A giant rainbow Pride flag swaying in the wind caught the rays of Saturday’s solar eclipse at just the right time, sending hundreds of tiny crescent-shaped shadows dancing across the lawn of First Christian Church in Katy.
A solar eclipse isn’t something you see every day. Neither is a Pride celebration in Katy.
But on Saturday, both happened, drawing hundreds of supporters out into the fall weather for a day of music, dancing and education to celebrate the suburb’s LGBTQ+ community. Students and supporters say the festivities are indicative of how the area’s LGBTQ+ community has banded together in recent weeks following the Katy Independent School District’s passage of new gender identity policies.
The celebration was a first for Ankita Lodh, a senior at Seven Lakes High School who said she volunteered at the event to support her peers.
Lodh has friends who haven’t told their parents about their sexuality or gender identity, she said, but in the past, they’ve always been able to feel supported by teachers. Now, she said, students have expressed fear that the new policy will break that trust between students and educators. “With all of this stuff going on, they’re concerned — is school no longer that safe space for them?” Lodh said.
After listening to her daughter, parent Sushmita Gupta said the turnout at the event was proof that there are misconceptions about the political views of Houston’s suburbs.
“It’s time to show that there’s support everywhere,” Gupta said.
The new policy
Katy’s new gender policy, which was passed in late August, requires staff to inform parents and obtain their consent if their child asks to be called by a different name or pronoun. It also prohibits employees from discussing “gender fluidity” and requires students to use bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth.
“The policy recognizes the primacy of parents in making decisions about the health and welfare of their children, who should not err on the side of concealing information from parents,” Katy ISD Board President Victor Perez said at a late August board meeting.
Trustees in support said the policy is a preventative measure that protects teachers from making uncomfortable decisions about students’ gender identity and about whether to withhold information from parents.
Each campus has a designated employee responsible for ensuring staff follows the policy. District administration met with campus leaders to “develop procedures and processes for meeting policy requirements,” the district said, but did not clarify what those procedures are.
Students fear the policy will harm or silence transgender students if an employee exposes their gender identity to unsupportive parents. Students belonging to clubs like Tompkins High School’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance also feared it would compromise their beloved safe space, where they routinely discuss gender identity.
“They’re trying to tear us apart … The more you try to make us not exist, the more that we come together and unite and fight against this,” said Jarred Burton, a junior at Tompkins High School.
The policy hasn’t yet placed any restrictions directly on their club, students said. But it has caused their meetings to double in attendance — more than 30 students showed up the week after the policy passed to support members.
“There’s been a sizable increase in the number of people attending, mostly due to the policy and some legislation that’s obviously been against LGBTQ people as a whole,” said Ash Thornton, a junior at Tompkins High School.
The birth of Katy Pride
Before there was Katy Pride, there was a closet.
It used to be just that — a 2-feet by 4-feet utility cabinet — but over time, it’s evolved. Transparent Closet, First Christian Church Katy’s free resource that launched in 2019, provides clothing to anybody going through a gender transition.
Today, the Transparent Closet spans an entire room, lined with rows of clothing in every style. Drawers are full of underwear, chest binders and breast prosthetics in all sizes. On top of a dresser sits an array of cosmetics, jewelry and sunglasses.
The closet is really what started it all, said Heather Tolleson, pastor of First Christian Church Katy, who began working with Katy student activists in recent years.
That collaboration showed her there was a need among Katy’s LGBTQ+ youth, she said. So in May, she and church member Amanda Rose decided to create Katy Pride, a nonprofit organization that is separate from the church.
“Our goal is to just always be here and to have super open relationships with the youth and students in the area,” Tolleson said. “All of this has given birth to Katy Pride, which is meant to be a place of celebration, but also an organization to really create and affect change in Katy.”
When Katy ISD trustees passed the gender policy, just months after the official creation of Katy Pride, it reinforced why their organization needs to exist, Rose said. There’s many people in Katy that are supportive of LGBTQ+ folks, they said, but they needed a place to be able to come together.
“Even in just the past month that the policy has been written, in that adversity, they’ve pushed people together, and they’re giving this community more voice than it’s ever had,” Tolleson said.
‘Gas on our fire’
Two hours into Saturday’s festival, a line of models dressed head-to-toe in outfits styled from the Transparent Closet strutted across a stage. Dozens of vendors lined the parking lot, handing out so many free items that countless toddlers were dragging around tote bags that nearly sag to the ground.
“There’s so much community here,” said Travis Thornton, a member of Tompkins’ Sexuality and Gender Alliance, as he gestured to attendees. “It’s crazy. We live in Texas, in Katy, (which is) not exactly known for this stuff.”
Surprise was a common theme of the day — students and attendees were shocked to realize there was so much support for LGBTQ+ allies in the suburban city.
Though students in Tompkins’ Sexuality and Gender Alliance have received an influx of support from the community, with fellow students giving them encouragement in the hallways and some showing up to volunteer at Katy Pride, they still worry about the impact the policy will have on students. They also fear the district isn’t done introducing policies that they say harm their community.
“Policies like these don’t really allow you to really figure out who you are, express who you are,” said Ash Thornton, a transgender male. “Which, most people, that’s how they become more comfortable with themselves. I was very, very uncomfortable with myself before I started figuring out more about my identity.”
The strength in numbers, they say, is proof that students are going to band together and push back until the district walks back its harmful policies. In years past, the club was more of a social space mixed with some education on queer history. Now, they’ve decided to shift their focus toward advocacy work for the LGBTQ+ history.
And they have Katy Pride, as it continues to grow, right behind them.
“We’re not stopping,” Rose, the organizer, said. “You’ve only put gas on our fire. And so here we go, and we’re going to roar.”