This Houston lesbian will sell you to the highest bidder

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Margarita Perez is a busy woman. She's fresh from a stint with AIDS Foundation Houston and has landed a new job. But she still finds time to network with other lesbians and raise cash for a cause – HIV care.

In recent years, Perez has become one of Houston’s most visible faces in the competitive field of non-profit fundraising, having just finished a nearly three-year stint with AFH as its manager for development and volunteer services. That led recently to her new gig as a development officer at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering. 

“It's the next step in my professional growth,” Perez says. “It’s exciting to be part of a young university that is growing leaps and bounds. 

“UH is no longer the ‘Cougar High’ of years past,” the native Houston east-ender continues. “Oh no – it's a Tier One research university with ambitious goals, a competitive athletics department and full of diverse talent with the grit to get there in the next few years. I'm so proud to be a part of the Cougar family. And President Khator? She is amazing!”

In addition to the demands of her day job, and when she’s not serving on the board of the Hollyfield Foundation and the AIDS Walk Houston committee, Perez is knee-deep in preparation for her October wedding to Jessica Frinsco, whom she calls “my number-one fan and supporter.”

“We are going to have a traditional-esque type of wedding with family and close friends in Galveston. We’re so excited,” Perez says.

Beyond all of this, Perez is also a co-founder of Her Destination Unknown, a social group for lesbians that once again hosts HDU Charity Auction, a wildly popular annual traditional benefitting AIDS Walk Houston. HDU’s babe blowout is Sunday with doors opening at 2 p.m. and the auction at 5 p.m. with auctioneer Christi Murphy. DJ Kittie spins and singer and songwriter Austin Vela provides entertainment.

“The auction is probably one of the largest single-day philanthropic events that unites our community,” Perez says. “It's totally accessible [for adults 21 and up] and a ton of fun!”

Prior to the big event, Perez talked about the unexpected origin of her development career, some of the women stepping up on HDU’s auction block, and her passion for helping Houston’s lesbians find each other.

What prompted you to seek a career in the HIV work?

Actually, I started with AFH as the volunteer manager after I dropped off the HDU auction donation, back in 2013. I went in and sparked up a conversation with the chief development officer, and unexpectedly ended up interviewing with the CEO that same day. I was wearing workout shorts, a T-shirt and my ponytail. I was so surprised about how it all started and it's one of my favorite stories to tell. I transitioned into the development role about a year later.

What was it like to work for AFH, one of the world’s first and largest AIDS service organizations?

Goodness, I've got to say that it was like a fast-moving roller coaster. It was grueling, honestly. Like most non-profits that are under-resourced, talent is stretched to capacity juggling several priorities with limited funds. It doesn't help when government politics further exasperates that problem like last year when Texas tried to push $3 million from HIV education to abstinence-only education.     

At the end of the day though, the experiences from Camp Hope, the long days at the office, every single rainy AIDS Walk – all of it was worth it. I'm so thankful of the people I got to know and it's an honor to have been part of the movement to “Get to Zero.” 

Plus, I'm not completely out of AFH. I'm still serving on the AIDS Walk committee and I plan to continue staying active as an ally and volunteer. I really love development work and I credit AFH and other AIDS service organizations from across the country for that self-discovery.

Tell us about Her Destination Unknown, the organization that created the Charity Auction.

HDU started six years ago at the Usual with seven young and diverse lesbians. It was shortly after the closing of Chances nightclub, and we were lamenting the lack of opportunity to meet other lesbians in the community. For about four years we hosted weekly Wednesday outings all over Houston. We would average anywhere from 15 to 30 ladies every week. It was incredible. 

I took about two years off from HDU to focus on my career and myself. I'm looking forward to March, though. I'm bringing back the social outings, but on a monthly basis.

What can folks expect at HDU’s Charity Auction? 

We will have 10 auctionees including fifth-ranking Mixed Martial Arts fighter Tonya Evinger (second photo); Nina Lombardo, the talented community sweetheart and karaoke host at JR’s; Radium DK of the Houston Roller Derby Psych Ward Sirens, and so many more! (View photos of the auctionees.)

The people who bid on them win a group date with the auctionee, and they also win the gratitude of more than 27,000 Houstonians currently living with HIV/AIDS. Plus, there’s no cover. It's totally free, but donations are appreciated at the door.

How much money has the auction raised over the years? 

This is our sixth year of doing the event. The ladies and gentlemen in our community have helped raise nearly $75,000 since we first started. The first time we did it, we were hoping to raise about $500 to $1,000, but we ended up raising about $4,000. There's something so satisfying about redefining what's possible.

We raised about $25,000 last year, and HDU was awarded the No. 1 Community Fundraising team for AIDS Walk 2015! I'm just so proud of all the support from our ladies and the wonderful men that also support us. 

Organizing this auction must be a tremendous amount of work. What drives you to produce this event each year?

All the ladies and gentlemen who help put the event together, from Mell Gamboa who is helping with our auctionee recruitment all the way from Seattle, to Julie Mabry's leadership at Pearl. The event is really a reflection of their effort and passion.

The annual Charity Auction from Her Destination Unknown benefiting AIDS Walk Houston is Sunday, Feb. 21 at Pearl Bar.

Photo by Jessica Leigh Smith

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