Celebrating these individuals and their positive impact in Houston.
By Megan Smith
Sylvia Rivera, the revolutionary Hispanic trans woman who helped lead the 1969 Stonewall Riots, made waves again in 2001 when she addressed a group of LGBTQ folks in New York City: “I’ll be the first one to step on any organization, any politician’s toes if I have to, to get the rights for my community,” she declared.
Her words ring true for many in the LGBTQ Hispanic community—resilient Chicana feminists, those challenging their culture’s ingrained machismo standards, and those who understand the power of familia. To honor these influential community members, OutSmart reached out to our readers for nominations of LGBTQ Hispanic leaders who make an exceptional impact in Houston. Below, we speak with a sampling of the nominees about their current work, what keeps them moving forward, and—in honor of this being our arts and entertainment issue—their artistic outlet of choice.
Eric Edward Schell
For Houston transplant Eric Edward Schell, art is activism. The openly gay photographer and former musical-theater performer is the face behind the new “P.R.I.D.E. Portraits: Photographs Representing Individuals Deserving Equality” project. “I made a bold goal of photographing 10,000 people around the U.S., with individuals’ stories attached,” Schell says of the project. “The photograph sale proceeds from each photo shoot will benefit a charity in the LGBTQ community. The mission for this project is simple. People will see these photographs, read these stories, and say to themselves, ‘That person is relatable to me,’ and be prompted to educate themselves about our community. Furthermore, the project will help amplify the concept that we are strong, we are diverse, we are proud, and we are human.” Schell learned to give back to his community at an early age, volunteering along with his mother with San Francisco’s homeless population. “I have always tried to help others, but sometimes my finances haven’t allowed me to do so monetarily,” Schell explains. “Thankfully, everyone has time to give away, if they look hard enough.” He recommends getting involved with HIV advocacy in Houston. “I think we need to raise awareness that free testing is available all over the city,” he says.
While Rosy Mota’s artistic skills may be confined to adult coloring books, she’s enthusiastic about Houston’s cultural arts scene—from attending shows at Miller Outdoor Theatre to viewing the latest exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. She’s also passionate about keeping her fellow Houstonians (and Americans) happy and healthy. Since 2013, Mota has worked as the program manager of Enroll America, the leading nonprofit that—through outreach and education—connects uninsured customers to health insurance, and connects organizations to training on Affordable Care Act best practices. “In my position, I connect people without health insurance from many communities, [including] the Latinx community, to access to healthcare via the Marketplace/Affordable Care Act, or with local clinics that offer free or low-cost health services,” Mota explains. “Through this effort, I have learned and seen that minimizing healthcare disparities within communities and improving access to adequate care really does save lives.” In October 2015, Mota further targeted her health-access activism to the LGBTQ community by joining the board of the Lesbian Health Initiative (LHI) and, in December 2015, assuming the role of secretary for the organization. “The LGBTQ Latinx community lags behind in many ways,” Mota says. “Not because of talent or merit, but rather, [because of] a lack of access to resources like healthcare services, quality education, job training, and political representation. My advice for LGBTQ Latinx individuals is to become engaged through volunteering, civic engagement, or becoming a member of (or starting) an organization that represents you and your beliefs, and to make your voices heard.”
Be it through sun salutations, headstands, or acrobatics, Juan Lerma likes to express himself through the art of yoga. “I finally fully committed to my practice in 2016, and I love it,” Lerma says. Several years before beginning this physical and spiritual journey, however, Lerma devoted himself to a different passion—higher education. Since May 2014, he has served on the board of Out For Education, helping to provide college scholarships to LGBT youth in the Houston area. Prior to serving on the board, Lerma was a proud recipient of an Out For Education scholarship during his college career at the University of Houston Bauer College of Business. “I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to seek higher education, and have come to understand and experience the benefits of it,” Lerma says. “Higher education is the key component to creating change and successful collaboration and understanding with others who have different points of view.” Lerma was also selected to be a part of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Emerging Leaders Institute, which links the city’s up-and-coming leaders with the corporate, business, and civic communities. It was this involvement that led him to be nominated to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s LGBTQ Task Force in June 2016. My parents inspire me [to do this work] because of all the hard work and sacrifices they have made to raise two great sons,” he says. “Their unconditional love for us and their support on all of my wild endeavors means a lot to me.”
