Valley Voice: The Rio Grande Valley’s first known LGBTQ advocacy group

For LGBTQ history month, we wanted to share some info on the Rio Grande Valley’s own queer history.

Valley Voice was a group that existed in the Rio Grande Valley from 1988 or 1989 to 1996. While the group’s founders are quick to point out that there may have been other LGBTQ social movements in the past that we do not know about, Valley Voice represents the first known LGBTQ activism and advocacy group in the Valley.

Valley Voice was founded at a time when the socially conservative climate of the RGV was nowhere near as accepting of queer people as it can be today. This led many to remain in the closet most or all of their lives or to leave to more accepting areas, leaving a notable lack of visibility for the Valley’s LGBTQ community. The AIDS crisis that began nationwide in the early 1980s and the resulting stigma associated with queer people made life even harder for this community by the late 1980s.

In 1988, Valley AIDS Council was founded as an attempt to address this crisis. A joint project between the State Health Department, Planned Parenthood, and nurses from local hospitals, VAC started out with five employees who focused on educating people on what little was known about the virus at the time. Realizing that more needed to be done to address homophobia and the stigma surrounding HIV, VAC employee Oscar Raul Lopez organized a meeting to assess the needs of and attempt to provide support to the Valley’s LGBTQ community.

One of the people who Oscar invited to attend the meeting was Alicia Lugo. Lugo was born in Harlingen and grew up in Harlingen’s conservative climate in the 1970s and 1980s. She went against both family and societal expectations when she decided to leave her first marriage and live her life both as an out gay woman and a single mother. She began volunteering for Valley AIDS Council in the late 1980s.

Valley Voice Newsletter

Lopez and Lugo listened at this meeting as various people talked about their struggles. One theme that kept popping up was the lack of a space to socialize and meet other queer people outside of the bar scene. Many expressed how alone and isolated they felt as a result. In order to address this, Lugo and Lopez decided to start a support group for the Valley’s LGBTQ community. At first, many of those in attendance were clients of VAC and meetings were held at the Valley AIDS Council office in Harlingen.

Another early important organizer of the group was Alicia’s partner Laurie Coffey.  Laurie was born in Chicago and came to the Valley from Pennsylvania in her 20s and has spent her life here since then. Shortly after moving to the Valley, she began performing at local bars and became involved in what was then a very vibrant- if underground- drag scene.

As the meetings grew, Lopez and Lugo decided to expand the support group. Oscar, Alicia, and Laurie advertised for a meeting in a conference room rented from a hotel in Harlingen. Unsure if anybody would show up, Laurie remembers being shocked when the small conference room was packed with people of all ages who had come from all over the Valley- including teenagers who had hitchhiked to be there. Attendance continued to increase every month.

Valley Voice Group Photo

Eventually, the group settled on the name “Valley Voice”- reflecting their goal to provide visibility and advocacy for the community. Alicia became the first president of the group and her and Laurie remained two of the primary organizers and facilitators of the group throughout its existence.

As the meetings grew in both attendance and popularity, Voice began meeting twice a month and hosting regular social outings. Meetings were often held at the Best Western Harlingen Inn off of Expressway 83 and Stuart Place Rd. Later, the group would also meet at the Cielito Lindo Restaurant in San Benito.

Organizers were very clear from the beginning that they wanted Voice to be an all-ages, inclusive group. The group’s mission statement from the beginning included  “provid[ing] a structured group experience for the lesbian-gay community…[and] activities that focus on reinforcing self-esteem and positive health behaviors.” One of their goals was to “provide a safe, nurturing, and comfortable space” and “a support system for lesbian-gay adults and young adults.”  

One of the most important things that Valley Voice offered at the time was an opportunity for social interaction (at the time, only really available for the community at the few gay bars that existed). Outings such as bowling matches, picnics, trips to the beach, and road trips to San Antonio gave members of all ages the chance to get to know other LGBTQ people- sometimes for the first time. In October of 1991, the group organized a dinner to celebrate National Coming Out Day in Matamoros.

