A beloved local activist has been immortalized at a busy corner in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. The likeness of Monica Roberts, the prolific transgender-rights advocate, adorns the utility box at the intersection of Montrose and Fairview, her silent gaze reminding passers-by of the need to continue the march toward equality.
City Council Member Abbie Kamin initiated the mural project to honor Roberts, and the location was selected to provide maximum visibility in the neighborhood.
Local artists and activists Brad Pritchett and Katherine Ligon were selected to paint the utility box. “[Abbie’s] office reached out to us because we had both been close friends with Monica, but we also do art of various types,” Pritchett says. “We were both excited to collaborate together and figure out what we wanted to do to honor Monica.”
Pitchett recalls it took about a year to move from concept to completion, which included securing approvals from community partners, making revisions, and then painting the mural.
“Both Katherine and I were busy during the Texas Legislative Session, so it was very difficult for us to schedule anything,” he adds. Pritchett works for Equality Texas, the largest nonpartisan statewide political advocacy organization working to eliminate discrimination targeting the LGBTQ community. “We picked Memorial Day weekend to complete the project because we knew we would have extra time to be present in that space.”
In its finished format, the utility box displays a portrait of Roberts with the words “Griot, Journalist, Advocate, Friend, Auntie.” A jet plane is also depicted flying above Houston’s City Hall and leaving a pink, blue, and white trail that wraps around the box.
A quote from Roberts’ speech at a Creating Change Conference completes the installation: “I never thought about the fact that while I don’t have children of my own, I would gain a whole lot of nieces and nephews who chose me to be their Aunt Monica. But it’s happening. I’m seen as a possibility model and an icon to a community that I am unabashedly proud of.”
Pritchett explains how the quote highlights Roberts’ importance to the trans community. “She was fiercely protective of queer kids, and in particular trans kids and nonbinary kids. She didn’t have children of her own, but in a way, she kind of had all of these children who looked up to her, who were inspired by her, and who considered her to be a member of [their] extended family.”
Roberts was indeed a surrogate to many in the LGBTQ community, and she used her strength to amplify vital community issues.
“Monica brought a presence that was undeniable [to] spaces where we don’t traditionally have power as queer people. Monica would step into these places and people would listen and take notice because she knew how to navigate these spaces in a way that most people [can’t]. It came very naturally to her,” Pritchett emphasizes.
“I also miss being able to rely on the strength that she exuded in these spaces where we often had the deck stacked against us,” he continues. “You could come into a situation, whether it was at City Hall or at the Texas Capitol or the nation’s capitol, and feel like [the LGBTQ activists were] being piled on by folks who love to misuse their power. But then Monica would show up and she’d give you a hug, or she’d speak—or just give you a look—and you’d immediately feel reinvigorated and re-energized because you knew that Monica was there to fight alongside you.”
Pritchett sees the Montrose mini-mural as a fitting tribute to the larger-than-life legacy Roberts left behind, and he hopes it inspires others to learn about who she was and the work she performed.
“If you look at the many murals [of deceased leaders] that are all over the city, they honor folks who have had an impact not just on Houston or Texas, but also on our nation or world, in some instances,” Pritchett says. “I think Monica definitely falls into that category as somebody who was unapologetic about who they were. She defended trans people, and especially children, in a way that reverberated across the world.”
In addition to her work as a speaker and a regular columnist for OutSmart magazine, Roberts created the TransGriot blog as a pioneering resource to help identify and pay tribute to transgender murder victims across the country. The blog earned her a posthumous GLAAD Media Award in 2021.
Roberts passed away suddenly on October 5, 2020, and her passing sparked a wave of remembrances throughout Texas and the nation by news outlets including the New York Times, GLAAD, and the Texas Tribune.