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It has been 44 years since the now-famous Stonewall riots of New York City, which are often considered the single most monumental event in the history of gay and lesbian rights. On a hot June night, a community took action and unleashed a power that had not been seen before. Every year in June, cities around the world remember this occasion with a weeklong celebration, and if we do say so ourselves, Houston shows pride like no one else, with ten days of events.
The Human Rights campaign goes far beyond a bumper sticker.
Drive around Houston for any length of time and you're sure to notice that familiar equal-sign bumper sticker proudly displayed on the back of a pickup truck; it's the quintessential mark of a Houstonian showing his or her pride. If you've driven behind such a bumper and wondered what exactly that equal sign stood for, then you've been overlooking the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil liberties organization in the country, the Human Rights Campaign. HRC was founded in 1980 with the mission of advocating on behalf of the LGBT community on a national level. Here in Houston, our local chapter has also played a large part in making the LGBT community what it is today.
In terms of progressiveness, Houston is doing fairly well. With the country's first openly lesbian mayor, Houston stands out as something of a blue bubble in a sea of red. Houston's HRC is pretty proud of that fact.
"Right now, our major goal is to keep Mayor Parker in office," Jennifer Bajorek, HRC Federal Club co-founder and a member of Houston's HRC board, says by phone.
Bajorek and her colleagues have been working hard to get the word out about the local chapter and how effective it has been due to the support of the city. On the national level, HRC spends a lot of its time and resources lobbying Washington to push bills that will support the gay community, and lately there's been a lot of activity going on in that area, with gay marriage such a hot-button issue.
But Bajorek says that even with Houston's liberal leanings, she worries that Texas will continue to lag behind the gay marriage curve; as of this month, 12 states legally recognize gay marriage. But that doesn't mean Houston needs to give up.
"The more people that come into the fold, the more we can do together to make an impact," says Bajorek.
And that fold is looking for more hands on deck. Houston's HRC is a completely volunteer-run organization, with all its donations going to the national foundation. It regularly sponsors events, supports relevant local legislation and educates the city on all things related to its cause. Houston was recently named the recipient of the Welcoming Schools Program, which offers "tools, lessons and resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotyping, and ending bullying and name-calling in elementary schools." That's a huge accomplishment for the chapter.
It has also been Bajorek's mission in the five years she's been with the organization to expand the diversity of the board and subsequent committees.
"Houston is such an international city. I want to make sure that all voices are represented, and I think we are getting there," she says.
In terms of Pride, HRC will have a booth at the festival and will be marching in the parade as well. Bajorek invites everyone to come out, march with the group and show their support for all to see. Because isn't that what unleashing your pride is all about?
"Unleashing your pride is about getting out there and putting it all out in the open," Bajorek says.
Female Grand Marshal Robin Brown knows how to raise money, advance awareness.
Robin Brown, this year's Pride Parade Female Grand Marshal, is an in-demand woman. Nonprofit organizations try and snatch her up because of her outstanding track record for raising both funds and awareness, not an easy feat. Her résumé is full of leadership positions that nongovernmental organizations drool over. Brown has served on the Board of Uncommon Legacy; she was a committee member for the Houston Black Tie/Human Rights Campaign gala. In the ten years she's been with the HRC, membership has grown, and she was co-chair of the annual Victory Fund Champagne Brunch that aided in the recent election of 124 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates. And now she's the Female Grand Marshal for Houston's Pride.
We chatted with Brown during a busy weekday lunch to get the scoop on what it means to be so important to Houston's LGBT community.
Houston Press: You have such a diverse background in fundraising and growing organizations. How did you get into that?
Robin Brown: My very first fundraiser that I did was back in high school. I used to do the muscular dystrophy dance marathons for two high schools in the area, and I did that for three years. And that got me the bug.
HP: And where did you go from there?
RB: Then I did a lot of stuff! Obviously HRC, Victory Fund has been my latest passion; I just started my second term. And I actually got a nice award from them; I got the Most Valuable New Member Award in 2011.
