LGBTQ Texans move forward with Pride plans despite tense political environment and fears of violence

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Posted at 3:31 PM, Jun 21, 2023

By Rebecca Schneid, The Texas Tribune

For Brownsville’s Fish Navarro, Pride month is “a roller coaster of emotions” this year.

The trans, nonbinary 25-year-old remembers growing up in a household of devout conservatives and searching for underground queer communities. But this year, as chair of the city’s LGBTQ Task Force, Navarro helped paint a rainbow crosswalk downtown and watched as their mom attended Brownsville’s third annual raising of the Pride flag outside the City Plaza.

For them, the dramatic increases in acceptance and visibility feel like clear wins. In other ways, though, Navarro thinks Pride Month feels more tenuous this year.

“You know, the hate is just growing and growing and growing,” Navarro said.

This year’s Pride month — an annual celebration of queerness and commemoration of the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement that began with 1969’s Stonewall Uprising — falls after a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers pushed scores of bills that threatened to upend the lives of LGBTQ+ Texans. It also comes amid a dramatic rise in violence targeting LGBTQ+ Americans.

The largely intertwined political rhetoric and social climate have changed the way many Pride organizers are approaching the month’s festivities. In smaller Texas towns, organizers are worried about protesters who frequently spread anti-LGBTQ+ tropes. In urban areas, Pride leaders are keeping a close eye on security out of fear of violence or mass shootings.

Linda Tolman, LGBTQ Task Force secretary, center left, passes her time with Cesar A. Villarreal, right, the vice chair, and others before the Pride Pub Crawl at The Rocket Bar in Brownsville, Texas on June 17, 2023. Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Linda Tolman, Brownsville's LGBTQ Task Force secretary, gathers with Vice Chair Cesar A. Villarreal, right, and others before the Pride Pub Crawl at The Rocket Bar on June 17. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Cesar A. Villarreal, vice chair of the LGBTQ Task Force, and Linda Tolman, task force secretary, in Brownsville.
From left: Cesar A. Villarreal, vice chair of the LGBTQ Task Force, and Linda Tolman, task force secretary, in Brownsville. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

“Yes, this is all a great time for celebration and everything but we — in addition to the security — we’re going to need everybody individually to be hyper-vigilant and to, you know, if you see something, say something,” said James Poindexter, secretary for San Antonio Pride.

Despite the myriad concerns, Pride organizers and LGBTQ+ Texans see more value in marking the occasion now, largely because of the current cultural environment. For many, it’s a chance to show their humanity and strength in the face of misinformation and hate.

“We recognize that there could be backlash, but we cannot go back in the closet,” Pride of Dripping Springs board member Christopher Roberson said. “I have a very queer family out here, and I am not going anywhere.”

Two bills that Texas lawmakers passed in the 2023 regular legislative session loom heavily over Pride this year. Lawmakers authored a bevy of legislation aimed at blocking kids from seeing drag shows after a small but influential cadre of activists and extremist groups fueled anti-drag panic by routinely characterizing all drag as sexual regardless of the content or audience. Those claims were then used to justify harassment and legislation targeting drag performers, often under the guise of protecting kids.

But Senate Bill 12 was dramatically altered throughout the session. The legislation, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday, criminalizes performers who put on sexually explicit shows in front of children as well as any businesses that host them. That could ensnare some drag performances, but adult-themed drag shows most frequently occur in bars and nightclubs where children are already not admitted.

Perhaps the most consequential Texas legislation affecting LGBTQ+ people this year was Senate Bill 14, which will ban puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors in Texas starting Sept. 1. Passage of the bill came over the outcries from Texas families with trans kids and prohibits gender-affirming care that most major medical groups recommend. Republicans control both legislative chambers, and the state party’s platform opposes “all efforts to validate transgender identity.”

Many LGBTQ+ Texans see the state’s GOP platform, the passage of SB 14 and failed attempts to severely restrict classroom lessons or teacher guidance on sexual orientation and gender identity as a broader attempt to erase queer people.

“We’re 54 years past Stonewall and we should be progressing and we had been progressing up until, probably the last couple of years. But things have drastically turned dark,” Poindexter said. “It’s a definite retreat.”

