This year’s City Pulse Inclusion Award winners have an impressive variety of superpowers. The negotiating skills of actor, union organizer, politician and Okemos native Jeffrey Omura helped strapped off-Broadway actors earn a living wage in New York City and beyond. Educators Alyona Troitsky and Erin Umpstead spearhead gay-straight alliances at two local schools, helping LGBTQIA+ students feel safe and seen and coaxing confused parents to understand their kids’ life journeys, all while teaching full time. Oprah Revish weaves a tapestry of support, one student at a time, out of variegated threads of gender identity, race, sexual identity and abilities at MSU’s LGBT Support Center and Lansing’s Salus Center. Doak Bloss brings the empathy of an actor who immerses himself in a role to facilitate healing discussions of hot-button issues like immigration and abortion. Antoinette King-Short brings joy and music to people in the persona of DJ Fudgie, while she and her wife have fostered 25 kids in need of love and support.
For all their diversity, this year’s recipients share two rare attributes. They excel at bringing people together and they are passionate and tireless builders of safe spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Unfortunately, our awardees could practice neither of these two skills in person in the past year, as a deadly pandemic ripped through the community, and the world. The pandemic was not only an unprecedented tragedy in itself; it laid bare long neglected inequalities and dysfunctional ways of relating to one another as human beings. Nevertheless, the healers and weavers soldiered on, via Zoom meetings, phone calls — any way they could — because their work is endless. Omura was a key player in the successful push to include $16 billion in aid to the arts in the most recent federal coronavirus relief bill. Closer to home, Lansing’s Salus Center, a haven for LGBTQIA+ folks in need of support and information, kept the lights on and had its first open house since the pandemic began. It’s worth a few minutes to get to know these extraordinary people a little better, and listen to what they have to say about the work that still needs to be done, both within the LGBTQIA+ community and among those who would be allies, to make everyone in our community, our state and our nation feel safe, secure and welcome.
Alyona Troitsky, faculty adviser for Holt Middle School’s Gay Straight Alliance, came to the United States in 1981, with the support of the Jewish Community Center in Southfield. She was 9 years old and had no idea what her new life would be like.
“I’d never had a banana before,” she said. “Never had popcorn, pizza. Discovering all the flavors of America was a really big deal.”
She was a precocious reader in Russian, but she didn’t know a word of English. Going from the head of the class in Russian to Square One in English taught her a lesson in humility and compassion she applies when she teaches English to her own students.
“It’s helped me be a much better teacher, because I’ll never forget that feeling of frustration,” she said.
While working in a restaurant at 16 years old, she observed a cook bullying one of the waiters about his sexuality. When she started teaching alternative education in 1999, she began to piece together many such incidents she’d seen over the course of her life, and to recognize the pattern of bullying and marginalization many of her students were going through.
She addressed those issues in her own classroom for years, but decided that a support group would be more effective.
“I had nothing but support,” she said. “I was waiting for pushback, but all I heard from administration was that if you’re having an issue with a parent, come and talk to us. It was very surprising, refreshing and wonderful.”
It’s a bonus for Alyona, 49, that her mom, Ekaterina Troitsky, is also involved in supporting the Gay-Straight Alliance.
“She goes to the meetings, brings treats and organizes games. When we go to Pride, she gives out free hugs. She’s my non-judgmental hug mom. She has a thick Russian accent and the kids love her.”
A few years ago, when the Gay-Straight Alliance at Holt High School got a float in the homecoming parade, faculty adviser Erin Umpstead asked Troitsky if she wanted to ride along.
As if she had to ask.
“Of course I want to ride on a float, wear rainbows and throw candy,” Troitsky said. “Like, duh, have you met me?”
But it wasn’t all rainbows and candy. Anyone who thinks growing cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community is making groups like the Gay Straight Alliance obsolete isn’t paying close enough attention. As the parade formed up, Troitsky overheard a group of kids saying “some very nasty things.”
“They said ‘You’re all going to hell,’ very nasty, very bullying,” she said.
They backed off when Troitsky informed them she was a teacher, but it left her wondering: If they feel this comfortable, openly projecting this hostility, in a crowded place with parents and teachers around, what is happening to kids in the bathroom? In the locker room? When they’re walking home from school?
