Social Justice Activist for the LGBTQ and Catholic Community
Nickie Valdez spent much of her early life striving to belong. When she came out as a lesbian, her father rejected her. A lifelong Catholic, Nickie was also rejected by her church. Yet she continued to insist on being accepted for who she was, saying “You will respect who I am, and I will remain in your faith as long as I live. I will be acknowledged one way or another.” She not only advocated for herself, but for others who shared in her struggles. In the process of creating her own place to belong, she built vital networks of support for LGBTQ communities in San Antonio.
Nickie’s original name was Mary Irma, and she was born in a rented apartment across the street from the Robert B. Green Hospital on September 10, 1940. She was delivered by a midwife. Her mother abandoned the family when she was a young child, and so she was primarily raised by her grandmother, along with Aunt Pat (Petra Valdez, who was also her madrina) and her father Guadalupe Zapata Valdez, who was a tailor and served in the Navy. Her father remarried and Nickie eventually had eight siblings. She lived between her grandmother’s home at 211 Ruiz Street and her father’s house at 515 Gould St., and was baptized in San Fernando Cathedral parish. As a child she remembers her family being asked to sit in the back pews of the church, like most other Mexican American families were asked to do. She went to St. Agnes parish, which was her cousin's parish, for her first communion and her confirmation. She took the confirmation name of “Nickie.”
Nickie’s grandparents came from Guadalajara, Mexico, and lived during the Mexican Revolution. Her grandmother was a mestiza who married a man that her family would not accept, and so they fled because they were ostracized. Her grandfather had a brother who was already in San Antonio, so this is how they arrived in San Antonio, and they worked on various farms in the area, in Maxwell, Martinez, and Lockhart. Nickie carried around her grandmother’s resident identification card because it was the only document that told of her grandmother’s origins.
Nickie remembers that her entrance into school was delayed a year because her birthday was in September, past the cutoff date for enrollment. She really wanted to go to school that year, though, so her grandmother taught her to read and write in Spanish instead. She remembered that once she entered school, speaking Spanish was forbidden-- children would get demerits on their report cards if they were caught.
Nickie felt a religious calling through her involvement in parish life at St. Agnes. She decided to enter religious life through the congregation of Cordi-Marian Missionary Sisters in San Antonio at the age of 16. The organization was founded by Mother Carmen Serrano y Rugama in Mexico City in 1921. Nickie enjoyed working with the other novitiates, even though there were strict daily rules and sacrifices. Novitiates were discouraged from forming close attachments to other members, and also had to give up their prayer books and rosaries, so that they would not be attached to material possessions. Ultimately, though, she could not make final vows because the constitution of the order required that a a sister with full vows be a child of parents who married in the Catholic church, and unfortunately she did not qualify. In spite of this disappointment, Nickie’s desire to establish her place within the Catholic church continued.
As she became older, Nickie had many struggles with her father, who expected her to conform to the expectations of traditional womanhood. She turned down a quinceañera, and when she wanted to learn to drive, her father wouldn’t let her, because he said her husband would do the driving when she got married. As a graduation gift, Nickie went to visit her aunt in Los Angeles, but even then her father interceded. Nickie was a talented artist, and found out about an art program at UCLA where she could learn and also create art for a space capsule, but her father did not allow her to participate. In high school she received honorable mention at a poster contest sponsored by the United Nations. She was one of the few kids in the United States who got honorable mention, and the prize would be a scholarship to the Chicago Institute of Art. She was told that part of the reason she didn't receive the scholarship was because her family would not support her attendance there. She went on to graduate from Fox Tech High School in 1961, and attended college for a short while but could not afford higher education. She worked at a variety of jobs such as bars, restaurants and seasonal labor, which led her to become a picture framer. Through her picture framing business, she was able to incorporate her artistic talent, as well as working with her hands.
