Attorney Fran Watson advocates for Houston's LGBT Community
Fran Watson traces her start as an activist to a 2011 climbing accident that left her with two broken legs. But, she's spent her life looking out for people who need support, starting with her grandparents and brother growing up. Fran started her own law practice to protect clients with same-sex partners with will, trusts, and probate in the days before same-sex marriage. With the support of her wife and her church, Fran is a tireless advocate for the Houston LGBT community.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Fran
Where she’s from: Houston, Texas
Grew up with: mother, younger brother, grandparents
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, JD
Where she lives now: Houston, Texas
Growing up she wanted to be: a lawyer
Now she’s: an attorney and community activist
Tell us about yourself growing up!
It was kind of about survival. I grew up in a household, we were one of those families where my mother, she was a teen mother, so she had me when she was 15, and she had my brother when she was 18. My brother and I lived with my mother, who lived with her parents. And then my mother died when I was 13 and my brother was ten.
I lived with my grandparents. My mother always took care of the bills, made sure things were taken care of and that the family was running. I took on that role after she passed away, taking care of my brother.
Why did you have to leave school?
It was due to absence. I started high school in ’91, and there was this policy in place that if you have five absences, you would fail the school year, and there was an option to suspend or expel. My grandfather had been dealing with different sicknesses and illnesses. He went to the hospital a lot, and it would be daily doctor visits. Some of those days, I would accompany him to the hospital, and I would miss school.
I was dealing with the issue that my mother, who was a drug addict, had died. When I was in ninth grade, I did miss a lot of days. When I was in the tenth grade, I did miss a few days due to some stuff I had to do at home, and helping my brother, because he had just got into middle school. I got called into the principal’s office, and I had just turned 16, and they said, “Well, since you’re 16 years old, the system is no longer responsible for you. Since you’ve had absences, we are expelling you.”
Did you ever go back to high school?
I never went back to regular high school. Thankfully, because my mother died when we were young, we were on social security. I was able to take care of the house, do the stuff there, and my grandfather died when I was 17. Once my grandfather died, the three of us stayed together until he went off to college, and then my grandmother ended up dying once I went back to college. That’s when she ended up passing away. She was my last parent.
the woman at testing services said, “Your scores are very, very high. You could possibly get a scholarship to go to school here.” A few months later, I was sitting in an Intro to Psychology class.
How did you end up going back to school?
I was at Wendy’s for five years, and I was at Luther’s, a barbeque joint, for probably about five years as well. Every place I worked, people saw potential in me. They said, “You should become a manager, you could really rise up.” Every time we talked about it, I’d change the subject, and say, “That’s not really something I want to do.” I was embarrassed. When I went to Luther’s, another manager said, “You really need to think about this. You have the smarts to do that.” And then finally I just said, “I can’t do it. I don’t have a high school diploma.” He talked to me about a GED, and I’d never even thought about that. I started looking into that.
I would work the night shift at Luther’s, and then I would go home and I would study for this test. I ended up taking it at the university downtown. When I got the test scores back, the woman at testing services said, “Your scores are very, very high. You could possibly get a scholarship to go to school here.” She ended up taking me over to the registration area at the college, and I enrolled in college. A few months later, I was sitting in an Intro to Psychology class. I took the test in May, and then I ended up in UH-D [University of Houston-Downtown] in August of ’01. I was 23. I didn’t pay for school. I don’t know if I ended up getting grants or what, but I didn’t pay for school for the longest time.
In all honesty, I was simply taking the GED so I could apply for a manager position. I had no intention of going to college.
When I was younger, I didn’t know anybody in college. college did not seem like a reality.
Had you ever thought about going to college before?
When I was younger, I wanted to be an attorney. We would always play court on the bus. I knew I had to go to college for that. On the day before she died, my mother was talking about how I need to go to college.
When I was younger, we really didn’t have experience of college. I didn’t know anybody in college, and then as I was growing up, college did not seem like a reality. It wasn’t something that was in my reach, because of where I was. I don’t think I would have, because I never thought it was financially feasible.
What made you pick psychology?
I was required to take all these different courses. Intro to Psych was the first college class I took. When I picked my major, I started an English major. I liked storytelling, and I like listening to stories. I thought, as an English major, that what I would do. I would tell stories, using the pen.
Then I took social psychology, and I was fascinated by it. I ended up switching my major to psychology. It’s the study of people, how we act individually, how we act in social situations, and how our psyche guides us. I was very intrigued by it. By the time I graduated, I made the decision to go to law school.
What made you first consider law school?
For the first two and a half years of school, I still worked at the barbecue restaurant. Once I went to college, I switched to night shift so I could go to school in the daytime. When I switched into psychology, I had about two years of school left. It was a commuter school.
I ended up taking a class called Psychology and the Law. I had read a book, Actual Innocence, about people who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes. Psychology and the Law was talking about witness testimony and different aspects of it. I got a lot out of that class, and I was starting to think about law school. When you get your Bachelor’s in psychology, you can’t get a great job. You have to get a Master’s or a PhD. I was looking for a program where I could get a dual degree, a JD and a psychology PhD.
I ended up deciding that I would go to law school, and I would only apply to law schools here in Houston. I applied to the three law schools we had here in Houston, and then I got accepted into one of them.
When you went to law school, did you think you wanted to advocate for people who might be wrongfully incarcerated?
I thought I did. I was really gung-ho about it. When I was in law school, I did work on the actual innocence clinic. I didn’t feel like I did well in criminal law. It scared me, because people’s lives were in my hands. I decided against it.
What area did you decide to practice in?
