I'm sitting across from climate change activist DeeDee Belmares at Cake Thieves Bakery on the East Side as she reflects on the social changes she's seen in the local queer community.
Our conversation unfolds two weeks into Pride Month, and Belmares, 52, is sharing her journey as an advocate for cleaner air.
True to her LGBTQ-activist roots, she's wearing a rainbow-colored watch band. That prompts me to ask her what Pride Month means to her.
"Being able to do everything that I want and need to do, whether professionally or personally, as a queer mom, a queer partner, a queer activist," she says. "Just being able to be myself."
I ask Belmares what impact marriage equality had on her 22-year relationship when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
"Well, my partner and I have a 19-year-old son," she explains. "We did all the legal preparation for ourselves prior to marriage equality. Once we did that [and] once marriage equality passed, it was like nothing changed. We were still the same people we were before, and getting married wasn't going to change that. I'm glad people are able to do that, but for us it wasn't necessary for our relationship."
Belmares is the former co-chair of the Community Alliance for a United San Antonio (CAUSA), the coalition that worked to get the 2013 non-discrimination ordinance passed.
"It was tough juggling work, the kid and activism, but we had to make time to get the NDO passed," she says. "That was actually my first step into the activist world."
At a core level, why is it important to fight for equality?
"Because people are dying," she replies, almost instantly. "People are fired. People are abused. People are getting murdered because of who they are. It's a life and death situation for [LGBTQ+ people], I think."
While there's a season for activism, Belmares notes that there's also a time to be a mother, a partner and a human. For her, that time came shortly after the NDO was passed.
"I had to step back from the coalition because my dad was getting sick [and] my mother had just been diagnosed with dementia," she says. "If you can't take care of your own family, you can't take care of everybody else. My parents were sick for a long time."
In 2018, on one of her frequent trips to Port Aransas, Belmares made two life-changing observations.
"On the way to Corpus you see the refineries and all that smoke coming out. I'm at the beach and I see the wells outside on the ocean and tankers coming in and out of the harbor with LNG — liquid natural gas. I thought to myself, 'This can't possibly be good.'"
She continues: "Then, it was ... probably Trump's first State of the Union address where he referred to coal as 'beautiful and safe.' Man, I just lost my shit! I was like, 'What is he talking about? That is absolutely false, and dangerous, and deadly! A friend of mine worked for an organization called the Environmental Defense Fund. They were looking for a part-time organizer in San Antonio, and she was like, 'You wanna come on board?' I was like, 'Hell, yeah I want to come on board."
By coincidence, Belmares joined the movement on Earth Day 2018.
"At the time, it was getting San Antonio to pass the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. Also, this has been a very long-time struggle here in San Antonio [to get] CPS Energy to shut its last remaining coal plant," she says. "That's what it looked like at that time — and it still looks like that. The climate plan passed, but we're still trying to get CPS Energy to shut its coal plant."
Belmares — who's a member of CPS Energy's Rate Advisory Committee —explains that the city-owned utility is actively looking at alternatives to the plant, which is one of the area's biggest sources of air pollution.
I ask her what her vision is for San Antonio's air.
"That it would be clean and breathable for everyone, especially those most vulnerable to pollution," she says. "That's poor people, people without health insurance, children, the elderly, people with respiratory illnesses and asthma."
Do you think this is going to happen in your lifetime?
"It has to," she says. "I'm certainly going to keep fighting for it."
Belmares is now a climate justice organizer for Public Citizen, a watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C. Given her deep involvement in environmental causes, I ask if she still considers herself an LGBTQ+ activist.
"I consider myself a climate justice activist who happens to be a queer," she explains after a contemplative pause.
"Here in San Antonio, it's the queer activists doing a lot of this heavy lift," she adds of the climate-activist community. "I do believe that climate change is the overarching issue of our day. Climate change affects certain people, like Black and Brown communities, more. That coal plant is on the southern part of the city. It's not in Stone Oak."
How does that make you feel?
"It hurts me, you know? I grew up on the South Side. My parents are buried at the cemetery right where that refinery is at."
Belmares attended St. Leo's Catholic School, though she admits she's no longer Catholic.
"I think the church is boring," she says nonchalantly. "I got tired of praying for other people and nothing ever happened. I never used to pray for myself, really. I always used to pray for other people and things didn't change, you know? I don't think God hears prayer, or if there is a God, he's not listening. The more I see things happen to children, the more I realize that we can only save ourselves."
What would you tell a passionate, young activist just now joining the climate community?
"Take care of yourself. Take breaks. Talk to everybody and keep on challenging power," she says.
What have you learned about yourself through this work?
"That I've learned to work with different kinds of people," she says. "I always thought in order to do this work, you have to work with people that you're aligned with — like, politically, that only progressives will do this work. And, by and large, that's true ... but I can't discount that there are people out there who are not necessarily like you that care about the same issues."
Finally, I ask her what she would tell a young person who's experiencing Pride for the first time this year.
"Have fun! Enjoy it! Bring someone with you to do the same thing, because you could really be helping that person a lot."
Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.