Valley Voice quickly moved outside of just providing a social space for the community and began working towards increasing visibility and education for the Valley’s LGBTQ community. Laurie and Alicia started bringing guest speakers to meetings. At times, they would bring a licensed counselor to talk to people about the importance of mental health and some of the struggles they encountered. Other times, they would bring the mother of two queer children to talk to people about navigating family and acceptance. Other guests included an attorney who educate people on their rights and Valley AIDS Council employees who would discuss safer sex practices.

In 1991, Valley Voice participated in a conference on South Padre Island featuring panels and speakers that addressed a range of topics relevant to the community. The conference was entitled “Combating Homophobia” and was organized in conjunction with Valley AIDS Council and the local Planned Parenthood.

Valley Voice Halloween Cover

To further the goal of community support and visibility, Valley Voice began publishing In Touch Magazine in 1992. In Touch Magazine was a DIY, zine-style publication that was entirely written, edited, and published by Valley Voice members.

Each issue featured a range of several regular columns. A Valley AIDS Council employee would usually provide a column on safe sex information and practices. One, for example, featured a list of different ways in which partners could be intimate without penetration. A younger member of the group- Francis Marsh- would write a column called “From The Teen Side”- which provided advice to teenagers living in the Valley on dealing with challenges like bullying, coming out to family, and navigating high school. Another column called “Just Ask Janis” gave readers an opportunity to write in with questions that would then be answered by “Janis.” Some columns included topics like dealing with homophobic family members and dating. Members would also write articles on national and global news that impacted the LGBTQ community. One issue, for example, featured an article on immigrants living with HIV. The magazine also provided regular coverage on local and national politics from a gay perspective. Each issue featured dating personals, ads for local gay bars and LGBTQ-owned businesses, and editorials written by Valley Voice members. Every issue also included some poetry written by members on their struggles.

Each time a new issue was put together, Laurie, Alicia, and their team would travel across the RGV to distribute it at different bars. Usually, their weekend would begin at The Upper Deck in South Padre Island and they would make their way down to Zippers and the Planet in Harlingen and then to Just Terry’s and 10th Avenue in McAllen. They would use this as an opportunity to do outreach for the group by tabling and providing information on the group to bar patrons. At the time, Lugo also wrote a regular column on the Valley’s community in the LGBTQ-publication the Houston Voice under a pseudonym and they would distribute new issues of the Houston Voice to the bars as well.

Valley Voice took on another important role when they began providing direct support to people and families in the Valley who were affected by the AIDS epidemic. Laurie and Alicia helped organize a buddy system with VAC in which a Valley Voice member would “adopt” or sponsor a person or family living with AIDS and help them in various ways- whether it was accessing medical care or buying clothing. Many of these affected families were heterosexual couples or parents of children living with HIV who had never had any contact with the LGBTQ community.

As Laurie remembers, “we started getting calls once or twice a week at one point with people telling us that they had a family member with AIDS who was dying and asking what we could to help.”

In Touch Cover For National Coming Out Day

The group started organizing drag shows and pageants at local bars as fundraisers to pay for expenses and funeral costs for people living with AIDS. Laurie would sometimes perform at these benefit shows, including one where a child living with HIV that she was sponsoring was able to attend.

In 1993, Valley Voice members participated in the historic march on the capitol in support of lesbian and gay rights. In 1994, they organized the first known Pride celebration in the RGV to commemorate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

Alicia and Laurie eventually stepped back from organizing and leading Valley Voice to focus on raising their grandchildren, although they both continue to be involved in the community in other ways. They hoped that others might step in to fill the void in leadership they left but soon realized that very few people were willing to be the public face of the group or put in the work needed to organize it. Valley Voice ended in 1996.

Valley Voice left an important legacy for local LGBTQ activists and provided a network of support and education at a time when the community was desperately in need of it.

Stay tuned for the rest of October for articles on early youth activism, historical queer spaces, and more local LGBTQ history.

Special thanks to Alicia Lugo, Laurie Coffey, Oscar Raul Lopez, Frances Marsh, and Joseph Carriker for providing some of the information and photos for this article.