Latinx Leaders

Preservation and Persistence

Gilbert Perez champions the historic Heights.

Gilbert Perez (Photo by Alex Rosa for OutSmart Magazine) 

When Gilbert Perez arrived in the Bayou City in 1985, he viewed it as a pit stop in the larger trajectory of his life. He would spend a few years in Houston to get a law degree, and then set sail for greener pastures in Los Angeles or New York.

Almost four decades later, he has built a life in Houston, created two thriving businesses, and become a champion for historic preservation in the Heights district where he lives.

Perez has lived a quintessentially American life, coming to the US as an immigrant, building a successful career through hard work and risk-taking, and giving back to his community with a strong sense of volunteerism.

Born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, in 1961, he came with his family to Miami when he was 11 months old.

“My parents came from an affluent family in Cuba, and they lost everything,” he recalls. “My parents struggled financially at first when they came to the US. My mother had never worked in her life, and she had to work for the first time in her 30s while raising three kids. We were poor, but I never felt that I was poor.”

He graduated from Florida International University in 1985 with a degree in communications, and moved to Texas with his then-boyfriend.

“When I was in Houston, it was the first time that I could experience being a free gay man,” he observes. “I could go to bars with my ex-partner. I went to Rich’s one night, and realized that my entire gym was there. All of a sudden, I had all these friends. I established relationships with all these people, and some of them are still friends today.

“Coming to Houston, I fell in love with the people,” he remembers. “The gay community was really tight, and there was a sense of community that I’m not sure is there anymore.”

Sadly, Houston also provided Perez with his first experience of overt discrimination.

“The first or second job interview I went on at a bank, they called [my name to begin the interview, but when I went in], the woman looked at me and said, ‘No, I said Gilbert Perez.’

When he told her that he was indeed Perez, she responded, “You’re awfully tall for a Mexican.”

“And I remember people asking me, ‘Are you white? But your last name is Perez?’ It never happened in the gay community.”

In the late 1980s, Houston was reeling from the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Feeling a need to respond, Perez volunteered in 1988 for AIDS Foundation Houston’s buddy program that offered logistical and emotional support for individuals living with HIV.

“I was a buddy for Rick Wilson, who lived on Missouri Street and was originally from Louisiana,” Perez remembers. “I remember the first time I went to his apartment. I’ve always been an anti-smoking person, and he smoked like a chimney. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

“But we became really good, very close friends. He was really funny. I was his buddy for about three years. In 1991, he died. It was a big loss for me, because I really cared for him.”

In 1992, he lost his close friend Steve Thomas to HIV—another devastating blow.

He began to volunteer for Pet Patrol and also joined the board of Body Positive, two grassroots community organizations serving those living with HIV.

With his passionate commitment and charismatic manner, he made a strong impression on Tori Williams, the founder of Pet Patrol, which was created in 1986 to help people living with HIV keep their pets as long as possible.

“Gilbert walked dogs, transported pets (and sometimes their owners) to the vet clinic, delivered pet food, and much more,” Williams remembers. “Everyone loved Gilbert, and I often got calls after food-delivery day asking if ‘that handsome man’ could continue to be their volunteer.

“Gilbert was also famous for sweet-talking the nurses at Park Plaza Hospital into letting him sneak a dog in to visit with the owner,” she continues. “Technically, that was a no-no, but Gilbert was never turned down.

“To say that Gilbert has a heart of gold is an understatement,” she observes. “He has been a lifesaver and dear friend to those lucky enough to know him.”

Perez had worked for several years at EDS before quitting his job in the early 1990s to pursue his passion for interior design. He studied at the University of Houston and Houston Community College, landing an internship with noted designer Tim Hamrock. In 1995, Perez opened his own design firm, Bespoke by GJCD.

He also emerged as a prodigious fundraiser during the 1990s, which proved to be the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. He was a leader in organizing two of the most popular LGBTQ social events of that era—Halloween Magic and Jungle Lust, which helped to raise over $1 million for AIDS charities in the process.

At one point, Perez was invited to participate in a Halloween Magic satirical performance that raised funds for HIV-related causes. “They were looking for someone Hispanic to play a drag queen in the production of The Roxie Horror Beauty Shop,” he recalls. “For that first year of Halloween Magic, I had a lot of friends, and brought a lot of sponsors to the table, and raised $10,000.”

Gilbert Perez in drag as Venezuela Maria Concepción de Los Angeles Valdez Vallejo Gonzalez (Courtesy photo)

The character he created and portrayed, Venezuela Maria Concepción de Los Angeles Valdez Vallejo Gonzalez, caused a sensation.

Over the years in different Halloween Magic productions, she morphed into a woman and became a fan favorite. Crowds flocked to Halloween Magic year after year, providing a crucial source of funding for grassroots AIDS organizations struggling to keep their doors open. Perez played a pivotal role, both on stage and behind the scenes, organizing the event.

In 1996, he moved to the Houston Heights. “We were on the west side of Heights Boulevard, the ‘wrong side,’” he comments. “The west side was a much more marginal neighborhood than it is now. It was artsy, and there were a lot of gays living here. I liked the eclecticism of the neighborhood.”

A few years later, he remodeled his house, and the results were so impressive that it was featured on the Heights Home Tour. He then began receiving numerous requests from others to renovate their homes. Eventually, bungalow renovations became the primary focus of his business, and in 2003 he founded Bungalow Revival.

Over the years, as gentrification in the Heights increased, he grew more and more concerned. By 2006, more than two bungalows were being torn down each week, on average. He came together with a group of other concerned citizens to form Save the Bungalows.

Eventually, the group succeeded in having various parts of the Heights declared historic districts. After a protracted battle, historic-district designations were affirmed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2021, a significant victory for preservationists.

Gilbert Perez (Photo by Alex Rosa for OutSmart Magazine) 

Today he focuses on finding unique products for Bespoke, his home-décor store which stocks chic and innovative items. The shop is housed in a historic Heights bungalow that Perez lovingly renovated at 501 West 11th Street. He travels to New York City twice a year to go to the markets.

He’s also on the lookout for inventory during his world travels. “When I go to Chicago, I love looking for Mid-century glassware and barware because there’s a large supply there,” he notes.

Perez and his partner, Andre Avina, travel often, whether it’s a getaway to their beach house in Galveston or trips to New York City to catch the latest Broadway shows. But the Heights still maintains an irresistible allure for the couple, despite the gentrification that has changed the neighborhood over the last two decades.

“What I love about the Heights is that it feels like you’re driving into a small town in the middle of a big city,” he notes. “When you come in from Montrose, you almost feel like you’re in a different town. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the rest of Houston.”

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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