LGBT community has made tremendous progress in Dallas city politics, thanks to those who were willing to step up and serve
When Bill Nelson, then president of the Dallas Gay Alliance, was endorsed for City Council by the Dallas Homeowners League in 1985, it prompted a candidate in another council race, John Evans, to declare that he would reject the group’s backing.
"I’m going to say something now that may offend somebody, and I don’t care if I do," Evans announced during a candidate forum, according to The Dallas Morning News. "Had I received the endorsement of the Dallas Homeowners League, I would have now denied it because they have now endorsed a homosexual candidate, and I cannot go along with that."
Larry Duncan, a longtime straight ally of the LGBT community who was then president of the Homeowners League, said recently that the incident reflected just how bad the political climate was for the gay community in Dallas at the time.
"It was considered contagious somehow," Duncan said. "It wasn’t enough to ostracize GLBT folks — it was anybody who would deal with them, and that was political, business, anything.
"It wasn’t a whole lot better for endorsing African-Americans or Hispanics, but it wasn’t nearly as volatile, as inflammatory, as with GLBT," Duncan said.
Fast forward a quarter-century, and the annual gay Pride parade routinely includes appearances by a majority of Dallas City Council members.
Political consultants rightly view the gay voting bloc in Dallas as a force to be reckoned with, and candidates for council and other offices actively woo the community through groups including the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, Stonewall Democrats of Dallas and even the Log Cabin Republicans.
On a policy level, the council has taken virtually every major step it can to support LGBT equality, including a comprehensive citywide nondiscrimination policy that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as domestic partner benefits for municipal employees.
But most agree that many of these gains would never have been possible in the absence of LGBT people — from Nelson to former councilmembers Craig Holcomb, Chris Luna, Craig McDaniel, John Loza and Ed Oakley — who were willing to step up and serve.
"From what we can tell, generally the atmosphere that will allow a community to move forward on things that are important legislatively, almost always gets better after they have elected their first openly gay officeholder, whether that’s to a county commission, a city council or a state legislative seat," said Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which provides financial backing for openly LGBT candidates nationwide. "Once somebody’s able to get elected, then things begin to change, and I think that has been true in Dallas."
Dison noted that when Craig McDaniel was elected to the Dallas City Council in 1993, he became the 66th openly LGBT elected official nationwide. Today, there are 437.
And while the City Council doesn’t currently include any openly LGBT members, Dallas has three countywide openly LGBT elected officials —County Judge Jim Foster, Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons.
"Harvey Milk’s lesson for us back in the ’70s was, if everybody came out who was gay or lesbian, we would not be having these discussions, we would not be discussing whether or not we deserve the same rights as other people, because it would be a no-brainer," Dison said.
"If every member of Congress who was gay in both parties came out, I don’t think we would be having the type of discussions that we have up there, because the number of people who would be impacted by those discussions would grow to the point that people would understand that, ‘I’m really talking about my colleagues.’"
Although Nelson wasn’t the first openly candidate for Dallas City Council — the Rev. James Harris, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, ran in 1978 — Nelson’s campaign is widely regarded as the beginning of gay electoral politics in Dallas.
Ironically, though, some say there were as many as three or more closeted gay people already on the City Council at the time.
Craig Holcomb, who’d been elected in 1983, was married when he joined the council and didn’t come out publicly until after he left.
"There are members of the council who are no longer alive, who were on before me, who I have seen at gay bars," Holcomb said recently. "Whether they were gay or not, I don’t know. Since they’re no longer alive, I don’t think it would be appropriate to mention their names."
Unlike some closeted politicians, Holcomb was generally supportive of the LGBT community on a policy level, which has earned him the honorary title of gay council member despite the fact that he never ran as openly gay.
"In any political movement, there are people who make strong statements to provoke issues, and then there are other people who work hard to find a reasonable compromise so progress can be made, and both groups are very important," Holcomb said. "Bill [Nelson] was the one who was out front, leading and challenging us all, and I was the one saying, ‘OK, it’s more important for me to be sitting here at this table than to make a statement.’"
Other closeted members of council in 1985, on the other hand, were vocal opponents of gay rights.
In fact, the incumbent whom Nelson challenged, Paul Fielding, launched anti-gay attacks against the DGA president during the campaign and came out squarely against the idea of a city nondiscrimination ordinance, a major plank in Nelson’s platform.
Fielding would later be identified as gay.
Nelson finished third in the 1985 race, behind Fielding and Lori Palmer, and Nelson’s supporters quickly united behind Palmer. After Palmer defeated Fielding in the runoff, she appointed Nelson to a the city’s Civil Service Review Adjunct Board, but Nelson would later be forced to step down from the board because he refused to sign an oath saying he would uphold state law — which included a prohibition on sodomy.
Nelson ran again for City Council and lost in 1987, and after Holcomb stepped down due to term limits in 1989, Dallas wouldn’t see another gay councilmember until 1991, when Chris Luna won in District 2.
Luna said he’d already been active in the gay community and was out in his personal life. But after meeting with gay community leaders — who agreed to it as long as he never denied being gay — Luna opted not to run as an openly LGBT candidate.