“We need to be so much more proactive, making that kind of behavior not OK,” Troitsky said. “It’s at least as important as the curriculum, if not more so. If they’re not safe, how are they going to learn anything?”
Once upon a time, Jeffrey Omura brooded and sighed as Romeo and Hamlet on outdoor stages in Lansing, Since then, the 2003 Okemos High School graduate has made a multiple impact on real life in the Big Apple. He’s built a career in New York as a TV and theater actor, notched historic breakthroughs on behalf of off-Broadway actors and crew as a union organizer, and just completed a run for New York’s City Council.
There have been slings and arrows along the way. In Tuesday’s primary election, Omura, 36, received just over 10 percent of the vote to represent District 6, comprising Manhattan’s Upper West Side, finishing fourth in a field of six.
Nevertheless, Omura finds that theater and politics are a natural fit and expects to carry on with both.
“You need an extraordinary amount of empathy as an actor,” he said. “Nobody thinks they’re a villain. You have to understand where people come from, and that kind of empathy is a huge asset for anyone who wants to represent people in any kind of elected office.”
Omura was active in theater at Okemos High and at Lansing’s Riverwalk and BoarsHead theaters. He cut his Shakespearean teeth in the shoestring-budget, boldly creative Sunsets with Shakespeare company.
He ended up making his New York debut in “Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare in the Park and later played Horatio in “Hamlet” at New York’s Public Theatre.
The political bug caught Omura when he was young. At 16, he testified before the Michigan State Legislature on behalf of an anti-bullying bill.
“As a gay kid, growing up, I was heavily bullied in middle school, and I was able to bring that experience to help represent all the kids who couldn’t be there,” he said. “During this City Council campaign I realized how big a deal that was.”
In 2016, when Omura was doing “Hamlet,” off-Broadway actors were still making the dismal wage of $593 a week, or $400 after taxes, and even less after agents took their cut — not enough to survive in New York. Omura helped organize a multi-platform, grassroots movement, Fair Wage OnStage, that attracted the support of heavy hitters like Cher and Hillary Clinton and gave the Actors’ Equity union enough leverage to negotiate record-breaking wage increases of 30% to 80%.
Outrageous fortune struck on a vast scale in 2020, when the theater world plummeted from a record-breaking box office in 2019 to the total devastation of 2020.
Again, Omura dug in and started organizing, lobbying Congress for financial help for the arts on behalf of the #BeAnArtsHero campaign.
The group’s relentless focus on economic impact and jobs generated by the arts resonated with senators from both parties, resulting in a $16 billion aid package.
As New York reopens, Omura is looking forward to more acting (“I still have bills to pay”) and more activism.
“I have met so many people and learned so much about the needs of this community,” he said. “I’m committed to helping out my neighborhood and this city, and I will continue to look for opportunities to do so.”
Helping young people find a secure place in the world at MSU’s LGBT Resource Center and the Salus Center in Lansing, Oprah Revish draws on memories of herself as a “quiet child, a sensitive little girl.”
“I remember feeling there wasn’t a place for me, so I created a place for me inside of my own head — elaborate fantasies and worlds and all that, while I was reading,” she said.
These days, Revish, 34, is into reality, not fantasy.
“I decided I needed to create a space for young folks who can’t find themselves in the mainstream reality,” she said.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and raised in southern California, Revish studied creative writing at the University of Arizona and pursued graduate studies in higher education at the University of Kansas and University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
She enjoyed working with Living Learning Communities serving LGBTQ students — residential communities where like-minded students live together and often go to the same classes.
Looking for a way to more directly serve the LGBTQ community, she joined MSU’s LGBT Resource Center. The climate was a bit of a shock after California and Arizona.
“I drove into Michigan during a snowstorm on Dec. 29, 2017, and started working here in January,” she said.
Revish sees her work as twofold.
“On one hand, you’re trying to convince folks who have always had the privileges and the power to live fully and openly — cisgender and straight folks — that other people exist, and that their existence matters,” she said.
At the same time, she helps provide “language and space” for young people, many of whom are venturing into uncharted waters.
“For the first time in their lives, they have freedom from their guardians or parents, and you’re uplifting them and affirming who they are.”
