UH activist faces next big challenge: the future

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There is little passivity in James Lee’s politics. At University of Houston,  he advocated passionately for policies to protect LGBT students. Now the recent grad faces his next challenge – the future.

While Lee, who became civically engaged before he could even vote, might not know what the future holds, the 24-year-old is proving himself an emerging leader on the local LGBT political front. 

Inspired by his parents’ community involvement in a conservative Catholic childhood, Lee’s political engagement began as MoveOn.org’s youngest national organizer during the 2008 election. Since then, Lee has knocked on hundreds of doors for Planned Parenthood, is responsible for key campus policies protecting LGBT students as a two-term student senator at UH, and he was recently elected President of the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. 

Less than a year after putting a face and his fruitful efforts on why a poll put UH among the bravest Southern campuses, Lee chatted with Project Q about his activism’s roots and reasons, his policy work at UH and the dreaded question for any college graduate – what’s next.

Where do you trace the roots of your involvement in the political process?

I grew up in a conservative Catholic household. My parents raised me in a very politically minded environment because of the beliefs of the church. My father was a probation officer and my mother, she was a nurse. Together I saw them really involved in the community in different ways.  This combination … is what really got me interested in politics and civic engagement.  What better way to change your environment and speak up for other people?

How did University of Houston’s ‘Bravest College Campuses’ rating come about?

To my surprise, when I got on campus, while it had an LGBT resource center, [UH] didn’t fully protect all LGBT students. There were gaps in policy that could be implemented to better represent the community. 

Right off the bat, the first semester I was there, I started forming an organization called the LGBT Advocate, a brand-new organization focused on getting LGBT students and allies involved in the policy making process on campus. 

Our first goal was to make sure that our non-discrimination policy included gender identity and expression to protect transgender and gender queer students on campus. We formed a coalition with other organizations and really pressured student government to pass this law. We got it done and it actually wound up to be a better policy than what we advocated for. At the time we were advocating just for the UH main campus but our efforts made it so that the entire UH system— all campuses— would protect gender identity/expression.

Why did you get involved in student government?

When I started my work with the LGBT Advocates and changing the non-discrimination policy, I was not a part of student government. It made the whole process a lot harder because I was one step removed; I didn’t have that same voice that someone in student government might have. After that effort, I decided I really needed to become a part of student government. I got elected and began work on an extension of the [non-discrimination] policy – 

The Josephine Tittsworth Act, which Campus Pride cited in their UH ranking?

Yes, The Josephine Tittsworth Act dealt with issues related to transgender student IDs and documentation. Last year, a student came to the student government association and told us she had been having some problems in the classrooms being outted when professors would call her attendance . . .We took this as an opportunity to say this is happening on our campus, we need to go further and make sure all students are able to learn on campus without fear of discrimination in the classroom or academic advising situations. 

Was attending UH a conscious decision?

Yes, I specifically chose to go the University of Houston. One, my father attended UH, and I wanted to go somewhere with some roots. It was also one of the schools that housed an LGBT resource center, and I really wanted to go to a place where I could feel comfortable. Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, it wasn’t the friendliest place to LGBT people. I knew going to college in a new city, I wanted to be able to be myself.

You mentioned a conservative Catholic childhood and now Brownsville. What was coming out like?

I never really came out in high school. I didn’t feel like I needed to. I felt as if my peers … knew. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was 18 or 19. It was New Year’s Day, and I decided going to bed I didn’t want to keep living my life like that. I didn’t want to be in the closet to my parents. I wrote them a letter and I left it for them to read. The next day, I woke up and they had opened the letter and had gone to church.

For a while, we just didn’t talk about it. I’d say that things are much better now. We definitely had some real arguments and differences about me being gay. Growing up, they always expressed negative opinions about gay people, gay men specifically. I think my being open and honest about myself, my relationships and my involvement in the community has really shown my parents that gay people aren’t people who can’t succeed. I think I’ve convinced them that me being gay isn’t something that’s going hold me back. I feel as if I’ve succeeded and I’m going places. 

So where is James Lee going? 

Earlier this year, I started working with Legacy Community Health as their Public Affairs Field Specialist. My role is to assist the government affairs department in lobbying for issues that Legacy supports or issues that affect Legacy at the Texas Legislature and within the city of Houston. We reach out to our patients to try and get them civically engaged so they have better control over their healthcare needs.

No further political aspirations?

Throughout college, I thought about this a lot. I think at some point in my life, if I feel it's right, I might. But I'm realistic about this possibility. Serving in public office is a great responsibility and opportunity to help people, and not everyone gets the chance, no matter how passionate or well suited they are. Right now I'm focusing on my career in healthcare. Healthcare policy advocacy is really important to me, and I hope to one day become a leader in the field like Januari Leo of Legacy Community Health or Angie Wiens of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.

Finally, James, share something that readers might find surprising.

I can sing. I very much enjoy singing Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald covers. When I was in high school, I actually had a small band.  Now, what I find most calming is playing my baritone ukulele at the beach and not writing down anything and seeing what happens.

[photo courtesy Dailey Hubbard]

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