Houston photographer’s campaign puts faces on LGBTQ activism.
By Kim Hogstrom
Photographer Eric Edward Schell spent 17 years working in the performing arts before he finally answered the beckoning call of his camera.
When he decided to abandon the stage and start taking photographs, Schell was a permanent member of a musical theater company at the Hobby Center.
Does he have any regrets?
“I miss it, but not much,” Schell says. “When I decided to shoot photos, it was the best decision I ever made. Photography is my passion and joy. It’s my calling.”
Schell is the artist behind P.R.I.D.E. Portraits, a Houston-based nonprofit photography studio dedicated to celebrating the courageous members of the LGBTQ movement—who currently happen to be under intense fire in Texas. P.R.I.D.E. is the acronym for Photographs Representing Individuals Deserving Equality.
Schell captures images of those who are making a difference—the people driving society’s evolving awareness and understanding of LGBTQ issues. His work has been recognized by the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and Equality Texas, and featured in the Huffington Post, Elle Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, and on NBC’s Today Show.
“[LGBTQ] visibility is key to promoting the humanization of a group of people who are facing dehumanization every day, in many different ways,” Schell says.
By celebrating the people who are making a difference, Schell has become a leader in the effort himself. The unseen artist behind the lens is now a powerful, vocal, and visible advocate.
Originally from El Salvador, Schell grew up in San Francisco before moving to New York City and then to Houston in 2008 to be with his family.
The P.R.I.D.E. Portraits campaign includes images of anyone who cares—gay, trans, and their allies. “Any letter in the alphabet,” Schell says.
“One of the important elements of P.R.I.D.E. Portraits is that it is not limited to educating those outside our community, but also those within,” he explains.
“For example, when we won marriage equality, I thought the fight was over,” he says. “I quickly learned that it’s not. By becoming personally involved with the trans community through my work, I’ve learned of the struggles of trans and gender-expansive individuals. It drove me to become an outspoken advocate and activist for trans rights.”
Schell expresses dismay about the “tribal” dynamics that have historically divided the LGBT community into L, G, B, and T factions.
“Starting with Stonewall, trans people stood up and led the way toward equality for all of us,” he says. “Why would we, as gay and bi men and women, not fight with all our powers—be it with our voices, our connections, or economic support—for them?”
Houston-based trans activist Lou Weaver sees tremendous value in Schell’s campaign.
“P.R.I.D.E. Portraits has created a universe of like-minded people,” Weaver says. “We are now an army in solidarity, moving understanding and compassion forward. It is playing a very powerful role.”
Every aspect of Schell’s photos has been carefully considered. His backdrops were designed by Hugo Perez, Schell’s business partner and fellow artist. Perez manages the campaign’s administration and the magnificent graphic elements that contribute beautifully to the overall impact of the images.
The portraits themselves are intentionally authentic and honest. Very little in the way of digital magic is used in Schell’s production process.
“I usually don’t edit. I only highlight the subjects,” Schell explains. “When we shoot in the studio, I put on music and try to get to know the person. I ask, ‘What do you want the world to know about you?’ Then I try to humanize them. It is critical for society to see the humanity in all of us now.”
The artist also asks his subjects to write a paragraph about themselves, and the written responses often leave Schell breathless, even tearful.
“By allowing people the freedom to be themselves, I am honored and humbled by what they choose to share,” he says. “Some have chosen that moment to come out. I am often moved by their willingness to be vulnerable. It is always revealing, and I try to capture that beauty.”
Stephen Miranda has been observing the campaign for more than a year, and has witnessed the impact it has had.
“A lot of people say, ‘I have never known a trans person,’” Miranda says. “When I hear that, I direct them to Eric’s portraits and Facebook page. When these individuals put a face on trans people, it results in establishing compassion and empathy. I have seen this same dynamic play out over and over and over again.”
But Schell’s trans advocacy is no longer limited to his art. He recently testified in front of a legislative committee against Senate Bill 6, the anti-trans bathroom bill championed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
“A year ago, I was not familiar with the trans community,” Schell said in his testimony. “Then I photographed a campaign giving visibility to trans people.