Revish knows fantasy from reality, and isn’t counting on changing people’s minds. Getting out of the way suffices for her.
“It’s OK if folks are like, ‘I don’t understand it, but I’m not going to be in your way.’ I’ll take that if nothing else.”
Revish isn’t shy about telling people who fancy themselves allies of the LGBTQ community to step up their game. It’s common for students to tell Revish their parents are coming to campus, so they have to change the way they dress or put their hair down.
“It is heartbreaking,” she said.
She cited a bill pending in the Michigan Legislature that would force young people to play on sports teams that align with their birth-assigned sex.
“Folks that are like, ‘trans people are cool’ or ‘I love Laverne Cox’ — I want those folks to talk to their senators, talk with the governor, to push a little further,” she said.
Revish is also a mainstay of Lansing’s Salus Center, a gathering place and information hub for LGBTQIA+ community. Last weekend, the Salus Center held a joyous open house after a difficult year.
“Lansing is the capital city, so it’s very important something like this exists, and it’s visible to anyone who’s ready to explore their sexuality and their gender identity, or they are in un-affirming homes,” she said.
Coming from a military family and a conservative religious background, Erin Umpstead would appear to be an unlikely faculty adviser for Holt High School’s Straight-Gay Alliance.
Being an “Air Force brat” (her father served for 29 years) meant moving around a lot. After a rich social and academic experience in a high school in Cheyenne, Wyoming, she got a reality check while spending an isolated last semester of her senior year in Fremont High in Michigan.
“It was hard to make new friends for only a semester,and I wasn’t included in anything at all,” she recalled. “I remember feeling so sad that most of the students weren’t paying attention to me. That had a huge impact on me wanting to make sure students are included, have friends and find groups they fit into.”
She didn’t make it past a crowded field of applicants for MSU’s College of Education. After getting her English degree, she worked as a substitute teacher and waited tables at the late, lamented Travelers Club Restaurant and International Tuba Museum.
The gently Bohemian world of the Travelers Club, where Easter was celebrated by a visit from a belly dance troupe, opened her eyes to other forms of diversity.
She awoke of the possibility of becoming an LGBTQ ally in college, but made up for lost time fast. Soon after she started teaching at Holt High School as a long-term sub, she caught some snatches of conversation in a busy hallway about the Gay-Straight Alliance that piqued her interest. She immediately sought out the faculty adviser and found that she was ready to step down.
“It was a signal from the universe,” she said.
She still didn’t have a contract as a teacher, so she formed an alliance with an older first-year teacher to mentor the group.
By the time Umpstead was hired full time at the school, three years later, the group had grown from a handful of students to 25 or so.
There was pushback. A mother asked that her student to be removed from Umpstead’s class because she led the Gay-Straight Alliance.
“The woman had never met me or seen me, and she was assuming all of these horrible things about me,” she said.
But the group blossomed and began to meet for various activities outside the classroom. As members graduated, they came back to share their experiences in the larger world, building an emotional and social bond that now spans 14 years.
“These humans are out in the world, doing amazing things,” she said. “One of them is taking the credit union world by storm, and another is taking human resources and community resources and putting them together to include LGBTQ students.”
For her part, Umpstead, 49, has found the GSA to be a vehicle for lifelong learning.
“One way the work has changed is that there’s been a virtual explosion in non-binary, non-gender-conforming, more fluidity and exploration,” she said. “My students give me an inordinate amount of grace as I learn these new terms, new ways of understanding the world. I’m not done growing and it’s so, so interesting.”
Antoinette King-Short, 42, has evolved from the organizational and political side of the fight for equality to a direct, personal approach, fostering 25 children with her wife, Harper Creek Elementary School principal Shalen King-Short.
“It’s hard to be young and not sure what your sexual orientation is, if you’re still going to be loved the same,” King-Short said. “It wasn’t very easy to grow up a lesbian Black kid in Flint. I just try to make sure this generation knows we’ve opened so many doors and you don’t have to be dim your light.”
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is King-Short’s love of music and fun, expressed most vividly by her alter ego, entertainer DJ Fudgie.
“I love making people laugh,” she said. “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.”
