LGBTQ residents and allies form equality coalition in conservative suburb.
By Kim Hogstrom
On November 9, 2016, a day after the election of President Trump, most voters in The Woodlands were yee-haw, hot-diggity happy. But not all of them.
While Trump carried Montgomery County with a whopping 73 percent of the vote, some people in the master-planned north-Houston suburb were horrified.
Close friends Adria Alexander Keeney and Jennifer Majors Baca, both residents of The Woodlands, knew they had to do something. “We decided we must organize, so we called together a group of like-minded people to discuss how to move forward,” Keeney recalls.
“We expected 15 people to attend our first meeting, but thanks to social media, 80 showed up,” Baca adds. “By the end, everyone was in tears. I think the emotion was an expression of the hope we all shared that night—the relief of knowing there were others who cared, and the result of trauma over the election itself. It was a powerful and moving moment. I will never forget it.”
Who were these people at the meeting? They were straight, cisgender men and women as well as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender folks. They were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Indian, and Hispanic. They were white, black, and every shade in between. They ranged in age from 15 to 81, all citizens of the world. They were us.
At that first meeting, the group was still loosely organized with no defined objective. Following a presentation, everyone introduced themselves and described their reasons for attending. Jasmine Harrell, a beautiful, soft-spoken 15-year-old girl, addressed the crowd. “I am a lesbian teen, and I want to set an example for my siblings and friends,” she began. “I want to be heard and counted. I want to be a part of The Woodlands, but I feel there are very few safe places for the LGBTQ community here. I would like to change that.”
With her quiet but courageous introduction, Jasmine helped define the trajectory of the group’s future. And The Woodlands Coalition for Equality was born.
The coalition faces an uphill climb. The area has no well-organized LGBTQ groups, and the nearest PFLAG chapter is in Conroe. In LGBTQ circles, The Woodlands is perhaps best-known as the home of “The Woodlands Ten,” the teenage boys who took part in Houston’s most notorious antigay hate crime, the 1991 murder of Paul Broussard in Montrose. On top of that, City-Data.com reports that The Woodlands is 73 percent white, and only 3 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian, and 17 percent Hispanic.
But this racial imbalance was not by design. The Woodlands was the vision of Houston oil baron George Mitchell, who began his planning by flying to Europe to study similar master-planned communities. He was amazed at the blend of socioeconomic levels, professions, and ethnicities that made those projects model residential districts. “They were communities for all,” he told this writer in the 1990s.
Mitchell snatched up about 44 square miles of land in Montgomery County, 30 miles north of downtown Houston, and photographed it to identify every tree. Then he planned all of the roads, buildings, and homes around them. In 1974, he launched The Woodlands, mingling mixed-income, multifamily complexes with middle-class homes and upper-class mansions. It was supposed to become north Houston’s “community for all.”
The late billionaire visionary must now be rolling over in his grave.
Why They Fight
The reasons that these fine residents of The Woodlands decided to form a coalition dedicated to equality are as varied as the people themselves. Some have experienced hatred and injustice personally, and others have observed it, but all are committed to eliminating fear and ignorance—the root cause of hatred—through understanding.
“I had two brothers who were gay,” Baca says. “Our family has always been accepting, but that does not always trump the messages people get from the rest of society. One of my brothers is happy and productive, but the other became a meth addict, and it eventually took his life. I think when people [don’t feel safe and] accepted for who they are, they often self-medicate. In the case of my brother, it killed him.
“We are all affected by what others think,” Baca adds. “It may not match what we think of ourselves, but we still absorb some of its negative impact. [Coalition members] know that creating a safe place for people to be who they are helps everyone. We know that ‘equality’ means equality for all.”
The Future in Her Eyes
Jasmine sees a glaring need for more support in The Woodlands. She knows many LGBTQ teens who are simply too frightened to come out, and she admits to being one of them. “I am out, but not at school,” she says. “The Woodlands High School doesn’t have a Gay Straight Alliance. I think we are supposed to have one, like other schools, but there isn’t one. We do have a ‘No Hate Day,’ but one boy told me that telling him not to hate for a day just makes him hate more. We have a problem here. We need help.”
Baca says that her new coalition is planning civic-engagement activities for students like Jasmine at the local high schools and colleges. There are even plans to enter a Pride float in The Woodlands’ Fourth of July parade.
“We would like to start a series of videos that will inspire, empower, inform, and encourage us all to evolve,” Baca says of the coalition’s other goals.
For now, Jasmine says the group has brought her a much-needed feeling of safety. “It’s wonderful to be a part of it,” she says. “I look forward to sharing my new friends with others.”
This article appears in the December 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.