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Fighting for the Disenfranchised

Lawmaker Jolanda Jones overcame trauma to make a difference for Texans.

TX State Rep. Jolanda Jones (Photography by Alex Rosa for OutSmart)

Jolanda Jones’ motto is “Just keep moving.” That mantra has served Jones well throughout the peaks and valleys of her life. The former school board and Houston City Council member is now the first openly LGBTQ Black representative in the Texas Legislature, and her experience with poverty and trauma helped her become the tough-as-nails civil servant that Houstonians have come to know.

Growing up in Houston, Jones’ father committed suicide right in front of her, and that was followed by the suicide of another family member. She has been confronted with multiple evictions, houses burning down, bullying, rape and domestic violence, gun violence, lack of food, utilities disruptions, her relatives’ murders, her newborn niece’s SIDS death, and even personal death threats.

She mentions that her secret to moving forward in life is to change her outlook on the situation.

“I’ve learned to turn my kryptonite into my superpower. I used to feel really sorry for myself. I used to be very angry, and I would ask why God would let all these really bad things happen to me,” she says. “But I shifted the paradigm. I started to realize that God was making me go through tough times so that I would be really tough.”

Jones relied on the values her family instilled in her as a way to keep moving.

“My mother protested the disenfranchisement of Black people,” she recalls. “I was around activists like University of Houston’s first Black homecoming queen, Lynn Eusan; the Black playwright Thomas Meloncon; and Deloitte Parker and Ester King. These are my mom’s contemporaries, so I’m a Movement kid.”

Fighting for “the least, the last, and the lost” became central to Jones’ identity.

“My mother always said that if 100 people are in a room and 99 of them are doing bad, you better have the courage to be the one doing right,” she says.

Jones attended the University of Houston for both her bachelor’s degree and her law degree. After passing the bar, she founded her law office and distinguished herself as a defender of the disenfranchised.

Her courtroom expertise helped shut down the Houston Police Department crime lab after it faked lab results, convicted innocents, and allowed the guilty to go free. She defeated a powerful politician by reuniting an African mom with her child that the politician had stolen. Her legal acumen has prevailed in multiple murder and felony cases.

Jones’ passion for leadership—which she defines as the courage to stand up even when it’s not popular, and to deflect the shots that inevitably come at you when you are speaking truth to power—led her to become a civil servant. Prior to her successful bid for the At-Large Position 5 City Council seat, she served as a Houston Independent School District board member.

“I fought for gay people before I knew I was gay.”
—Jolanda Jones

While serving on City Council, Jones again took up the fight for marginalized communities, and she remembers tackling thorny issues that her counterparts shied away from. She was the first non-transgender person to participate in a Transgender Day of Remembrance event. She was the first elected official in the United States to employ an openly transgender staffer. And she was a fierce ally for the LGBTQ community (long before she realized she was a member of it) who publicly advocated for marriage equality.

“I didn’t figure out I am lesbian until later in life, [even though] I had an uncle who was gay. I also have a cousin who is lesbian,” she says. “I knew gay people were regular people because I had them in my family, so that’s why I fought for gay people before I knew I was gay.”

In fact, Jones was the first “LGBTQ ally” candidate to receive a 100-percent rating from the LGBTQ+ Political Caucus.

“I thought I was the best damn ally there was,” she jokes about her attitude before she eventually came out as lesbian.

She has also seen the pain that LGBTQ stigma causes.

“I have two friends whose children committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying. Asher Brown hanged himself because people thought he was gay. To this day, I’m friends with Asher’s parents. In fact, I introduced them to Representative Garnet Coleman, who introduced the Asher’s Law bill to show that Asher’s death has not been in vain. Another friend of mine, who I played basketball with in high school, killed himself because both of his moms were gay.”

After her service on City Council, Jones again embraced her “just keep moving” mantra and returned to her legal career. But her colleagues soon convinced her that she should run for elected office again—this time in the Texas Legislature.

She won a special election in May 2022 to represent State District 147, which includes parts of downtown Houston, the Washington Corridor, the Museum District, EaDo, and South Houston. And she is still using her skills as a lawmaker to fight for the disenfranchised—even within the LGBTQ community.

“I’ve never been afraid to talk about difficult issues. There are a lot of issues related to whether Black gay people are included in the larger discussion about gayness. Even now, there are issues related to whether we are treated the same way,” she says. “The Victory Fund supports white LGBTQ people more than they support Black LGBTQ people. People don’t want to talk about it, but I’m talking about it because it’s a big issue.”

It appears as though Jones’ evangelism for more equitable and just Black representation is paying off. “I’m very proud to find out that, because of those issues, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus created a work group specifically related to Black gay issues, and they named me the chair,” she notes.

While she continues making waves in the legal and legislative arenas, she is always mindful of one of her biggest accomplishments in life: raising her son, 31-year-old Jiovanni, who also happens to be a lawyer.

Follow Jolanda Jones on nstagram @jolandajones.

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Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to Outsmart who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture. Speaking of Houston, he's never heard a Whitney Houston song he didn't like.
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