Nine Faces of Black LGBTQ Leadership in Houston
OutSmart honors these community members and their outstanding contributions
by Megan Smith
Ever since Marsha P. Johnson infamously resisted arrest and fought back brutality at the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the black LGBTQ community has been a vital force within the modern-day equality movement. Members of the community have taken their intersecting identities and numerous lived experiences and used them to motivate others through political activism, volunteerism, mentorship, and more. As a way to honor these noteworthy individuals, OutSmart reached out to the community for nominations of black LGBTQ leaders making an exceptional difference in Houston. Following is just a sampling.
When asked about his motto for life, Travis Torrence responds with a quote made famous by poet Maya Angelou—“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.” Lucky enough to be supported by numerous wonderful people in his life, Torrence says “it is incumbent upon me to serve the poorest, most vulnerable individuals in our community.” As part of his journey to fulfill this calling, Torrence currently serves on the board of directors for AIDS Foundation Houston, the State Bar of Texas (where he is co-chair of the Texas Minority Counsel Program), and Bo’s Place, a nonprofit bereavement center that offers grief-support services to those who have lost a loved one. He has served as both co-chair and honorary chair for the World AIDS Day Luncheon, and is chair of the Houston Bar Association’s AIDS Outreach Committee. Torrence is also heavily involved with the Urban Souls Dance Company, a local nonprofit that preserves historical dance, creates contemporary dance to celebrate cultural themes, and teaches modern dance to inner-city kids to cultivate confidence, artistry, self-awareness, and technical ability. Torrence notes that although he is an HIV-negative gay man, he recognizes the vital need to combat the sense of complacency toward HIV and AIDS within his age group—one that is too young to remember the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and that sees HIV as less of an issue, thanks to modern medicine. “It’s a virus that does not discriminate,” he says. “We all need to play a part in ending this epidemic.” Torrence hopes to take a break from his community work this month and spend Valentine’s Day in his hometown of New Orleans. There, he and his partner will enjoy some of NOLA’s best dining, beignets at Café du Monde, and, of course, hurricanes, hand grenades, and Sazeracs!
Dee Dee Watters
When Dee Dee Watters was younger, she was told that she might never walk again. She had contracted the West Nile Virus, was on and off life support, and paralyzed from the waist down. “I was told I wouldn’t live to see my 15th birthday, and yet I’m still here,” she says. “I’m inspired because I believe I was left here with a purpose.” Watters has used her new lease on life to combat what she sees as the biggest issue for her community—the lack of resources and support for transgender individuals. She is the current CEO of Transgender Women of Color United for Change, a group that seeks to better the lives of Houston transgender women of color through support efforts, as well as the CEO of the First Amendment Volunteer Group. For the past eight years, that group has given back to the community in ways such as providing Christmas toys to children in the Third and Fifth Wards. Watters is also active with both Bee Busy, Inc., and Legacy Community Health Services in helping with condom distribution, prevention education, and new-patient referrals. When it comes to romance, she likes to keep things simple. Her idea of the perfect Valentine’s Day date would be a trip to the movies, she says.
Self-described gay nerd Jacques Bourgeois says his perfect Valentine’s Day date would be, without a doubt, a trip downtown to Discovery Green and The Grove. In fact, he was seen there in January with the Houston Gaymers, a group of LGBTQ video-game lovers that he co-founded six years ago and for which he now serves as vice president. As part of Discovery Green’s “Rainbow on Ice” LGBTQ skating event, the Gaymers hosted a free public game of Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers on a huge projection screen in the park. And he hasn’t stopped there in using gaming for good. He is also involved with the nonprofit organization Extra Life, which hosts a 24-hour video-game marathon to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Bourgeois says he is inspired by the idea of “connecting community and the hope and vision of a better future for the world. We can only progress forward when we put in the work.” Outside of gaming, Bourgeois is involved with Bunnies on the Bayou, Human Rights Campaign Houston, the Houston Equal Rights Strategy Group, Pride Houston, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and the T.R.U.T.H. Project, a group that uses artistic expression to bring awareness about HIV and AIDS to the African-American LGBT community and its allies. With the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) trial currently under way, Bourgeois stresses the importance of this ordinance and encourages others to continue dialogue about the vital protections that will accompany the ordinance’s implementation. “No one should ever have to fear persecution for simply being, but they do,” he says. “HERO has the ability to be the great uniter of our city and mold the future of who we are.”
Michael C. Webb
In his lifetime, Michael C. Webb has seen a lot of beauty and pain—and that’s exactly what keeps him fighting for a better tomorrow. As prevention supervisor for Legacy Community Health Services’ Public Heath Department, Webb oversees daily HIV and STD prevention and outreach activities for the center’s mPowerment program, a program focusing on empowering young gay
and bisexual communities of color. As an HIV-positive queer man himself, Webb describes how lucky he feels to have amazing mentors, friends, and community members helping him overcome life’s challenges. However, because he has also witnessed so much communal pain—be it systemic social inequality, the increasingly alarming HIV infection rate within gay communities of color, the detrimental stigma attached to HIV, or rejection by friends and family based on identity—Webb has made it his mission to spread the love and empowerment he has experienced to Houston’s most underserved communities. “If I can be a catalyst to progressing our communities one step further, that by itself is worth waking up for in the morning,” he says. Webb also stresses the importance of bringing the multiple communities that make up our city together, instead of pitting them against one another. “The idea that we self-segregate ourselves limits communal growth and understanding,” he says. On the political front, Webb also serves on the board of trustees for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and organizes voter awareness and registration for his fraternity, Delta Phi Upsilon. As for his idea of the perfect way to spend Saint Valentine’s Day? A visit to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, followed by dinner and drinks at Boheme Café & Wine Bar.
