John Nechman lives the word ‘diversity.’
by Brandon Wolf
Photo by Dalton DeHart
When talking with John Nechman, it doesn’t take long before the word “global” comes to mind. The child of a bi-racial couple, Nechman himself has been in a bi-racial relationship for seventeen years. He’s traveled to more than one hundred countries, and his most passionate focus is on LGBT immigration issues.
Nechman was born to a Korean woman and an American G.I. in 1965. In 1998, he found the love of his life, a Colombian citizen living in the U.S. on a student visa. Asian, American, European, African, and Latin influences are all present in his life. “Watching the Miss Universe Pageant with relatives can get chaotic!” he laughs.
An Early Baby
The oldest of four sons, the Seoul, South Korea native weighed a mere three pounds when he was delivered by a midwife two-and-a-half months early. Nechman’s Korean mother had spent much of her life in Beijing, China, where her father taught college.
By the time he was seven, his family had settled in Houston where his father continued a career as an insurance agent for John Hancock. His mother taught herself English and went to work as an accountant. Nechman was enrolled at Foster Elementary School in Humble, Texas.
The family later moved to the Forest Cove area of Kingwood. The area was so new that the local high school had only a freshman and sophomore class when he began. “Our class was the first to make the full cycle of four years,” he remembers.
An Athletic Youth
Nechman was a good student—popular and athletic. He played on the football, baseball, soccer, and golf teams. At fifteen, he began waiting tables at the Kingwood Country Club.
Being gay wasn’t something he thought much about. As an athlete, no one suspected he might be gay. “But I remember all the butt-slapping and gay name-calling that was part of the locker-room culture,” he says.
Nechman was a keen enough child to have been aware of the Houston Heights gay serial killings by Houstonian Dean Corll, which took the lives of twenty-eight known victims between 1970 and 1973. He remembers that it discouraged his interest in exploring his sexual orientation.
But eventually his interest was revived when he heard activist Ray Hill’s speech at the Anita Bryant demonstrations in Houston in 1977, when thousands marched through the streets and circled the Hyatt Regency where Bryant has performing.
“Our family had gone to Chinatown for dinner that night,” Nechman recalls. “Driving home, conservative talk show host Jon Matthews came onto the car radio and started talking about the gay mob that had descended on the Hyatt.” Nechman’s father quickly changed the radio station. When they arrived home, twelve-year-old Nechman ran to his room and took his transistor radio into the closet to hear the news reports. “I heard Ray Hill addressing the crowd that had gathered by City Hall,” he remembers.
As he grew older, he got bolder and became aware of the Montrose club district. But Houston was too close to home, and Nechman worried about being seen in any gay place. “That made the University of Texas in Austin very appealing to me as a choice for college.”
College and Life on the Road
Nechman enrolled at UT, and earned a bachelor’s degree in business and linguistics. His parents divorced during his first year of college, and his father remarried a woman from Mexico City. “She came from a large family and I didn’t know Spanish,” he notes. “So I decided to study the language as a minor.”
To earn money, Nechman waited tables. He also found jobs as a doorman and bartender in clubs on Austin’s Sixth Street.
College was followed by three years of backpacking across Europe, visiting more than one hundred different countries. “I got by with my wits, odd jobs, and the kindness of friendly people,” Nechman says.
Every summer, Nechman ended up on the Greek island of Mykonos. He slept under the stars on the roof of a disco. “Some nights I danced on the disco floor—other nights I danced on the bar,” he says with a grin.
Entering the Field of Law
Nechman says he was “devastated” by his parents’ divorce, but he is proud that his mother used her savings to open a pharmacy in Houston’s Fifth Ward. The area was one of Houston’s most crime-ridden zones, but she still made the business successful. She also had a lengthy romance with an African-American gentleman who came to work at the pharmacy.
His mother was also successful at convincing her son to abandon his European wanderings and enroll at South Texas College of Law. “She bought me a dog to keep me grounded,” he says. That dog, a Norwegian Elkhound that he named Björn, lived for nineteen years.
Nechman had a number of relationships with men over the years, ranging from a few weeks to deeper long-term commitments. One of those relationships, unfortunately, nearly cost him his life. An obsessive ex-lover from his years in Europe tracked him down in Houston and asked to meet.
“I showed up at the downtown YMCA and he was in a car,” Nechman remembers. “Next thing I knew, there was a pistol at the side of my head.” Nechman survived the attempt on his life, but did take a bullet in his upper arm. The bullet traveled about eighteen inches inside his arm before exiting.
“There was blood everywhere,” says Nechman. “The EMTs couldn’t figure out where I had been hit, and stripped me down to my undershorts. It was an odd feeling, standing there nearly naked and covered with blood, as local TV cameramen shot footage of me for the evening news.”
Finding the Love of His Life
In 1996, Nechman went to work for Ritchie & Glass to learn criminal law. That same year, he met Ricardo Ruiz, whom he has lived with for the last seventeen years. “I first saw him in the Fiesta on Bellaire Boulevard, and it was love at first sight.”
Ruiz, a native of Colombia, was living in the U.S. on a student visa. Courtship led to commitment. But unlike a heterosexual couple, there was no chance of marriage and citizenship. So Nechman quickly became interested in immigration law, and he went into solo practice for the next four years.
In 1998, the two were traveling together and had to go through U.S. Customs. “Neither of us had ever experienced problems with Customs officials before,” Nechman says. “But that time, Ricardo was taken aside and questioned. When they figured out we were a couple, he was taken to a private room and grilled about our relationship.” They were both shattered by the incident.
Ruiz, a dedicated schoolteacher who drives one hundred miles round-trip to teach in an impoverished area, hopes to gain his citizenship within the next year. “But it’s cost us more than $100,000 over the years in legal expenses to stay together,” Nechman says.
Making a Difference
Nechman has been a strong leader in the fight for immigration rights for the LGBT community. Although he cheered the 2010 abolition of the U.S. travel ban on HIV-positive individuals, he emphasizes that there is still much to do. “People have little idea how much the gay community has been hassled by Customs officials over the years,” Nechman says.
Nechman was present for the oral arguments in the two most famous Supreme Court cases in the past decade that affected the gay community. In 2003, he was John Lawrence’s “bodyguard” during Lawrence v. Texas. And in March of this year he was present for the marriage equality Proposition 8 hearings. He’s not sure how the justices will decide, but he hopes to be celebrating when this year’s Pride Parade moves down Westheimer.
Now a partner at the Katine and Nechman law firm, Nechman keeps busy with his immigration law cases. He has successfully defended many clients seeking asylum in the U.S., preventing their forced return to countries where they could be persecuted for their orientation.
Nechman is also an adjunct professor at the South Texas College of Law and the University of Houston Law Center. He has taught courses such as “Sexual Orientation and the Law” and “HIV and the Law” since 2003.
Constantly busy “giving back,” Nechman has served as an officer of numerous national, state, and local legal organizations. He is a frequent speaker on immigration, business, human rights, and LGBT/HIV-related legal issues.
Handsome and fit at age forty-eight, Nechman approaches life with an outgoing nature and a humble spirit, and considers his election as the 2013 Houston Male Pride Marshal to be a great honor. “I’m very thankful to have had a clear purpose in life,” he says. “And because I’m an attorney, I’ve been able to make a difference in many people’s lives. It’s been a wonderful labor of love.”