Nickie came out when she was 21 years old. She had already been challenging gendered norms in her clothing: wearing jeans, collared shirts, and boots. After she told her father, he disowned her. He said that he would beat her if he ever saw her “dressed up like that” in the streets. Her aunt Petra maintained a close relationship with her, but claimed that she couldn’t understand. She continued to get along with her step brothers and sisters, but they never fully understood. Her extended family would sometimes refer to her as “el parche mal pegado” (“a patch poorly sewn on”), which for them meant that she was not able to find a place in the world. In the 60s, there were no organizations for LGBTQ to seek support. The only spaces for the LGBTQ community to gather were the bars, and these were continually raided by the SAPD vice-squad, who would round people up, put them in paddy wagons and charge them with lewd and lascivious behavior. They could also lose their jobs.
This was the era of the “Lavender Scare,” when thousands of LGBTQ employees were fired or forced to resign from the federal workforce because of their sexuality. This wave of repression was tied to Cold War anti-communism, and based on an unfounded fear that gay men and lesbians posed a national security threat. As of 1960 every state had anti-sodomy laws, which targeted LGBTQ communities, and it was common for police to raid establishments to destroy LGBTQ-friendly spaces.
Nickie was arrested and jailed three times. She talked about how vice squad officers would come into the bars, watch patrons and then report who danced together, kissed, or held hands. The vice squad would then arrest them and report them to their employers, and this is how many lost their jobs. In order to protect their anonymity, they would use nicknames. Once again “Mary Irma” became “Nickie,” and this eventually became her legal name as well. Bar patrons would also have other strategies to avoid the raids. Nickie worked as a bartender, and she noted that bar owners would hire people outside to flash a light inside the bar if they saw the vice squad approaching. Patrons would exchange dance partners so they would not be targeted.
Nickie’s experiences led her to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community. One of her first experiences organizing was in the early 1970s working for the Gay Switchboard, part of the San Antonio Free Clinic on Woodlawn Avenue, funded in part by the United Way. The switchboard was a peer hotline for the LGBTQ community. They would answer calls from people who were coming out and needed somebody to talk with. She also helped create a newsletter called “Together Gay” that they circulated at the bars. The newsletter was published for three years, from 1973-1976.
Nickie was also involved in the first gay march in 1976 downtown at Travis Park. Overall about 75 people gathered for the rally, and though they were faced with a few people who threw eggs at them, this march would set the stage for many marches to come. She also helped form the
Forward Foundation which organized the first conference in San Antonio for the LGBTQ community in 1976 called “A Sense of Belonging.” The conference brought such notables as Morris Kike, Del Martin (Daughters of Bilitis) and Representative Elaine Noble (the first openly gay person elected to statewide office as a representative in the Massachusetts General Assembly). The conference was to take place at the Oak Hills Country Club, but at the last minute the doctors asked that it not be held there, so the Ella Austin Community Center opened its doors for the conference.
Nickie joined in the work of the National Organization of Women as well. At the time NOW was struggling with accepting lesbians into the organization. However, they also tended to rely on lesbians to do much of the organization’s work, because many of them didn’t have children. But Nickie and other lesbian members of the organizations insisted on being part of the leadership as well. They wanted recognition from the organization for their work. Nickie also helped protest against anti-gay activist Anita Bryant when she was invited to speak at a rally in San Antonio.
During this time Nickie became a parent. Initially she did not want to have a child, thinking that having lesbian parents would make the child’s life difficult. Her partner Jeanie wanted a child, though, and so Jeanie gave birth to their son Robert Nicklaus Valdez Minor in 1971. When he was about seven years old, his teacher sent home a notice saying that he was misbehaving and acting out. Nickie and her partner took him to counseling and he said that he felt he wasn’t a normal kid. He wanted a father. Jeanie told him that he was born because he had two parents who really wanted him. She said that they were sorry that he felt sad and angry, but that he is loved. This conversation changed his attitude. Tragically, in 1988 Robert was killed by a drunk driver. He was only sixteen years old.