Charity, gender activism intersect for this queer Houston volunteer

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One of Houston’s sweetest charitable events – literally – is Decadent Desserts & Dancing, a sweet and savory event that benefits AssistHers and the 20-year-old organization's efforts to help ailing lesbians.

The event returns on Sunday at Neon Boots after a brief hiatus and features hundreds of mouth-watering treats served up by the city’s most popular and generous bakeries, restaurants and caterers. Beyond wall-to-wall small bites and dancing, a revamped raffle exceeds the standard “certificate for dinner for two” fare, peaking with an appropriately decadent trip for two to Las Vegas. The event also spotlights comedian Vickie Shaw and singer/songwriter Gadget White. (And the author of this article, Nancy Ford, emcees.)

AssistHers volunteers lending a hand at the event will recognize a welcoming, exuberant face amid the mounds of cookies and chocolates and general yumminess. That face belongs to Jay Mays, community volunteer specialist for Montrose Center, one of the event’s sponsors. In that capacity, Mayes coordinates the volunteer womanpower that is AssistHers’ lifeblood.

“I love working with AssistHers,” Mays says. “Reaching out to wonderful people interested in volunteering with an agency that has existed to provide a network of support to lesbian women struggling with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses brings me a lot of joy. I have so much respect for this organization’s leadership and community dedication.”

AssistHers is but one entity that receives Mays’ attention at Montrose Center. She also focuses on empowering volunteer teams for the center’s wellness and stress reduction programs, including yoga, meditation and peer support groups.

“I recruit, train and support volunteers who work with seniors and youth, as well as folks interested in growing our community center, either on the phones, in the computer lab, or at the Equal Grounds Café,” she says. “No thriving community and behavioral health center would be complete without a solid team of administrative volunteers who make sure our eligibility specialists and case managers have the support they need to serve the Center’s programs.”

Mays also co-leads the Montrose Center’s Trans*fabulous Support Group on Wednesday nights as a volunteer facilitator for adults. The center also hosts a trans group for young people on Tuesdays.

“Creating strong support networks and finding affirming spaces is crucial for connection and belonging,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Mays is one of 20 people named 2016 fellows by the Houston chapter of New Leaders Council, a nonprofit institute “training progressive leaders of tomorrow” where gender issues have undoubtedly emerged as a ubiquitous hallmark of Mayes leadership. She’s long been involved with Transgender Foundation of America’s annual Transgender Unity Banquet. She’s co-curated Gender Reel Houston, a three-day film and performance festival. She’s a founder of Gendermyn, one of the state's first drag king performance groups. 

Mays is co-author of “the GENDER book,” an illustrated primer all about gender. Available in ebook and hardback, “the GENDER book” is an ally tool to support families, educators, administrators, provider, and clergy with an accessible tool that captures the many hues of gender identity and expression. So far, the ebook has been downloaded 13,000 times in 80 different countries worldwide, with volunteers working on translating it into seven languages.

We caught up with Mays to discuss the evolution of the book, her work with Gendermyn and how these two artful expressions inform and inspire each other.

What drove you to put “the GENDER book” together?

There were enough people around me who struggled with staying employed, getting affirming health care, and with receiving family support because of gender presentation. I saw how many people were genuinely missing basic information about gender identity and expression, and my team and I really wanted to impact that education gap.

The amazing Mel Reiff Hill illustrated and co-wrote the book with me. He is a skilled artist who studied at Rice and now lives on the West Coast. And Robin Mack has been the fearless community outreach representative who has worked hard to get this book into people’s hearts and hands.

What is the goal of the book?

Our intention was to create an accessible and disarming guide for readers to understand gender diversity, so that gender expansive youth and adults receive acceptance and respect. The lack of understanding of our humanity continues to cause us to face disrespect, discrimination and violence, and is actually killing us. And when trans people face that and other issues like racism, ableism, addiction and xenophobia, the disrespect and violence can be so much worse. We want wider distribution so that patients don’t have to explain to their doctors about who they are – they can just say, “check out page 36.”

How is it distributed?

Many books have been donated to libraries, families, and providers as needed. They are also in university bookstores, gay/straight alliances, lending libraries, comic book shops, sex shops, churches, conferences and county jails, and at zine fests and kink events. Mental health and medical providers, school districts, youth workers and Peace Corps volunteers have also gotten copies for their staff. 

Can you share an example of how “the GENDER book” has helped someone?

There are so many of these amazing stories. A #GenderScout named Claire, an American spending time in Botswana, shared her copy of “the GENDER book” with her secret LGBT group in Botswana, where for the first time ever a trans woman was able to see that other people like her exist in the world and that was the day she came out to her friends in the group, asking them to use she/her pronouns. 

What’s been fascinating is to this day we have no idea how many people this book is touching. The day I received my copy of “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” I opened up to the first few pages and in the beginning is a picture of “the GENDER book’s” front cover. I was so thrilled to see that not only was our project listed as a resource in this collaboration I respected a great deal, but also as a way to archive “the GENDER book.”

Luckily more transgender and gender diverse people’s experiences are being included in literature, in academia, in research, and in policy-making, but there’s still a lot of work to do and education that needs to happen. I meet people every day who’ve never met any kind of LGBT person and have no sense of what kinds of legal exclusions, violence and barriers to access we have. 

What’s happening with the Gendermyn these days? 

The Gendermyn performed at last May’s International Austin Drag Festival and may participate again this year. I’d love to bust out this Johnny Cash number about guns and Scalia I’ve got rolling around in my brain. And the Gendermyn have been invited to present a talk on April 7, 7:30 p.m. at Rice University Queer Resource Center during their Pride Week about gender performance and the role it plays in movement building.

How has your performance art informed the creation of “the GENDER book?” 

My hope and prayer is that people, particularly artists, don’t feel like they have to go at it alone. Working collaboratively on performances created an expectation about reaching out for feedback and creating a space for all interested in contributing. What got created at shows was a real sense of solidarity and camaraderie. There are still too few spaces challenging norms on sex positivity that encourage gender outlaws to come together.
AssistHers Decadent Desserts & Dancing is Sunday, Feb. 28 at Neon Boots. Tickets are $30 at the door. Follow AssistHers and Gendermyn on Facebook.


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