“I have seen for myself how transphobia damages people—the violence and fear it generates,” he added. “I urge you to take the time to get to know the trans and intersex community. Clearly, Dan Patrick and those who support SB6 have not done that. Shame on you.”
Who among us could have said it better? •
Editor’s Note: Below are 24 images from the P.R.I.D.E. Portraits campaign, along with statements submitted by the subjects. The images were chosen by OutSmart magazine to reflect the diversity of Houston’s LGBTQ community. For more images from the campaign, visit PridePortraits.org, Facebook.com/PridePortraits, or Instagram.com/PridePortraits.
“I am a communications technician for a fire department in Harris County, and the first openly transgender member of the department. I’ve received support and compassion above and beyond anything I expected, but with the recent political events, I feel under the gun. I’m disappointed that where I pee has become an issue—none of the women I work with have a problem with it. I want the same things anyone else wants—a good job, a comfortable home, a loving spouse, to maybe start a family someday, and above all, peace of mind. I do not want to molest anyone’s daughter, sister, aunt, or wife in the restroom, nor does any other trans woman I have ever encountered.”
“I’m about to ship off to the Marines. Everyone at the recruiting station has been chill, but I still worry about being accepted once I’m actually in. The military isn’t known as the most queer-friendly environment, but all the Marines I’ve talked to say no one minds if you’re one way or the other. They just need to know you can do your job. I like that. I’m very proud of my identity, and I wouldn’t want to hide it. I know a lot of people don’t take me seriously when I tell them my sexuality. Most of my family thinks it’s a phase or something, but I don’t care. I know who I am, and I know what I want. I am bisexual, and I want to be a Marine.”
“Nobody can give you freedom. You fight for it. Nobody can give you equality. You demand it. Nobody can give you self-actualization. You discover it. Belonging to a society where statistics continuously prove that people like me are ‘less than,’ I refuse to be silent. I allowed society’s hatred toward the marginalized pieces of my identity to shame me into silence for so long, but I am no longer hiding. I am a black transgender woman of color who promised herself to live as visibly, authentically, and unapologetically as possible. I encourage you to do the same.”
“As a black, lesbian, cisgender, plus-size woman with a gap in her teeth, it took me a long time to be happy and accept myself. When we look for leaders or spokespersons, a certain image often comes to mind. We see that image in the media all the time, and it can create a feeling of being “less than.” It did for me. However, with the support of a loving wife and a community of differences, I’ve learned self-love in a new and beautiful way. We’re our own spokespersons, and authenticity is what matters. Therefore, the world should know: Black lives matter. LGBTQ lives matter. All women matter. I matter. As long as I’m able to stand with my siblings in the fight for equality and equity, I will work to show that we all matter.”
Jamie D. Gonzales
“I spend every day with LGBTQ young adults as the Program Coordinator at the University of Houston’s LGBTQ Resource Center. During my first few months in this position, students across campus shared their intimate stories. Even though many include accounts of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, suicidal ideation, discrimination, and more, these young queer adults show incredible resiliency and determination to not only persevere, but show up as leaders on campus and activists in the community. It is a humbling experience to be a part of each journey and witness the progress in our community. These students are the reason I am honored to be a part of this community.”
“A year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with HIV. Three months ago, I typed that online and shared it with the world. It was scarier than I imagined, but that’s why I did it—to put a face to this disease. There’s still so much stigma and ignorance around HIV/AIDS. It was a coming-out process all over again, but I have amazing family, friends, and people from the Houston theater community who’ve supported me. I hope my story helps others come out and embrace whatever it is they feel ashamed about, or feel they have to keep secret. I was afraid of being reduced to “just another gay statistic,” but that hasn’t happened. I’m more than this virus that is living with me. It is living with me; I am not living with it. And I am so much more than that.”
“I am the America you are afraid of. I am a second-generation homosexual and fifth-generation Latino-American, an overeducated/underpaid millennial with a Muslim/immigrant stepmother from Iran, and I was named after my mother’s best friend who died of AIDS. I am an artist, an activist, a friend, a brother, a son. I am unbruised by your slurs and threats and fists and laws and presidents. I am loved, I am here, and I am proud. My voice is my weapon, my smile is my shield, and my purpose is the fight for equality that I will never quit. It’s a fight that you will never win. I am unbreakable. I am happy. And I am free.”
