From devout to out, Tammi Wallace’s life has been passionate
by Brandon Wolf
Tammi Wallace was in her late 20s, when she first sat on a street curb along lower Westheimer and watched the Pride parade go by. “I was in tears,” she remembers. “It meant so much to me to see the celebration of gay pride. I finally realized that this is where I’d always belonged.”
This June, when she leads the parade as the 2011 Female Pride Marshal, she will be hoping that this parade is just as important to many other people as her first parade was for her.
“It was a huge honor just to be nominated. I’m so full of gratitude to have been chosen as a marshal. But I don’t think it will really hit me until I’m riding down Westheimer. And this year, I’ll probably be crying again.”
Growing Up in Memphis
Wallace was born in Memphis during the socially turbulent year of 1968, just six months after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in her hometown. She grew up in the Memphis suburb of Southaven, Mississippi. When she turned eight, Wallace’s parents divorced, and her mother went to work to support Tammi and her younger sister. A latchkey kid, she yearned for stability and security.
“My mother was not religious, but my grandmother was a devout Pentecostal. Her church became my ‘home.’ The church was extremely strict. Women couldn’t wear pants or makeup, and we couldn’t cut our hair. We weren’t supposed to listen to secular music or go to movies or watch TV. Males and females were not allowed to swim together.” It was a difficult situation for Wallace, especially since her mother and sister weren’t interested in the church.
Wallace was “an athletic tomboy” in her Pentecostal high school, passionate about life, and naturally gifted with leadership skills. She played softball and basketball, and was the captain of the volleyball team.
A Crushing Blow
Wallace next chose a Pentecostal college in Houston that her Memphis church paid for after the money she’d saved for college went to her mother, who had lost her job and the family was penniless. Wallace found a part-time job in the credit department of Finger Furniture. “Employers liked Bible school kids, because we were always dependable.”
Wallace loved the school, her job, and her friends. Then one day, totally unexpectedly, she was called into the school president’s office and falsely accused of having a lesbian relationship with another female student.
“My whole world was shattered,” Wallace remembers. “While the president was deciding what to do, I was on my knees praying every day.” Despite her prayers, she was expelled from the school.
She drove home to Memphis, sobbing the whole way. “I wondered how God could let this happen to me. I had done everything right; I’d dedicated my life to God, and I had planned to be a missionary’s wife.”
Back in Memphis, her mother encouraged her to go back to Houston and work full-time. “She told me if it didn’t work out, I could always come home.”
Finding Her Own Life
So Wallace moved into an apartment near Hobby Airport with two other women. Finger Furniture was delighted to have her working full-time.
Over the next two years, she tried to reconcile herself with her religion. “But I was angry and hurt, and I drifted away and never found a reason to come back, to this or any other religion.”
She became close friends with a former student of the Pentecostal college. “She convinced me to cut my hair, and taught me how to use makeup. When I showed up for work with my new look, everyone was stunned.”
Wallace gave heterosexuality one last chance and started dating men. “The efforts were a failure,” she says, rolling her eyes.
A job change found her working for a mortgage company. “One of the other employees there was gay, but closeted. She shared her secret with me, and eventually I found out about Inklings, a lesbian bookstore in Montrose.”
Her first visit to Inklings was filled with anxiety. “I could barely get out of my car,” she says. “Once inside, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.”
She finally accepted an invitation from her workmate and checked out The Ranch, a popular lesbian club at the time. “Nancy Ford was entertaining that night,” she remembers. “I love that woman! Watching her show finally pulled me out of the closet.”
Meanwhile, Wallace had been seeing a therapist and attending a local community college. By 1996, she felt ready for a relationship. “That relationship lasted 12 years,” she says, “but we grew apart.”
Finding Her Place in the Community
Once out of the closet, Wallace began what would become a decade and a half of service to her community, all the while attending the University of Houston part-time and earning a business degree.
She joined the Houston GLBT Caucus, and began working on local campaigns. She has been involved with Progressive Voters in Action (PVA), the Lesbian & Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL), the Houston Equal Rights Alliance (HERA), Equality Knocks (on doors), and Equality Texas.
She walked blocks for candidates, passed out voter registration cards at the Pride Parades, took part in exit polling, and helped build an impressive voter ID database.
Eventually, she joined the Caucus board and was particularly impressed with Ellen Cohen, who was running in 2006 to unseat Martha Wong, a politician very unpopular with the gay community.
Cohen was equally impressed with Wallace and hired her as district director of her campaign. After being elected to the Texas House of Representatives, Cohen retained Wallace to do constituent work.
Wallace ran Cohen’s successful 2008 campaign and eventually was appointed Cohen’s chief of staff. During the anti-Democratic 2010 midterm elections, Cohen lost her seat by 725 votes.
Cohen had served on the House Education Committee in Austin, and Wallace had become very passionate about education from that exposure. She is now the Chief Growth Officer at KIPP, a charter school system for at-risk students in low-income areas. “Ninety percent of our students graduate, and many go on to college,” says Wallace.
A fan of the late Eleanor Roosevelt, Wallace lives her life based on a Roosevelt quote: “Do one thing every day that
Falling in Love on a Ferris Wheel
In May 2009, Wallace met her current partner, Mercedes Leal, at a Young Women in Government function. They enjoyed each other’s company and continued to see each other.
One night Leal suggested they drive to Kemah for dinner. “We rode the Ferris wheel, and when it stopped at the top, I looked over at Mercedes, summoned up all my courage, and told her I was in love with her.” They’ve been partners ever since, and now wait for marriage equality to come
“She makes me laugh. She has the most beautiful smile in the world. And as a breast cancer survivor, she cherishes life,” says Wallace. “She reminds me what is important.”
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.