HP: How has your fundraising helped the LGBT community?
RB: In the LGBT community, back in the early '90s, the only fundraising we did was around AIDS. And then it kind of moved into supporting the youth; we raised funds to give at-risk youth scholarships. And then the issues became more social, which is why I got involved with HRC. The discrimination that was happening nationwide was really coming to the forefront, and we were making a difference.
And then it became, for me, now we need to get the right people in the right positions to start creating bills and bringing issues to the forefront. There is still so much at stake.
HP: And now, in addition to all of these accomplishments, you are Houston Pride's Female Grand Marshal. When the nomination came up, how did it feel, and how did it feel when you won?
RB: Well, first of all, it was an honor just to be nominated. When I was elected, I was actually not in town when they announced it. I was out celebrating my 50th birthday, and I got a text message at dinner. It was a great feeling, the best birthday present ever! It is so humbling to be recognized for the stuff that I do. I am honored.
HP: You will now be going to the parade as something of a star, not just an onlooker. How does that feel?
RB: We have lots of responsibilities leading up to it. I don't just get to go and wave. We have ten days of Pride, and the marshals attend all of the events. And Pride is not just about a party and a parade. It's about getting the word out, too. One example is a screening we are doing of a movie called Breaking Through, which is about elected LGBT officials, and it even features the mayor. So that will be a very cool event. And on the day of the event, I am looking forward to riding in the parade and seeing the 300,000 people who are proud of what we do. And then I get to have some fun! And there is a lot to celebrate and, hopefully, with what's going on in the Supreme Court, we will have even more to celebrate.
HP: This year's Pride theme is "Pride Unleashed." What does that mean to you?
RB: I think it's about how we have been able to take down a lot of barriers. I think people are more who they want to be now, and they are proud to be the free spirits that they are. It's not just about the crazy folks who want to party, but it's about families and kids who are now our allies. Who will be proud to sit on the floats with us.
Pride is more than just a big party.
Most of us know Pride as the annual massive blowout, an all-day block party that fills the streets of Montrose with multicolored flags waving high above booths of goodies, with some of the most amazing people-watching you'll find in Houston all year, culminating in one of the biggest parades to march down Westheimer. But there's so much more to Pride than just a big party.
Pride, a certified nonprofit organization consisting of dedicated volunteers, doesn't just sit around all year waiting for the last weekend of June to rock out. They're hard at work year-round to convey their mission and the purpose of Pride, which is often forgotten among the fanfare. The Pride team wants to make sure that the real meaning behind the movement never becomes a distant memory. Pride is celebrated to honor the Stonewall Riots of New York, which took place on June 28, 1969, and spurred a movement that would forever change the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
One way Houston Pride ensures that future generations will be aware of the back story is to get out there and tell them. For the past three years, the Pride organization has been taking history into the classroom by visiting college campuses across Houston.
Javier Ramirez, the executive vice president of Pride, worries that up-and-coming LGBT young people will never know of the struggles their ancestors had to endure. Unless we keep that history alive, he fears it will be lost.
"The panorama has changed so much over the years." Ramirez says. "We want to make sure the youth know that, hey, it wasn't always as easy as it is today."
Since the inception of the university and college seminar series, Ramirez and other volunteers have visited the campuses of University of Houston, UH-Downtown and Lone Star College, and this year they'll visit Houston Community College. The team screens a video that provides some context to the history of Pride and then opens the floor for students to have an uninhibited and honest discussion. The response has been incredibly positive.
"Many students have said they didn't know anything about Stonewall or the history, so I think us talking about it has made an impact," Ramirez mentions.
Additionally, Ramirez thinks that using an open-floor approach gives students more freedom of expression. Rather than presenting a history lesson, this allows the students more engagement.
The Pride team hopes to reach even more colleges and universities in coming years and invites any school that wants to learn more about the program to contact them.
"We want the kids out there to know, yeah, Pride is fun, but there is so much more to it than just a big party."