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By David Goldberg
Photo by Theresa DiMenno
Since 1991, Patrice Pike has spoken out. Breaking out with her band, Little Sister, the Dallas-raised rock star has worked professionally since the age of 16, and has used her position to publicly advocate for homeless and LGBT Americans—long before it became a cultural norm for famous faces. On Friday, October 15, Pike’s nonprofit for survivors of homelessness, the Step Onward Foundation, celebrates its 10th anniversary with a banging gala at Warehouse Live. Before she hits Houston for the show, Pike spoke with OutSmart about her journey.
David Goldberg: What is the Step Onward Foundation, what kind of youth does it help, and what is going on with it for its 10th year?
Patrice Pike: The Step Onward Foundation was originally named the Grace Foundation after our first recipient, Eliza Grace. She was a young adult survivor of homelessness that I met out on the road. She became my pen pal, and I found out she had a serious heart condition and had survived an incredibly difficult journey as a domestic minor of sex trafficking. I also left home as a teenager, and I was inspired by her because I knew that her survival was nothing short of amazing. I had dinner with one of my best friends and we decided to have a concert to raise $10,000 to help her with her medical bills. We ended up raising $40,000 that night, so we knew we could help more people. We partnered with other organizations to find others in need who were like Eliza. We helped her with her health issues and helped her become independent in the ways that she wanted. She went on to become a primary force at [the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services] in New York, helping to change policy and facilitate the Alternative to Incarceration Program for girls exploited in that area.
Over the years we have raised over $300,000 to fund housing, higher education, health and wellness necessities, and mentorship for sustainability and independence for over 50 young-adult survivors of homelessness. We started in Austin 12 years ago and have been working in Houston for 10 years. The majority of our recipients are from
What kind of show are you planning at Warehouse Live for the 10th anniversary of Step Onward?
We will have great music, a full dinner menu, cocktails, and silent and live auctions. Our double-band show in Warehouse Live’s state-of-the-art venue will feature a fine-art painting created live on stage with my band and the band Driver, whose lead singer, Volney Campbell, is also on the board of directors. We will also feature Seelay Tasmim, who is a recent recipient who survived the horrific challenges of being a young girl in Afghanistan seeking education in engineering. Many girls are bombed, poisoned, and attacked [in that country when they try to get] an education. She is attending TCU, and we have funded parts of her education and her health insurance, among other needs. Most of our recipients are U.S. citizens, but we have recently started reaching out to international students who have been subjected to homelessness due to war and discrimination.
You came out in 2001, when being openly gay was not quite as normal in the entertainment world. Have things changed for the better for LGBT people in your industry since then as our visibility has increased?
I actually came out in 1994, and was very active in the LGBT community. I marched in the Stonewall march in New York in 1995 and supported ACT UP and other organizations through donations, as well as by showing up for social-justice reform events. One of the best experiences of my life was at the Stonewall Anniversary Gay Pride in New York, where the Dyke March was not even formally recognized and did not receive permits to march. Thousands of us marched by locking arms across intersections down Fifth Avenue to block traffic so we could safely protect each other and make it to Washington Park. Things are very different now.
I think the coming-out you are referring to, which happens with many of us in layers, was an article in the Austin Chronicle in 2001. I was asked about being gay and I clarified that I am bi, as I knew it was important at the time to be specific. Bi and trans people were not always embraced in our community and were often discriminated against. Though I have been primarily in same-sex relationships throughout my adult life, I am an activist and try to be radically honest for the sake of authenticity and change. It was hard, because a lot of women were angry with me about being so out and honest. I did it because it was the right thing to do. Later in life, many young queer women came to me and said thank you. They said that I had helped heal the pain of the discrimination they experienced as queer and often gender-neutral people. I want to respect people’s right to privacy, but it is frustrating when artists stay in the closet to protect their rise to fame and fortune, and then come out later. I made some tough choices for the sake of honesty and to do my small part in creating change. I hope one day no one has to make those choices anymore.
In your experience, having toured around Texas for years, has the state become more welcoming and inclusive for the LGBT community?
I think our visibility and insistence on working for more equal rights has caused Texas to become more welcoming, though I also travel worldwide and see there are dangerous places everywhere. We have to be vigilant, watch out for ourselves and others, and take good care.
Who are your fans? What is your audience like?
My fans are a mixture off all different kinds of people. I think the common ground is people who like musicians who are great at playing their instruments, who love roots rock, soul, blues, and funk—with splashes of the troubadour in me. Our fans are people who love lyrics that make them come together and encourage peace, good times, and understanding.
You took a year of moderate leave to care for your niece. How long has it been since you went back to music full-time? Has your music changed? Have you changed?
My niece, Cameren, needed a bone marrow transplant due to a disease called severe aplastic anemia. Her bone marrow had failed due to neglect and toxins she was exposed to. She is doing so well and we are grateful, especially to Texas Children’s Hospital and her donor, who was a perfect match in the UK. I have only just started to be able to do music again full-time after two years when I had to be part-time. I lived in the children’s hospital with my sister, and we filed for custody of her last October after she was healthy enough to go through that process. My new music is just now forming. My long-time music partner and I are beginning to write again, and I suspect that two-year journey [in the hospital, when I saw] our family and other families fighting for life, will be a driving force in my music. I’m grateful our story is a happy one in the end, and I get to focus on hope and happiness.
What are your biggest inspirations when writing music?
I am inspired by grooves and beats that come from deep down in the hips and heart.
What I mean by that is there is a primal source that the music I love seems to come from, and that artists from Stevie Wonder to Big Grams to even more acoustic- and songwriter-oriented stuff like old-school ’70s Elton John and Neil Young seem to have in common. I have listened to my favorites and find my version of that primal sound. I am a drummer as well as guitarist and singer, so rhythm is very important to me.
What are your plans for the future? What are you working on?
I’ll be growing the Step Onward Foundation, writing new material to release in 2017, and continuing to raise my niece as she is catching up to become a grown young woman. It’s a lot, but I am so unbelievably grateful I get to do these things and get back to adventure!
Where’s your favorite place to perform in Texas?
There are four distinct venues I love in Texas. Warehouse Live in Houston, Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, Saxon Pub in Austin, and Moody Theater, also in Austin. Every year I have gotten to play at the Austin City Limits festival has been a blast, too. Looks like the House of Blues [could also be on our schedule] in the coming year!
What: Step Onward Foundation’s 10th Anniversary Gala and Concert Dinner
When: October 15, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Warehouse Live, 813 Saint Emanuel St.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.