Megan Smith ('18) - University of Houston
Smith smiles enthusiastically while standing in front of mint green wall.

Megan Smith ('18)

When Megan Smith found activism, she found herself.  Taking her passion for journalism and involvement in the LGBTQ community, the former mass communication graduate student co-founded Spectrum South, an online-magazine that introduces a fresh perspective to the LGBTQ experience. Spectrum South brings “visibility to the diverse and resilient individuals, groups, and personalities of the ever-growing queer South.”  Recently interviewed by public relations graduate student Fakaira Gabriel, in a style marked by candor and intimacy, Smith discusses her life, the magazine, and her experience at the Valenti School of Communication.

You can follow Spectrum South on Facebook , Instagram or Twitter.


This interview has been edited for condensed for clarity.

How would you describe your personality in three words to someone who doesn't know you?

This is the worst, but I get “nice” a lot. I'm the mom of the group; I always take care of my friends. I'm very loyal to my friends, and I want to take care of everybody. (My zodiac sign is a Cancer.) Okay, so, three words: kind, loyal and giving.

What are some experiences that helped shape your personality, or do you feel like you've just always had those characteristics?

I've been really lucky with a good support system. I’ve made new friends but kept the old ones, too, and my friends have really stuck with me through the entire grad school process. I feel like because they've given me so much support, that's what shaped my personality and my wanting to give back to them.

Getting immersed within the LGBT community in Houston has also shaped me. I grew up here in Houston but went to undergrad at UT, so I moved to Austin and then I came back. When I was here the first time, I was not really immersed in activism or the community. But when I came back and really got involved in it, that was when I started seeing how kindness goes a long way in activism. I saw that if you give a little bit, that's always a really good feeling. You think “I can do this one little thing and watch that it means the world to you.”

What was the inspiration behind co-founding Spectrum South?

I worked in LGBT media in Houston for five years, but I was also the most outward facing person in the magazine, so I got a lot of community feedback. One recurring theme that emerged through the feedback was that the community didn’t feel represented in the LGBT media sources that were available to them. Kelsey and I wanted to start a publication that would represent those people so they could feel like there was a resource for them. That’s why we founded Spectrum South.  We pulled our resources together and we were like, “okay, let's do this!” We launched it in June 2017, right before Pride Week.

How old were you when you started Spectrum South?

I'm 27 now. So, I was 25, about to be 26.

How did it feel to launch a magazine at 25 years old?

It felt crazy to be honest. As much as I believed in Spectrum, I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I always thought that I would go to grad school, get  a good job — and I still did that. Spectrum is not my full-time job. But I just never really knew what it would become or what it would mean to people. And I think that it definitely made me grow as a person for sure.

I've learned about things that are way past communications, you know, like business, advertising and things. They're not in my wheelhouse. I've had to learn how to do it because Spectrum has to stay alive. It's a team of me and Kelsey and a bunch of freelance writers and photographers. The business side is up to us. We're both essentially two creatives that are trying to a run a business. I think the most rewarding thing out of it is that people were receptive to it and that people really believed in it. We had a Kickstarter back in August and we exceeded our goal. We raised over $6,000 for it and our goal was $5,000! Both Kelsey and I were scared we weren't even going to make that. So, to see people not only invested in the content but invested enough to give their money, which we know is a big ask . . . that's what keeps me going.

How is Spectrum South rallying the LGBTQ community for a greater cause?

This goes back to the whole representation thing. People see that we're doing something different and that's exciting! I feel like Houston LGBTQ media and, more specifically, gay media people have been dealing with a lot of the same for a long time. I previously thought, "Oh, it just can't change. Like this is the way that it is and I'm just not going to see myself represented." Now they see we're doing something different. We have a lot of young voices, which I think is not only reflected in the LGBT movement, but we see that with gun control. I mean, we've got teenagers leading that movement. So the fact is youth can lead all of the movements, and it's time for that changing of the guard. So I think that's what we see in Spectrum and how Spectrum has been received. I think that that's very empowering for young people within the LGBTQ community that still struggle because That's a big misconception too. That it's not hard to be LGBTQ anymore because you can just come out and your family is going to love you and like all this stuff. That's a really dangerous narrative to push. So giving this platform to those youth to share their stories, good or bad, is really energizing for the community.

Walk us through a normal day running the magazine.

Usually, we post about three times a week. On a normal day, I take care of all the editing. I'll get the pieces from the writers, edit them, and send them back for their final changes and approval. Once they approve the changes, I'll lay it out on Wordpress and get it scheduled. Kelsey does all of our graphics. She sizes images and handles the needed artwork. Then just overall like editorial planning. We have a monthly editorial calendar to see what's coming down the pipeline and preparing whatever we need for that. It's a lot of communication back and forth between me and Kelsey. That’s a dysfunctional day, but that's honestly what it looks like: a bunch of editing and a bunch of planning. I think that's the case with most small businesses. If you're not a well-oiled machine and have a whole team and lots of resources, it can be hectic sometimes. But we make it work and it works out in the end. It's fine.

What have been the challenges of running an online magazine?

Resources. Everything comes down to money honestly. Our business model is centered around advertising and event sponsorships. With a smaller team, again, it's really Kelsey and I doing that. We're actually looking for somebody to do sales, full time, so we can take that off of our plate and just have somebody focused on it all the time. So I'd say money is the biggest issue.


