Tara Lessard: Cancer activist and community photographer

A poem for Tara Lessard by her friend, activist Susan DiPrinio:

Death is so long

Death is so long
The red fox runs
No night sets
As heavy as this 
We reach
She fades
A marker
Not a grave

Tara Lessard of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, died on Dec. 26, 2019, at age 47 in her home after a five-year fight with metastatic ovarian cancer. 

“Tara was the definition of a warrior spirit. Through all that she was facing, she never lost her strength or her love and compassion for her community. May we all take a piece of that spirit and a bit of Tara’s strength into the new year,” said longtime Philadelphia trans-identified activist Deja Alvarez.

Lessard was from Jamaica, Queens, New York City, and lived in Bucks County since she was 10. She began working as a teenager at her family’s chiropractic practice, Lessard Chiropractic Center, but she is most known in the LGBTQ community for her photography and upbeat personality. 

“Tara gave her all to her community and was the hardest worker I have ever met. You could fill a museum with all of the photos she took of the LGBTQ community over the years. A lover, a fighter and the dearest friend. I will miss her more than I have yet allowed myself to consider,” said Elicia Gonzales, executive director of Women’s Medical Fund.

Owner of Freedom G Photography, Lessard, took thousands of photographs of LGBTQ events, recording the community’s history. Her specialty was event photography, capturing historic spontaneous moments in the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia and environs. Her work has appeared in PGN and other local news sites.

Lessard was an on-staff photographer for Philly Gay Calendar, and she covered significant events, including Philadelphia Equality Forum, Philadelphia and New Hope Pride Festivals, the Fourth of July Independence Day Parade and Lilith Fair. Her photos of the Philly Dyke March are iconic.

“I’ve been struggling to find words for this loss the last few days, and words still escape me. I can’t stop thinking about how, in all of her grace and kindness, Tara always captured our collective joy, our struggle, our lives in her art,” wrote Amber Hikes, ACLU’s chief equity and inclusion officer and former executive director of LGBT affairs in Philadelphia, on Facebook.

She also captured weddings and produced both portraiture and outside event coverage of Democratic State Representative and City Council officials. Lessard was part of Rep. Brian Sims’ (D-Phila.) Philly Chit Chat group for which she was a photographer, and she was both a friend and supporter of Sims and his work.

Before her career in photography, Lessard was in an electro-industrial band, Brainclaw, which toured regularly in the tri-state area. The band released two albums and even had two songs — “Insekt/Angel” and “When the Dark Rains Come” — used on the DVD releases of the films “The Matrix Revolutions,” “The Matrix Box Set” and “Spider-Man Collector’s Edition.”

Lessard was also an avid boxer with a brown belt in Kenpo and a racquetball player.

After her initial diagnosis with Stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2015, Lessard became an activist for the disease, which has no early testing and is often diagnosed in its later stages. She was a frequent guest on local radio programs and podcasts to talk about the disease and her experience with it. When she was diagnosed secondarily with spleen and pelvic cancer, she was treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America and became a spokesperson for CTCA.

Before her cancer diagnosis, which entailed 39 separate chemotherapy treatments in her most recent round of care, Lessard was known for her long black hair. She spoke with Philadelphia Magazine and various other local publications and on radio programs about how hard losing hair is for patients. She had been working with CTCA’s onsite salon to find an appropriate wig before her death.

“Tara was not just a fierce activist and advocate; she was a vital part of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ community. She was so selfless, giving 110 percent of herself whether she was the photographer documenting almost two decades of parades, festivals, rallies, protests and drag and burlesque shows, or as an organizer and leader helping create positive programming that provided safe spaces for many. And even when she could no longer partake in physical activities, Tara was then the biggest cheerleader for all of us,” said photographer and longtime friend of Lessard’s Kelly Burkhardt.

“Tara will forever remain one of the best humans I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She lived her life on purpose, with intention. She manifested her dreams, joys, and found deep fulfillment in making connections with and between others she loved. She was the embodiment of generosity, compassion, wisdom and grace. Tara lived out loud in big and small ways,” said Gonzales.

Artist, activist and advocate Susan DiPronio spent an evening with Lessard on Dec. 23 “knowing it would be the last time. Yet still hoping for a miracle, trying to breathe, heart aching.”

As usual for Lessard, DiPronio said, “she reached and took my hand to hold and comfort me. As difficult as if was for her to speak, she asked about, remembered, the story I was working on and said, ‘go write.’  Tara always said that she believed in me. Her support and kindness will be missed by all us — I cannot fathom how to go on.”

Lessard was the mother of Ian Thomas Kurtz. She is survived by her parents, Sara and Claude Lessard; her brother, Jeremy Lessard and his fiancée, Teresa Merk; her sister and brother-in-law, Sabrina Lessard and Gabriel Velazquez Zazueta; her biological father, Robert Wagenhoffer, and his children, Thomas Wagenhoffer and Melanie Wagenhoffer.

A private Mass and interment will be celebrated for family. A “warm and wild celebration honoring her rich legacy” will be planned for the new year. In place of flowers, donations in memory of Tara Lessard may be made in support of ovarian cancer research to The Clearity Foundation. Please make checks payable to The Clearity Foundation and mail to The Clearity Foundation, 434 West Cedar Street, Suite 300, San Diego, CA 92101, or donate online using the online donation form.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.