OutSmart celebrates these accomplished Houstonians and their ongoing contributions.
By Megan Smith
As queer Chicana activist, author, and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa once wrote, “Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds them as one walks.” In Houston, LGBTQ Hispanic leaders are building bridges on all fronts—in the arts, medicine, politics, activism, volunteerism, and more—creating community along the way. As people of multiple lived identities, these individuals have used their experiences to spread empowerment and leave a lasting footprint on future generations. To celebrate the accomplishments of these notable individuals, OutSmart reached out to the community for nominations of LGBTQ Hispanic leaders doing outstanding work in Houston. These profiles represent just a sampling of our 2015 nominees.
The past six months have been a beautiful, busy blur for gay Houstonian James Lee. He joined the team at Legacy Community Health as a public affairs field specialist and took on the presidency of Houston Stonewall Young Democrats . . . all at the same time. But Lee has been more than up for the challenge. With Legacy, he works on healthcare policy advocacy, voter registration efforts, and incorporating patients in civic engagement programs—work inspired by his parents. “Ever since I was a boy, [my parents] taught me to speak up when I saw something that wasn’t right,” Lee explains. “I watched my mother care for others as a nurse, and my father help those struggling with addiction as a probation officer. With their influence, I felt a calling to serve my community through advocacy.” Serving as president of the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats has given Lee another platform for advocacy—and to build bridges amongst young, politically engaged Houstonians. Since taking office, the group’s membership has doubled and increased its diversity, and—for the first time in the organization’s history—explored new bipartisan partnerships. These partnerships, Lee says, are key to supporting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in the November 3 election. “I believe we must come together as a community,” he says. “No other ballot measure is more important than defending the ordinance in this election.” For those wanting to help in this fight, Lee suggests attending a deputy voter registration event at Legacy or an upcoming bipartisan effort with the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats and the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston. But Lee isn’t just a talented leader and advocate—he’s musically inclined as well. In high school, he played guitar in a small local band. “It was fun,” Lee says. “And sometimes, we could even get a crowd to sing and dance with us!”
Educator and self-described “happy Latina lesbian,” Emy Hernandez had no idea of the importance of being out in her profession when she first made the move from higher education to working at a high school campus three years ago. But after getting to know her students, she realized the great need for LGBTQ support on campus. In response, she helped establish the Force Allies, the school’s first club dedicated to increasing awareness about the LGBTQ community. Hernandez helps facilitate the group’s discussions on issues affecting LGBTQ youth and assists with the group’s event planning. The Force Allies organize the school’s annual Spirit Day (when students take a stand against bullying and show support for LGBTQ students), host after-school films, and volunteer at community events such as the Creating Change conference that took place in Houston last January. “Force Allies has been by far one of my favorite experiences, primarily because it [lets me work] with students who already have hurdles to overcome as first-generation college-bound students, [and who also] need our support and guidance in dealing with sexual identity and, in some cases, immigration issues,” Hernandez, who is also a first-generation college graduate, says. “It is this experience that has fueled my passion for making sure we focus on our LGBTQ youth, especially those who have more challenges to overcome as they aspire to become working professionals.” To keep involved in the arts, Hernandez enjoys attending QFest, Houston’s international LGBTQ film festival, each summer. She also likes to move her feet to a good beat. “I love to dance, but am by no means an expert,” Hernandez says. “I just move with the music!”
Reverend Michael Diaz
As a “band nerd” in high school, Reverend Michael Diaz was exposed to many different genres of music that inspired him—especially jazz and Latin jazz. “I’ve been playing drums and hand percussion ever since,” he says. Although he doesn’t get to play as often anymore, he still makes time to co-facilitate drum circles each month with his colleagues from Joy of Djembe Drumming—a group that has performed at numerous Houston events, including at the Houston Symphony’s Day of Music. Where he finds the time, however, is quite the mystery. Before deciding to pursue his MBA degree full-time, Rev. Diaz spent the last five years as the director of connections for Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in the Heights. “I sensed a call to be a part of a faith community and a movement that not only talks about love and justice, but actually embodies both,” Rev. Diaz says. “I found that in [the] Metropolitan Community Church. Our church was founded in 1968 with an unapologetic and celebratory outreach to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and, here in Houston, our faith community shares God’s unconditional love through Christ-like action. Recognizing that many of us have experienced spiritual violence and shame from unhealthy religion, I truly believe that healthy spirituality is supposed to affirm and celebrate people, no matter what one believes or doubts. Every person is sacred, and that’s why we should emphasize values over any specific dogma.” Rev. Diaz’s Christ-like action takes many different forms. He has served on the board of AIDS Foundation Houston for the past two years, attends the organization’s Camp Hope (an annual week-long camp for HIV-positive youth ages 7 to 16), and was instrumental in the formation of the Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT), a group that protects, supports, and advocates for the Spanish-speaking transgender community. When asked what inspires him to do such work, Rev. Diaz responds, “People en la lucha. People overcoming obstacles to live out their truth. People choosing to love when the world treats them with hate. People daring to not give up. People struggling to not give in to fear. People making room for hope.” He will also be encouraging people to take a stand for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) when it is on the ballot this November. “Many people think LGBT individuals have full equality now that same-gender-loving people can get married across the country,” he says. “What many do not understand is that it is still legal in places like Texas to be denied a job because you’re gay, denied housing because you’re trans, or denied service in a restaurant because you’re a lesbian. It’s vital that everyone votes and volunteers in the campaign to make sure HERO is not repealed. We must take a public stand to ensure that no one faces discrimination because of who they are.”