Ana Andrea Molina
Proud undocumented Latina trans woman Ana Andrea Molina says art and Latin culture run through her veins. A native of Matamoros, Mexico, Molina is the founder, director, and coordinator of the Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT), a group that protects, supports, and advocates for the Latina transgender community in Texas. “Being a trans woman and survivor of violence and drugs, activism is what gives me a real purpose in life,” Molina says. “In the case of undocumented trans Latinas, we are living in a time of serious uncertainty, as we run the risk of being detained [for something] as simple as a traffic case, and placed in ICE custody.” Through her work with OLTT, Molina has collaborated with the youth-led immigrant organization United We Dream, as well as Gender Identity (which creates an affirming space for the empowerment of gender-diverse people) and the Texas Organizing Project. “The laws created in our community against undocumented Latina trans women cause a domino effect,” Molina says. “What happens to one happens to all of us. I really hope we manage to join forces for [future issues that affect] our people and communities.”
Growing up, Joey Guerra acted in his school plays and sang in his middle-school choir. Now, as the music critic for the Houston Chronicle, writing is Guerra’s art of choice. “I think we all—as cheesy as it sounds—want to make a difference in some way,” he says. “For me, as a journalist, that means telling the stories and showcasing the talent of groups that are still frequently ignored or mishandled by mainstream media: Latinos; the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning communities; and the city’s huge drag community. I strive to make sure everyone is covered equally and accurately. There’s so much talent in Houston throughout those communities. It’s important that they get recognized.” Guerra has volunteered for the Houston Pride Festival and helped run the annual Pride Superstar LGBT singing competition for the past decade. He also warns against apathy toward activism. “I think complacency is a huge issue,” Guerra says. “Social media can do amazing things, but it’s also turned people into ‘keyboard’ activists. Get up, get out, and actually do something. Don’t just Facebook about it.”
The arts are near and dear to Iris Rodriguez. Though she has many identities—firefighter, U.S. Army sergeant major, volunteer, Mexican, immigrant, University of Houston Downtown graduate, and lesbian—most don’t know she’s also a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston. She even had her first art “showing” in fifth grade when she drew caricatures of her school’s teachers on the chalkboard. “Ever since I could remember picking up a pencil, I drew on walls, sidewalks, painted my sister’s dolls—most anything I thought needed a little bit of color,” Rodriguez says. Her creative career path took a turn, however, when she found firefighting. Rodriguez was the first Hispanic woman hired by the Houston Fire Department and, for the past 23 and a half years, she has served as captain of the department, as well as a role model for girls everywhere. “At fires when you take off your gear and the bystanders see that you are a woman, it is almost the only thing that takes their attention off of the fire for a moment,” she says. “Even today you hear, ‘Oh! I didn’t know girls could be firefighters . . .’ And you smile.” Rodriguez went on to be an adjunct instructor at Houston Community College and teach the first all-female Fire Science course in 2010. She has also devoted volunteer time to the Houston Human Rights Day Festival, Rice University, Youth for Human Rights, Camp Houston Fire, and serves as Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church’s Hispanic liaison. “We’ve made progress on a national level, such as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, women serving in front-line combat positions, and the right to marry—and we should be proud of our accomplishments,” she says. “However, there is still a laundry list of important issues in our community. For example, HERO, healthcare for LGBTQ folks, education, equal pay for women and minorities, immigration reform, youth LGBTQ homelessness in Houston, the constant struggle to keep women’s abortion rights protected, gun violence, Black Lives Matter, and the inequality in our justice system are just a few things that I think we can still make progress on. Someone is always in need. There is always a pet that needs petting, a child that needs to be read to, or someone needing to borrow your understanding ear.”
After watching numerous friends pass away in the early ’90s from the growing AIDS crisis, Houston trans woman Elia Chino knew it was time to get involved. In addition to volunteering with AIDS patients at Ben Taub Hospital and with AIDS Foundation Houston, Chino formed Fundación Latinoamericana de Acción Social, Inc. (Latin American Foundation for Social Action, or FLAS) in 1994 and currently serves as the organization’s executive director. “In those days in Houston, so many people were dying from complications of AIDS in friends’ houses because they were afraid to talk about AIDS to their family, partners, and community,” she says. “I am able to be strong and continue to fight each day, in memory of all those hundreds that died in my arms.” As an initiative of FLAS, Chino has now ventured into the videography scene, creating educational soap operas on YouTube. “I think the most important issue in our community is the health disparities, especially in mental health,” Chino says. “Many people suffer from mental health [issues], but due to fear and discrimination, they do not seek help. I encourage everyone to get informed on how we can get involved [by helping] agencies or local groups who advocate for mental health and learning how to assist people who suffer from any type of mental-health issue.”
