Google Jermaine Nakia Lee, and the summation below:
“I’ve always believed CREATIVES & LGBTQIA folk have been given a special assignment by God — to challenge societal norms that seek to divide us with our gifts and with our very presence. God seems to like to use ‘the least of us’ to.”
This quote is the essence of what drives Lee, a self-described arts activist.
At times, he has been among the least of us — couch surfing, living on food stamps and struggling to keep it together. He knows what being on the bottom is like, but he has clawed his way back and now he’s helping others too.
Many in Charlotte’s LGBTQ community may remember Lee as the confident University of North Carolina at Charlotte graduate who was part of a movement of black LGBTQ young adults who demanded to be seen and heard in Charlotte’s monochromatic gay community. Lee served on various community boards, but he made his biggest impact in the arts community. His works highlighted the challenges and beauty of being black and gay through theatrical performances, movie showcases and art exhibits in the early 2000s.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls recalled Lee’s passion when he was a member of Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte. In those early years, Charlotte’s black gay community was limited to clubbing and house parties. The church raised awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on the black community and inspired members to become organizers and activists. Lee, former Charlotte City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, Black Pride co-founder Monica Simpson and several other church members inserted themselves into Charlotte’s traditionally white LGBTQ organizations. Their unflinching voices brought segments of the black gay experience out of the shadows here.
“Jermaine’s work with the arts helped amplify whatever the issue was,” Rawls said. “Jermaine played an essential role in helping to build a bridge between the arts and activism. Jermaine had a way of being able to identify needs and apply creative solutions to fit that particular need.”
Lee’s activism started in the late 2000s when he began creating artistic works such as “A Walk In My Shoes” about the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on African-American, Latinx, queer and low-income populations. He was also a co-founder of Charlotte Black Gay Pride (now Charlotte Black Pride) and he helped launch Black and Latino Prides in South Carolina.
Lee dropped off the scene for a few years to prioritize raising his children —Josiah, 12, and Jediah, 6. In the last couple of years, he quietly re-emerged with even more passion to help the “least of us.”
He is the architect behind the Free Store, an offshoot of his non-profit Poor No More, which has exploded since COVID-19; and the Facebook group Charlotte LGBTQIA Community Conversations.
“Jermaine is a fearless advocate for the voiceless,” said Gladece Knights, project manager for Poor No More. “He doesn’t think twice about something unless you do it.”
Before COVID-19 shut down the city, Lee was in the midst of launching new arts projects, but the virus has postponed all of that. The pandemic has not slowed Lee. He still has several plates spinning at the moment. His biggest is Poor No More, a non-profit that he launched last year to help working and unemployed individuals. He and his sons asked friends for donations and soon he had enough to create a free store. He began promoting the free store pop ups and other efforts online and was soon overwhelmed with donations and volunteers.
He partners with local social services and family services organizations to identify people in need. Clients range from veterans to single parents to adult caregivers for seniors. COVID-19 has increased the amount of donations received at Lee’s studio to the point that there is no more space to store items. He is hoping to secure a larger location.
There is a free store planned for Saturday, July 11 at NoDa@28th Creative Arts Studios, 2424 N. Davidson St., Suite 110. In order to adhere to social distancing requirements, clients must make appointments to participate. One person per household will be allowed to shop for food and clothing. Hot meals are also provided, he said.
Lee promotes Poor No More through his various social media channels, which is where LGBTQIA Community Conversations comes in. The Facebook group started in 2017 to be a clearinghouse for local LGBTQ organizations to post events, both social and political. Then posters began sharing ideas and talking. The group draws Log Cabin Republicans, LGBTQ Democrats and LGBTQ Libertarians, he said.
“The group is very, very diverse. I’m very proud of that,” he said. “We don’t see that often; we don’t see it in actual meetings. Probably one of the most segregated places is the virtual reality. We’re all in our tribes, our political tribes, our social justice tribes.”
In 2018, the group moved out of the virtual space and hosted a townhall about transgender identity to address the hatred and misunderstanding in the gay community about transgender individuals. Lee said about 70 people attended to discuss everything from bias and stereotypes to mis-gendering and mis-identification. In 2019, the group hosted another townhall to discuss the increasing violence against black transgender women.
That townhall grew into a subcommittee that met regularly, before the pandemic, to strategize and raise funds for local black transgender individuals. Lee said they applied for a United Way grant to provide financial assistance, food, emergency assistance and money for medication for transgender individuals in need. They stepped in to help the people who were dealing with local hotels that tried to evict them during COVID-19. The group also sell T-shirts with trans-affirming images and slogans to raise money for their efforts, he said.
Lee’s efforts are not going unnoticed. He was scheduled to participate in the Harvey B. Gantt Center’s Talk About It Tuesday forum titled “A Black LGBTQ+ Focus on Mental Health and Identity,” but the event topic changed to address the protests. Still, Lee is hopeful that it will lead to more substantive events at the Gantt about the black LGBTQ experience.
As Lee embraces being a father and manhood in his 40s, he is more confident than ever about the example that he is setting for his sons. He wants his sons to be able to Google him and see that his body of work has fostered an appreciation for black gay culture and black LGBTQ visibility.
“I want to make them proud,” he said. “I want to make my momma proud. I want to make all of the people whose couches I slept on, who loaned me $20 for gas …I want them to look back and know that they sowed into good soil.”