Barby García Ledesma
It was witnessing the massive amount of discrimination that the transgender community faces each day that gave Barby García Ledesma the courage to join the Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT). She has served on the organization’s board since March, helping to plan the group’s monthly meetings—which include group discussions and guest speakers—as well as coordinating volunteer and special events. “I’m transsexual and very proud!” Ledesma says. “As humans, I believe that we are all worth the same and no one should be discriminated against [because of] gender, race, color, or sexual orientation.” Through her work with OLTT, Ledesma hopes to provide other trans people with an outlet to relieve the frustration they feel as a result of discrimination. “Come to us and offer your time and resources,” Ledesma advises those looking to get involved. “We need a place where our members can go to seek help—whether it be medical, legal, or even psychological.” As a creative outlet, Ledesma also takes music lessons.
“I am truly and uniquely passionate about film,” explains Kristian Salinas, who, for the past 19 years, has been involved in organizing QFest, Houston’s international LGBTQ film festival. Salinas considers himself very fortunate to have the privilege of engaging with his love of film for the purpose of creating a public event that “not only celebrates films and filmmaking, but also the city we Houstonians call home.” His love for film, he emphasizes, is hardly confined to one genre. “My favorite films include Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke,” Salinas says. “It is not sad or uplifting movies that make me cry, but rather it is films in which every creative resource at the disposal of the filmmakers has been utilized to the fullest extent of artistic possibility.” Although it’s a giant undertaking to organize a well-curated festival, Salinas never fails to present an exceptional film lineup year after year. “I am genuinely inspired by the sense of community QFest engenders,” says Salinas, who identifies as “gay with a queer sensibility.” “I enjoy collaborating and working with organizations and businesses throughout Houston for the purpose of creating a multi-day event showcasing international LGBTQ cinema.” Through this work, he has built lasting partnerships with some of Houston’s top cultural institutions and even serves on the film committee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and on the advisory committee for the Aurora Picture Show. Always looking for ways to improve, Salinas aims to hold more free screenings for those who may not have access to the festival due to financial constraints. “Simply put, income inequality within the LGBTQ community disproportionally impacts women and minorities,” he says. “I am particularly troubled by the financial struggles faced by college-age students, many of whom work to support their education, and do so without the benefit of reliable transportation. It is my goal to secure funding to host screenings during the spring semester at area colleges in a continued effort to engage new audiences in venues both convenient and familiar to them.” Will Salinas be making the move from movie-watcher to movie-maker any time soon, we ask? “Years ago, mostly while I lived in Los Angeles, I shot quite a bit on Super 8,” he says. “It was mostly technical exercises, but I really came to love the aesthetic possibilities of shooting on film. After all these years, I still consider myself to be an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter.”
Out Houstonian Lilia Garza grew up surrounded by music. As a teenager, she was in a mariachi band with her siblings—her mother taught her to play the guitar and her father was their biggest fan and dancer. “Our family get-togethers are anything but quiet,” she says. In her adult life, the love she received from her family has motivated her to share that support with others. Garza serves as the current chair for Wells Fargo’s PRIDE Houston Team Member Network and the Latin Connection Houston Team Member Network, helping to create a work environment that supports and encourages employees to recognize their unique strengths through networking, training, and volunteerism. “Being a positive mentor and coach for young professionals inspires me to do what I do,” Garza says. “Creating a community of diversity and inclusion by encouraging young professionals to recognize their differences and abilities as talents—and watching them reach their goals and become leaders—is my inspiration.” Additionally, Garza has served as a host for AIDS Foundation Houston’s Dining Out for Life and is a co-producer for Leztopia Radio, the only all-lesbian radio show in the South. A part of Queer Voices on 90.1 FM KPFT Houston, Leztopia offers community programming catered to the lesbian listening audience and allies. It also gives Garza a platform to advocate for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). “The main topic the community seems to focus on with HERO is the ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Garza says. “This ordinance also bans discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, marital status, and military status. We are all allies of a minority in one way or another. We need to share our stories, listen to the stories of our allies, and encourage our community to vote for the passage of HERO in November.”
