Celebrating Pride With Authentic Voices

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(From left) Jacy and Nikki on a recent trip to Paris

(From left) Jacy and Nikki on a recent trip to Paris

Nikki Chotas, who uses the pronouns they/them, has dedicated much of their life to speaking up for and working to empower those who may feel helpless and without a voice. They attribute their pursuits in part to feeling voiceless in their younger years.
 
“I had dark days. I was scared. But I live out, proud, and as loud as possible now so people know that it is OK; it gets better. You are not alone,” says Nikki, an office coordinator at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK).

The Secret Wisdom of Animals

Nikki’s journey began on the outskirts of Atlanta, where growing up in Cobb County, Georgia, they were discriminated against by community leaders. “My high school principal told me he didn’t like gays and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t say I was straight, even though I was being true to myself,” Nikki recalls.
 

Nikki and Lil’ Buddy, the couple’s shih tzu

Nikki and Lil’ Buddy, the couple’s shih tzu

Without a safe space at high school, Nikki dropped out, got their GED, and went on to study sociology at Georgia State University (GSU). From there, Nikki became a nutritionist at Zoo Atlanta, where they learned invaluable life lessons about loyalty and trust. “The animals relied on us to show up every day, care for them, and help them,” they note, adding that building a rapport with an animal — such as the rhinoceros, their favorite — takes time and patience.
 
In their spare time, Nikki focused on building community. In 2006, they co-founded the alternative queer music and arts festival MondoHomo. Hosted over Memorial Day weekend, in Atlanta, the festival featured live music, arts-and-crafts, a poetry slam, and other events. The festival ran for six consecutive years. “It was important for me to create a space for queer artists to express themselves safely and be whoever they are,” Nikki says.
 
MondoHomo brought more than music to Atlanta — it brought love into Nikki’s life. Nikki and their wife, Jacy, connected on a Facebook group for MondoHomo. “I knew when I first met her that she was it,” Nikki says. The couple celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary earlier this month.

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Win-Win Situation

After eight years at the Zoo, Nikki decided to pursue a different career path and accepted a role as a lab technician at GSU. In 2019, Nikki moved to New York City, joining MSK a year later. In their current role, they support Monica Morrow, Chief of the Breast Service at MSK. They help Dr. Morrow’s patients schedule and prepare for upcoming appointments, surgeries, and after-surgery care. “MSK’s entire purpose is helping people. I wanted to be part of that. It was the winning point for me in coming to this organization,” Nikki explains.
 
Nikki says they quickly learned that “winning” is a two-way street at MSK. “I feel as if I hit the jackpot — I love working at MSK,” says Nikki, who is nonbinary. “I didn’t have a supportive work environment until I started here. In Atlanta, you couldn’t openly say you were gay. You couldn’t display a rainbow flag at your desk.”
 

Nikki in New York City, standing next to a poster designed in the late ’80s by the Silence=Death Project to raise awareness for the AIDS crisis.

Nikki in New York City, standing next to a poster designed in the late ’80s by the Silence=Death Project to raise awareness for the AIDS crisis

For Nikki, working for an organization like MSK that provides LGBTQ+-inclusive employee benefits inspired them to undergo a gender affirmation procedure in January 2022. “It was a no-brainer,” Nikki says of the surgery. “I had a wonderful work community that rallied around me and told me to take care of myself.”
 
Nikki also has found support and friendship as a member of MSK’s LGBTQ+ Pride Employee Resource Network (ERN). Nikki says the group is an important space for LGBTQ+ employees to share experiences. The ERN is also helping drive a deeper sense of belonging across the organization. “I love meeting people and letting them know I’m here for them,” Nikki says. “There are always resources; there is always someone to listen. You are not alone. I want to represent that.”

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The Importance of Pride Month

One of the many messages Nikki hopes Pride Month helps amplify is that authenticity to yourself while embracing others builds a better community. “I can’t stress this enough to young queer people — to young people, in general. It’s not like I’m accepted everywhere I go. I’ve found people who truly love me, and I love them.”

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