“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
By Brandon Wolf
Photo by Brandon Wolf
She never met her father. She lost her mother at age 13. She was expelled from the local school system at age 15.
But today, 38-year-old Fransheneka “Fran” Watson has her own law practice, a partner of 12 years, and is the first African-American female to serve as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Reflecting on her life, Watson says, “It’s been a roller-coaster ride.”
A Lot to Deal with at an Early Age
Watson was born in 1977, when her mother was a 15-year-old high-school student. Although she never met her father, relatives have told her that he played professional football for the Green Bay Packers, and died young of a drug overdose. “That’s one door I decided not to venture behind,” Watson says, although she did look him up on the Internet to confirm his Packers career.
She lived her childhood with her mother, grandparents, and a brother who was three years younger. Her mother, a certified nursing assistant, worked in local nursing homes. Her grandfather was a chef, and her grandmother was an elevator operator.
In elementary school, Watson was a good student. She loved to read—especially books about adventures in foreign lands. Although she was introverted, she excelled in track and kickball.
Middle school gave her the opportunity to expand her interests, and she became a member of the concert band, playing the bass clarinet. At home, she learned how to pay the bills and reconcile the checking account. She also learned how to confront the fact that her mother had become addicted to crack. “She picked the wrong boyfriend,” Watson says.
At one point, Watson helped her mother get into a methadone recovery group, where she alternated between recovery and addiction. When she was a high-school freshman, Watson came home one afternoon and found her mother dead of an overdose.
“She was so full of fun, and had such a wonderful, hearty laugh. She loved to turn up the music and convert our living room into a dance floor,” Watson remembers. The loss devastated her. Although motherless herself, Watson was now faced with filling a maternal role for her younger brother.
Adversity Takes a Toll
Watson made it through her freshman year, still traumatized by her mother’s passing. But as she “became rebellious at times” in her sophomore year, the school’s marching band gave her the only avenue to channel her anger and sense of loss.
That same year, her grandfather became very sick, and Watson had to accompany him to the doctor often. “We had to use the bus system to get my grandfather to the doctor and back,” Watson remembers.
In general, her life was very restricted by her grandparents. “It wasn’t a religious thing—I didn’t grow up in a faith home. But my grandparents worried that what happened to my mother would happen to me, so they limited my activities and refused to let me get a driver’s license.”
She ended up missing a lot of classes her sophomore year. As she entered her junior year, her grades improved. But then, just when she thought she had her life under control, she was stunned to learn that because of the sophomore classes she missed, she was being expelled from the school system. “I begged, cried, and pleaded with the principal, but he was unyielding. To this day, it still makes me angry.”
Life in the Fast-Food Lane
With no school to attend, and needing income, Watson went to work at Wendy’s in Montrose. She started by wiping tables and trays. Then one day, she had to fill in for a cashier, and everyone noticed how fast she could count money and make change.
Watson was promoted to be the drive-through cashier. “I was friendly and I was fast,” she says with a laugh. The supervisors liked her potential, and tried to convince her to apply for a management position.
But Watson was embarrassed by the fact she did not have a high-school diploma, so she kept brushing off the subject. One day, she finally told a manager about her dilemma.
The manager told her that another employee had been coping with the same problem. He studied for and passed the GED high-school equivalency test. She hadn’t even known that was an option before she enrolled in the study course.
Watson took the exam at the University of Houston-Downtown. When she returned to get her grade, a counselor told her, “You have tremendously high scores on the GED—enough to win a scholarship.”
That prompted Watson to apply—and win—the scholarship, enabling her to attend UHD and earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2005. She also entered the research-assistant intern program. It was a busy life, juggling classes, the internship, and work as a drive-through cashier—now at Luther’s BBQ.
Gaining More than Just a College Degree
In 2004, Watson met Kim Atkins, who was also a UHD research assistant. They began to “hang out together”—or at least that is what Watson thought.
She’d once kissed another girl at age 14, but lacking any support for her feelings, she decided it was not right. As she had from elementary school on, she accepted her attraction to women as simply feelings of “strong friendship.”
After several months, Atkins took her to Fuddruckers for dinner and asked her about the future of their relationship. Watson was totally surprised. Atkins asked her, “Didn’t you realize we’ve been dating?”
Watson actually had no clue, since she’d had a total of one date in her life. Atkins proposed, Watson accepted, and they exchanged vows in a very private ceremony—just the two of them—at the Galleria Waterwall.
The Challenge of Law School
After graduation, Watson worked as secretary in the UH-Downtown Conference Center. But she longed for something more challenging.
