Five Minutes With
Five Minutes With Openly Lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is openly lesbian, gave a rousing speech on bridge building and community service this past weekend at a statewide LGBT education conference hosted by Equality North Carolina in Greensboro, N.C.
Speaking to the conference’s 250 attendees, Parker told stories of her past activism and spoke of hope and forward movement even in the toughest of times. Parker was elected Houston’s first openly gay or lesbian official after her third run for the city council in 1997. In 2003, Parker became the city controller. In 2009, she ran for city’s top job and Houston became the largest U.S. city to ever elect an openly gay or lesbian mayor.
Parker’s involvement in city life and its political affairs stretch back for decades. From the 1970s through the '80s, Parker says she was among the city’s most outspoken and recognizable LGBT activists, serving as president of the Houston Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus and as co-chair of the Texas Democratic Party.
Campus Progress had the opportunity to sit down with Parker and ask her a few questions about her journey to elected office, her thoughts on LGBTQ people’s “seat at the table,” and her place as role model and community leader.
CP: There are a lot of gay folks who I think are sometimes afraid to run for office because they think they are going to be painted as an “activist.” In reality, these people care about so much more than LGBT issues; they do care about the communities they live in. What do you say to a gay person who might be afraid to run for office for this reason?
Parker: You have to have the resume that reflects the office you’re running for, in my opinion. In my experience and that of my colleague, Councilmember Sue Lowell—we followed each other and were involved in the same statewide groups—we were truly two of the most visible GLBT activists in Houston in the ‘80s. We both shifted in the ‘90s. I was most vocal as a civic activist. I was involved in housing and other issues. Sue was involved in employment issues. When we ran, we were both seen as activists but we had track records that went beyond GLBT issues.
I think that is important because it’s hard to step outside of that label if you don’t have anything to point to. I didn’t win my first race or my second. In 1995, two years before I won my seat, I ran in a special election. There were 19 candidates. I finished third. But, in the race everywhere I saw my name it was, “Annise Parker, lesbian activist.”
I realized that if I wanted people to hear what I had to say about city issues I had to get past that. I sat down with the Houston media outlets and said, “I’m a lesbian activist. You know it. I know it. I have it my campaign literature. But you don’t refer to my opponents by what their volunteer activities are. It’s ‘businessman’ or ‘oil executive.’ I’m in the oil business. Let’s be fair. I haven’t been the leader of a GLBT organization in 10 years, but I am the president of a homeowners association. If you’re going to talk about what I did 10 years ago, then talk about what they did 10 years ago.” For whatever reason, they did change. They found a way to work it into every story but it wasn’t linked to my name.
How important to you is having a seat at the table? It is important for the gay community have that vocal, visible presence?
It is absolutely critical to have a vocal, visible presence at the table. We can be well-represented by non-gay allies who understand our issues and who advocate for us and who do a great job for us, and they need to be supported and thanked for that. But, it is different when we are there. It’s no longer academic. A supportive straight ally can articulate the needs of our families, but it’s different when I’m there with my spouse of 20 years and our adopted, multiracial kids. It is a reality that my colleagues in local government have to face. If the spouse comes to a Christmas party, you can’t really pretend she’s not there.
I’m sure there are tons of LGBTQ people who look up to you as a role model. Have you heard from those people and have you been ready for those personal stories?
I’ve been a public spokesperson for the GLBT community in Houston since the mid-‘70s and I’ve always considered myself a role model for the community and am always conscious of that. When I was an activist, I would hear from people, “I can’t do what you do. I’m so glad you’re doing it. I can’t come out for X, Y, or Z reason.”
When I was elected those sorts of stories started. My life partner and I laugh about it; we call them the elevator speech. You know, the elevator door opens, someone gets in and they lean over and say, “Thank you for serving. I have a gay son,” and I love that, especially when young people come up to me. It’s a shame after all these years that this epidemic of suicide is still happening. The world is so much better and easier and there are so many more opportunities and resources. Why is this happening when it is so much better? I feel frustrated, and a lot of us from the early movement say, “Hey, guys, we’ve been doing this for you for a long time. Don’t give up.”
Matt Comer is a staff writer for Campus Progress.
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