Woman, brown and queer: Lourdes Zavaleta breaks the mold for queer identity

June is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are often regarded as the turning point in the modern gay rights movement and deserve recognition as Pride Month. Houston Press met members of the LGBTQ community to learn more about their experiences belonging to this group. These are their stories.

Coming out is always more fun the second time around – just ask Lourdes Zavaleta. The 26-year-old Houstonian’s appeal to both women and men was one that she suppressed at first, but now she sees her experience in the LGBT community as one that has given her the ability to be a catalyst for change.

“I first started having strange feelings, probably around high school. I knew I liked girls, but because I come from a very religious and Latino family, I didn’t think I would ever research that,” she said. “This is also around the late 2000s/early 2010s, so marriage equality wasn’t a thing yet.”

After graduating from Dobie High School, Zavaleta enrolled at the University of Houston with a journalism major, which she says created a safe space for her.

“When I was in college I wanted to be part of the LGBT community, but I didn’t know how to do that without actually challenging myself. So I started doing it through journalism. In my classes or whenever I writing for the school paper, I was trying to pitch LGBT topics so I would have a way to get myself into space without having to say, “I’m here because I want to be here,” and could instead say: “I’m here because I’m doing an assignment.” That created a little bubble for me,” Zavaleta recalls.

At the same time, she felt like she was leading a double life. During her studies she learned more and more about the LGBT community. At home she was still in the closet with her parents. But come graduate, that changed quickly.

“I met my partner when I was 21, and we started dating in secret for a few months. Then I graduated from college, which was another part of the story. Growing up with Baptist parents and hearing some pretty negative things about the LGBTQ community at the church we went to, I didn’t want to come out until after I graduated because in the worst case scenario I could move out as soon as I finished my degree.” said Zavaleta. “After graduating, I came out as a lesbian to my parents, and a few months later they found out I was dating a girl.”

click to enlarge Lourdes Zavaleta has a knack for keeping it cool, calm and composed.  - PHOTOGRAPH BY AUBREY ARNOLD

Lourdes Zavaleta has a knack for keeping it cool, calm and composed.

Photo by Aubrey Arnold

That wouldn’t be the end of her coming out experience. Now that her parents and friends knew she identified as a lesbian, they were stunned when Zavaleta came out for the second time.

“After dating for two years, my partner told me he wanted to switch to male sex. Before that, I think I only identified as a lesbian because at the time it seemed like that was the person I was dating and who I felt I was most on par with. But in the back of my mind I didn’t know I was completely sure about that label. I’ve been thinking about that for a while. When my partner told me he wanted to switch, I said I should tell him something too.”

She told him that she might not be a lesbian, but she was bisexual and she could date anyone.

“We both came out at the same time and we’ve been together for almost five years now,” she said.

It soon became known that Zavaleta was bisexual, which confused some of her family and friends.

“I think the funniest thing I hear sometimes is that bisexual people are just confused. I’m confused about a lot of things…but not my sexuality, and that was something I had to work through,” she said. “Some of my immediate family members didn’t understand, and they asked what had happened, as I had previously told them I was a lesbian. I explained that I didn’t really know… but that I just love people, and that’s it.”

At that point in her life and fully accepting her sexuality, Zavaleta felt the need to get involved politically, especially as a queer woman of color. After all, her father is an immigration attorney and her mother, an elementary school teacher in a disadvantaged Latino community, emigrated from Mexico in her teens and is now a US citizen. How could she not use her talents to stand up for marginalized communities?

She used her journalistic skills to write articles about local elections, and she volunteered for election protection. The National, Nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition includes more than 100 local, state and national partners who work year-round to promote and defend electoral rights. Her past contributions to civic engagement and the potential to continue her engagement have caught the attention of the League of Women Voters of Texas, who named her a Rising Star in 2020.

“About 30 leaders in Houston were selected to be part of this program that spent a year training us in community building, and it was very election-oriented. Through the program, I was part of a group that focused on homelessness and voting. And I wanted to be part of that group because there is a high percentage of homeless youth who are LGBTQ,” she said. “I helped the league put together voter registration drives for the LGBTQ/homeless community, and I helped create an FAQ page for non-resident voters, and it was published in the league’s 2021 voting guide.”

Zavaleta’s star continues to rise. Most recently, South Texas College of Law enrolled her in the program so she can one day work in LGBTQ, immigration, and women’s rights issues. And as for her family, she says they are making progress in accepting their daughter’s sexuality and relationship.

She said: “When I first came out, they didn’t quite understand at the time, but I think every day is another step in a better direction. At the moment we are planning a day when they will meet my partner for the first time. We’ve been together for five years, so for me this is a very good sign.”

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