Ann Richards appointee faced relentless GOP assault in 1992
When Texas Gov. Ann Richards appointed him as judge for Dallas County’s 195th Judicial District Court early in 1992, Dallas lawyer Jerry Birdwell suddenly found himself in the eye of a storm of controversy.
The appointment made Birdwell the first openly gay judge in the state. And Dallas County Republicans wanted to make sure people in Dallas County knew it.
"They held press conferences practically every day asking that I resign because they said I was committing a crime every night when I went home," Birdwell recalled this week. "They were talking about sodomy, of course."
Birdwell didn’t resign. But the Republicans got their wish that November when their candidate defeated Birdwell in his bid for re-election, as part of a Republican sweep in Dallas County.
Now, 16 years later, the situation is much, much different: Democrats are the ones sweeping elections in Dallas County, and when Birdwell was elected mayor of South Lake Tahoe on Dec. 9, no one there cared one bit about his sexual orientation.
"I’m living in California now, where it doesn’t make any difference if you’re gay," Birdwell said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Dec. 17. "It’s just not an issue like it was in Dallas when we were there. Nobody cares.
"The state voted yes on Prop 8, and I tell you, any of us out here were certainly startled to see it," he acknowledged. "It did wake us up, I can assure you, just like it did everyone across the nation. But really, most people don’t really care if someone is gay."
And, Birdwell added, he’s happy with the way Dallas County is trending, too.
"It feels good to see it, I tell you for sure," he said. "It’s like the old days when I started practicing law in Dallas, when the Democrats controlled the courthouse. It’s nice to see a lot of my old Democratic friends on the benches there now."
But Birdwell isn’t tempted to return to Dallas. He’s satisfied with his career and life in South Lake Tahoe, where he and his partner, Kevin Chandler, own and operate the Black Bear Inn bed and breakfast.
"I have always wanted to live in snow country, and I’ve always enjoyed skiing. And yes, in the back of my mind, I have always wanted to own a bed and breakfast," he said.
"We built the lodge out here and opened up on March 5, 1999.
We’re just about to have our 10th anniversary," he continued. "And we have thoroughly enjoyed running the inn and living in a small mountain community." But Birdwell also found time in his new life to be active civically — and politically — in his new community. He is in his third year of a four-year term on the South Lake Tahoe City Council, and is just starting his one-year term as mayor of the city of 25,000.
Birdwell also points out that things in South Lake Tahoe work a little bit differently than they do in Dallas.
"The way it works here in California, we have general law cities and charter cities, and most of them are general law cities," he said. "In the charter cities it works the way it does in Dallas: City council members are elected to represent specific districts, and the mayor is elected at large by the citizens of the city.
"But South Lake Tahoe is a general law city. And in general law cities, they have five to seven city council members elected at large to represent the community, and then the council members elect one of their number as mayor."
Birdwell has also been involved in redevelopment in the community and with the business improvement communities. And he was president of the local lodging association.
"It’s a lot different than city life," he laughed. "Here, you tend to wear several hats at once."
Bu regardless of his commitments to public life, the lodge is always Birdwell’s top priority. And he is very proud of the successful business he and Chandler have built together.
"We’ve been listed as one of the 10 best B-and-Bs in California, and we’ve been featured on ‘Vacation Living’ on Home and Garden TV. They filmed a segment for the first episode of ABC’s ‘The Bachelor,’ and in the spring of 07, they filmed another ‘Bachelor’ here," he said. "It’s a good life here."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 19, 2008.