By Shirley Knight
Rev. Gracie Lee was a pioneer in Houston’s lesbian community. Beginning in the early 1980s, she and her partner, Lynn Herrick, ran a bookstore and thrift shop, opened a shelter for women and children, ran a daily soup kitchen, and promoted women’s music. In addition, Lee served on the board of Houston’s oldest gay non-profit organization and edited their newsletter. She is remembered as a kind and generous person who lived by the Golden Rule.
Lee moved to Houston in 1983 and established Gracielynn Books at the corner of Fairview and Stanford. The store evolved into a community art center called A Place in the Sun, where Lee and her partner hosted art shows, concerts, and poetry readings. A flyer from 1983 promotes “GayLa events” featuring both male and female singers, pianists, and poets—all for just a $1 admission. Iris Greer Sizemore, who has led a women’s group in Houston for over 40 years, says, “The bookstore was the place to go on Sunday afternoons.”
Lee and her supporters built an outdoor theater on the lawn outside the bookstore and held concerts there on Friday nights. During that time period, the annual Westheimer Colony Art Festival took place in Montrose and drew large crowds to the area. In 1983, an artist named Abraham Davidson was featured singing songs from his Children of Creation album. Admission was $2.
According to an article Lee wrote in 1983, A Place in the Sun was “where artists and audiences discover themselves and one another in an intimate setting,” and where “seasoned pros or newcomers with a ‘spark’ are helped to get professionally on their way.” Lee was a musician herself who wrote songs and performed with her partner as The Gracielynn Duo. In addition to performing and producing concerts, Lee hosted open-mic nights for the community.
When people who were down on their luck began showing up at the store, Lee opened the house that was also on the property as a shelter for women and children. In May 1984, Lee produced a first-anniversary gala, “commemorating a year of nonprofit service to the Montrose community.” At the time, Lee said, “A Place in the Sun has been feeding, clothing, sheltering, counseling, and generally helping homeless or troubled Houstonians for slightly more than a year.” Sizemore says, “They created a sanctuary and had a special corner in their hearts for music and women.”
By November 1984, the shelter had outgrown the space, so Lee and her partner leased a larger property. By this time, Lee’s work had come to the attention of then-mayor Kathy Whitmire, who declared November 18 “A Place in the Sun Day” in Houston. City Council Member Eleanor Tinsley read the proclamation at a concert celebrating the opening of the larger shelter.
Another way Lee helped the community was by serving as the secretary for Interact Houston, an umbrella organization for nonprofit groups. Interact billed itself as Houston’s oldest gay nonprofit organization. Founded in 1970, the group was “a nonprofit educational, social, and community-service group” that used the tagline “Because We Care.” In addition to serving as secretary, Lee was also the editor-in-chief of Bumpershoot, the Interact Houston newsletter.
In 1983, Lee and others transformed Interact from “Houston’s oldest gay-rights organization” to Houston’s first agency “dedicated to providing social, educational, and support services to gays over the age of 40.” The group met at Bering Memorial United Methodist Church.
By 1985, Lee had formed a musical group called Sistersong, which she described as “a hard-hitting feminist group” performing “cathartic life music.” A May 1985 article in TWT magazine says, “Sistersong has entertained enthusiastic audiences at Kuumba House, Poet’s Workshop, KPFT, Munchies, and elsewhere throughout the city. Their material tackles spouse- and child-abuse, incest, street crime, and other topical subjects.”
In a subsequent article about the musical group, Texas NOW (National Organization for Women) vice president Phyllis Tucker was quoted as saying, “Listening to music by SisterSong is like climbing up in your grandma’s lap after one of the big kids has hurt your feelings. You have the strength, the energy, the laughter, and the love to tackle the world.”
By 1986, A Place in the Sun was running a daily soup kitchen for men and families in addition to the shelter for battered and abused women. A photo from that year shows Gracie Lee and Phyllis Frye (who is now a municipal judge) with food collected by the Greater Montrose Business Guild in a “Share-ebration” food drive.
In 1987 Lee opened a thrift shop on Grant Street called B-Zzarrio and used its proceeds to fund the shelter. Sizemore remembers that in the 1980s, “the energy of the second wave of feminism was on fire here in Houston. We had a very vibrant NOW chapter, [and] it was a heyday of feminism and liberalism.” Remembering Lee, Sizemore says, “She had love in her heart for music. Her priority was writing and singing women’s music. Houston was a hot-spot for women’s music, and Gracie was in the middle of it.”
Rev. Gracie Lee passed away on November 6, 2016, at the age of 78. She is survived by two sisters, three children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Donations to the Scleroderma Foundation are being accepted in Lee’s honor. Memories of Lee’s days in Montrose may be sent to her then-music and sheltering partner, Lynn Herrick, at 2700 Manor Rd. #102, Austin TX 78722.
Shirley Knight is the founder of AwakeNow.org.