Women in cowboy hats, tight jeans and hairstyles both long and cropped -- whatever they consider their lesbian Saturday-night best -- lean against the bar and couches of the 1415 Bar & Grill. Nancy Ford, comedian, is on stage hosting the weekly "Dyke Show," singing a song inspired by what she calls two of her favorite things, lesbian safe sex and Dr. Seuss, called "The Scratch on the Snatch."
Six days later Nancy Ford, activist, is singing "The Scratch on the Snatch" to a giggling group of teenagers at a Montrose church. About 20 members of HATCH (the Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals) have slung themselves over chairs and are plowing through cookies as only teens can. The jokes Ford tells to HATCH are many of the same ones from Saturday's "Dyke Show," minus a degree of raunchiness -- and the booze, of course.
Weekdays, she's Nancy Ford, managing editor of TXT Newsmagazine, a gay and lesbian weekly. She's best known for her column of nearly 20 years, "What a World."
She is many things, this Nancy Ford. She is everywhere and knows everyone. She's hilarious and menopausal and great with a guitar. She's SO SINGLE that she asked it be printed in capital letters, and she's particularly distressed that her goldfish, a recent gift for her 50th birthday, just died. If Jon Stewart is any indication, politics suffused with comedy carries much more clout than mere complaint. And so Nancy Ford is that rarest of things: a lovable activist.
Ford came to Houston in 1980, in pursuit of a woman. The move entailed much more than packing her bags: It meant leaving her native Ohio and her husband, whom she'd married despite knowing at age three that she'd rather have a wife. Her first weekend here, the lesbian bar Kindred Spirits opened. "This was the first time I had ever seen more than, like, nine lesbians together, on anything more than a softball team," she says. "It clicked, something in my brain. I knew that this was where I belonged."
For the next ten years Ford tried to make it as a performer while piecing together day jobs and a social life. At night, she performed with the comedy group Houston Off-Broadway, and during the day she delivered singing telegrams for a company owned by Greg Jeu. He offered Ford a job at his new magazine, Uptown Express, and so Nancy Ford, journalist, began her work.
Nancy Ford, activist, arrived as many activists do: on the heels of tragedy -- in this case, the AIDS epidemic. "There wasn't anything funnier at that time in the comedy clubs than AIDS jokes," Ford says. "I would do my little set surrounded by this kind of comedy, and it was just demoralizing." So she quit the straight comedy clubs and took to the gay scene, appearing at the ubiquitous AIDS fund-raisers. "It gave me a tremendous, tremendous opportunity to perform, and to perform as an out lesbian, and feel like I was doing something worthwhile."
Meanwhile, every male member of Houston Off-Broadway -- three of them -- died. "Our gay community needed a laugh," Ford says. "Really, really bad."
"Nancy Ford was early to recognize that being a lesbian in this society really sucks," says gay rights advocate Ray Hill. "She correctly figured out that humor was an extremely powerful tool that could be used to uplift people out of their prison, which is frequently self-imposed." Jack Valinski, executive director of Pride Houston, reflects upon laughs shared during Ford's visits to his radio show. "Sometimes you have to laugh about things when they're so bad, because that's how you get through them."
There are a few things Ford can't laugh about, even in retrospect. Her personal nadir was her encounter with the "Straight Slate," a group of right-wing candidates who ran for City Council on an antigay platform. Ford went to City Hall for a hearing on the issue, initially thinking the smiling, friendly crowds she encountered were "my people."
"You could hear people singing hymns -- you know, the hymns that I grew up with." But when she stepped off the elevator, she saw KKK people. "It just sent a chill through my heart. I felt so betrayed and so delineated, and I thought, 'Now it's them against us.' "
From the ashes of the AIDS epidemic and the ultimately failed Straight Slate came an outburst of gay pride, local and national. Ford started her weekly "Dyke Show" in 1991; in 1993, she and Jeu founded OutSmart Magazine.
Ford's high point came in 1999, when she was elected grand marshal of the Houston Pride Parade. It was the same year Jerry Falwell proclaimed that Teletubbie Tinky Winky was gay, so Ford rolled down Westheimer dressed all in purple, with a giant purple triangle over her head. She was Tinky Winky's PFLAG mom, greeting her supporters at the largest nighttime parade in the South.
As for her detractors, see the neoconservative government that's edging toward a constitutional ban on gay marriage. See SpongeBob SquarePants' recent "outing." See local billboards proclaiming God's power to "convert" homosexuals to heterosexuality. Ford says, "Of course -- of course -- God can change someone from gay to straight. Or from straight to gay. Or from straight to...mollusk. This is God we're talking about here. Just because he can do it -- he or she, I'll toss that out -- doesn't mean it should be done."
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Ford, a woman of faith, is sad about religion's role in antigay movements. "I would hope that so many of these religious organizations -- the evangelicals -- would get off the Leviticus and get on the Beatitudes," she says. The best thing a gay person can do, she explains, is to come out, and come out shouting.
Easier said than done, of course. "People on the outside of our community just don't have any reason to understand that what gay, lesbian and transgendered people lack is role models," says Hill. Yet here one stands with a T-shirt draped over her chest that reads "Stonewall 25," left over from the celebration marking the quarter-century anniversary of the pivotal gay-liberation riot and protest.
Ford explains to HATCH members how the event fits into gay and lesbian history. "Chances are our history will be diluted," she says. Ford tells the kids that they're responsible for continuing it. "I am becoming a relic," she says, clearly saddened by the thought of fading away.
Then again, don't be surprised to see her performing at the celebration for Stonewall 50.