Fears of violence in big cities

This year’s legislation and national boycotts of companies that offer Pride-themed merchandise or back LGBTQ+ representation come amid skyrocketing violence targeting queer Americans. At least 38 trans people were murdered in 2022 —among the highest numbers on record— and anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations tripled from 2021 to 2022, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In November, a gunman killed five people at a Colorado Springs drag show on the eve of Transgender Remembrance Day.

As of late May, there have been more than 300 shootings in the country this year with at least four people injured or killed and there have already been four such shootings in Texas this month, according to Gun Violence Archive.

Poindexter, the San Antonio Pride officer, says this means tighter security than in previous years is needed, as well as an elevated awareness of surroundings for all organizers. The performers will have stricter arrival and dismissal times, and though the parade route will remain the same as in previous years, there will be more control over who enters and leaves the spaces. The city’s police department has also been in communication with Pride organizers, urging them to pay attention to social media comments and potential threats to see if anything seems extreme.

Houston Pride has similar concerns this year, which is part of the reason organizers decided to skip the festival portion of their Pride Month celebration, though they are keeping the parade and many other events. In an Instagram post back in January, Houston Pride leaders cited rising costs of security, marketing and insurance. In the last few years, multiple festival attendees passed out due to high temperatures. They also said that volunteering was down 90% because of COVID-19 and part of the reason for scrapping the festival was “due to the Idaho incident. ” This is in reference to last year, when police in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho pulled over a U-Haul of 31 Patriot Front members, who police believed were going to riot at the city’s Pride Parade

Poindexter says despite the security restrictions, he anticipates a big attendance, if not larger than in other years.

“There’s a lot of excitement simply because there is a real culture war going on and I think it’s more than a war — it’s literally a cultural genocide,” he said.

The crowd gathered at a rally for Trans Day of Visibility at the Bexar County Courthouse listens to pediatrician Dr. Lulu in San Antonio on March 31, 2023.
A crowd gathering for a rally on Trans Day of Visibility at the Bexar County Courthouse listens to pediatrician Dr. Lulu in San Antonio, on March 31. Credit: Blaine Young for The Texas Tribune
First: Xen Dennis marches for Trans Day of Visibility in San Antonio on March 3. Last: Demonstrators march behind a police escort for Trans Day of Visibility in San Antonio.
First: Xen Dennis marches in San Antonio for Trans Day of Visibility. Last: Demonstrators march behind a police escort in San Antonio. Credit: Blaine Young for The Texas Tribune

San Antonio Pride usually hosts a contest for the public to decide on a theme for Pride each year. But this year, organizers decided to come up with a theme internally. They decided on “Just Say Gay” — a play on what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” laws, which prohibit some mentions of sexuality and gender identity in public school lessons. In Texas, LGBTQ+ advocates also labeled Texas lawmakers’ unsuccessful attempts to mirror Florida’s restrictions as “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

“If they’re going to say, ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ well, we’re going to turn it around and just turn it back on them and say, ‘Say Gay,’” he said.

Small-town organizers pivot

Pride organizers in smaller towns are feeling the ripple effects of the political atmosphere and cultural friction just as strongly as the larger cities.

In Dripping Springs, a small town outside Austin, organizers are pivoting.

Roberson, the Pride of Dripping Springs board member, remembers three years ago when he and a group of friends caught wind that the city was going to proclaim June as Pride Month. The group quickly decided to plan a Pride parade. They did so in just 43 days, and the event lasted 14 hours, drawing 1,800 attendees.

He remembers that organizers were worried about counter-demonstrators during the first year of Pride. Yet, the religiously motivated protesters in their town did not show up to their Pride, but the event in Taylor instead.

Each year since, Dripping Springs organizers have tried to make Pride bigger and more inclusive. The first year, there was just one drag performer, but last year there was “a legion of drag queens,” Roberson said.

He says this year feels different, though. Last week, someone filled out a form to be a business sponsor for Pride. But when Roberson read the form, it was a message telling him not to shove “gayness” down people’s throats.

“We feel it when we go to our local school board meeting — the ignorance,” he said.

He says organizers are not backing down. Instead, they’re emboldened by the response to the first Pride in Dripping Springs, when Roberson saw teens comfortable in ways he didn’t think they were in downtown or at their local high school.

Roberson and organizers are also drawing a delineation between kid-friendly events and after-hours events, as they try to ensure that Pride will remain family-friendly.