King-Short was a volunteer and, later, a leader in the Michigan Pride organization in the 2000s, a crucial time when the fight for marriage equality was gathering steam but the outcome was still doubtful.
“It was a call to action,” she said. “At the time, my wife and I didn’t have any kids. We were a young couple.”
They ended up becoming the second same-sex couple in Michigan to be married.
King-Short grew up singing, dancing and listening to all kinds of music, from her grandmother’s Motown records to rapper Tupac and King of Pop Michael Jackson to country star Billy Ray Cyrus (one of her mom’s favorites).
She applied her encyclopedic musical knowledge and boundless energy to a 2010 DJ competition at the Chrome Cat, the LGBT-friendly Old Town club that closed in 2013, and took second place. The first place winner wasn’t able to accept the prize, a residency at the club.
“I took her place and that’s where it began,” she said. “It started out as a hobby and blossomed out as a business.”
DJ Fudgie has brought life to church dances for LGBTQIA+ kids, school proms and other charity work along with the paying gigs.
With time, King-Short moved away from organizational activity to a more personal approach. As a teacher and a principal, her wife, Shalen King-Short, saw a lot of students struggling at home, deprived of emotional, academic or even nutritional support.
After a heavy discussion or two, the couple decided to open their home to foster kids who needed help. They’ve fostered 25 so far.
“We’ve had a few teenagers who were LGBTQ, kids with a variety of places on the spectrum,” she said. “We feel blessed to move toward things like that. That’s where we need to focus, as a community and as a state.”
At this stage in her life, she finds the love in a child’s face more fulfilling than organizing rallies and jostling for bandwidth, attention and funding.
“When we were younger, it was about the party, about Pride, all those things,” she said. “But when you see the actual needs, it completely changed. I’m not saying Michigan Pride isn’t doing what they need to do. I just felt like we could take a step back and try to help in other ways as well.”
Around 2016, actor Doak Bloss, co-founder of the Lansing Area Aids Network, was crippled with an anxiety he never had before.
For years, Bloss worked on health equity issues for the Ingham County Health Department and quickly became its social justice coordinator. But when the Flint Water Crisis came to a boil, he “hit a wall.”
“I found myself in a bind, between the state people, the organizers and local health people, the conflict between what you can and cannot say, given what was happening to people,” he said.
A leave of absence became retirement. About two years ago, he suffered severe health problems brought on largely by drinking.
“In a way, vodka kept me alive because I could sidestep things that were deeply troubling to me, but it also hurt my body a lot,” he said.
Bloss grew up in Crystal, about an hour’s drive north of Lansing. He describes his youth as “quietly suicidal.” He first came out as gay to his college roommate, who also turned out to be gay. He dabbled “unseriously” in everything from sociology to Italian cinema at MSU, and ended up with a “very flakey English degree.”
The shrill anti-gay rhetoric of Anita Bryant drove him to write a letter to the Lansing State Journal.
“Everybody back home saw it,” he said. “They split down the middle. I had supporters and I had people who thought I was going to hell.”
Bloss and his partner at the time split up in the mid-1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was reaching its height.
“I was looking around for something meaningful to do,” he said. He co-founded the Lansing Area AIDS Network, but he calls himself an “outlier in many kinds of things.”
He was glad to latch onto the gay bar scene, but also agitated against misogyny in the gay male community.
“There was a lot of woman hating, often with a sense of humor, but it was pretty blatant,” he said.
He met the love of his life, pianist Gerardo Ascheri, 27 years ago this fall. They married within a week of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
Now sober, he spent much of the pandemic year writing two new plays.
The first, “Vodka,” is about a person who “dreams about drinking” and runs into a surprise daughter from a “sexual event” from 18 years ago. The other is about “a turn of the century elderly transgender woman who was a courtesan to royalty.”
“It’s fun,” he said. “Trans life is new to me.”
He has also plunged back into social justice work with a variety of local and national partners. He’s been part of an informal facilitators’ group since 2007, bringing together people with opposite views on tough issues like immigration and abortion.
“As an actor, my two objectives, when I’m in a conversation with somebody, is, ‘I want to understand you.’ Simple as that. The other thing is, ‘I want to be understood.’ If you can go into those difficult conversations with that kind of motivation, amazing things can happen. That’s my mission at age 67.”