While successfully advancing through a career as a special education teacher for 30 years, Toni Armstrong Jr. has her sights aimed high on another objective: activism.
Armstrong Jr. founded Bi, Lesbian, and Straight Together (BLAST) Women of the Palm Beaches, a social networking group that caters to women of all demographics within the LGBT community in 2008. The mission of the group is to build up the women’s community and to exchange resources with one another. The group is constantly planning events centered around LGBT activism and pride.
“We now have 3,500 members and host more than 200 events per year,” Armstrong Jr. said. “I continue to produce house concerts, speakers, films, conferences, and concert events at Compass.”
Armstrong Jr. relocated to Palm Beach County from Chicago in 2006. She started to lay the groundwork for her activism while she was still in Chicago by creating her own organization.
“I established a business called Empty Closet Enterprises, which was the overarching business entity under which I published a lesbian feminist magazine,” Armstrong Jr. said.
That magazine that Armstrong Jr. launched features a plethora of feminist content. Upon relocating to Florida, Armstrong renamed the business “Empty Closet Productions” and focuses more on event planning now.
Armstrong has also used her passion to explore other avenues of activism. She has funded, and helped in creating several films and documentaries. Some of the films include "Radical Harmonies," which is about women's music, "Bullied," a film addressing anti-gay school violence, indie feature-length film "Hannah Free," and "Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together."
Now, she’s the surveys editor and indexer for the Chicago Gay History Project, and the editor and publisher for a lesbian music industry newsletter.
Susan MacDonald, an assistant organizer who runs BLAST mixers, is part of the Empty Closet Productions team that puts on concerts, theatrical events, and conferences. She’s come to appreciate Armstrong and the entire BLAST team, as they’ve given her a safe space she’s enthusiastic about.
“As a lesbian, I moved to South Florida from NYC seven years ago with some trepidation,” MacDonaldsaid. “Would I find a woman-identified community, a safe haven where I could enjoy the companionship and support of women? Would I find opportunities to gather with other lesbians and women that included cultural, outdoor, and social activities?”
MacDonald loves the bond she has formed with those in the BLAST community and Armstrong Jr. She said she is immensely proud to part of such an organization.
“BLAST had 800 members when I joined; the membership now is over 3,500 women! I have gone to the beach, watched many movies, attended multiple lectures, enjoyed dancing and dining ... all in the company of other women. I have found a community that sustains me on a daily basis,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald is hopeful that more and more lesbian women will covet the opportunities to make a difference in their respective communities, as she sees it as truly life-changing.
“Historically, lesbians have been in the forefront of the feminist and other progressive movements. And, I am passionate that lesbians … continue to be recognized and acknowledged for their contributions in all spheres of community life,” MacDonaldsaid.