June is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, often regarded as the tipping point in the modern gay rights movement and earning its recognition as Pride Month. Houston Press met with members of the LGBTQ+ community to learn more about their experiences as being part of this group. These are their stories.
You just can't keep a good woman down. Navigating the world blind, transitioning genders, and earning the top spot in one of Houston's leading LGBTQ philanthropic groups has got to be exhausting; but for Alexis Nicole Whitney, it's just another day.
Growing up in San Antonio, Whitney knew she wanted to be a woman since she was little.
"I was the one playing with Barbies and playing with my girl cousins. I knew I was in the wrong body," she said.
As a high schooler, Whitney was a natural born leader. She was on the cheer team, a class officer, and National Honor Society vice president. She never shied away from public attention, even if she didn't fit the mold.
"I wanted to be proud of who I am and not be embarrassed. I was such a feminine guy, but I didn’t have much bullying. I was popular actually. Everyone knew who I was," she said. "Of course, I had a few people who would taunt me because I’m gay, but it was never serious enough that it would put me into depression."
High school was also a time in her life when she was introduced to something new that would stay with her to this day.
"In high school, my senior year was the first time I went to a gay bar. I started dressing up in drag and enjoyed it. I felt comfortable in my own skin," she said. "I started seeing the entertainers and performers, and I though 'I could do this.' That’s how it all started."
From there, the interest only grew stronger. She competed in the drag circuit, earning pageant crowns and building her reputation as a polished performer.
After finishing high school, she was whisked away into the exciting world of nightlife. But as often happens in life, her mettle would be tested.
"I was diagnosed with spinal meningitis, and as a result, I went blind in November 1998. I was in a coma for two weeks. My heart stopped twice. If my heart stopped a third time, they were going to let me go. I was supposed to be paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors thought I would be wheelchair bound for the rest of my life," she recalled.
"The doctors said most don’t make it and that I was a walking miracle," Whitney commented. "After coming out of the hospital, I decided I was going to fight my way back."
She credits her fondness for performing on stage as one of her biggest motivators to make a comeback.
"What kept me going was performing...wanting to get back on stage. Waking up blind was the most horrible thing someone can go through. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I had to get used to it really fast. I’m a fighter — I got that from my grandmother. I never believed in giving up, and I wanted to accomplish things in life," she said. "It was depressing for a month or two. If I didn’t have performing to fall back on, I don’t know if I would have survived."
She eventually did make her way back to the stage. To perform, though, required her to relearn how to do commonplace activities. Having lived for 22 years with sight, she knew colors, and she used other clues to guide her with her makeup and clothing.
"I’ve done my makeup by myself. When the COVID-19 quarantine started, I did a makeup tutorial on Facebook Live where I did everything for myself," Whitney said. "I have different palettes and containers. I scratch the bottom of the container, so I know if it’s black or nude. There’s little tricks I do so that I know what color they are. I know the bottom three are dark, medium and light brown. It’s a lot of memorizing."
For her clothes, she said, "I know the feel of fabric. When I have a garment made, I go to someone I trust, and I tell them what I want. They know my tastes, and we go from there. Once I get everything done, the second bedroom in my house is my drag closet. I know the dresses because the feel of the fabric and the style of the dress. From there, I feel the different fabrics. For example, I have two different red dresses. One has a lining and one doesn’t, so that’s how I tell them apart."
Having gained her independence — as well as starting her gender reassignment — being back on the stage gave her a renewed sense of purpose. By performing despite her blindness, people began to see her as an inspiration. In turn, she decided to take her good fortune and help others. She got involved in the court system - a network of nonprofit groups that operate across the United States . She was involved heavily in the San Antonio chapter before she moved to Dallas in 2010 and then to Houston in 2012.
Continuing in that spirit, Whitney took an active role in Houston's chapter of The Empire of the Royal Sovereign and Imperial Court of the Single Star, Inc. The organization exists to sponsor, support, and promote community charitable and educational programs and efforts; promote and recognize community leaders; and promote harmony among people in the community.
Now in its 35th year, Whitney was elected as the organization's Empress in January, and she's using her position to support animal welfare and elderly LGBTQ residents, among other causes.
"I’ve always wanted to be an Empress because they raise money and give back to the community. [During my pageants years, I] pulled back from helping charity during that time, but after I won my national title, it was time to start giving back again," she said.
When not supporting philanthropic endeavors, she works at Tony's Corner Pocket as a show host on Wednesdays as well as on the weekends - depending on what is happening with COVID-19.
"I’m glad to be a part of Tony's because the bar owner is a person who loves to give back to the community," Whitney said, listing St. Jude's and PWA Holiday Charities as regular beneficiaries. "I’ve become an activist for the Houston community in terms of fundraising."
Having overcome so much in life, Whitney has advice for people, especially during Pride Month.
"Always be proud of who you are. Life is short. People take life for granted. No one knew the coronavirus would come, and it’s put the world on pause. We can’t take life, family or our jobs for granted. We could be here one day and gone the next," she said.
As a final thought, she added, "Be thankful for what you have. People ask if I get depressed because I’m blind, but I live by myself, I have a dog, I pay my own bills, and I do it by myself. I’m a strong person, and I don’t let that get to me."
To learn more about Pride Houston, visit PrideHouston.org.