Joelle Nicole Salaterski
“I am a parent, grandparent, daughter, sister, and loving friend. I am also transgender. Being transgender does not define me. I am much more than that. I have always believed that a person’s character—how they treat others—is more important than the color of their skin, or who they love, or who they worship. Finally being myself—out in public for all to see—isn’t easy, as most will tell you. It takes strength, willpower, and the courage to maybe lose everything—everyone in your life—just to be yourself. To find inner peace, I (like most of the amazing people I have met on my journey) will not go back in the closet. So you might as well get used to us, because we are not going anywhere.”
“I came out as transgender at age 11. The looming possibilities, consequences, and “what ifs” weighed heavily on my mind. I didn’t know how my life would play out—if I’d receive support from my friends and family, or if I’d ever be content with my identity. Now, at 14, I’m so grateful to be able to express my transgender identity with pride. I am valid. I am proud. Nobody can tell me I can’t live authentically. That’s why I fight for those unable to be themselves. We are people—beautiful, courageous, valid, creative, authentic, and so much more than the toxic stereotypes.”
“When I was 14, I emigrated here to flee an oppressive theocracy in Iran. Growing up in a restrictive society taught me the value of free speech, political activism, and equality. After moving to Houston in the 1990s, I opened a neighborhood salon in Montrose. Through my salon’s customers, I’ve seen the struggle and the progress for equality over many years. As a gay Jew from Iran, I recognize how lucky I am to live in Houston and this country. These experiences have profoundly affected my desire to see real social change through political success. Let my country of origin’s story serve as a warning about the importance of progressives staying politically engaged. We have much to lose. To anyone who is feeling isolated, I must emphasize that there is hope.”
“I am me, I am enough, I am great. I am a lesbian. The LGBTQ community, we are family. We are diverse. We are individuals. Together we are strong. For me, Pride is about the gay community being visible and belonging to a community, a town, a city, a nation, and the world. It’s about spreading hope that things will get better and things will continue to improve. The first time I attended a Pride parade after coming out was a different yet meaningful experience for me. Walking in that parade wasn’t just about having fun; it was a declaration of personal self-acceptance. It was a declaration that I really was a part of the LGBTQ community.”
“I learned long ago that in order to survive, I had to be all of who I was, everywhere I was. I was 24 when I sobered up and came out. I couldn’t do one without also doing the other. That is how I found the joy of authentic connection with friends and family, the constancy of true love with my partner and now husband of 30 years, and the power of a community that encourages and supports me in all that I am. I am a gay husband, friend, uncle, biker, hiker, occasional couch-potato, lawyer, student, teacher, advocate, activist, and judge.”
“I’m part of a generation or two of women—women of a certain age—who struggled with sexual identity and the “shoulds” that our parents shared with us. We were raised to believe our worth was tied to our ability to find a man. Every time I approached my sexuality, I was stopped from finding the lesbian community. Finally, I was just able to accept myself on my own. Here I am, a 50-plus-year-old woman who came out three years ago, hoping to help other older women find their way home.”
Ashton P. Woods
“I take pride in my blackness at the intersection of being gay or same-gender-loving, because I can only be my true self. I take pride in knowing that two women—one black and one brown, by the names of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, in all of their transgender identity—made life a little easier for a cisgender gay man like me. Gaining the pride to love who I love without boundaries comes closer every day. But liberation still eludes us as long as some continue to be marginalized and left on the fringes. This is why it is important to recognize that black lives matter, trans lives matter, and that everyone deserves some pride in their lives. Liberation is what pride means to me.”
“My friends and family have always known I am involved in social-justice causes, and they assume I am an ally. Only my husband and a cousin know I am bisexual. Coming forward with that truth is difficult when even the LGBTQ community at times questions the legitimacy of bisexuality. In Houston, the opportunity to serve through Bunnies on the Bayou and raise money for the LGBTQ community has been freeing, and has given me a social connection I may not have otherwise found. Thank y’all so much for this opportunity!”