When I got out of law school, I graduated during the economic downturn. I couldn’t find a job, so I ended up opening my own practice, and I started doing more LGBT work. Because marriage equality wasn’t the law of the land yet, I ended up doing estate planning. Because LGBT people could not get married, when a person died, if they didn’t have a will or estate documents, or a plan in place, then the partner would be left without anything. They would have no recourse because Texas didn’t recognize same-sex marriage at the time.
If you die without a will as a heterosexual couple, there’s a process that you can take. A same-sex couple couldn’t do that. I would get the estate plan together for folks. People would call me when people had died, but didn’t know what to do next.
How did you build your practice?
It was word of mouth, and it started with my church. I went to a church that was mostly LGBT. When I got to law school, Kim [Fran’s wife] and I were looking for a church. When we met everybody, we were like, “Yeah, I start law school next week.” The members knew that I was in school.
They all followed my journey, and when I graduated and I passed the bar, Kim and I had our wedding ceremony at the church. They all knew that I had just become a lawyer. It was like they were waiting. I started getting clients. Once I started doing more activist work, people were recognizing that I was an attorney, and that’s when I started getting more business.
Has marriage equality changed your clients’ needs?
It’s changed the clients’ needs, but we still recommend wills. Some LGBT couples don’t want to get married, but they still want to have something in place. We still have folks that have wills in place, trusts, and things like that. We would recommend the same for an opposite-sex couple. There’s still a lot of that need.
How did you and your wife decide to join a church? How did you find such a welcoming community?
I didn’t grow up in the church. We were kind of the family that went on Christmas and Easter. Then after my mother died, my grandmother started going to church all the time. She was there every Sunday. She found this church home. When my grandmother died, because she had been with this church for so long, she had a pastor, she had all this community. When I got older, I wanted some type of community in that regard.
One night I started searching for churches for LGBT people, and so I was looking up churches, and I found some directory online, and I found the Community Gospel Church. It sounded very welcoming, contemporary. We went and visited the Wednesday service. That was in 2006, and we stayed there for many years.
We were about showing how God loves all people regardless of orientation or identity
Can you tell us about your advocacy work? How did get started with that?
I had a very bad accident in 2011 that left me with two broken legs. During that time, I was bedridden for a little while, then I was in a wheelchair and a walker. It gave me this realization that I really didn’t do as much as I would like to do. I didn’t grow up doing all this stuff or being a big volunteer or any of that. When I got well, I wanted to do stuff with church. We were about showing how God loves all people regardless of orientation or identity, and we did things at Pride.
I wanted to expand my lens. Once I got back on my feet, I joined LGBT professional organizations, and I found this organization called Stonewall Law Association of Greater Houston. I started going to some of the events. I ended up joining the board. When I joined their board, I started going to all these other events, and I ended up assisting this new LGBT law group at TSU [Texas Southern University].
And then, two major things happened. One, LGBT Task Force had a huge conference. They put on a conference every year, and Houston was the host city for the 2014 conference [for] 3500 LGBT people and allies. I was the sub-committee chair of the visibility/hospitality fleet. I was part of the bigger host committee, where a hundred of us that met once a month. I met all these different community leaders.
And then my friend, who is my law partner now, was running for judge in 2014, and I worked on his campaign. He took me to the GLBT political caucus meeting. I saw that the folks were very vocal and engaged. I ended up volunteering with them. I ended up getting elected to their board of directors, and that opened up a whole new world of politics that I didn’t know about. It was an awakening to all the issues. One was the Creating Change conference. It’s a skills-building conference, and you learn all these issues that are happening in the LGBT community. Between that and the caucus, my world had expanded pretty quickly. I got involved wherever I could.
After that, the same hundred people that were working together on the Creating Change conference all transferred our energy to work on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. That one hundred people turned into 300 people. We were all working together to get that law passed, going down to the city council, speaking at city council, speaking to colleges, speaking to anyone we could talk to.
What motivates you to give so much energy to your community?
I always think of myself as this late bloomer. I’ve been doing it for five or six years. I think maybe that energy is from back in the day. I thought I was going to die, when I fell. I was on a rock-climbing wall and I fell 28 feet. I was stuck for a while. I was in a wheelchair or in a bed, and so, I think it just gave me a new lease on life. Maybe that’s it.
How did you imagine your adult life when you were growing up?
My life now is not what I would have imagined at all. She was 29 years old when she died, and I could not imagine my life past 29. I didn’t have a long-term plan.
Everything was the now, the present: take care of the family, or make sure your brother’s in school. After that, quite honestly I did not have an image of what my life would be like later.
I’m thinking about running for office. I’ve never thought about that until now. Even when my friend was running for office, that’s not something I thought about. I was thinking about either a city council position or a state rep position, it depends on what opens up. It’s difficult here in Texas, but people have been very supportive.
You get to have a chosen family.
What advice would you give a girl like you as a girl?
I always think about that campaign that said, “It gets better.” There’s so much that’s going on, you’re growing up, you’re trying to figure out what’s happening. But when you get out of that, you get a chance at a new support system. You get to have a chosen family. Once you get older, you get to build your tribe, and when you build your tribe, you’ll have your support system. You will be able to see it does get better, because you find out who you are.
You never know where life takes you, but just hold on, and wait it through.
Just start where you are, and whatever your capacity is, you do it.
What advice would you give someone who wants to effect positive change in his or her community?
If you feel like this person is making change, and you see them doing that, reach out to them. Don’t compare yourself to them, and don’t think that you’re not doing enough. Just start where you are, and whatever your capacity is, you do it. You may not be able to stand on the picket line every time, but make sure that you get the word out that there is a protest going on. It’s doing what you can where you are, and not compare yourself to others’ journey.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Fran loves!