How does it feel to be one of the few LGBTQ niche magazines in Texas?  

Oh, that's tough. It definitely keeps me wanting to do the work because I know that other people aren't really out there doing it. Even on the days I'm most tired because doing this, on top of grad school, has been a challenge. I'm pretty sure that I would look back now and think, “Megan, you are crazy! What are you doing?”  But I don't regret it at all because I love Spectrum and I love what we do.

In terms of being one of the few LGBTQ magazines, it really makes me want to keep going. I have to do this work until the work is not needed. And that's going to be a long time from now, which is not being pessimistic, that's just being realistic. I mean any movement takes a long time as we know. Our community is very diverse, so even if gays and lesbians have more rights, trans people are barely entering the mainstream dialogue. It's going to be a long time before there's no transphobia and there's no homophobia. Something that we value at Spectrum is intersectionality. That was one of the main things that we heard in the community: "I'm a queer person of color and you don't represent me." And although I'm white and Kelsey is white, we have packed our team with queer people of color because what's important to us are those voices. The people that we interview are very heavily queer people of color because people see these movements as separate, and they need to see all of their identities represented. So, that's very important to us. That's something that, even though there are niche publications in Texas, I feel something that sets us apart that we really hold near and dear to our hearts. So we're not perfect at that by any means, but we're definitely trying.

As far as growth, where do you see Spectrum South going?

If you're involved in the LGBTQ community in Houston, you probably know about us at this point and that's after a year and a half of us getting out there and telling people about it. We really want to expand that reach. We cover content from Texas to Florida, but I would say most people in Florida do not know we exist unless they happen to share one of the articles that is Florida-specific. I don't think we're a real go-to publication for them. I would like to get writers on the ground in all of the Southern states, so we can more adequately cover them and serve our mission. Growth is to really become the queer publication for the south, which is our tagline. Really fulfilling that mission.

How has current response been about Spectrum South?  

The response has been really good. We definitely have allies or people that just care about the movement in general. They definitely read Spectrum. Again, that's what keeps this going; Spectrum is needed and people see us, they see that there was a void and they see that we're actually filling it. I think a good example of this was our launch party. We launched in June 2017, but our launch party wasn't until September 2017. First of all, we thought, “If we get 50 people in this room, we're going to be happy and content.” But we had over 200 people show up. That was really special!

Do you feel as though Spectrum South is your dream career?

Yes and no. Yes, in the fact that, Spectrum is my dream job. If I could make it work where it was bringing in the money and could support me full-time, which is still a goal of the publication. Working in queer media was my dream job, and when I worked at my previous job it set that foundation I was on the right path. So with Spectrum, it just felt like a natural step. I have to keep doing this work and this is how I can do it because I'm a communicator. I mean communication is my jam, and that is the best avenue for my activism, I guess. In that way, yes, my dream job is Spectrum. Hopefully one day if we can accomplish this goal and it's financially sustainable, it will be my full-time job. But the “no” part is I never saw myself being an entrepreneur. Honestly, I never saw myself owning a magazine that I had to start from the ground up. But here I am.

I see you got your bachelor’s degree at University of Texas at Austin. What made you want to pursue a master’s at the Valenti School of Communication?

I took a two and a half year break between undergrad and grad. Both of my parents got grad degrees, and it was always something that was expected of me. I didn't like that, not in like some kind of rebellious way. After undergrad, I was totally burnt out. I was like, "I'm not gonna do this. I can't go straight through. There's no way.  I'm done with school!" I don't regret that because I really liked getting real-world experience. I feel like it's helped me in my classroom discussions.

My point being, if I was going to go back to school, I wanted to find the right program. And it did help that U of H was in Houston because I was working full-time here, and that the program was flexible. So, I met with Dr. Vardeman. We talked about the program in general. I told her my background in journalism and that I was interested in activism. She really sold me on not only the school, but the program! Mass communication  sounded exciting because it incorporated a lot of research that I personally found interesting. And then on top of that, I really liked that U of H had one of the most diverse campuses in the country!

Do you feel like your graduate courses prepared you to launch a magazine?

Grad school has made me realize I could do things that I didn't think I could do in general. In my first semester of, I didn't think I could get through this program. I didn’t believe I was smart enough to be here. I didn't understand what I was learning, and I didn’t think I had really great ideas like everybody around me seemed to have. But I did get through it.  For example, writing a 25-page paper in a week (because we have to do that sometimes). Most of the time, it's almost not humanly possible, but you persevere and you get through it and in the end, you feel good about it. And I feel like that's exactly what's happened with Spectrum. I didn't think I could do it. I persevered and now I'm a year and a half into it and it's thriving. And now I'm finished with my last class and I did this program too! I think that in that way it's almost a stamina thing. Grad school gives you the stamina to push through because you have to finish.  It’s a marathon y'all!

Aside from running an entire magazine, what are some hobbies of yours?

I really like reading, I'm a big reader. I'm a huge outdoors person, and I feel like I haven't gotten to do enough of that being in grad school, but I like hiking and being outside. I used to work at a nature center in high school. That was my thing and being outside is my happy place. I also really liked gardening. That's such a nerdy thing, but I like gardening a lot!