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OUT FOR CHANGE: Shooting for Senate

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Fran Watson (Ashkan Roayaee)

Fran Watson would be first openly LGBTQ candidate elected to state’s upper chamber.

By Ryan Leach 

Eight years ago, Fran Watson fell two-and-a-half stories from a rock-climbing wall in Austin. She sustained multiple serious injuries, including two broken legs, and was housebound for weeks.

Although Watson didn’t know it at the time, the accident would start her down a path that ultimately led to her current campaign to become Texas’ first openly LGBTQ state senator. Watson is running this year as a Democrat for the District 17 seat held by Republican Joan Huffman (R-Houston).

“The recovery time was brutal,” Watson recalls of the rock-climbing accident. “I spent a lot of time laid up in bed and got very familiar with the Food Network. It was me and [chef] Giada [De Laurentiis] for a long time.

“While I was recovering, I decided that when I got back on my feet, literally, I was going to go out and get more involved in my community, and meet more people.”

Watson first reached out to the Stonewall Law Association of Greater Houston, where she met the late activist and attorney Debbie Hunt, who encouraged her to join the board. Watson also struck up a friendship with prominent gay attorney Jerry Simoneaux, who would eventually become her law partner.

“I remember her wonderful smile, engaging curiosity, and excellent grasp of issues facing the LGBT community,” Simoneaux recalls. “I also remember her willingness—even then—to step up and volunteer. When I decided to run [for judge] in 2014, I asked if she would like to join my campaign as my treasurer. I knew she was interested in politics, and I thought it would be fun for her. Little did I know she would eventually end up knowing lots more important and impressive folks than I knew. I have marveled at her energy and positivity ever since.”

Watson still remembers the first Houston GLBT Political Caucus meeting she attended.

“Annise [Parker] was the mayor then, and she was talking at that meeting. I just remember people raising their hands and asking her questions and being very frank with her, and I was like, ‘This group is serious,’” Watson says. “They were really going after her, and she was holding her own.”

Unintimidated, Watson joined the Caucus board as chair for volunteer organizing, before being elected vice president. In 2016, she would make history by becoming the first black female president of the organization.

“Fran was all about producing meaningful results for LGBTQ-plus communities [that were] least being heard,” says Mike Webb, who served on the board under Watson.

“It was exciting and fulfilling working with Fran,” Webb says. “She fully embodies the type of leader we all wish and hope for in our elected officials [as she raises] the bar on what inclusivity—and putting all of our communities first—looks like.”

Humble Roots

A native Houstonian, Watson was born to a 15-year-old mother in 1977. She and her younger brother lived with their mother and grandparents in Kashmere Gardens before moving to Sharpstown when she was in third grade.

“We were a poor household,” she recalls. “I remember the lights being turned off, and my grandmother would run the bathtub at 8 p.m. and save it for the next morning so that my brother and I could have baths. They tried their best to shield that from us. By the time I was in third grade, I had changed schools three times.”

Watson’s grandmother was an elevator operator until she retired to help take care of her grandchildren. Her grandfather was a short-order cook who had served in the Army during World War II, where he was shot six times. Day-to-day life was a challenge for the family.

Watson says her mother became addicted to drugs and died from an overdose when Watson was just 13.

“Life shifted for me after that,” she says. “I had to become more of a caretaker in the family, and my role grew.”

Related story: At least 42 LGBTQ Texans are running for office in 2018

By 15, Watson was attending parent-teacher meetings on behalf of her brother, and making sure that her grandfather made it to appointments at the VA hospital. “I missed a lot of days of school—sometimes because I didn’t go, and also because I couldn’t go.”

At 16, Watson was expelled for absenteeism. But she continued to support her family by working two jobs to make ends meet, and eventually helping her brother get into college.

“I worked at Wendy’s in Montrose and Luther’s Bar-B-Cue from about age 18 to age 22,” she says. “I was the drive-thru cashier—and everyone knows that drive-thru cashier is the hardest job.”

Watson says her bosses encouraged her to become a manager, but she lacked the necessary high school diploma. After a manager at Luther’s told her about a GED program, she began working the night shift and studying for the test during the day. She passed on her first try, and her scores were so high that a testing agent encouraged her to seek a college scholarship, which she did.

Watson graduated magna cum laude from the University of Houston-Downtown in 2005, before enrolling at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

As an undergraduate, Watson met her future wife, Kim Atkins.

“I had never really thought about dating or my sexuality growing up. I guess because I was so busy,” Watson says.

The couple met while sharing their stories about being first-generation college students with high-schoolers.

“The light rail had just opened, and UH Downtown was the first and last stop, so we would try all the different restaurants together. One day she asked me if we were going to take this beyond being friends,” Watson recalls, admitting that she didn’t even realize what a romantic date involved. “I had no clue. She asked me if I wanted to see this movie Monster about a lesbian serial killer. She was like, ‘I valeted and cleaned my car and everything. How could you not know it was a date?’”

The couple informally exchanged rings in front of the Houston Water Wall in 2004, then had a church ceremony in 2009 before being legally married in New York City in 2014.

‘Senator Huffman Is Poisonous’

Watson will face two opponents in the March 6 Democratic primary: Rita Lucido, who was the party’s nominee in 2014, and Ahmad R. Hassan, a one-time Republican who previously ran for Harris County judge in 2008.

If Watson advances to the general election in November, she will face the winner of the Republican primary race between incumbent senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and challenger Kristen Tassin, as well as Libertarian Lauren LaCount.

Watson says her campaign is centered on a simple but powerful principle: “People first.”

“That is why I am running—because I believe that we should be putting people first, and that everyone should have access to opportunities to succeed,” she says.

It is a principle Watson says has been lost in recent legislative sessions that have focused heavily on anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, and anti-abortion legislation.

“This last session was about taking different things away from different groups of people,” Watson says. “We should be focusing on access to good public education and how we finance it. We need to redevelop the public education funding formula to help pay for schools.”

“Home ownership, expansion of Medicaid—these are the things Texans care about. When we find solutions to them, we care for all Texans, regardless of who they are.”

While Watson has proven her ability to lead the LGBTQ community in Houston, getting elected to the Texas Senate poses a much bigger challenge. The heavily gerrymandered District 17 spans parts of three counties running from Lake Jackson to Katy, and parts of West Houston. It is home to more than 800,000 people. In 2014, Huffman captured over 63 percent of the vote, compared to Lucido’s  34 percent.

Huffman serves as chair of the Senate’s powerful State Affairs committee. Although she represents areas with large LGBTQ populations, she received an “F” on Equality Texas’ 2017 legislative scorecard, voting in favor of anti-transgender bathroom bills and a “religious freedom” measure to restrict LGBTQ adoptions.

“Senator Huffman is poisonous to the LGBTQ+ community,” says Webb, who is expected to become president of the Caucus in 2018.

Watson says Huffman “follows whatever the agenda of the lieutenant governor is,” referring to the rabidly anti-LGBTQ Dan Patrick.

“As a constituent visiting her, conversations never went well,” Watson says. “I was never allowed to meet with her in her office. There are a large number of constituents that feel they are not being heard from.”

Huffman’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Houston has a history of turning its activists into influential leaders. Another former Caucus president, Annise Parker, went on to become mayor.

The late Barbara Jordan was the first black female state senator and the first woman to represent Texas in Congress.

When you talk to Watson, who would be only the third black female state senator, you see in her the same calling to serve. Asked about naysayers who are skeptical about her chances, she responds, “Let me tell you one thing: I’m going to win this race.”

This article appears in the January 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.
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