FeaturesSpreading Holiday Cheer

A Great Spirit

American Indian activist Anna Farris continues giving back to her communities.

Anna Farris (photo by Alex Rosa for OutSmart magazine)

Being born as her mother’s 13th child on a Friday the 13th might be seen as an omen of bad luck for Anna Farris. But this lesbian American Indian from the Tunica/Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana is the kind of person who makes her own luck. 

Now an elder on the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana, Farris is the area program manager of the Senior Community Service Employment Program at the American Indian Center of Houston. 

It’s the culmination of a lifetime of service. 

Farris grew up in Magnolia, a Mexican-American neighborhood in Houston’s East End. Everyone thought she was Hispanic. They also assumed that this pretty and popular cheerleader was straight.

Although Farris never lived on a reservation, and she was born after the most severe erasure of American Indian culture, she did suffer from racial oppression. 

The last name on her birth certificate was originally Farias. When the document was misplaced several years later, her mother applied for a new one. It was returned with her last name changed to Farris. The same thing happened to several of her cousins. 

“I’m a very kind person, but I hope people understand that I stand up for myself and I stand up for my family and community. I have to.”

—Anna Farris

“They just erased our name,” she explains. 

Farris had the first of her two sons at age 17. In her early twenties, she came out as lesbian. Compared to her older brother Charlie Farias, who was openly gay, she had a relatively easy time of it. 

Farias, an effeminate man who would sometimes dress in drag, had been severely bullied in school. His immediate family was much more accepting. 

“When my brother came out, my mom just said, “Okay, as long as Anna isn’t,” Farris recalls.When I told her I was lesbian a few years later, she wasn’t very happy but later she accepted it.” 

But Farris’ friends from school were unruffled. “My friends from Magnolia responded with open arms—every one of them. I didn’t have any problem with anyone from the neighborhood. And I’m still friends with all of them.”

Farris has lived through worldwide crises from AIDS to COVID, and every financial, natural, and human-made disaster in between. Each time, she responded by reaching out to those in need and speaking out on their behalf.

“I’m a loudmouth,” she laughs. “When I see somebody doing something wrong, I’ve just got to say something. My family says it’s like I have road rage when I see something wrong.”

In 1989, Farris became aware of Gay and Lesbian Hispanics Unidos (GLHU). The nonprofit raised money for various LGBTQ causes and hosted Baile, an annual gala that closed out Houston’s Pride celebration.  

By then, her brother had contracted AIDS. Farris was already doing shows as an Anita Baker illusionist and donating the tips to various causes such as AIDS and homeless LGBTQ youth.  

GLHU members approached Farris to run for Miss Baile. There was no organization for LGBTQ American Indians in Houston, and since she had grown up with Hispanic neighbors, she felt comfortable joining the organization. 

“I joined GLHU because I wanted to have a voice. There were not that many women organizers. All the organizations were mostly men.”

It was her experiences with GLHU that prompted her to publicly identify as an American Indian. 

“They called me a coconut,” Farris says.  That’s a derogatory term for a Hispanic who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. 

“They thought I just didn’t want to speak Spanish. When I told them I was an American Indian, they would go ‘Woo Woo!’ That pissed me off. 

“When I won the Miss Baile title in 1990, I had to do the welcome speech to Baile in Spanish. I tried to do it, but every time I would practice saying Bienvenidos damas y caballeros (Welcome, ladies and gentlemen), I would say Bienvenidos damas y camarones (Welcome, ladies and shrimp).” 

The next year, Farris became vice-president of GLHU and over several years worked to raise thousands of dollars for AIDS groups, Amigos Volunteers in Education and Services (AVES), Stone Soup, and other local LGBTQ groups. 

In 1991, Farris married Diane Escamilla. “We had a holy union in 1991. We got legally married in 2015. And then we got remarried on our 25th anniversary in 2016.

“She loves my children. I met her when my oldest son Gilbert was three. And I got together with her when my youngest son Patrick was three. So she’s been there for their whole lives.”

Farris admits her relationship with Escamilla, while happy, has taken lots of work over the years. “It takes a lot of compromise. She’s a leader. I’m a leader. She’s always right. I’m always right. We just had to figure out how to take those two rights and put them together.”

Farris’ oldest son, Gilbert, was 16 when he became a father, making Anna a grandmother at just 33. 

She became a great-grandmother at 56. Now at 65, she has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, with another one on the way. 

“I enjoy it. They’re able to know me. When I was young, I didn’t know any of my grandparents.”

After working full-time for a plumbing supply company for 30 years and volunteering nonstop for various nonprofit organizations, Farris’ family made her quit. “It was a lot of work—a lot of time away from home and away from them.”

But Farris, being the determined woman she is, didn’t retire. Instead, she started a painting company, DAP Painting, with her family. The name comes from the initials for Diane, Anna, and Patrick, Anna’s son who originally worked with the company.  

She also turned her attention to the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana, where she serves as an openly lesbian member. Farris says she has never had a negative reaction from any members of her tribe. 

“When our painting company started working with the Paragon Casino and Resort (my tribe’s casino), people knew it was my company. Diane would show up, and people would call her Anna. So I had to explain, ‘This is my spouse, Diane. She does the actual work.’ I never got a single comment or negative reaction.”

Farris now runs the elder employment program at the American Indian Center of Houston. She’s currently organizing a food bank and clothes closet for the hundreds of tribal members in Harris and Polk county. 

For the holidays, the Inter-Tribal Council is having a toy drive as well as organizing Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets for members. 

Some people would see it as ironic that an American Indian organization would celebrate Thanksgiving, given the horrendous treatment of tribes that followed that first communal meal in 1621 when Wampanoag Indians and settlers celebrated together. Immediately after that, white settlers set about systematically killing American Indians by the thousands and seizing their lands. 

There’s no irony, according to Farris. “We celebrate because we have a lot to be thankful for. The fact that we’ve survived this long, for one. They wanted to wipe us out, to take away our culture, and it didn’t happen. We’re still here.” 

Since she’s worked as a community advocate since her early twenties, you might expect Farris to be tired of constantly struggling to better her community. Especially since the LGBTQ and American Indian communities still face significant struggles. 

“Actually, it makes me want to do more and work even harder. I’m a very kind person, but I hope people understand that I stand up for myself and I stand up for my family and community. I have to.” 

Asked if she has a ‘warrior’ mentality, Farris laughs. “Yes! And it comes out quite a bit!” 

Farris wasn’t given a traditional Indian name, but it’s something she thinks about. “If I could choose a name, I think it would be Woman With Great Spirit. I try to live with a good spirit.” 

To contribute to the American Indian Center of Houston’s holiday toy and food drive, contact [email protected]. 

This article appears in the December 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez

Olivia Flores Alvarez is the Web Editor for OutSmart Magzine.
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