Fort Worth activist and advocate Sharon Herrera knows what it means to face adversity and just keep going. She lived through growing up in Small Town, Texas, losing her mother at a young age and through the witch hunts that plagued LGBTQ+ servicemen and women in the 1980s and ’90s. And she has survived threats to her job and even her life because of her activism on behalf of LGBTQ+ youth in Fort Worth and around North Texas.
Now, as she and others in the 1012 Leadership Coalition look ahead to the opening of The Fred Rouse Arts and Community Healing Center, Herrera’s own life is proof of what she tells the LGBTQ+ youth she works with: There is help and there is hope.
Dallas Voice: Tell me about yourself–how you ended up in Fort Worth and about both your job and your volunteer work.
Sharon Herrera: I was living in Austin, working for HEB Grocer and I had a nearly fatal car accident. I always tell people that a force stronger than myself brought me to Fort Worth, because I would have never moved to a town referred to as “Cowtown.”
I have been working for the Fort Worth ISD since 2000. And I work closely with many organizations, universities and school districts to help further education on LGBTQ issues.
I am on the KERA/KXT Community Advisory Board, Parenting Center Board, Fort Worth Report Advisory Council and the 1012 Leadership Coalition, a community collective formed to acquire the former KKK auditorium in Fort Worth and transform it into a center and museum for arts and community healing.
DV: Tell me the story of how you met your wife.
SH: I met my wife in 1984–first kiss, first love. We dated for six months and then life happened. My mother died, and I joined the Air Force.
We were apart for 28 years. Both of us had different lives and then, in 2012, our journeys, once again, came together. I attended my 30-year class reunion with dear friends, and she happened to be at the same venue. We are three years apart in age, so it was meant to be. I bought her a drink and asked her what she had been doing and she responded, “Waiting for you (me) to grow up.”
And the rest is history. I proposed to her in the exact same spot of our first date, and we eloped to Vegas and married Dec. 13, 2014!
DV: What prompted you to start LGBTQ SAVES, and when was the organization founded?
SH: In September 2010, several highly-publicized suicides of LGBTQ youth reminded me of a pain I was all too familiar with. Having contemplated my own suicide, I knew things had to change and that we needed a community where all children are safe.
I knew that with peer and community support I could save lives and build a network of passionate and caring individuals to help LGBTQ youth and their allies in Tarrant County. LGBTQ SAVES (Students, Allies, Volunteers, Educators, Support) was born in 2010, and 90% of the youth we serve have contemplated or attempted suicide.
The first LGBTQ SAVES meeting was held in my backyard. SAVES volunteers funded the organization out of our own pocket while hosting meetings and events where we could. Initially, it was difficult finding a space that would host an organization helping LGBTQ youth in Tarrant County.
LGBTQ SAVES hosted our first event, an LGBTQ prom, in 2011 at Celebration Church. Meanwhile, I collaborated with Tom Anable, David Henderson and Jon Nelson, gay activists and leaders of Fairness Fort Worth, and challenged my place of employment, the Fort Worth Independent School District, to add a non-discrimination policy. We prevailed and championed equity for staff and students.
I once believed in “a land I heard of in a lullaby, where dreams that you dare to dream of really do come true” (“Wizard of Oz”) As a teen, I realized there was no such land for me, being gay. I want to create that land for our youth, and, in the very near future, have an LGBTQ Youth Resource Center right here in Fort Worth, Texas, located at 1012 N. Main in what will be The Fred Rouse Arts and Community Healing Center.
DV: What kind of reaction did you get from community and school leaders when you started LGBTQ SAVES?
SH: Many people told me my nonprofit wouldn’t last three years because of financial and volunteer support and yet, here we are.
I started this organization without any idea “how to,” with simply a mission to save lives! Our youth need not only a safe space but also a brave place to be themselves and thrive. Fortunately, there have been some incredible volunteers helping me along this 13-year journey to ensure we are able to do the life-saving work that we do.
We owe a huge shoutout to Tarleton State University for helping us throughout our journey. Social work interns have been volunteering with us since 2015.
I have had my job threatened and my life as well, but here I am! The fight will never be over. I survived witch hunts in the military, the late ‘80s; I survived a small town in Texas, and I was able to get married to the woman I love.
Texas is not a safe place for our LGBTQ youth. The laws are cruel because they are attacking our children who simply want to be themselves. And again, the fight continues, and I won’t quit until I take my last breath. Our youth need us, rely on us to create the safe and brave spaces for social and personal development and most importantly we must continue to provide hope.
DV: What has been your proudest moment with the organization so far, and what are you looking forward to next?
SH: Proudest moments: every time a parent, intern, board member, ambassador or youth tells us what LGBTQ SAVES means to them, the impact on their lives, the new awareness or how we have helped them. I keep notes, emails, text messages, cards, memorable hugs, etc.
I do not have children of my own, but I am referred to by the youth and others as the Fairy Gay Mother. And on New Year’s Day, I received yet another message. This is how I define success!
Tammye Nash is the managing editor of Dallas Voice.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.