Queer Latinas, Represent
Jessica Gonzalez to become third openly LGBTQ member of Texas House.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Out for Change in 2018,” a monthly series on LGBTQ candidates in Texas, who were the subject of our January issue. For more, visit tinyurl.com/outforchange2018.
By Marene Gustin
Jessica Gonzalez says her primary focus as a member of the Texas House will be improving the quality of life for families—whether that involves child welfare, education reform, or criminal justice.
“One of my top priorities will be addressing affordable housing,” she adds. “It’s a big problem in Dallas. People are being forced out of their homes, and the state keeps decreasing funding for education, making the school districts rely on raising property taxes.”
Gonzalez is also prepared to take a stand on another issue, should it come up again in the 2019 session.
“If the bathroom bill comes back,” she says, “I will definitively be at the forefront of blocking that.”
Gonzalez, an out lesbian and attorney, handily defeated her opponent, incumbent State representative Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas), in the March 6 primary. Gonzalez has no District 104 Republican opponent in the November general election, meaning she will be sworn in prior to the 86th Texas Legislature.
“The campaign was really a grassroots effort,” Gonzalez told OutSmart from her Dallas law firm on her first day back at work following the primary election. “I started knocking on doors back when it was just me and my consultant.” As time went on, the campaign gained more staff, supporters, and funds. Gonzalez says the campaign included mail pieces and social media, “but it really was all about talking to people one-on-one, just getting voters to turn out.”
“And the LGBTQ issue was never raised during the campaign,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of the demographics in the district are changing; it’s getting younger and more LGBTQ-friendly.”
Gonzalez will become one of at least three openly LGBTQ lawmakers in the Texas House, marking the first time in history there have been more than two. She will join incumbent State representatives Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) and Celia Israel (D-Austin), who are also both queer Latinas.
These three Democrats could be joined by at least one more in November. Julie Johnson won her Democratic primary with 77 percent of the vote in District 115, so she will face incumbent representative Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), who is rabidly anti-LGBTQ.
“Wouldn’t that be something if she wins?” Gonzalez says of Johnson. “That would make four of us.”
The Texas Legislature saw 33 anti-LGBTQ bills in the 2017 session, the most in any state. Although the bathroom bill was defeated, State lawmakers passed one of the most anti-LGBTQ adoption laws in the nation.
Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, says even though the community is clearly outnumbered in the Legislature, people shouldn’t underestimate the power of having three openly LGBTQ House members.
“It’s very true to say that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Smith says. “There is power in their presence, and they can be effective.”
Of course, there could also be a much larger regime change in Austin next year. Former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, also a queer Latina, was the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary for governor. She will face Houston businessman Andrew White in the May 22 runoff, with the winner meeting Republican incumbent governor Greg Abbott in November.
“Dallas is very blue, very progressive,” Gonzalez says. “[Valdez will] do fine here, but it’s going to be all about turnout in the general election. I’m just hoping what’s happening in Washington will mobilize people.”
District 104 stretches across Dallas County, including more than 172,000 residents in the cities of Dallas, Grand Prairie, Cockrell Hill, and Irving. It is predominantly Hispanic, and a strong Democratic bastion. Alonzo had held the seat since 1994 and had not drawn an opponent since 2008. This was Gonzalez’ first run for public office, but she has a history of public service.
The youngest of four children of Mexican immigrants, Gonzalez was the second in her family to graduate from college. She attributes her work ethic and values to her parents, who opened their own business to support the family.
After earning her undergraduate degree, she taught life skills at the Dallas County Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center, and served as the interim restitution coordinator for the Dallas City Attorney’s Office Community Court division. She then decided to enroll in law school at Western Michigan University, where she graduated at the top of her class. She served as a White House intern in the Obama administration, working on immigration issues.
Returning to Dallas, Gonzalez opened her own law firm, Gandara and Gonzalez, PLLC. Her law partner is also an LGBTQ woman, and their firm specializes in personal-injury cases, routinely providing low-cost or pro bono work to the community.
The firm actually moved its offices during the campaign, so Gonzalez had a lot of catching up to do when she returned to work.
“I really haven’t had any down time yet,” she says. “I’m really bad about taking time for myself, but I definitely need to take a little break before I go to Austin in January.”
In what little down time she does have, she enjoys working on her 100-year-old home in Dallas and taking bike rides.
“I’m really looking forward to biking the trails in Austin, and the live music scene—that is, if I have any down time there,” she says.
At the capitol, Gonzalez says she plans to try to reach across the aisle.
“I think that will be important,” she says. “It’s going to be about building coalitions and getting people involved.” She also plans to work with local governments and use their expertise. As for the future, she hasn’t really had time to think too far ahead.
“Certainly I want to stay in the House long enough to see my agenda through,” she says. “Maybe 10 years. Then it would be time to turn the set over to younger, newer voices.”
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.