The annual Dallas pride parade, which took place last Sunday, holds special significance for Lula Villa-Brown, a queer and nonbinary advocate for people who exist outside the mainstream, including queer and trans people, people of color and immigrants. When Villa-Brown went to the parade with her mother as a child, it was a turning point. Exposed to people of color dressed in vibrant drag for the first time, Villa-Brown felt liberated.
“I grew up very poor in Dallas without having much of a sense of stability beyond school,” Villa-Brown says. “My mom was super active in trying to help other people. I remember being in fourth or fifth grade when my mom took me to my first pride parade. We went out to support friends who were in drag and who were queer. She had a conversation with me about the faces we were seeing. ... Up until then I hadn’t been aware on that level.”
From then on, Villa-Brown began to identify with the faces at the drag clubs where they would go to visit friends, working class minorities and immigrants who became their true selves after dark. Villa-Brown became increasingly interested in the advocacy work their mother did, whether that was marching in a protest for immigration and LGBTQ rights or paying for groceries for a struggling family in front of them in the checkout line.
“I really respect my mom for this sort of devalued emotional labor I watched her perform her entire life," Villa-Brown says. "She always felt there was something she could give."
Today, Villa-Brown is dedicated to identifying and addressing the needs of people in their community, in much the same way their mom did. This year that has taken the form of events such as the FemmeBomb at Double Wide, an event that raised money for women's healthcare and featured performances by musicians and community workers. Coming up is a protest of a detention center in Alvarado, which has touted a special unit for transgender people.
Villa-Brown's decision to carry on their mother's torch came after leaving Dallas to attend Texas A&M for college, where it was difficult to fit in — an experience that motivated Villa-Brown to return home and become a community caregiver.
“When I went to college that was my first time away from Dallas," Villa-Brown says. "It was there I found myself totally surrounded by people I did not identify with. I started to come to these deeper realizations of where I came from and who my community is.”
Emotionally depleted upon returning to Dallas, Villa-Brown found support through the Trans-Pride Initiative, a nonprofit working to empower trans and gender nonconforming people and improve their living conditions. Villa-Brown also linked up with Denton’s student activist communities, including Mueve, which is made up mostly of Latinx folks (a gender-inclusive term for the Latin American community).
Gradually, Villa-Brown began to meet the queer and POC artists in Dallas, such as poets Edyka Chilome and Fatima-Ayan Hirsi, who also work in community organizing and activism.
“The way that I fell into doing the work that I do is a matter of survival, which is the way a lot of us fall into this work," Villa-Brown says. "It’s our life experience to be in the intersection of a lot of difficult identities: queer, nonbinary, dealing with mental health issues."
That work can be as simple as crowdfunding to pay one person's rent because they're going through a hard time, or even just listening. "It’s not always about tangible things," Villa-Brown says. "We need our humanity acknowledged. To me, this means providing each other a soft place to land, to cry, to feel, to process. That has its own very special and revolutionary value.”
Villa-Brown and their partner, Lacy, often open their home to friends and people escaping domestic violence. One recent guest was a woman escaping sex trafficking. "It was a call the day of, and they were coming that night," Villa-Brown says. "It was as simple as providing a key to our door."
Their home was also a safe haven after the peaceful Black Lives Matter march downtown Dallas was interrupted by a lone shooter's violent killing of five police officers.
"I think it’s hard for our communities to reach out to mainstream places of support," Villa-Brown says. "It’s not as simple as telling people to see a therapist. These are spaces where our people have genuine fear and anxiety of going. ... We are not therapists or doctors, but the basic level of peer and community support is important to be met.”
While often Villa-Brown's work is quiet and behind-the-scenes, sometimes it does take the form of loud, public events celebrating nonconforming artists in places "where they can make money, be uplifted and be validated.”
That was the case with FemmeBomb, which honored femme people of all backgrounds, and raised funds for the Cicada Collective — an organization that provides transportation, lodging and doula services to those seeking abortions in North Texas — as well as Planned Parenthood Raiz.
Artists Mothface, Francine Thirteen and DJ Ursa Minor all performed. “It was really important for us to have these acts specifically. These are people who are doing work way above the standard; they deserve to be paid!"
Villa-Brown was pleased the event took place at Double Wide, since there aren't a lot of specifically pro-queer performance spaces in Dallas. "We might carve out a pocket somewhere, but they are not intentionally there for us," Villa-Brown says. "It was a way to show the community, 'We are here and look how many of us there are!'”
Villa-Brown knows it may be easier for them to demand recognition than other nonconforming people still struggling with their identities, and that's why they have such a strong sense of responsibility. “A lot of the time I know I have slightly more of a sense of stability than someone else who shows up to a hostile or oppressive space," Villa-Brown says. "I have a little more fight in me to be there, to demand it. To carve that space out. So I do it.”
Currently, Villa-Brown is organizing against the building of a detention center in Alvarado, which has touted a special unit for trans people. “It’s masquerading as some yoga spa, but is really nothing more than a cage for our people. I have been working on generating resources logistical and financial to see what we can do. We have seen it happen in other cities. Conversations are happening with a strong national network that are participating in this. It is really important to connect with people outside of the state as much as we can.”
But Villa-Brown says it's not always about protesting; just as often it's about steadily working to improve the community you yourself are in. They say one step is to financially reward the work of artists and activists. “I think emotional labor is extremely undervalued in our community."
The other crucial step is recognizing that many marginalized people will require more empathy than normal to overcome the trauma they've experienced.
"I want to be a part of a movement that calls us more compassionately and clearly to learn these lessons and be eager to pass them on," Villa-Brown says. "Our community is resilient, brilliant, innovative and creative. We are just in a lot of pain that will require a lot of love to heal.”
For Villa-Brown, showing love to their peers is a natural extension of the values their mother instilled in them, as well as a way of expressing gratitude for the people and resources that helped them develop a secure sense of self. “It’s this idea of not just getting your foot in the door but holding the door open for people that are coming after you."