When Justis Tenpenny left Milwaukee after high school to attend the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, he decided he would no longer lie about his identity. At just 18 years old, he began advocacy work for LGBTQ+ students on campus.
He was ready to create change for himself and other members of the LGBTQ+ community at an early age and knew it was the right thing to do.
“Although I still had a long way to go, and a lot to learn, not only about myself, but also the LGBTQ community, I did kind of jump headfirst into volunteering myself and trying my best to work on advocacy projects for the queer community,” Tenpenny said.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Communications and Media studies in 2018, he moved to Chicago and lived there for a little over a year. In June of 2019, he moved back to Green Bay.
Then he met his husband and after the COVID-19 pandemic began, he decided to stay in the area. He began figuring out ways to start advocacy work in his community and in 2021, he launched his nine-week LGBTQ Equity Challenge. Through the Brown County United Way, the challenge sent educational materials by email every week to help community members learn more about the LGBTQ+ experience.
“This was actually based on other equity challenges that had been produced through United Way and a couple other organizations,” he said. “One of the things that I had noticed was that these equity challenges had really worked specifically with race and ethnicity. I felt like what was missing was LGBTQ+ identity and, more so, intersectionality of the experiences of Black and brown trans women in the United States and other queer people of color.”
His initial goal was for 100 people to participate in the challenge, but the challenge drew many more than that – more than 950 participants across the state of Wisconsin and a few from a handful of other states.
Tenpenny is also one of the co-coordinators for Green Bay’s first outdoor LGBTQ+ mural at Napalese Lounge. He is the Event and Communications coordinator for the business and talked about the mural and its impact in the community.
“It’s a 12 by 24 foot mural that features Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. It has five gigantic spotlights on it. It has a progress pride flag and the words ‘We Will Be Seen’,” he said.
The mural was released in August 2021 and was painted by a local artist, Loschue (Chue) Lo. The mural was an eight-month project that created a huge celebration in the Green Bay community.
Tenpenny recently started a new position with the National Railroad Museum. Four months ago, he joined the organization as its Communication and Marketing Director.
“One of the things that really interested me and drew me to the job was probably the historical component,” he said. “I am a big history person and I just have a lot of random facts and knowledge rolling around in my brain. History is interesting, trains played a big role in American history. It was an opportunity that I felt like I might be excited for. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it.”
Tenpenny also talked about the successes and challenges of doing his LGBTQ+ advocacy work in his community. His biggest obstacle is that oftentimes, LGBTQ+ communities are not centered in conversations about marginalized populations.
“When we talk about marginalized populations or diversity, equity and inclusion work, a lot of that work is, rightfully so, geared towards racial and ethnic marginalized populations, which is absolutely something that we need,” he said. “Sometimes the things DEI work aims to do, doesn’t include LGBTQ people. It’s also sometimes hard to convince people that LGBTQ+ specific careers should exist. So outside of Milwaukee and Madison, doing any sort of LGBTQ work specifically, is almost impossible to find, which is why all my work is volunteer based.”
Although there are a plethora of challenges in advocacy work for LGBTQ+ communities, Tenpenny doesn’t let the challenge stop him from those who are vulnerable and need support in the Green Bay community. He currently works with organizations including N.E.W. Pride Alive and Rainbow Over Wisconsin.
He is also one of the founding members of a new non-profit organization, the Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity, which specifically works with trans and gender diverse individuals in the Northeast Wisconsin Bay Area. He is excited about getting the organization running again and shared a closing word of advice for those looking to create positive change in their own communities.
“I would say that wherever you are reading this right now, never underestimate the importance of a singular person trying to take action in the community,” he added. “one of the things that I learned a long time ago was that if you’re passionate and motivated to get involved in your community, the biggest thing to remind yourself of is that all you need is that passion. We all bring different skills and attributes to the table. A lot of us seem to think that those skills and attributes aren’t good enough to be involved in nonprofit organizations or volunteer for the LGBTQ community. We all have something to bring to the table and all we really need is that motivation.
“Just really about recognizing your worth, your passion and talking to the right people. All of us can get involved in making a difference in the community, and it’s not that hard.”