Pride in nearby Wimberley is not until Sept. 16, but organizer Kate Crosthwaite is already having meetings with the constable and sheriff to ensure a safe parade. After the first Pride there in 2019, some parents and a school board member wore shirts showing the school district’s logo incorporating rainbow colors from the LGBTQ+ pride flag. Backlash, a lawsuit and an attempt to remove the school board member from her position quickly followed. Yet, as much as Crosthwaite remembers the controversy, she more clearly remembers how many people rallied around the community and how many still do today.

“What we have found since then is that there is a minority in town that are vocal about their disagreement about our march. But it’s largely a minority,” she said.

Four years ago, 900 of the 3,000 residents in the area attended the Wimberly parade. To Crosthwaite, that large percentage of attendees dispelled any negativity and fears that arose from the controversy. She’s aware of the heightened emotions of Pride this year, and though safety is a priority, she does not believe it will detract from the event. In fact, the Pride committee has grown substantially this year in Wimberley.

“What we’re seeing is a drawing together, becoming stronger and I think allies are more present and more up front, not just during the march but interacting with our social media,” Crosthwaite said.

Chosen family

Kween Beatrix, a Brownsville native, activist and drag queen, started the city’s LGBTQ Task Force in 2019 after hate crimes in the area and the disappearance of trans woman Kimberly Avila.

Out of drag, Beatrix is Joe Colon-Uvalles and sees Brownsville as one of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley’s most forefront cities focused on LGBTQ+ safety and community. He understands the narrative that the Valley is turning more red and conservative — and wholeheartedly disagrees. He points to the new Republican mayor voting for the queer task force, the painting of a new rainbow crosswalk in the area, a nondiscrimination ordinance and a newly elected gay city commission member — the second in the city’s history.

“There’s a narrative, but the reality is incredibly different,” he said. “There’s a lot of hope and a lot of pride in people being proud to be from Brownsville.”

Angel Hernández, whose stage name is “Danika Karr”, performs at gay bar Bar-B in Brownsville, Texas on June 17, 2023. Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Angel Hernández performs as “Danika Karr” at gay bar Bar-B in Brownsville. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
First: Brownsville City Commissioner Roy De los Santos celebrates with other people who have gathered as part of the Pride Pub Crawl in Brownsville. Last: From left: Martin Mata “Aaliah Royale Ja’mean”, Angel Hernández “Danika Karr”, Isidro Vásquez, and David Dávila “Kyra Karr”, get ready for their performances.
First: Brownsville City Commission member Roy De los Santos celebrates with other people who have gathered as part of the Pride Pub Crawl in Brownsville. Last: From left: Martin Mata “Aaliah Royale Ja’mean”, Angel Hernández “Danika Karr”, Isidro Vásquez, and David Dávila “Kyra Karr”, get ready for their performances. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

This does not mean that Brownsville is immune to backlash, though. Navarro says they’ve noticed a large increase in individuals from other cities in Texas coming to drag events in Brownsville to videotape drag queens and attendees. It means the task force has had to focus on security even more this year.

“These people are saying what they love to say — [that] we’re grooming children and we’re predators — but they’re the ones posting videos of minors at these events,” Navarro said. “It gets me so worked up because they are trying to take away the safe spaces we created.”

The rainbow crosswalk was vandalized last week and covered over in white paint. Navarro said it’s being investigated.

New gay city leader, Brian Martinez, said their Pride flag was stolen the first year it was raised, so these kinds of incidents aren’t new to the task force. Within the last few years, though, he’s already seen changes in the city he’s called home his whole life.

“Change is not always met with open arms,” Martinez said. “But while they might not all accept it, so many more people are realizing that these people are their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers.”

Task force members are noticing more people deciding to not participate in Pride for fear of violence or harassment. Colon-Uvalles respects that decision but says this year’s Pride offers a new opportunity to come together. There’s a large spotlight, which means there’s a larger opportunity to be present and proud — and to look out for one another.

“In the Rio Grande Valley, we are really centered around our family, but that also means our chosen family,” he said. “We’re going to protect each other.”

Disclosure: Human Rights Campaign has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

"LGBTQ Texans move forward with Pride plans despite tense political environment and fears of violence" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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