When clients of the Montrose Pride Pantry show up at Barcode on June 19, more resources will be on hand than the usual cans of food, bottled water, and toiletries. Volunteers with the League of Women Voters’ Rising Stars initiative will be registering both food-pantry clients and bar patrons to vote.
Registration drive organizer Katherine Summerlin says the 23-member Rising Stars cohort of civic activists began collaborating last winter on ways to get more citizens—and marginalized communities, in particular—registered to vote. “We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to grab new voters. We realized that Pride Month was a perfect opportunity to highlight marginalized communities affected by the regressive measures being looked at in the Texas Legislature.” She notes that by holding the voter-registration event at a food pantry hosted by a popular Montrose bar, they will be able to reach two marginalized communities—LGBTQ and housing-insecure people.
A bill expected to be passed by the Texas Legislature could hinder voting by homeless people because of new identification and residence requirements. And anti-trans legislation will also be on the table when Governor Abbott calls a special session for legislators this fall.
The Rising Stars’ voter registration drive event begins at noon and will run until 4:45 p.m. Attendees who are already registered to vote in Texas will be able to update their voter registration if they have moved, changed their name, or want to change their political party affiliation.
About 35 people show up for the Pride Pantry at Barcode each week to get groceries, notes Pantry founder Joe Melton, aka drag performer Tara Dion. There is a mixture of LGBTQ and ally clients, and Melton suspects the majority of those clients are non-voters. Most live in the neighborhood or are referred by members of the LGBTQ community. “I am happy for us to be a bridge for the voter registration drive.”
Pride Pantry was organized during the pandemic by Melton, his partner Keith Gordin, and a large group of their friends with the help of Barcode owner Grey Stephens. After the group became concerned about people in the community who were struggling, they raised $1,500 to buy groceries, toiletries, and pet food for distribution in the bar while it was closed due to COVID-19. When the bar reopened, Stephens said he wanted the pantry to continue operating.
Melton says he is optimistic the voter-registration drive will be a success because the Mr. and Mrs. Gay Pride Pageant occurs that evening. He will be leaving the pantry early in order to put on his Tara Dion drag makeup and costume for the pageant.
Rising Stars Co-director Lou Weaver agrees that the voter-registration drive will likely be a success. “I think since they will be at a known place for community members to gather, they should be relatively successful—especially since they are targeting a group that rarely gets targeted to register to vote.”
The Rising Stars program is about to mark a milestone in its leadership-development program as they celebrate 10 years of success, notes Co-director Renée Cross. The program started as an award for volunteers “who worked their tails off” before evolving into a leadership program for people under 40. It has since expanded to include people of all ages, in addition to encouraging a diverse membership in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, education, and professional background. “The cohort ranges from graphic designers to engineers and geologists—people from professions you wouldn’t expect to be involved. They have been incredible, even during the pandemic. They have been very engaged.”
The League of Women Voters program offers a year of training and volunteer opportunities for the participants. They attend a series of monthly class sessions ranging from meeting with political-party leaders to learning how to become a volunteer deputy voter registrar (VDVR). The VDVR appointment process is managed by the Harris County Elections Administrator, who works in concert with the League of Women Voters.
Five men and 16 women make up the current Rising Stars cohort, which focuses on three primary projects: Criminal Justice, Environmental Justice, and Housing Insecurity. Cross says the Pride Pantry voter registration drive is vital to the effort because homeless people are often misinformed, and there is a dangerous effort underway to change the eligibility requirements for homeless citizens. “For a very long time, homeless people thought they couldn’t vote without a permanent home address. “Legislation [from the recent Texas Legislative Session] threatens the voting rights of housing-insecure citizens. No post-office-box or homeless-shelter addresses would be allowed.”
Summerlin says organizers are hoping for a large turnout in the LGBTQ community to support the voter registration drive, which is being advertised online and by word of mouth. “It is the perfect place, with a captive audience. If you are at the bar to have a drink, you might as well register to vote at the same time.”
What: Pride Voter Registration Drive by the League of Women Voters of Houston
When: June 19, noon to 4:45 p.m.
Where: Barcode, 817 Fairview St.