency, avenue, and process for their family. Below are some of the resources available in New York and the Rochester area to get the process started:

New York State’s Bureau of Permanency Services:

Children of all ages are waiting to be adopted. New York State’s Bureau of Permanency Services welcomes “responsible, caring adults who are ready to share their time, their hearts, and their lives with our waiting children. When you adopt a waiting child, you will be giving that child a permanent family and another chance in life. All children deserve a loving, committed, safe, and permanent family.”

The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC):

The ICPC is an agreement among all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands that establishes procedures for the placement of children across state lines. The child’s originating state and receiving state must approve the child’s movement before the child can legally move. The Office of Children and Family Services administers the ICPC in New York State.

Monroe County Children and Family Services Division:

“Our team is comprised of caseworkers who will assist you in identifying and learning about our children in need of an adoptive home. Our goal is to find a permanent family for each of our freed children; a family where children can grow and thrive in a close, loving environment. The team’s wide ranging skills will help you access any services you may need to help you and your child create a warm, loving and long lasting relationship. All children who are available for adoption are children who are currently in foster care. They have been freed from their birth parents by court order.”

For more information call 585-753-6084 or visit

Children Awaiting Parents:

CAP is a national not-for-profit charitable organization that recruits foster and adoptive families for special needs children who have been waiting the longest for a “forever” family. They are located in Rochester at 595 Blossom Road, Suite 306.

“Children Awaiting Parents strives to match families with children. We search for homes that will bring out the best in our youths – families that can unconditionally love and support them, regardless of the parent’s or the child’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

Hillside Adoption Resource Network and Adoption Services:

Hillside ARN provides information, education, referral and support on all aspects of adoption and foster care. They also offer an annual conference, trainings and support groups. Call 585-256-7500 for information.

Pride and Joy Families Project:

Dedicated to helping lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people in Upstate NY achieve their goals of building and sustaining healthy families.

The Project offers “provider trainings, educational programs, information and referral services, a Directory of LGBTQ-Inclusive Services, and support for LGBTQ families and prospective parents. Our network of Pride and Joy Families provides social and educational opportunities, and a sense of community to LGBTQ parents and their children.”

Visit for information, events, and more. There is even a Rochester Pride and Joy Families Facebook group to connect with other adoptive and prospective parents in the Greater Rochester area:

Understanding Two Spirit Identities

“The Two Spirit Flag has multiple variations and can be seen on the traditional rainbow flag, transgender flag, and nonbinary flag. via MJeffries4:”

“Two-Spirit refers to the commonly shared understanding among many Native American Tribes that some individuals manifest both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities.”

“Two Spirit people have both a male and female spirit within them and are blessed by their Creator to see life through the eyes of both genders.”

“Two-Spirit is a term used to identity, reclaim and revitalize very specific identities histories, legacies and power that go far beyond just sexuality and gender identity for Indigenous peoples.”

While the term Two Spirit was coined in 1990 In Winnipeg, Canada as a means of unifying various gender identities and expressions of Native American/First Nations/Indigenous individuals, the term is not a specific definition of gender, sexual orientation or other self-determining catch-all phrase, but rather an umbrella term.

For those of us in the LGBTQ+ community who are not members of the Native/NDN/Indigenous/First Nations population, Two Spirit may not be a term we’re familiar with. Maybe we’ve heard it in passing, or once in a training we went to, or, maybe, have not come in deliberate contact with the term before at all.

If you have, you may have been introduced to a black-and-white photo of We-wha, an honored Zuni Pueblo cultural ambassador who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1886 and shared the story and values of her people, who live in what is now western New Mexico. She was referred to as lhaman or “mixed gender” in the Zuni language. While the historical and cultural significance of depicting the broad continuum of gender is important, it can also make it easier to imagine that these identities are not thriving in our modern world. Quite the contrary.

“We’Wha’s portrait is continuously used as reference point for Two Spirit identity, placing the understanding of non-Western gender and sexuality in a historical lens. Image: public domain from National Archives and Records Administration”

Before the 20th century, anthropologists were widely using the term “Berdache” as a generic term to reference Two Spirit people. The term is based on the French “Bardache,” to imply a male prostitute and the word originates from the Arabic “Bardaj,” meaning “captive” or “slave.”

The challenge, then, at the meeting in Winnipeg 28 years ago, was to find a contemporary term that could be embraced across tribal cultures, when numerous terms in tribal languages existed.

