Olivia Julianna Wants to Turn Texas

Olivia Julianna Wants to Turn Texas

Like many 19 year olds, Houston’s Olivia Julianna is voting for the first time this midterm election season. Unlike most, the Gen-Z political strategist has also been hitting the campaign trail with Democratic Party superstar Beto O’Rourke, who’s running for governor in her home state of Texas — and broadcasting it to her nearly one million combined following on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram.

Julianna started creating political content in 2020 with TikTok for Biden, which was established as a loose coalition of 400+ content creators, and has since evolved into the progressive youth-led nonprofit Gen-Z for Change. Last month, she was named Director of Politics for the organization, where she now has a full-time job.

While her team got to collaborate with the Biden inaugural committee and partner with Dr. Anthony Fauci for the vaccine rollout that year, Julianna says she identified primarily as a “digital content creator, not an activist” until mid-2021, when Texas passed Senate Bill 8, introducing a draconian ban on abortions as early as six weeks, with no exception for rape and incest.

“When I heard about the tip line where you could anonymously report someone, I was pissed off,” Julianna tells PAPER, referring to a tip line created by the anti-abortion group Right to Life. “I was just so angry and disgusted at the prospect of weaponizing neighbor against neighbor — friend against friend.”

Taking notes from a 2020 stunt in which TikTok users (and K-pop stans) tanked a Trump rally by registering thousands of fake tickets, Julianna worked with a colleague from Gen-Z for Change, who created a code to clog the tip line with fake tips. It worked: the Right to Life site crashed and the tip line hasn’t been back online since.

This early taste of activism moved Julianna to become even more outspoken in abortion rights, and she soon after appeared as a speaker at the Women’s March in Austin. Her fast-growing following attracted the ire of conservatives, most notably Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, the Trump associate who was recently under investigation for sex trafficking.

After the 40-year-old tried to publicly body shame her, Julianna’s viral response became a fundraising rallying call that resulted in over $2 million for abortion funds all over the country.

“Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions?,” Gaetz asked at a rally. He later tweeted a photo of Julianna, to which she responded, “Oh btw @mattgaetz, my Tiktok outlining your failed attack against me is now at 1 million views. I’ve gained 20k followers across platforms. Let this serve as a lesson to all the Republican politicians out there — if it’s a battle of wit against me, you’re going to lose.”

A microcosm of the American fight for reproductive rights, the viral exchange captured the country’s attention. First came notes of support on social media from the likes of Hillary Clinton and journalist Dan Rather. Then came features in the Washington Post and Teen Vogue.

In the coming weeks, Julianna used her increased notoriety to continue trolling unwitting conservatives, including major figures like Senator Marsha Blackburn and O’Rourke’s opponent Governor Greg Abbott. Her pithy reply tweets consistently “ratio” their victim, earning more “likes” than the original post. In an era when the battle for the hearts and minds of America is waged online, her strategy is undeniably effective.

On the phone, Julianna speaks with the same candor and confidence she has online, a reflection perhaps of her experience “in rural Texas, specifically in a “very conservative Christian household where abortion was not talked about.” Julianna’s understanding of her key issue came through self-education, which started with a fetal stem cell case she researched for her high school debate team.

Julianna says her confidence is also a reaction to having been severely bullied growing up. “I was physically assaulted on the school bus in fourth grade,” she explains. “So for a long time, I was so scared to express myself. As a plus size, queer Mexican woman, I know what it’s like being vilified by the people around you. I don’t know exactly what changed, but I think I just reached a point where I was tired of being afraid.”

"As a plus size, queer Mexican woman, I know what it’s like being vilified by the people around you."

Despite this, Julianna doesn’t reject where she comes from, noting that she has a deep love for Texas and still draws upon elements of her Christian upbringing — humility and service to others — as inspiration in her own journey.

“My perspective on God has changed a lot,” she notes. “I don’t see God in mega-churches and multi-million dollar buildings. I see God in people and acts of service. Being an activist is sort of like being part of a ministry.”

In the same spirit, Julianna wants people’s notions of Texas, as a place and a culture, to be more nuanced. After all, her own hometown of Houston is by some measures the most diverse city in America. She says she’s fighting for those who grew up like her, never seeing themselves represented in political spaces.

“People think of Texas as this hyper conservative hell state,” Julianna says. “But that’s not what defines us. Greg Abbott doesn’t represent us. When I think of Texas, I think of neighbors welcoming neighbors into homes during Hurricane Harvey. I think of people supporting each other in crisis. We are genuinely a welcoming state with kind people.” She adds that some of the greatest civil rights leaders have come from Texas: “This is the home of Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards.”

As the midterm elections on November 8 grow closer, Julianna has been out in the field, organizing and campaigning for candidates from both Texas and beyond — from Beto O’Rourke to Rochelle Garza, the Democrat running for Texas Attorney General. At a rally in July, Beto O’Rourke shouted Julianna out for fundraising efforts in light of Gaetz’s comments.

Though it often feels hopeless, Julianna hopes young people will vote — especially in Texas, whose changing demographics and increasingly purple political alignment serves as a barometer for the future of America as a whole. She says it’s more urgent than ever, as Republicans continue to make it evermore harder to vote.

“Republicans have made it a point to close polling locations in majority Black and Brown areas — it’s blatant voter suppression,” Julianna explains. “They also have voter ID laws that make it hard for students, who can’t register with their school IDs or college addresses. But we’re still seeing record voter registration with young people because people are pissed off. Young women are pissed off.”

As for her own political aspirations, Julianna doesn’t know for sure if she would pursue politics — but she’s certainly not ruling it out. “People have asked me this and the joke I like to say is, 'I’m going to be Governor of Texas,’” she laughs. “Truthfully, I’m not sure what my set path is yet, but I know it’ll be in Texas.”

Early voting for the 2022 midterm elections has started — election day is November 8.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Julianna