“It can be hard to be gay in East Texas, but it can be harder to be a Democrat”
East Texas Stonewall held its first meeting on Aug. 1 in Longview with an ambitious plan: become the largest Stonewall group in Texas.
That goal may be possible, because East Texas Stonewall covers a 30-county area stretching from the Oklahoma and Arkansas borders on the north, to the Louisiana border on the east, to the Lufkin and Nacogdoches areas on the south and the DFW area on the west.
While 30 counties out of the total 254 in Texas may not seem like that much, its actually almost 1 percent of all counties in the U.S. Fifteen states have fewer than 30 counties and these counties cover an area larger than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island put together.
But the new Stonewall group’s organizers aren’t scared off by the size of the area they’re looking at coordinating. And, according to Dallas Stonewall President Jay Narey, organizing such a large geographic area under one umbrella isn’t unique in Texas. The Central Texas Stonewall group also covers a large multi-county area, he said.
The first East Texas Stonewall meeting was held in Longview and the next one will be in Tyler. But over the next couple of months, the group will also hit Ben Wheeler, a tiny community halfway between Tyler and Canton, and Nacogdoches, situated about 70 miles south of Longview, as well.
Josh Gibson from Longview went to the state Democratic convention for the first time as a Hillary Clinton delegate from Senate District 1. There he met Karen Wilkerson from Tyler and became reacquainted with Patrick Franklin, who’s also from Longview. Franklin became the first openly gay person to run for office in East Texas when he ran for a Texas House seat in 2006.
Wilkerson said starting an East Texas Stonewall group was something she’d thought about for years, but “We’ve never been able to get enough people interested.”
But that changed this year. “Patrick and I discussed the idea at the state convention,” Wilkerson said, adding that they formed a steering committee at a convention lunch.
After returning from the state meeting, Wilkerson said they met a few times by phone and email and set up their Facebook page. Gibson said they wrote by-laws and were ready to meet by the beginning of this month. They met at RMC, a gay bar in downtown Longview.
Attendees included Shirley McKellar who’s running for the U.S. House against the man many call the stupidest person serving in Congress, Louis Gohmert of Tyler.
Gibson said this was just a good time to organize the area’s LGBT community politically. “People in East Texas are fed up with the leadership in Austin and D.C.,” he said.
Wilkerson acknowledged that organizing in a 30-county area will be a challenge. “There are no political organizations for LGBT people in those areas,” she noted, adding that Stonewall organizers’ goal is to help activists become more aware and give them more tools to have a voice in their representation.
“It can be hard to be gay in East Texas, but it can be even harder to be a Democrat in East Texas,” Wilkerson said, comparing the original Stonewall rebellion in New York to gay people living in East Texas now.
“Their backs were against the wall and had nothing to lose,” she said of the Stonewall rioters. “That’s how we feel in East Texas, where meddlesome bigots still control the political power. We’ve had it.”
On Friday, June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its marriage equality ruling, Wilkerson and her partner went to the county courthouse to get a marriage license and were denied. After they threatened a lawsuit and officials held closed-door meetings, a deputy clerk issued the license the following Monday. Wilkerson had to travel to Rusk in nearby Cherokee County to get East Texas P-FLAG member Judge Dwight Pfifer to sign a waiver of the three-day waiting period, so that she and her partner could marry that day.
With that paper in hand, their minister married them and they became the first same-sex couple to marry in Smith County, where Tyler is located.
Wilkerson compared her ordeal to what happened in Dallas, where nearly every judge was available to sign waivers and perform weddings on Marriage Equality Day and other elected officials came out to celebrate. “There’s a pall of oppression here [in East Texas], especially on politically-charged matters,” she said.
Wilkerson said a number of factors came together this summer — Trump, a Democratic candidate in Hillary Clinton that people could rally around, the need to organize to oppose the bathroom bills expected to be introduced in the next Texas Legislature.
“It’s time for everyone to get on the same page and push for equality,” she said.
She said a number of things are going on in East Texas. Project TAG — Tyler Area Gays — is working to fund a community center for the area and is already a member of Centerlink, the national organization of LGBT community centers. Pineywoods Voice, a support group for young LGBT people, meets twice a month.
And when the next East Texas Stonewall meeting takes place in Tyler at the Chamber of Commerce building, the Tyler Transgender Support Group will meet in the same space immediately after.
“Stonewall wants to be fighters for candidates,” Wilkerson said. That will involve lots of fundraising and block walking. And she knows it’ll be an uphill climb. The last time Smith County voted for a Democrat in a presidential race was in 1948 for Harry Truman.
But Gibson is optimistic East Texas Stonewall will make a difference. He thinks it just makes sense to organize in all 30 East Texas counties, because
“There are gay people in every one of those counties.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 12, 2016.