The term does not diminish the tribal-specific names, roles and traditions nations have for their own Two Spirit people. There are as many names for Two Spirit people as there are nations. Harlan Pruden (Nehiyawe/First Nations Cree) and Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce, Yakama) share some of the many names in their presentation “Two Spirit People: Sex, Gender & Sexuality in Historic and Contemporary Native America”:

Examples of such names are the Winkte among the Lakota, Nudale asgaya/agehya among the Cherokee, ayahkwêw and înahpîkasoht among the Cree, M’netokwe among the Potawatomi, and the Nadleeh among the Navajo people.

These identities were recognized and celebrated from a young age as “gifts from the creator”; Two Spirit people were often the visionaries, healers and medicine people.

“In my culture we have people who dress half-man, half-woman. Winkte, we call them in our language. If you are Winkte, that is an honorable term and you are a special human being and among my nation and all Plains people, we consider you a teacher of our children and are proud of what and who you are.” – Native rights activist and American Indian Movement co-founder Russell Means.

The term Two Spirit affirms the interrelatedness of all aspects of identity — including gender, sexuality, community, culture, and spirituality. Many Two Spirit people were lost due to the impacts of colonization, their complex, un-binaried gender system too threatening to Western attitudes. A key aspect of the Two Spirit community now is to reclaim pre-colonial traditions and responsibilities. Understanding of the complexities of Two Spirit identity helps build insight of culture and intersectionality.

Shane Ortega, activist and Mr. Montana Two Spirit 2018-2019 notes that claiming the role of Two Spirit is to take up the spiritual responsibility that the role traditionally had. This entails being “for the people”, guiding youth, taking council from elders, walking the “red road”, and being a force for good in all communities.

“Being of service to elders and definitely to youth with our spirits and energy is so, so important. We keep our traditions, languages, healing, and songs. We have to put in effort to keep those alive and take back what so many of our ancestors lost.”

This keeps with the historical space that Two Spirit people held. In many tribes Two Spirits were balance keepers, the “dusk” between morning and evening. Two Spirit gatherings and communal events happen all around the United States and Canada throughout the year, providing a space for healing, community, tradition, and expression.

While Western mindsets can often categorize based on standards of “norm” and “other”, creating boxes to fit into, Two Spirit acknowledges the continuum of gender identity and expression. It does not fit neatly into a prescribed definition of any other letter in LGBTQ+. Some Two Spirit people consider themselves all, some, or none of the above.

“In ALL tribal cultures people who walk between worlds, who are considered extravagant or unique from the heteronormative space were traditionally considered sacred. It is a blessing.

Knowing this. It is not my job to light you on fire. It is my job to share the path to it.

People who walked in-between held a position-a sacred role to their people. This role has been lost due to colonization of all people of the world. It’s time for you to remember your places, sacredness, spirituality and responsibility in your tribe. We cannot afford to ignore this. If we do the world does not get better. We are more than simplified pride parties and parades. That is barely the surface of our identities.” – Shane Ortega

East Coast Two Spirit Society marches in the 2016 Rochester Pride Parade

As we continue our work in allyship amongst our community, it is imperative that we consider what it means to be an ally to Two Spirit people. Learning more about the experiences and perspectives of Two Spirit people is just a start. We need to be mindful of our actions and inactions. Humility and a commitment to listening, learning, and challenging ourselves in our own assumptions. This also means recognizing that as many of us sit down to a Thanksgiving, or Friendsgiving, or Something-giving meal this month, for many in our own community the day is no holiday at all.

Two Spirit groups and societies continue to raise awareness about LGBTQ2S individuals in communities across North America. In Rochester, the East Coast Two Spirit Society has had a presence in the Pride Parade and Festival since 2015. They can be found on Facebook @EC2SS. The University of Rochester’s TINT (Transgender, Intersex, Non-Binary, and Two Spirit) is an informal social group for trans, gender non-conforming, and questioning U of R students. Email for details about weekly meetings.

Don’t Go Home for the Holidays: Friendsgiving

A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING – (©1973 United Feature Syndicate Inc.)

By Rowan Collins


For some of us, Friendsgiving is more than a meal — it’s a lifesaver.

We don’t pick the family we’re born into. Some of us got lucky to be born into a progressive, open-minded and loving household. Some of us had no problem coming out to our family members. Some of us weren’t kicked out of the house for being queer.

Some of us.

