May 23, 2013 at 6:00 am EDT | by Keith Loria
Beacons of a new generation
Christopher Watson, Theara Coleman, D.C. Black Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Christopher Watson and Theara Coleman are being honored at this weekend’s D.C. Black Pride festivities. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

When the 23rd annual D.C. Black Pride festivities begin Friday in the Thornton Room at the Hyatt Regency Washington Capitol Hill (400 New Jersey Ave.), it will be a night devoted to paying tribute to those who have done something special for the LGBT community.

Mayor Vincent Gray will be awarded the Eleanor Holmes Norton Award for his work fighting for LGBT rights. Dr. Imani Woody and Courtney Williams will be recipients of the Welmore Cook Award, each honored for their strong community involvement.

Two names that might not be as familiar — at least not yet — are Theara Coleman and Christopher Watson. For the first time, D.C. Black Pride will present a leadership award to black LGBT community leaders who are 30 years old or younger and these recent graduates are the inaugural honorees.

Hailing from the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., Coleman is the daughter of a retired NYPD police officer and a stay-at-home mom who is active in social services. With support from her family, Coleman was able to thrive as an LGBT student and received a scholarship from Howard University, graduating earlier this month.

In college, Coleman was an English major and an African-American Studies minor and spent time away from the classroom concentrating on civic and social services, especially when it came to LGBT issues.

“All four years I was at Howard I was involved with working with Cascade, the LGBT organization on campus. I started out doing event planning to spread awareness, and I ended up being vice president and subsequently president for two years,” Coleman says. “A lot of our work was trying to create a better understanding on campus so the school can feel the presence of the LGBT community and see the importance of recognizing us as a community at Howard and our need for resources.”

Coleman says her efforts have helped pave the way for future LGBT Howard students to have an easier time with other students and the administration.

Outside of her work at Howard, the 22-year-old also interned with the ACLU, writing blogs about her experiences of being an LGBT student in high school and college and assisting on research and grant writing.

“That pushed me to get an internship with Stonewall Democrats and I learned about all the policy that has to do with LGBT rights because the majority of what we were doing was how officials running for office were addressing LGBT issues,” she says. “I also served for a short time with Obama for America as an LGBT outreach coordinator, reaching out to the community to get more LGBT voters out to put Obama back in office.”

Coleman also works as a mentor to students in transitional housing and volunteers at a variety of other organizations. Having just graduated, she is currently looking for a job that will help her utilize her skills and help others in the process.

She’s thinking about something in the non-profit field where she can help with grant writing. Her dream job is to help LGBT youth in high school and use her experiences to show them how to navigate the world once they get into college and enter the real world.

As for the award, Coleman says she is humbled that she was chosen and dedicates it to her mentor, Victoria Kirby, who has been her inspiration throughout her Howard years.

“It means a lot to me because of all the work I have been doing in undergrad and how much I have immersed myself in pushing for LGBT rights and I appreciate that all the leg work I have done is being recognized,” Coleman says. “It means I am heading in the right direction with what I want to accomplish in life.”

Also heading in the right direction is Watson, who works as the clinical research site director at George Washington University, while he works on a master’s of public health degree in epidemiology. He has a bachelor’s of science in biology from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The country boy from North Carolina has been doing public health work for more than a decade.

“I started in North Carolina in response to the outbreak of HIV infections among college-aged men in 2003,” he says. “I moved in 2005 to study pharmaceutics at Howard but decided within a year that it was not for me and my goal  — thanks to a mom who said I couldn’t move back home so work it out in D.C. — was to make it in corporate America.”

That decision led Watson to a job at Bank of America. Soon after, GW approached him to join its public health team as its clinical research site director, working on HIV and other issues.

“It’s been one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. “I love public health. I love helping people and I love making a difference in individual lives.”

Watson’s responsibilities include community mobilization and engagement in the local community. He’s become a strong advocate in the national scene for additional funding for black gay men.

“I would ultimately like to have an influence in policy development as it relates to African-American health and look at how we can build on the existing research and also begin to revise and develop new policies that are culturally congruent for the lives of African Americans,” he says.

Watson is looking forward to tonight’s awards and his proud mom will be on hand to watch him receive the award.

“It’s a surreal experience. It’s rewarding to know your sacrifices don’t go unnoticed but if no one knew my name, I would be happy,” he says. “I appreciate it. I’m grateful to have this moment, and I share this award with my colleagues, family and friends who give me the support structure to do the work at the level I’m able to do it.”

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