The Little Darlings: Queer youth in the Rio Grande Valley during the 1980s

Last month, we shared some information on Valley Voice, a group active in the late 1980s and early 1990s that is the first known LGBT+ advocacy group in the Rio Grande Valley. This article focuses on the youth activism that came out of Valley Voice, a group that came to be known as the “Little Darlings.”

Almost from the very beginning of Voice, organizers noticed that many youths were attending their meetings. Some were young teenagers who were not out to their parents. Some had hitchhiked for hours in order to get there from as far away as Brownsville and Rio Grande City.

One of these teenagers was Frances Marsh. Frances was born in Northern California but moved to the Valley with her parents and younger sister Helen. At first, her family lived in an old school bus on Boca Chica beach in Brownsville and then settled in Olmito. Her parents were both liberal about sexuality and gender. Her father identified as bisexual when he was younger and her mother had always had gay friends in California. She remembers coming out at as a lesbian at a young age and always feeling supported by her family. Her sister also came out as bisexual. Her high school experience, however, was something completely different.

“One of the hardest things about high school,” Frances said looking back at that time, “was feeling like there was no one else out there like me.”

Both Frances and her sister were some of the first teenagers to begin attending Valley Voice meetings.

Through the group, Frances met and befriended several other queer teens and they formed a tight-knit group of friends. Frances’ mom would usually drive her to meetings and would pick up other teens along the way who did not have transportation.

These teens offered each other support and friendship at a time when out queer teenagers were a rarity in the Valley. As Frances describes it, “It was so underground, no one was really out in high school. I think I can remember one kid. Most people were in the closet, even to themselves. No one wanted to come out until later.”

Frances and the other youth became regulars at meetings and also began hanging out together and volunteering to help out at different Valley Voice fundraisers and events.  

Alicia Lugo and Laurie Coffey (the founders of Valley Voice) began affectionately referring to this group of youth as The Little Darlings, a name that quickly stuck. The Little Darlings eventually became the youth contingent of Valley Voice and an important part of their efforts to raise visibility and provide support and education to the Valley’s queer community.

As Frances recalls, some of the first work that they did as activists involved going to different schools and speaking to groups of teens to talk about HIV and sexual health and awareness.

For the majority of the group’s existence, The Little Darlings consisted of a core group of about six or seven youth. Frances remembers that. aside from her sister Helen, other young members included a boy named Orlando and a young teen named Gabriel who was questioning their gender identity. Other fixtures of the group were two gay-identified gender non-conforming teens named Byll (Byll spelled his name this way because he thought the traditional spelling of “Bill” was “too straight” and also went by “Blue”) and his sibling (who would sometimes dress up in drag and use she pronouns). The two siblings were from Brownsville and had grown up in a conservative Mexican Christian family. They struggled with being accepted by their mother because of their sexuality and had suffered bullying and abuse both at home and at school. Other youth would become involved in the group to varying degrees but these were the most active throughout the group’s existence.

Byll in 1992

Frances recounted, “Mostly, we would just have fun together…we were just a bunch of giggly teens so excited to hang out with other gay teens and gay adults and be given access to this secret world of gay clubs.”

Because of Valley Voice’s work in community education, Voice and the Little Darlings were recognized as a potential resource by at least some teachers and counselors at Valley schools.

One youth named Joseph was referred to Valley Voice by his counselor while attending his final year at Rivera High School in Brownsville in 1992. Joseph had come out to his family as a teen. Although his mother initially struggled with his sexuality, she began to accept him and eventually he began coming out to some of his friends. In 1991, he met and began dating a boy from another high school who would become his first boyfriend. As he remembers, his boyfriend “really resented not being able to be out. He wanted to come out to his family and I don’t think he thought he would have as easy a time as I did but he didn’t realize it would be so hard.” His parents did not take it well and he struggled with their rejection. One night, he and Joseph were supposed to meet each other to go to their first high school dance together. He never showed up. Later, Joseph would learn that he had taken his own life that night after being physically abused by his father.

This had a severe impact on Joseph’s mental health and he began to struggle academically. His mother went to talk to the school administration about what he was going through.

“Just to give you an idea of what it was like back then, my mom told just some people from the administration…and by the end of the day, the entire school knew that I was gay.” This made high school an even more hostile environment for Joseph. Eventually, a friendly counselor suggested he attend a Valley Voice meeting. There Joseph met Byll and his brother, who invited him to hang out. Through them, he met Frances.

For many members, the most important thing about the Darlings was simply having other queer people their own age to hang out with. Their time together- both informal hangouts and meetings- was a welcome escape from often hostile school environments and families who did not accept them and. Sometimes they would get together to play a role-playing board game called Vampire: The Masquerade (released in 1991) that they were all “crazy about.” Other times they would go bowling or get together at France’s house.  

Possibly because of the solidarity they provided each other, members often felt comfortable publicly expressing their queerness despite a potentially hostile and unfriendly environment.

Joseph remembers feeling somewhat intimidated by how visibly and publicly queer these youth were and how they were in their identities, especially Byll.

“It didn’t matter what Byll would bowl…he would jump around and make a big deal and I mean…at the time, there was no way that he was not going to be noticed. And I don’t think I was ready for that kind of attention…they had this really punk…’not gay as in happy but queer as in fuck you’ attitude that I think they had developed from having to go through everything that they went through. And at the time, I don’t think I was really there yet.”

Joseph’s recollections of the event point to how unique- and also how potentially risky- the group’s public queerness was at the time.

Frances remembers another one of the group’s social outings when they went to go see Madonna’s film Truth or Dare in theaters ( a film which drew censorship for some of its depictions of homoerotic intimacy): “Madonna was a huge deal to us… I remember all of the Little Darlings we went to go see it together at the movie theaters in Brownsville. We were the only one there! It was just a bunch of teenage queens … and we were vogueing down the aisles and voguing around to the music the whole time.”

Another example of how these youth provided solidarity for each other came when Byll graduated from high school. Although he had managed to complete school despite many challenges, his mother- who was not accepting of his sexuality and gender expression- refused to attend. Frances, Helen, and their family were there to cheer him on as he crossed the stage.

In addition to these opportunities for solidarity and visibility, the Little Darlings also provided an opportunity for queer teens to mentor each other. Joseph remembers staying up with Frances discussing different topics related to queer life. According to Joseph, “I had never had anyone I could really talk about these things with. She was sort of my queer guru in a way.”

This kind of peer-to-peer knowledge that group members shared was something Frances felt was especially important. She started writing a regular column called “From the Teen Side” for Valley Voice’s In Touch magazine aimed specifically at giving advice to queer teens in the Valley who might be reading. When writing these columns she spelled her name as “Phrances”. Some of the topics she covered included coming out in high school and how to deal with rejection from family members.

From The Teen Side on one issue of Valley Voice

In one column, she addressed teens who felt that they could not yet be out at school or to their families and might be feeling bad about it. She encouraged them to think about what she called the “gay advantage”- being able to have their crush over at their house without their parents suspecting a thing- for example. She ended that article by saying “my point is, don’t feel pressure to come ‘out.’ There are just as many advantages to being in the closet as there are to being ‘out.’ Do what you feel comfortable with but most of all be happy.”

In June of 1992, the Little Darlings were an important part of organizing what is considered by some to be the first Pride celebration in the Rio Grande Valley.

Some of the Darlings at pride

To celebrate the Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (which falls during June and is often celebrated as Pride month), the Little Darlings collaborated to write an original play based on and dramatizing the Stonewall Riots. Frances remembers feeling that it was very important to teach other people about the riots so that they would know that they were not alone and also so that they could know that there had been a long history of queer people fighting for their rights. She also remembers struggling to find information about the riots when preparing the play and thinking about the historical invisibility.

While no known copy of this play exists today, it featured fictionalized accounts of queer people in the 1960s leading up to the riots acted out by some of the Darlings. One vignette featured a gay son coming out to his father. They then acted out a fictionalized version of the riots themselves- with different members playing rioters and police.

Members Acting Out Play

The Little Darlings staged and performed this play at several gay bars that month- including 440 in Brownsville and Zipper’s in Harlingen as well as PBDs in McAllen (which Frances says was “out in the boonies in the middle of nowhere”) at the time. A preacher from the LGBT-affirming Metropolitan Church of Christ accompanied them as well as several drag queens who provided entertainment. Frances remembers that when the preacher was speaking at PBDs, they had a hard time talking over the crowd, but that when the drag queens took the stage everyone went silent.  

Frances’s Original Shirt from the First Pride

The Darlings also created commemorative T-Shirts for them to wear and hand out to participants. These shirts featured a pink triangle- originally a symbol that gay and bisexual men and transgender women were forced to wear by the Nazis concentration camps during the Holocaust but which later became a symbol of queer pride and resistance (especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Frances still has her original shirt.

Frances sums up the experience: “I don’t remember too many of the details…we just went from place to place and it was all so exciting. …and I guess I was a part of the first ever Pride in the Valley.”

In June of 1993 and 1994 (the 25th anniversary of the riot), Valley Voice again had pride month celebrations- staging the play at different bars and creating additional T-Shirts.

As the members of the Little Darlings began to grow up, many of them eventually left the Valley. Some relocated to Austin or Houston- where they hoped they might find a more accepting community. Joseph relocated to San Antonio and eventually Oregon. Frances attended college in Central Texas where she became involved in organizing protests against police brutality on campus that targeted African-American students- using the skills she honed writing “From The Teen Side” to write articles on this topic for a group called the Nubian Queens.  She now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wife and their two sons.  

Looking back on her time with the Darlings and comparing it to places she has lived since then, Frances stated, “There’s this really amazing thing that happens when you’re repressed and you’re all just trying to survive…and then you find each other…and there’s a stronger bond than when you’re in a more liberal place and it might not mean as much to you to find other people like you.”