Many of us don’t have that story. Some were born into homophobic and bigoted households. Some are the children of parents who use religion as justification to hate instead of love — to discriminate against their own family. Some have been made to feel invisible in their own homes, forced to wear clothing that feels like fire ants crawling across their skin, hear names and pronouns that never fit right, code-switch gendered language so as not to let on that boyfriend actually means girlfriend and that roommate is really partner, that friend is love.

While Thanksgiving can conjure up a “Home for the Holidays”-style image of Mom, Dad, and the whole family gathered around a succulent headless bird, this isn’t the reality for most of our community. For instance, 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, forced out of their homes and communities after coming out. Some queer youth and adults are cut off from their family entirely. Others still have parents or siblings that are struggling with tolerance. Many families may never get there.

The idea of chosen family is not a new one in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s what we’ve formed for generations and generations as we have navigated worlds too small for the complexity of our beings. It’s an alternative to the nuclear unit, building the intimate communities we too often lack at home. Friends who become closer than siblings or parents or aunts or cousins or grandparents or uncles or anyone to whom the old adage “blood is thicker than water” is attached.

The fun part about that phrase is that it’s a misquote. “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” means blood shed in battle bonds soldiers more strongly than simple genetics. We use it to suggest the strength of family ties, it doesn’t refer to family at all. The bonds we choose can mean much more than the ones we, quite frankly, don’t have much say in.

Friendsgiving, or Thanksgiving with Friends, is not simply an observation of a Federal holiday. It’s a statement of family, resistance to cultural expectations, and a safe place to be with people who love you.


Here are a few reasons, from Empty Closet readers, to celebrate Friends this Holiday season:

Celebrate gratitude for friends

“I love celebrating my friends! They get me and they share my values and we love to make jokes. I feel so much more at home with them than my own family. They show up to our annual Friendsgiving with open hearts and full hands! It’s so wonderful to have the opportunity to spend meaningful time together where we can all relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Enjoy table-talk

“If you don’t want to have the queer talk with your aunt (again), you don’t have to! The awkwardness goes away if you’re with friends who get you and embrace your identity. We can talk about politics, identities, our daily lives, anything and everything. It never feels tense.”

Honor the people of the land

“In my new “Friendsgiving” tradition, we take time to acknowledge the Native and Indigenous peoples whose land we stand on and whose food we have reaped for centuries. It’s important to me to recognize the violent roots of our traditions and my queer friends are on the same wavelength. I don’t think I’d be able to do that in my much more conservative family household without being told I was causing trouble.”

Commemorate lives lost

“Thanksgiving comes right after Trans Day of Remembrance and it’s always a really tough time for my friends and family in the community. Being together and breaking bread reminds us of our vibrancy and how amazing we all are. It also gives us time to properly honor those who are no longer at the table…and won’t be again.”

Celebrate your way

“Friendsgiving means I create the day. Friends come from all backgrounds and ages and incomes and distances. We eat way later and everybody helps. It’s the Thanksgiving I always wanted as a kid. We don’t have to subscribe to the cut-and-paste way, unless we want to. It’s liberating!”


“For me, Thanksgiving is about family, whether it’s the family you’re born into or the family you choose. It’s about sitting around a table, sharing not just a meal, but catching up and exchanging stories. It’s about love and togetherness, and it’s one of my favorite holidays.”


Friendsgiving can make for wonderful memories and incredible company.

Whether chosen family is a complement to your relatives or a replacement for them, these relationships are some of the most sustaining in our lives. How important it is to set aside a day to give thanks to the people who choose you.

Centering a gathering around friends and remixing the dishes and conversation passed with love around the table can also bring us to reframe “Thanksgiving” from the damaging stereotypes, colonization, and genocide it is built upon. By recognizing the brutal beginning of Thanksgiving – a far cry from the fuzzy Pilgrims and Wampanoag story so many of us were spun in grade school – and colonization that preceded and followed, we can inform our understanding of what it means to support our entire community.

Maybe you’re someone who is happy to ignore the day altogether. Maybe generations of trauma mean you can’t ignore the day. Maybe you yearn for the simplicity, or thinly veiled passive-aggression, of Thanksgivings in your childhood. Maybe you want to smash the system entirely and make every day a celebration of gratitude for our Earth, community, and life. Whatever you make of Thanksgiving, may the start of “giving season” bring you respect, love, and understanding. Right now, we need each other more than ever. Spend the Holidays with the people who love you for who you are, not in spite of it. Spend the Holidays with your chosen family.