Self-described proud gay Latino Ramiro Fonseca was less than enthusiastic when he first found out he was required to take an art class to complete his bachelor’s degree. “I never felt there was an artistic gene in me,” Fonseca explains. But an amazing college professor changed all of that. “She provided me with encouragement to make me feel really good about my projects,” he says, noting that he even enrolled in an advanced art class after completing an introductory course. “Today, I proudly display some of my favorite watercolor and paper-media pieces on my office wall at home.” Having experienced the power of a good teacher, it’s no surprise that Fonseca has an immense passion for education. For the past 24 years, he has helped organize the Houston Hispanic Forum’s Career and Education Day to help promote education within the Latino community. Fonseca currently serves on the forum’s board and spent two consecutive years as its president. This work has also allowed him the opportunity to work with a phone bank that provides non-English-speaking parents with information regarding student financial aid and the college application process. Fonseca is now taking his experience and passion even further as a District III trustee candidate for Houston ISD’s Board of Education. “Today’s youth inspire me every day,” Fonseca says. “I want to lead by example to make sure all young people understand the value of giving back to their community and to those less fortunate.” If elected, he promises to address several issues affecting student academic achievement, including advocating for competitive compensation for teachers and against school closures. Outside of education, Fonseca also serves as president and chair of the Houston Police Department’s Eastside PIP (an organization of community leaders who meet monthly to keep HPD officers informed on neighborhood issues), on the board of the Houston Clean City Commission, and on Mayor Parker’s Hispanic Advisory Board. Previously, Fonseca served on the board of Legacy Community Health and on Mayor Parker’s METRO/Transportation Committee. “My participation in the community has been a lifetime commitment, and a heartwarming one,” Fonseca says.
From Houston’s local bands to its dance-inducing DJs, this city is bursting with inspiration, according to artist Stephanie Gonzalez. “There is just so much going on here all the time. You just have to look,” she says. “I find inspiration in every aspect of my life, and when I feel it, I have to stop what I am doing and attend to it.” Gonzalez started creating art at a very young age and began showing her work during high school. Now, her work can be seen at various galleries and coffee shops around Houston. She also uses her art as a way to give back to the community and has donated pieces to Texans Against Cancer, AIDS Charity Auction, MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Diana Foundation, the Make a Wish Foundation, and Out For Education. “I create works that push the acceptance of LGBT people,” says Gonzalez, who identifies as a lesbian. “I try to send out a message in all of my work .” One of the most important messages to relay, she says, is the importance of defending the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in November. “There are people in Houston who are trying to block the civil rights of the LGBTQ population,” Gonzalez says. “This attempt at blocking these rights appears to be caused by pure hatred, and hatred is a cancer which kills one slowly. It should have no place in anyone’s heart. Let people know you are here and that you deserve rights because you were born human.” Recently, Gonzalez has also been trying her hand at guitar and has played an open mic night at Pearl Bar. “It was nice when people appreciated what I played, because it was as if I was connecting with them on another level, pouring out my heart while not expecting anything,” she says. “That feeling got me hooked.”
An alto-saxophone player since the age of 12, Edward Guerrero swears it’s possible to be both a band geek and a cool kid. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it,” he jokes. In fact, he dabbled in many different fine arts as a student—he was a dancer in his school’s performance of The Wiz, listened to everything from jazz to pop to ’40s music, and—at age 10—wrote, produced, and starred in a “sold-out” show on his great-grandmother’s front porch. “The curtains were sheets from my mom’s linen closet, and the actors were my brothers and sisters and a neighbor friend,” he explains. “Today, I leave the music and the acting to the pros.” But he’s become a pro at something else—giving back to the community. For eight years, Guerrero has been in the fight against breast cancer as captain of Team Kelsey-Seybold for the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure. Through donations and T-shirt sales, the team has raised almost $100,000 for breast cancer research, diagnostics, and treatment. “I have quite a bit of support in this endeavor,” Guerrero notes, and explains that Kelsey-Seybold’s cancer support group of courageous women has also spent countless hours fundraising and sharing moral support. “A huge amount of support [also comes] from my husband, David.” Guerrero was inspired to join this fight after losing a few people he really admired to breast cancer. He emphasizes the life-saving importance of early detection and becoming educated on the subject. “It’s important for me to note that for my lesbian sisters, numbers show that there is a variation in breast cancer rates in lesbians that can likely result from the stress and stigma of living in a society where homophobia and discrimination continue to impact,” he says. “Studies have consistently shown that lesbians have a lower rate of receiving mammograms, PAP smears, and colonoscopies compared to other women, possibly due in part to a belief that they will not be accepted in the healthcare setting—either because of a perceived fear or due to previous experiences.” Guerrero urges those with similar worries or financial hardships to contact Komen, which supports organizations that can help.