Now in a stable relationship, she applied to the Texas Southern University Law School, and was admitted for the 2006 school year. She remembers the late Gene Harrington, a law professor and a notable HIV and LGBT activist. “I didn’t have him for a professor, because he taught estate planning and that wasn’t the direction I was drawn to.”
What she was drawn to was advocacy law, such as the wrongful-conviction project that was working to overturn the sentences of innocent African-American men. She was also the executive editor of the school’s Law Review publication for two years.
In 2009, she passed the test to be admitted to the Texas State Bar. However, the economic downtown at the time made jobs very hard to get. Eventually, Watson opened up a private practice in her home, doing LGBT estate planning—a career path that opened unexpectedly. In 2006, she and Atkins had joined the Community Gospel Church. When members discovered she was a law student, they came to her asking for help with estate planning. At the time, marriage equality was barely on the societal radar, and LGBT couples had to draw up lengthy contracts to give them the same rights as a married couple. Nothing equaled marriage, but a portfolio of legal documents came as close as possible. Watson and Atkins celebrated their fifth anniversary with a commitment ceremony at their church.
Since same-sex marriage in Texas seemed even more unlikely a decade ago, Watson’s LGBT estate-planning services were in demand. She liked having her own practice because it gave her the ability to spend part of her time volunteering.
Wanting to Give Back
Watson was eager to give back to the community she now could call her own. It began with helping her church make floats for the Pride parade every year and marching alongside the floats, giving out trinkets.
She also involved herself in her church’s “reconciliation” outreach, helping LGBTs who had been spiritually rejected and condemned by their own churches. Watson had not been raised with a fire-and-brimstone version of religion, but she could see how deeply it had affected others. Her background in psychology made her a good choice to counsel these walking wounded.
Watson also did pro-bono work through the Lone Star Legal Aid group. She helped a variety of people down on their luck and without money, such as homeless individuals and veterans. In 2012, she won the organization’s “Pro-Bono of the Year” award.
In 2011, Watson proved that you just can’t keep a good woman down. While scaling a rock-climbing wall in Austin, she fell 28 feet—two and a half stories—to the ground. Both legs were broken, and doctors marveled that she was still alive.
She was limited to bed for three months, and then nine months in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, she wheeled herself alongside her church’s float in the Pride parade that year, once again giving out trinkets.
Drawn to the World of Politics
In 2012, Watson joined the Houston Stonewall Lawyers Association. Her networking there led her to volunteer for the 2013 Creating Change Conference held in Houston. Having learned firsthand the difficulties of life in a wheelchair, Watson took on the responsibility of transportation and hospitality efforts for the disabled at the conference.
Later in 2013, Watson attended her first meeting of the Houston LGBT Political Caucus. Mayor Annise Parker, running for her third term, was at that meeting. Watson was fascinated to see the mayor up close, and watch the Caucus membership grill her.
That led Watson to join the Caucus screening committee and run for a position on the Caucus board. She also chaired the volunteer committee and began a tradition of holding volunteer appreciation parties.
In 2014, Watson threw herself into the efforts to pass HERO, Houston’s equal rights ordinance. That same year, she and Atkins celebrated their 10th anniversary by legally marrying in New York’s Central Park. (Atkins had legally changed her last name to Watson the previous year.)
In 2015, Watson worked hard to defeat the repeal of the city’s HERO law, but that effort failed due to a highly emotional and deceptive ad campaign by the opposition. She also ran for the presidency of the Caucus, and won, becoming the first African-American female to hold the office. In that capacity, Watson says she is working to bridge the gap that she senses between longtime activists and a new generation of LGBTs who are getting involved.
When she was voted the 2016 Female Pride Marshal, Watson says: “I was very humbled by the honor, and touched by the trust that the community has placed in me.” It also seemed more than a bit surreal. “I withdrew into myself for so long, never wanting anyone to know that I liked women. Now I’ll be riding in a convertible with my female partner, waving to over 700,000 people along the parade route in June.”
Looking to the future, Watson has an eye on elective politics, especially the Texas legislature. Life has been an amazing journey for this 38-year-old powerhouse of energy and optimism.
Although Watson is a post-civil-rights child, she is aware of her past and her family history. “My great-great grandmother was a slave,” she says. “My grandmother used to tell me stories that her mother had passed down to her about those days. It had a deep impact on me.”
As an African-American lesbian, Watson understands the intersectionality of being a woman, a person of color, and a member of the LGBT community. She has had a lot to deal with, including some harsh curveballs along the way—all of which have made her stronger. Her amazing journey seems to be on the verge of becoming even more amazing.