"I thought I could do more good serving and changing some of those policies and having a place at the table, than necessarily running as an open candidate and losing," said Luna, who noted that the district was predominantly Hispanic. "I wasn’t sure I could win as an openly gay candidate. Up to that point, it hadn’t happened before."
Luna said City Hall staff, his colleagues on the council, and the media all knew he was gay. During his first term, he served as grand marshal of the Pride parade and became the point person for LGBT issues in the city.
"It was not a very well-kept secret," he said.
But Luna stressed that McDaniel, who would join him on the council in 1993, deserves the credit for being the city’s first openly gay elected official.
"He put it on the line," Luna said. "If anybody was kind of the Harvey Milk of our community and our generation, it’s without a doubt Craig."
Luna and McDaniel both said they benefited from a new 14-1 system of government and single-member council districts, which were implemented in 1991 and paved the way for gays and other minority candidates to be elected.
McDaniel said his sexual orientation wasn’t a major issue during his successful 1993 campaign in the heavily gay District 14.
"I just happened to be coming along about the time that Dallas was ready for it," McDaniel said. "People didn’t elect me because I was gay, and they didn’t elect me in spite of it. They elected me because of the experience I had demonstrated working down in the trenches with my neighborhood association on various issues that were going to be in front of the council for the next several years."
Although McDaniel’s sexual orientation wasn’t an issue for his constituents, it was for some of his colleagues from other districts.
"I do not believe that homosexuality is a healthful lifestyle," Councilwoman Donna Blumer told the Morning News for an article about McDaniel’s victory —a story in which Mayor Steve Bartlett declined comment.
"I think it’s evident because AIDS is prevalent only in the gay community. I think that their practices contribute to that. I don’t mean to sound condemnatory, but I do think homosexuality is not something we should try to promote as normal," Blumer told The Morning News.
Despite the bigotry of people like Blumer, with two gay members on the council, Luna and McDaniel were able to make unprecedented gains for LGBT equality.
For the first time, they began routinely appointing openly LGBT people to city board and commissions. Luna said the number of openly LGBT people on boards and commissions went from a handful when he took office in 1991 to about 25 when he left in 1997.
Luna and McDaniel also helped overturn a policy prohibiting gays from serving openly on the police force — an issue that stemmed from a lawsuit initially brought by lesbian applicant Mica England in 1989.
In 1995, they pushed through a nondiscrimination policy for municipal employees that included sexual orientation, which would be a precursor to the comprehensive citywide policy of 2002. And they worked to increase funding for HIV/AIDS, which was still largely a taboo subject.
"That’s one of those examples I use about having a place at the table," Luna said. "It’s great to have friends and allies, but when someone has these firsthand experiences and knows someone who’s been sick and passed away, that’s an experience that you don’t forget.
"Whether it’s woman on women’s issues or people of color on discrimination issues in those communities, it’s just a whole different thing when you say I or me or our. Pronouns matter."
McDaniel recalled how a real estate lobbyist once told him that people in the industry identified with him because they considered themselves to be risk-takers. "We decided you were about the biggest risk-taker we know, sticking yourself out there like you did," the man told McDaniel.
He also recalled seeing a social conservative at a fundraiser for his re-election campaign in 1995. The man told McDaniel that he and his friends all planned to vote for him because, "If he isn’t going to lie about that [being gay], he isn’t going to lie about anything."
The progress, however, didn’t come without a significant personal price for McDaniel.
"I was under police protection for about six months of the second term because I was getting mailed letters that the police considered cause for concern," McDaniel said.
"The [police] helicopter would fly over my house at night and turn on the search light. There were a couple of days when we had to get the bomb squad because of unusual things."
But the furor eventually died down, and by the time Luna and McDaniel left the council in 1997, John Loza said his sexual orientation was almost a complete non-issue. Loza replaced Luna in District 2 that year.
"I was always a little surprised by how little of an issue it was down at City Hall," Loza said. "I obviously was the beneficiary of the efforts of a number of people who came before me."
Loza was joined by Ed Oakley on the council in 2001. And in 2002, for the first time, the LGBT community was courted by all three candidates for Dallas mayor —Laura Miller, Tom Donning and Domingo Garcia.
Miller later became the first mayor to ride in the Pride parade, and with her support, Loza and Oakley pushed through the citywide nondiscrimination ordinance, which passed on a 13-2 vote.
The council added DP benefits for city employees in 2004, which Loza said he slipped into a budget proposal with no opposition and little fanfare.
Loza left the council in 2005, and Oakley stepped down to run for mayor in 2007, when he lost to Tom Leppert in a runoff.
The 2007 election left Dallas without an openly LGBT councilmember for the first time in 14 years, since McDaniel’s election.
But in what may be the most telling sign of the progress achieved by openly gay council members — their presence at the horseshoe is no longer considered such a grave necessity.
"I’d say it speaks volumes for the city that we have friends on the council who can represent our interests," Oakley said. "It shows that the work has paid off in the last 25 years."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 22, 2009.