Like one of her favorite artists, Frida Kahlo, Houstonian Melissa Vivanco is a fighter. “She was able to capture her pain and life story in a way so visible. It’s heartbreaking, yet beautiful,” Vivanco says. “I also love the fact that she embraced her Mexican culture and used it to empower her style and became well known as a result.” Although it was very difficult for Vivanco to come out as a lesbian to her friends and family, she was ultimately met with responses of love and acceptance. However, that wasn’t the case for many of her LGBT friends. “I realized I needed to do something,” she says. Vivanco now serves on the Human Rights Campaign’s national board of governors, is HRC Houston’s Community Engagement co-chair, and has been a volunteer with the organization for the past four years. “I was fortunate to be able to travel to Washington DC with HRC and lobby for LGBT rights,” Vivanco says. “Once I understood how important and powerful my voice was, I never looked back. We all have the power to share our stories to help change hearts and minds, we all have the ability to stand up and fight for the disadvantaged, and I encourage everyone to do it. We should all stand up and fight for equality.” The community also needs to come together, Vivanco says, and fight for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which protects Houstonians from discrimination not only based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but in 15 different classes. “The opposition is going to spend a lot of money in advertisements using scare tactics, and it is up to each of us to not only educate Houstonians on what this ordinance is about and who this ordinance protects, but also getting people out to vote,” she says. Vivanco suggests those who want to get involved visit houequality.com and houstonunites.org.
If you’re looking for self-described “gay globe-trotter” Roy Mendoza, there’s a possibility he may be hanging around—literally. For the past three years, Mendoza has been training as an aerial silk performer at Aerial Yoga Houston and Vault Houston. The craft requires calculated precision techniques that also balance and maintain personal energy levels. “I expect to perform for local nonprofits that provide much-needed services to community members that the government cannot or will not do,” he says. When he’s not training, you can find Mendoza at the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, where he serves on the board of trustees and as the chair of the Caucus’ Outreach, Education, and Advocacy Committee. “My first year is about to fly by,” Mendoza says. “It’s been an amazing journey.” As an auditing contractual compliance specialist during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Iraqi Endurance from 2005 until 2009, Mendoza says he learned how to think critically and to ask for help. He is now asking for help in defending the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) this November and in getting voters to the polls. “We need you to spread the message that all hardworking people—including those who are gay or transgender—should be treated fairly and equally by the laws of our city and should have the opportunity to earn a living to provide for themselves and their family,” he says.
“I have a great admiration for creative minds that convey meaning and emotions in all art forms,” says out Houstonian Sara Fernandez. She learned folk dancing as a child, sang with the choir in high school, and received a minor in art during her undergraduate career. But now, Fernandez is excelling in something else—preserving the past and supporting the future. On one hand, she is the founder of the Banner Project, an exhibition of banners originally created (in collaboration with the Houston Area Rainbow Collective) for the National LGBTQ Task Force’s 2014 Creating Change conference to detail Houston’s LGBT History. “[We need to] energize our collective memory and remember the people, places, and events that have created a better world for all,” Fernandez says. “I dream of having a building where different archives could properly store their collections and share a workspace to digitize materials and record oral and video stories. I have heard too many people say, ‘I didn’t think anyone wanted these old photos and objects, so I threw them away.’” On the other hand, she is the president of the Association for Family and Community Integrity, Inc. (AFCI, Inc.), an organization that offers support to LGBTQ people who are rejected by their families because of who they love or how they identify. “Laws have changed, but not all hearts have followed,” Fernandez says. “We need to prevent LGBTQ youth homelessness and help those who have become homeless.” The organization focuses on homelessness-prevention efforts and is developing a class to help parents become more accepting of their LGBTQ children. Fernandez has also been a member of PFLAG since 1999 and has recorded many of the group’s lectures, available on the PFLAG Houston channel at houstonsvoice.com. “I do what I do because I am selfish,” she says. “When people around me are safe, happy, respected, and honored, then I am living in a better world.”
Over the past few years, OutSmart has highlighted several additional LGBTQ Hispanic leaders for their extensive contributions to the community. Make sure to check out these names in our archives:
• Robert Gallegos, Houston City Council Member (See OutSmart’s February 2014 issue).
• Margarita Perez, Development Manager for AIDS Foundation Houston and community activist (See OutSmart’s March 2015 issue).
• Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Houston artist, filmmaker, and DJ (See OutSmart’s March 2015 issue).
• Isrel Fonseca, Houston fashion designer (See OutSmart’s July 2015 issue).