Riaz Rashaud Pooran
“I was born and raised in a Muslim family. When I got to college, I was able to embrace my true self. Then, due to my circumstances, I moved back home. I met someone who made me smile, laugh, angry, sad—and everything in between. I decided in 2011 to come out to my family, and it was not received well. I went through a deep depression and wasn’t sure what to do. Our love grew, and he was always there for me. It has been a bumpy journey, but my family is making strides. Fast-forward five years, and I’m still in love with my partner and have moved to Houston to start a new chapter. No matter what your background or upbringing, love will always conquer.”
“Not only am I the first openly gay Latino elected to office in the City of Houston, I’m the only Latino currently serving on City Council. Hispanics make up nearly half of the City’s population. I’m proud to not only serve as a voice for the LGBT community, but also for the Hispanic community. This is a humbling responsibility, and I’m honored to advocate for these communities and for all Houstonians.”
“I’ve been an ally to the LGBTQIA community for a very long time, but ever since I had kids, it has become significantly more personal. My daughter came out as pansexual when she was 14, and it broke my heart to see her anxiety and fear over what the reaction from both her peers and family members might be. But people will continually surprise you—there was very little drama, and a whole lot of love and support. I love that she feels free to be her authentic self, and I’ll fight till my last breath to make sure she and my son are always free to be who they are.”
“Twenty-one years ago, my uncle was tragically killed while on vacation with his “roommate.” They had hidden their relationship from friends and family, and ended up being buried apart. Although times have changed some, the LGBT community is still under attack, and we have to fight back until everyone has equal rights under the law. Whether it’s when I served as the first straight ally on the Houston Human Rights Campaign Steering Committee, marching with friends and strangers in the Pride parade, or serving the progressive community as chair of the Harris County Democratic Party, I have done what I can to motivate others to help make our community every person’s community.”
“I am black and gay, and my identities are inseparable. Oftentimes, we place people in these boxes that make it more comfortable for us to understand them. For example, I am often better received in white spaces when I prioritize issues that impact the LGBTQ community, but I’m shunned when I tackle racism. And vice versa when I am in black spaces. Ultimately, in America today, we can get killed for being black and we can get killed for being queer. And my blackness and my queerness are both living with HIV. It is impossible for me to segregate the issues that impact our communities. The day we can unite our issues, and develop solutions for collectively overcoming inequity and inequality, will be the day we truly build communities that are safer for us all.”
“I’ve been with my partner throughout his transition. Although I never thought I would be a part of the transgender world, he has continued to challenge my beliefs every day. I consider myself very lucky to have been brought into this bright and wonderful world that is so full of life and love. I am cis, I am male, I am pansexual. My small world has been expanded a million times—so much that I know every single person in the world can love and understand each other, no matter their circumstances. We must continue to talk, and to love those who are scared of how beautiful we are. We are worth the struggle each of us undergoes each day. I believe in you, I believe in us, and I love you.”
“I’m a mom, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, a friend, and a lover. I’m creative. I’m a storyteller, a poet, a photographer, and a world traveler. I’m a queen, a warrior, and a peacemaker, both brave and fearful. I’m an elder, and young at heart. Wise, yet a fool for love. I am proud of who I am. I am Valerie, a woman-loving woman. And even with all of these labels, I cannot be contained.”
“The future generations of the LGBTQ community should know they are never alone. We must continue to stand up against the hate that has been thrown at us for a very long time. It is our duty to take action and get involved in any way we can, so that we can achieve equality for all Americans. When I was kicked out of my home for coming out as a gay teen, I didn’t have anyone there for me. Thanks to members of the Human Rights Campaign who accepted, guided, and molded me, today I am a proud, achieving adult and activist.”
A. Daniel Ramos
“I am a sixth-generation Two Spirit/Chicano/Tejano. Twenty years ago, I thought my life was over when I was diagnosed with HIV. I thought no one would love me. I felt that I let down my family and my friends. I was ashamed and scared. With love from my familia, and my connection to Tonantzin/Mother Earth, I realized I was given an opportunity to make a change in my life and impact the lives of others. Learning from fierce community leaders and healers, I realized I was not alone. There was and is hope, love, and life to live and share. As I walk, I wish to share my life and love with all. I seek to promote acceptance, healing, and understanding.”