by Brandon Wolf
Born in 1975, Januari Leo was only nine when the first news about Ryan White, a hemophiliac infected through an AIDS-tainted transfusion, broke in the media. “It was scary,” she remembers. “And it broke my heart to see the way this thirteen-year-old boy was treated by his local community.”
Leo grew up in a conservative Republican family, and although AIDS wasn’t a particular subject of conversation in the house, she was already reading about it in newspapers and watching it on cable news. “I seem to always have been a truth seeker,” she says.
Growing Up in Garland
Leo, the “2013 Houston Pride Ally” of the LGBT community (an honor bestowed upon a supportive heterosexual), grew up in Garland, Texas. Her father was a salesman and her mother worked as a secretary. She has one brother.
School wasn’t a chore for Leo. She got good grades and had lots of friends. With a natural inclination to media, she served as the editor of the school newspaper.
Leo was also an accomplished dancer, whether it was jazz, tap, or hip-hop. In high school, she earned spending money teaching dance to younger children. She played the flute in her high school marching band.
Later, she transferred to the band’s flag corps. Dressed in orange, green, and white, the Rangers performed at every game and traveled as far away as Colorado to take part in competitions. She remembers lots of snappy routines, but thinks that the corps’ rendition of Elvis Presley’s Fever was probably her favorite.
A Strong Sense of Social Justice
Leo says she has always had strong core values that reflect her concern for the less fortunate in our society—public health, social justice, equal rights, empowerment, and compassion. So it was no surprise when she majored in sociology and political science while earning her bachelor’s degree at University of Houston’s downtown campus.
Some of her early jobs also prepared her for a life dedicated to others. She once worked as a cashier in an adult video store. She laughs at the mention of the video rental scene in the cult classic film Clerks. Leo also worked for a time as a hostess at the Birraporetti’s Restaurant on West Gray in Houston.
During her senior year of college she met Brian, the man whom she would soon marry. “We talked at a party and discovered we had a lot in common.” Their first child was born at the end of that class year. The day before her final exams, her doctor told her to head to the hospital. “I told him I couldn’t because I had final exams the next day.” The doctor won.
Leo describes her husband as “the logical side” in their marriage. “He works in finance and data analysis for Merrill Lynch. Actually, it’s quite common for people in social work to marry someone outside their professional circle.”
In 2002, Leo started graduate school at University of Houston, working on a master’s degree in social work. She put that goal on hold while devoting herself full-time to raising two children. In 2010, she earned her graduate degree.
Entering the Political Arena
Leo’s first “real” job came in 2010 when Texas state representative Jessica Farrar asked her to manage her District 148 re-election campaign. Leo had first met Farrar at a Planned Parenthood Lobby Day in Austin. “She spoke so well, and I was so impressed at her youth and sense of passion.”
The 2010 election was hard fought. “Her opponent attacked her support of Planned Parenthood and the HPV vaccine. It was a horrible year for Democrats. The Tea Party nearly wiped us out. But Jessica won by an impressive 56 percent.”
Election night was filled with mixed emotions for Leo. “I was very happy, but I was also exhausted.” Farrar asked Leo to join her staff, but Leo had already set her sights elsewhere.
During graduate school, Randall Ellis, Senior Director of Government Relations at Legacy Community Health Services, had visited her political science class. “He believed so deeply in his work with LGBT and HIV issues,” Leo remembers.
Later that year, she worked with Ellis on a syringe exchange project as part of her graduate school practicum. “The bill almost passed in the Texas legislature,” Leo says. “But the opposition derailed it at the last moment.”
After earning her degree, Leo kept in touch with Ellis. “I found out what events he would be at, and I always ended up placing myself in front of him,” she laughs. “I kept asking if he had a job opening yet.”
Her perseverance finally paid off, and in February 2011 she was offered a job as a public affairs field specialist for Legacy. “From the day I started, I had two weeks to coordinate an HIV Advocacy Day in Austin,” Leo says. It was an impressive first assignment—more than one hundred people statewide showed up to lobby for HIV issues.
Mastering the Complexities of Public Health Policy
“My job is to help people understand public health policy,” says Leo. “It’s all very complex. I have to study it and make it comprehensible.”
Toward that end, Leo issues action alerts, puts together advocacy days, and takes part in community organizing. “I go to lots of local meetings,” she says. “Many of them are after hours.” She also works with the Ryan White Planning Council and often travels to Austin to testify at committee hearings.
“A really big issue now is Medicaid expansion for HIV,” Leo notes. “Ryan White funding has to be re-approved at regular intervals. We’d like to see it covered more comprehensively by Medicaid. That would make the funding sustainable.”
Leo loves working for Legacy. “Katie Caldwell, the director, is amazing. She’s been in politics, so she understands not only healthcare management, but also the political realities.
“I have been given great freedom to address issues,” Leo says. She has already worked with Harvard University on a major academic study of HIV issues. Currently she is educating herself about federal HIV funding. “It’s important to be at the table.”
Leo says that the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has already had a positive impact on Legacy. “More services are covered now, and that means we have more money to invest in broadening what we do.”
The recent upswing in new HIV infection among youth concerns Leo. “Kids are getting careless,” she says. “It’s basically a lack of knowledge, so HIV education is very important to me.”
Leo says that she is excited about being a 2013 Pride marshal. “I felt so honored when my name was announced. I admit I wasn’t expecting it.”
On parade night, her two children will join her on the back of a convertible as it rolls down Westheimer. “We’re only supposed to have one additional person with us,” Leo says. “But with two children, I couldn’t leave one of them out, so the Pride Committee made an exception.” Her husband will serve as either a banner-bearer or a wheel-watcher. It will be a special night for the family. “There are ten days of constant activity leading up to the parade,” Leo says. “I’m trying to get a lot of rest before then.”
The best thing about being a Pride marshal is the opportunity to advocate for her favorite causes, Leo says. Asked to reflect on her life up to this point, she feels that the word “grassroots” is the most common thread. “I’m very community-oriented, and like to work directly with people.”
Looking ahead, Leo says that things are definitely getting better—for the LGBT community and in the health services field. “No matter what happens in life, there will always be good people out there.” And our 2013 Community Pride Ally is definitely one of them.