Jim Obergefell to help unveil Heights mural next month.
By Kim Hogstrom
Following the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, Select Skate Shop on Lower Westheimer created what would become Houston’s most prominent “Pride Wall.”
The outdoor mural bursting with the colors of the rainbow flag quickly developed into a popular attraction, serving as a backdrop for “selfies” and other photos.
When the wall was suddenly repainted earlier this year with a black background and 10-foot-tall white letters spelling “Select,” some in the LGBTQ community were disappointed. Houston photographer and LGBTQ activist Eric Schell responded by seeking out a new location to host a bigger and better “Pride Wall.”
Schell partnered with his friend, artist Hugo Perez, to design the mural. Then, longtime LGBTQ ally Jenni Tranweaver offered the large facade at her Heights restaurant, Jenni’s Noodle House, as a canvass.
The “Be Visible” Pride Wall, set to be unveiled April 5, will feature a quote from marriage-equality plaintiff Jim Obergefell, who will attend the ceremony: “I march because of the people who marched before me. Thanks to them, I live in a better world due to their bravery, and I owe it to them and those who come after me to continue the fight for equality.”
Since OutSmart introduced Schell to our readers in a cover story 10 months ago, he has rapidly grown his nonprofit organization, Pride Portraits, photographing members and allies of the LGBTQ community locally, statewide and nationally.
Today, Schell has about 3,000 portraits in his portfolio, including musician Melissa Etheridge, Congressman John Lewis, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, actress Alyssa Milano, comedic actor Leslie Jordan, and many others.
Perhaps the most compelling elements of Schell’s collection are the statements that accompany the photos. Subjects are asked to write down what they would like the world to know about them. The photos, coupled with these personal revelations, add up to a powerful commentary on equality.
All of these components are exactly what Schell had in mind when he launched Pride Portraits in 2016. “Our mission is to represent the LGBTQ community and its allies, one photograph and story at a time,” he explains. “Because visibility and insight are keys to fully humanizing people, this new, free, public art will serve as a reminder for those in the community to ‘Be Visible’ – to show their support and pride.”
Schell is not the only one with a deep commitment to the Pride Wall project. “As a gay person of color, I am proud to have the opportunity to help create it,” Perez says.
Jenni Tranweaver and her husband, Scott, own four locations of their popular Vietnamese restaurant. They hope the Pride Wall will contribute to a better future for American youth.
“We want to participate, to help young people feel safe and comfortable to rise up and speak out about who they are,” Jenni Tranweaver says. “We love the Heights and think it’s the perfect location for it.”
A Hero in History
Ohio resident Jim Obergefell says he took all of a New York minute to decide to fly to Houston for the unveiling of the mural.
“It’s just as Harvey Milk used to say: We as a community have to come out. We have to introduce ourselves, to be seen and known for who we are. It’s the only way things will change,” Obergefell says in his gentle, gracious tone.
Who can forget Friday, June 26, 2015, when the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in favor of nationwide marriage equality was announced on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court?
Obergefell recalls the outpouring of joy among thousands who gathered. “Most of them started crying when the verdict was read,” he recalls.
It was bittersweet for Obergefell. He married his partner of 20 years, John Arthur, in Maryland in 2013. But Ohio, where the coupled lived, would not recognize their union. Arthur died from ALS three months and 11 days after their wedding, and Ohio would not list Obergefell’s name as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate. It was a cruelty he refused to accept.
“I promised to love, honor and protect John when we exchanged our vows,” Obergefell says. “Bringing the case was one of the ways I could keep my promise to him.”
Amid the cheers and tears on the steps of the Supreme Court that day, Obergefell was fielding live interviews with major networks. Just as he was wrapping one up with CNN, a producer said he had a call and handed him a phone. He had no idea who it could be.
It was President Barack Obama. “Congratulations, Jim. Love wins,” Obama told him.
That is all Obergefell remembers of their conversation. “Honestly, I am not even sure my feet were touching the ground, or many days after,” he says. “It was a moment of joy I will never, ever forget.”
What: “Be Visible” Pride Wall unveiling
When: 3-6 p.m., April 5
Where: Jenni’s Noodle House, 602 E. 20th St.
Free and open to the public