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James Pounders: An Artist & Activist at Heart

James protesting bus service cuts in the Tenderloin during the pandemic

When one meets James Pounders, it doesn’t take long to discover and be drawn to his vibrant personality, wit, and artistic flair. From his anecdotes and humorous t-shirts to the Wizard of Oz and other theater memorabilia that adorn his home, there is never a dull moment with him. James always has interesting stories with gems nestled in them that reflect a rich life experience, his wisdom, and the enormity of his heart. He cares about making other people feel good and does it effortlessly.

James became a regular at Faithful Fools in 2015 to support Tenderloin Votes, an effort that mobilized neighborhood residents and successfully registered over 200 people for the 2016 election. He later helped create the Tenderloin People’s Congress, an alliance of resident-led groups committed to empowering the leadership of Tenderloin residents. James has been actively involved with various community-based organizations over the years and when bus services were cut in the midst of the pandemic, he made sure his voice was heard on how this impacted the most vulnerable Tenderloin residents.

James shared that he did not know he was an activist until a friend pointed this out when he moved to San Francisco ten years ago. Long before this, James supported civic engagement activities and raised money for a rape crisis center and programs supporting the LGBTQ community, like the International Gay Bowling Organization (the largest gay sports event worldwide), especially those living with HIV/AIDS, among many. Being a natural entertainer, doors constantly opened up for James to use his talent for fun and fundraising. In the 1980s, he’d spend time at bars advocating for safe sex, usually armed with pamphlets and fun supplies. James has judged and emceed events like Miss Gay America and Miss Universe at Large (a pageant for plus-sized female impersonators), always to support a good cause.

James as Hefty Baggett at a performance

Originally from North Little Rock in Arkansas, James knew by age 13 that he was gay and would go to the library to read all he could about this developing identity. He never checked out any of the books to cover his tracks, but by age 19, he came out to his family. While he was not outrightly rejected, his relationship with his parents became strained for a while and he experienced his share of bigotry over the years. Nevertheless, James's resilience and fully embracing himself, especially through theater and his drag persona, Hefty Baggett, allowed him to positively impact every community he has lived in. He went from being yelled at with slurs at a peaceful march in the Arkansas State Capitol to decades later on accepting the Ryan White award on behalf of his employer for valuing the LGBTQ community. James's relationship with his parents eventually got better and they even embraced his advocacy, but his father did say to him, perhaps half-jokingly, “Next time you get quoted about LGBTQ issues in the paper, make sure you put the ‘Junior’ after your name!”

We Fools have had the pleasure of getting to know James through the highs and lows of the past several years. We truly value his friendship, humor, and support that continually boost the Fool’s work in the Tenderloin. It’s gratifying to learn that being a part of our community has opened him up to be more understanding of people having challenges and the importance of asking for support. James also expressed an appreciation for Fools’ awareness of the socio-political issues in San Francisco and engaging with all peoples on different levels, and also honoring the value of every person, regardless if they have ten cents or $10 in their pockets. James hopes to channel the performer in him and get back on stage soon, even roll on to it if needed, to do what he does best and always in the spirit of giving back to the community.

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