Guillermo De Los Reyes
“I think I am a closeted dancer who works as [an out] professor,” laughs Dr. Guillermo De Los Reyes. This associate professor of Latin American Culture and Literature at the University of Houston was once part of a Mexican theater troupe that gave him the opportunity to travel to Lithuania. He has also been a part of dance groups that perform modern, Latin, and contemporary dance. Now, the former student has turned educator. De Los Reyes was instrumental in forming the university’s first LGBT Studies minor (the first in the state of Texas) in 2008, and he also helped to found the LGBT Resource Center on campus. “Both initiatives have been paramount for our UH community and also to our Houston community at large, because we serve and collaborate very closely with our local community,” he explains. De Los Reyes has also been involved with the Houston Area Rainbow Collective History; is a local partner with GLAAD (where he helps make sure that Houston’s Hispanic media channels depict the LGBTQ community in a proper way); has worked with the LGBTQ Task Force to serve as a pro bono expert witness in asylum cases for LGBTQ individuals from Mexico; and helped find Spanish-English bilingual volunteers for the 2014 Creating Change Conference in Houston. “My main source of inspiration is my students,” De Los Reyes says. “They are the future of our city, our state, and our country. Thus, I want to have a more just society for them.”
As a lesbian Chicana, Maria Gonzalez wants to make the community safer for vulnerable individuals in the LGBT community, as well as for herself. She has been an officer of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus since 2002, having served as president, vice-president, and currently as chair of the screening committee. Gonzalez also serves as treasurer of the Texas Transgender Non Discrimination Summit, an organization working on more supportive and inclusive trans policies in schools and universities. “The most vulnerable members of our LGBT community are our trans [siblings], as well as our youth community,” she says. “Within our trans community, women of color are the most targeted, and organizations that work with them need our support. There is currently a crisis in our transgender women of color community, and that is where I encourage people to work. Our youth community, especially our homeless LGBT youth, also need our support at this moment.” Artistically, Gonzalez is a co-editor of the creative works being produced by the project Voices Breaking Boundaries. “Many of these artists are from the LGBT community,” Gonzalez explains, “but also are voices rarely heard in mainstream creative areas.”
Houstonian Janet Gil likes to celebrate her Hispanic roots through dance. “Salsa, merengue, and cumbia dancing are my favorites,” she says. Gil first got involved with community activism as a senior at Quest High School. There, she was assigned to find a human-rights issue she was passionate about and work to improve it. “I, along with other students, did research on human-rights issues such as women’s rights, children’s rights, genocide, and LGBT rights. We made it our mission to educate others within our community about these issues,” she says. Gil was awarded an Out For Education scholarship and, as a college student, held several officer positions (including president) of the school’s gay-straight alliance. During her second year in college, Gil volunteered for former mayor Annise Parker’s re-election campaign. This involvement led her to donate time to other pro-equality candidates and campaigns such as Jason Cisneroz, council member Stephen Costello, and the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Now, Gil serves as elections chair and is a screening-committee member for the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. “The current and constant discrimination that our community faces is what inspires me to continue to do the work that I do,” she says. “I do not believe that anyone deserves to be treated unfairly. We are all human beings made of the same flesh and blood, and as citizens of this country, we deserve to be free to express ourselves and love whomever we want to. We should not have to live in fear because of who we are.”
Latina lesbian Linda Morales has been a lifelong supporter of music, dance, art, and theater. For the past several decades, she’s also paved the way for much-needed change in the LGBTQ community. In the ’80s, when HIV/AIDS was first identified, Morales served as president of Gay and Lesbian Hispanics Unidos (GLHU). “Because the HIV epidemic was attacking the Hispanic community, I led GLHU to form a special committee charged with educating Hispanics about the disease,” Morales says. “This committee formed what later became the largest HIV/AIDS agency helping all LGBT residents in Houston.” Recognizing the need to represent Latino LGBT issues on a national level, Morales helped form LLEGO, an organization focused on addressing health, immigration, and political issues. In the ’90s, Morales joined forces with a few other brave individuals, and as lead plaintiff, challenged Texas’ homosexual conduct law, Texas Penal Code 21.06. Though the law was not overturned, this action paved the way for many successful legal challenges to come, including the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case in 2003. Currently, Morales works for the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation (AFL-CIO), helping her union brothers and sisters build power to improve and change workers’ lives. Recently, she joined together with other labor leaders to start a [email protected] organization to recognize LGBTQ contributions in the labor movement. “What inspires me to continue to do the work is the inequities in our society that still exist,” Morales says. “Until we are all treated with respect and love, there is much work still to be done to right the ills of our societies.” To help with such progressive causes, she stresses the importance of electing Hillary Clinton as president in November. “The office of the president determines U.S. Supreme Court [nominees], National Labor Relations Board appointees, and just about everything that affects our lives as LGBTQ people,” Morales says.