When Fran Watson and her wife, Kim, have the chance to spend a special night like Valentine’s together, their ideal place to be is at home preparing a fancy meal and opening a bottle of wine. While Kim travels a lot for work, Watson is also constantly on the go. She currently serves as a board trustee and volunteer coordinator for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and she served as the disability hospitality subcommittee chair for the LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference that was held last year in Houston. In September, she was elected president of Montrose Grace Place, an organization that seeks to provide a safe, welcoming space for vulnerable homeless youth of all sexualities and genders. She also serves on the board of the Stonewall Law Association of Greater Houston. Although her work can be draining at times, Watson says that it’s hope that keeps her going. As a member of Houston’s LGBT faith community, she constantly works to demonstrate God’s love for all people. “I have overcome many obstacles in my life, and through it all, I held on to hope,” she says. “Thank God for hope.” For her own LGBT community, Watson hopes for more inclusive policies, procedures, and protections to be put in place, especially in the workplace and within social services. She notes that with high transgender unemployment—especially among transgender people of color—these protections are crucial. Many homeless LGBT youth are currently denied services based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, Watson adds, and implementing more inclusive policies will greatly help abate this type of discrimination.
When asked what issue he considers most important to his community, transman Tye West responds, “It’s important for the world to see us as human beings and not as some freaks of nature.” West has made equality for the transgender community a top priority in his work, which includes volunteering on the Diversity Committee for the Houston chapter of Black Transmen, Inc., the first national nonprofit organization focused on empowering African-American transmen and providing resources for a healthy transition. He also previously served as the chapter’s president and hosted his own radio talk show called “T Time with Tye,” where he discussed trans-related issues and concerns both locally and on a global level. “The one thing that inspires me is love,” West says. “I have a passion for being able to make a positive difference in a person’s life, and it gives me great pleasure to see people living their truth. I know and believe that we all deserve to be happy.” West himself would be happy spending Valentine’s Day doing something unique. “Be creative, spontaneous, and risky,” he says. “It’s never about what you actually do, but the thought, emotion, and effort you put behind what you do for Valentine’s Day that will last longer than a day.”
Minister Freedom K.D. Gulley
As a self-identified same-gender-loving African-American person of faith, Minister Freedom K.D. Gulley’s message to every LGBTQ person of color is, “Go get your God back. God loves you.” For the past four years, Gulley has been the senior pastor of Progressive Open Door Christian Center, which prides itself on being “radically loving, radically inclusive, and radically reconciling.” “Every civil rights movement has been rooted and grounded in faith,” he says. “It takes faith to be courageous, humble, honest, and unceasingly on the side of justice. It takes faith to be a lone voice in a multitude of people who disagree with you. It is possible to have Jesus and justice.” In 2011, Gulley co-founded Fresh Start Community Haven, Inc., a transitional living facility for same-gender-loving and LGBTQ young adults. He has spent the past two years as an adjunct professor at Texas Southern University, where he also serves as the assistant coach for the Sigma Pi Alpha Forensic and Dialectical Symposium Debate Team, and the faculty advisor for the campus’ gay-straight alliance. “I love that each day is new and different, and there’s a new challenge and new people to work with,” Gulley says. When asked how he’d like to spend Valentine’s Day, Gulley responds, “This is a hard question!,” but ultimately picks Studio Movie Grill in Houston’s City Centre. “You can eat, watch a movie, have a drink, and then go walk around and view the city.”
It’s a critical time in the movement to break down barriers and build bridges, Synthia Walton says. A member of the Houston Equal Rights Strategy Group, Walton says that with the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) on trial, coming together to educate the broader community on LGBT issues is imperative. “We have to come together as a united community to fight for fairness and rights in Texas,” she says. “We have to work together to ensure our individual rights.” Walton, who identifies as a gay woman, also serves on the board of Bunnies on the Bayou, an organization for which she previously served as treasurer and as a bunny host. For Valentine’s Day, Walton is looking forward to some quality one-on-one time with her girlfriend at home, cooking and eating dinner together. “This is important for any relationship,” she says.
Jeffrey Campbell has his ideal Valentine’s Day scenario down to a T: a romantic getaway with his partner to somewhere with blue water, white sand, candlelight, a fresh breeze, some soul-grooving R&B music, pineapple-basil mojitos, and good food. And with the massive amount of wonderful work Campbell does for the community, he deserves it. Campbell is currently the advisory board chair for Freedom Church, an affirming and inclusive Houston church, and the director of programs for the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, overseeing the organization’s HIV and substance-abuse prevention programs. “I am very clear that my calling in life is to help those who are among what others deem to be the least, the last, and the lost,” Campbell says. In the past, he has also been involved with Bee Busy, Inc., the City of Houston African American State of Emergency Task Force in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS, and was an initial organizer of Brothers Speaking, a dialogue event that focused on reconciling spirituality, sexuality, and relationships between black same-gender-loving men, and more. Additionally, Campbell was also a minister of health and wholeness for the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and a founding pastor of Fresh Start Church, the first affirming and inclusive church to be led by an out gay black man in Houston. He calls on others in the community to take on leadership roles and engage others who are necessary to move equality forward. “I encourage black LGBTQ Houstonians and those around the world to get involved with groups and organizations that have a cause that is not only about our black LGBTQ agenda, but one that is about the advancement of black people as a whole,” Campbell says.
Over the past year, OutSmart has highlighted several additional black LGBTQ leaders for their extensive contributions to the community. Make sure to check out these names in our archives: