A gay City Council member in a tea party stronghold is building an LGBT community from the ground up.
Aja Edwards says she dated girls as a teenager, but in conservative New Braunfels, it was always discreet and she didn’t really know what it meant.
“Growing up here in high school, I watched several people get the tar beat out of them and go to ICU for being gay, and I was not about to do that,” Edwards said.
After college, Edwards returned to her hometown and got married. Then, after a divorce, she came out as gay eight months ago.
“Over the past few years, I finally found myself and I had the courage to leave a pretty bad marriage, and I did a lot of self-analysis and realized I don’t even like guys, so why am I doing this?” she said.
It may all sound like a fairly typical coming out story, but there’s one major compounding factor: The 33-year-old Edwards is a member of the New Braunfels City Council who was elected a year and half ago, before she came out. She’s politically connected and owns a real estate business in the town of 60,000—a tea party stronghold between Austin and San Antonio.
For the first eight months, Edwards said, things went surprisingly well.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from people who I didn’t think would support me,” she said. “I think it’s helped that I’ve been so involved in my community for the last 10 years, that a lot of movers and shakers in town knew me in person.”
Edwards said despite efforts by some to disrupt her real estate business, it’s doing better than ever, partly because she’s worked extra-hard knowing she’d have to overcome any backlash. And as for municipal affairs?
“There’s just been a couple haters, but overall my fellow council members and city staff individually have come up to me and either voiced their support or just said that, ‘Hey, we don’t care,'” she said.
Buoyed by the positive experience, two weeks ago Edwards launched a Facebook support group called “LGBT NB.” She said she wanted LGBT people and straight allies in New Braunfels to know they’re not alone. The group has already grown to almost 200 members, which Edwards called “pretty incredible for New Braunfels.”
Last week, Edwards decided to promote her efforts in a larger mainstream Facebook group, called “Moms of New Braunfels.”
“Hi moms!” Edwards wrote. “I’m in the beginning stages of working on some programs and resources for LGBT youth in NB. If you are a mom of a child who is out or the mom of a child who might be struggling with sexual or gender identity issues, please PM or comment here. I’m looking to use these parents and kids as a research panel to see what kinds of programs might be needed. Thanks!”
The backlash was swift, and it spilled over into another more ideological Facebook group called “New Braunfels Political Moms,” as first detailed in a column by Mike Reynolds, publisher and editor of New Braunfels’ alternative newspaper, the Texas Citizen.Donate now to support independent, nonprofit journalism.
“Anyone else have a problem with this? Get out of city council if you want to promote LGBT issues in NB. Agree? for (sic) Disagree?” one commenter wrote.
“She was married with step children and after becoming elected she’s divorced and gay… Seems as shady as any politician. I believe change starts in small government such as city council, well I don’t want someone representing the city when she can vote and truly represent who she truly is,” another wrote.
As of Friday, Edwards’ post couldn’t be found on the wall of the “Moms of New Braunfels” Facebook group. The “New Braunfels Political Moms” group is private and posts aren’t visible to the public. The administrator of the “Moms of New Braunfels” group didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Michele Barnes, administrator of the “New Braunfels Political Moms” group, told the Observer on Friday in a Facebook message that it was a “non-issue” and there was “no reason to write a [sic] article about it.”
Barnes said her only concern was that no public funds are used to promote the LGBT programs Edwards is pushing.
“I do not care that she is gay – like I told her,” Barnes said. “I’m all for helping those who need it, but done with private funds. … The use of funds is all that I was concerned about. (some have other issues with her – and its their right to have those issues) As for me personally, what she does in her free time is her business,” Barnes said.
Edwards said she’s been blocked from
both groups “New Braunfels Political Moms,” but Barnes denied that.
“No she’s not blocked. I’m done now – like I already told you,” Barnes wrote. “But if you continue to harass me with questions, I will block you.”
In any case, Edwards isn’t backing down. For one thing, she said things haven’t gotten much better for LGBT youth in the area since she was a teen.
“There’s literally nothing,” she said. “Canyon High School, one of the four high schools in our area, they have a GSA with one member.”
As a council member, Edwards serves on a mental health task force with representatives from 30 agencies. She asked at a recent meeting whether any offer LGBT-specific mental health services, but none said they do.
Edwards said she’s found a local counselor who’s volunteered to help LGBT youth identified through the Facebook group, and a bar in town has agreed to host an LGBT mixer. She is even considering introducing a nondiscrimination ordinance at City Council and trying to extend domestic partner benefits to city employees.
She said she regularly brings her partner, Crystal Herrera, to City Council and Chamber of Commerce functions, and she plans to run for re-election in the spring of 2016.
“My hope, and perhaps it’s Pollyanna of me, is that people voted for me for what good I could do for our community and not who I date/marry,” Abrams wrote in the comments below the Texas Citizen column. “I’m still me. I’m still the servant leader who is putting into practice the issues I voiced in my campaign. I’m just a human trying to help other humans. I chose to focus my personal efforts right now on LGBT humans.”
Updated (1 p.m., Oct. 24): The original version of this story stated that Edwards had been blocked from both “Moms of New Braunfels” and “New Braunfels Political Moms.” Edwards was only blocked from “New Braunfels Political Moms.” The story has been corrected. We regret the error.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.