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‘A Social Experiment’

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Pride party: founder Margarita Perez welcomes guests to the HDU party tents along Houston’s LGBT Pride parade route in 2011.

Her Destination Unknown provides lesbians with community beyond the lesbian community
by Nancy Ford

The late-2010 closing of Chances bar left a void for many in the lesbian community. Houston’s last remaining Montrose-based nightspot for lesbians was a touchstone, particularly for younger women in their 20s and 30s seeking a comfortable, reliable base to find each other and, in some cases, themselves. Sure, many of the neighborhood’s gay bars are friendly to lesbians, but with Chances’ shuttering, one particular group of young women was touched by a particular need to plant their own flag in their own territory.

Undampened spirits: HDU members and administrators brave the rain at AIDS Walk Houston 2012.

“I was dating a woman at the time who mentioned the idea of getting friends together and meeting every week somewhere, maybe at a restaurant—just chatting it up,” says Margarita Perez, one of the women intent upon finding a new source of contact for herself and her contemporaries.

“I really liked the idea,” Perez says. “One time, some of the girls decided to do a Sunday at Memorial Park and kick the ball around.”

Word spread, and soon a core of six women developed who shared Perez’s idea about having a more formal construct for the outings. Robin Le, Mackenzie Liang, Courtney Maloy, Yvonne Rodriguez, Paula Samoriga, and Anita Wickham took active “admin” roles in notifying their own social circles of the informal outings that occurred unpredictably and spontaneously.

“We started talking about what we were going to name our group,” Perez
continues. “At the time, I was just calling it ‘a social experiment.’ I decided, if nothing else comes out of this, maybe at least I’ll get a couple of friends and make connections.”

Fulfilling this self-prophesized des- tiny, of sorts, Her Destination Unknown was born.

“Originally, it was just kind of a networking, social-type of thing, very loosely constructed,” Perez says. “We’d just pick a place, and send a text message out to everybody. We’d tell all of our friends to come out, and that’s how we started—with six women.”

Wednesday night out (l–r): HDU founders Robin Le, Paula Samoriga, Courtney Maloy, Mackenzie Liang, Margarita Perez, Anita Wicherham, and Yvonne Rodriguez enjoy an outing at Sawyer Park.

HDU’s contacts have grown considerably from Perez’s original text list of about 150 women. “One text message will now reach nearly 500 women,” she estimates.

For more than a year they’ve gathered each Wednesday evening at a local club or restaurant for a bite or a dance. On average, a Wednesday outing attracts as few as 15 or up to as many as 30 women.

“We just go out and meet new people,” Perez, 27, explains. The average age of this burgeoning social group’s members is early-20s to 40s. “We get a lot of women who are either new to the area or newly out of a relationship, or they’re new to ‘the scene.’ It’s good to have a place for them to come out and meet other women in a friendly setting.

“It’s completely social and open,”
Perez adds.

HDU doesn’t restrict its gatherings to Montrose, or even to establishments found in Houston’s traditional “gayborhoods.”

“We try to meet at places that are relevant to us and that are friendly, but we explore other parts of Houston other than the areas that we’re used to going out to. It’s a good opportunity for me to go to other bars and other restaurants and wine bars that are nice that I’d like to take somebody out to.”

But HDU members are not secretive about who they are, regardless of where they are.

“It’s not discreet,” she laughs. “We’re definitely a bunch of lesbians out at a straight bar, and we are not apologetic about it.

“We have not had any trouble at all,” Perez continues. “Everyone’s always been very welcoming; no one’s ever shooed us away. Every once in a while we’ll get a raised eyebrow until people realize what’s going on. But nobody has ever kicked us out or done anything that was unwelcoming.

Toy time (l–r): Robin Le, Margarita Perez, and Anita Wickerham tabulate HDU’s 2011 Toy Drive results at HDU’s first anniversary celebration at The Mink.

“I think most [business owners] are just excited to have a large group of women spending money at their bar,” the young marketing professional reasons.

HDU offers its members more than just a good time on Hump Day, however.

Beyond the weekly Wednesday night gatherings, HDU also hosts three charitable events each year—events that attract hundreds of women and give them the opportunity to stretch their philanthropic muscles. AIDS Foundation Houston and the Houston Food Bank are just two beneficiaries of the group’s largesse, receiving more than $12,000 and several hundred pounds’ worth of canned goods for the two groups with HDU’s first two efforts.

“We planned our first fundraiser for AIDS Foundation Houston, literally, in two weeks,” Perez says with a sense of amazement.

Some of her co-conspirators were skeptical about the success of such a last-minute endeavor. “Some of the women said, ‘I don’t know, we don’t have a lot of time.’ I said, ‘We don’t need a lot of time. We’ve got everything we need. Let’s just do everything we can.’”

The women hoped the last-minute event would attract “maybe 50 women, and raise about $1,000,” Perez recalls.

They chose a mock “slave auction” format as the primary tool for raising funds, and when all was said and done, they had packed The Usual to the rafters, raising $4,000 in their first effort. They repeated that success in 2012, doubling the previous number of dollars raised “—the majority from individual contributions,” Perez says.

The year-end holiday season finds the women of HDU gathering toys for underprivileged children.

“Our big holiday toy drive culminated in almost 200 individual toys that we donated to Toys for Tots, Interfaith Ministries, and another small organization we partner with, as well,” Perez says.

Perhaps in deference to the informal place of its origin, HDU also hosts a party tent along the Westheimer Road viewing route of Houston’s LGBT Pride Parade, near the site where Chances once stood. “Last year we had three tents with DJ
Kittie and about 100 girls out there with us,” Perez recalls with amusement. “At
one point we move into the street and
start dancing on the street. Seriously,
it’s a scene out of a movie, when people start doing a line dance all together! It’s
a lot of fun.”

While Perez says HDU doesn’t shy away from its lesbian culture and roots, its members’ lesbianism doesn’t define the group. “What we have found is that a lot of the women who are involved with us are already involved in the lesbian initiatives here in Houston. I think more than anything, a lot of them are excited to be part of something that is bigger than themselves.

“In giving to the community, we want to give in a way that is more ‘community’ giving,” Perez continues. “Nothing [that implies] ‘Oh, you only raise funds for lesbian things.’ We’re fundraising as a community, for the community. We feel that all of these initiatives that we raise funds for contribute to the lesbian community, in a greater way.

“Right now we’re just a bunch of young women trying to do something for the community,” she reasons.

As with any organization seeking longevity, HDU has its long-term goals. They hope to eventually become a 501(c)(3) charity. Equally, they hope to attract new members, but they’re discerning about how they attract those potential new members.

“We don’t want to keep ourselves a hidden secret, but it’s fun to try and find us,” Perez says. “Women can look for us on our information page in Facebook, and we’ll add them to our text list.”

But Perez stresses that HDU does not use Facebook as its primary tool of communication. “We rely on interpersonal relationships, and getting back to making actual relationships, meeting people, saying hello, and getting names, face-to-face, in real time.”

Ultimately, Perez says the perfect potential HDU candidate is “fearless.”

“We’re not necessarily selective, but the kind of girls that are the driving force behind this are fearless,” she says. “They are not afraid to go out there and see what’s out there in the world. Given our personalities, we’re easy to find.

“We are all about being inclusive and getting everybody out there.”

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