COVER STORY: Odd man OUT

Posted on 07 Jul 2011 at 6:30pm
PIONEERING PAIR | Carlos Vasquez became only the second openly gay elected official in Tarrant County history when he joined the Fort Worth school board in 2008. Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns was the first. (Andrea Grimes/Dallas Voice)

Carlos Vasquez, Texas’ only openly gay school board member, takes on the establishment in Fort Worth

ANDREA GRIMES | Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

“In Fort Worth, we have a very strong downtown.”

When Fort Worth ISD trustee Carlos Vasquez says this, he’s not talking about the manicured sidewalks of Commerce Street or plentiful parking for night-lifers. He’s talking about a political establishment that doesn’t take kindly to challenges. Elected in 2008 to the district’s board of trustees, Vasquez has been a voice of dissent in a city that has notoriously favored those who fall in line, no questions asked.

“I have been a very strong supporter of students and employees, and not the establishment,” Vasquez told Dallas Voice over coffee last month. His record — and many, many critical editorials and opinion pieces from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — certainly paints a picture of a trustee who feels little obligation to the status quo.

Vasquez unseated an incumbent to win North Fort Worth’s District 1 with 64 percent of the vote. He loudly, and sometimes passionately, criticized former Superintendent Melody Johnson, who resigned under pressure in May. He has questioned the safety of gas drilling close to schools. He has advocated bringing in a new legal firm to take over the district’s delinquent tax collections.

Vasquez also happens to be the only openly gay school board member in the state. It’s a significant distinction, but he’s gone largely unrecognized by the LGBT community in Texas — perhaps overshadowed by the likes of Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

But even in a very red city in a very red county, Vasquez says his sexuality has been the least of his problems. Instead, he’s been criticized by the Star-Telegram for accusing school board President Ray Dickerson of bowing to big business in gas drilling matters, and of resorting to “antics” with regard to hiring that new legal firm.

He even says he once got a call from former Mayor Mike Moncrief telling him to “cool it” with the criticism. But Vasquez believes that the “Fort Worth way is not always the right way, and the Fort Worth way many, many times excludes people.”

One of Vasquez’s colleagues in the Tejano Democrats of North Texas, community activist Jodi Perry, calls Vasquez the “padrino,” or “godfather,” of education in Fort Worth.

Whether it’s keeping gas drilling away from schools or advocating for anti-bullying measures, Perry says Vasquez has never been a “one-issue person.” Constituents “don’t see him as a gay trustee,” she says, but as “Carlos, the champion for children.”

Inclusion is one of Vasquez’s passions, and as a 16-year veteran of the school district, where he’s worked as both a teacher and a principal, he’s made LGBT equality a staple of his tenure so far. Somehow, he has found time in between all his so-called “antics,” to help found an LGBT employees’ organization as well as help institute anti-bullying policies that include prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, first for employees and, as of the last week in June, for students.

Elected just a few months after Councilman Burns, who made national news with his “It Gets Better” speech, Vasquez became the second openly gay public elected official to serve in Tarrant County. Burns, elected in December 2007, and Vasquez, elected in May 2008, have not yet worked closely together despite their shared interest in LGBT advocacy.

Vasquez says he’s “surprised that we’ve gotten away with having as many gay rights as we have for students, teachers, employees,” because of the conservative, Republican base in Fort Worth. But he believes that community building comes from inclusion. That’s a philosophy he’s been building on since childhood.

Growing up in a socioeconomically blighted area of Brownsville in South Texas, Vasquez found a way to bridge the gap between being a popular guy and a friend to kids on the margins. A student council member, yearbook editor and senior class favorite, Vasquez admits to growing up in a “pretty rough” neighborhood. Even so, he says, he’s lived both “a good life and a hard life” that helps him identify with many different groups of people. In fact, his intersectional identity as a Latino man, a gay man and a lifelong educator helps him “go from 99-cent tacos to fifty-dollar steaks and still be the same kind of guy.”

Still, he says, his critics have often asked him to pick one identity over the others — something he’s not willing to do. “I have many different identities,” says Vasquez, and while others may see those as being in conflict with each other, he believes they give him perspective.

Most recently, some members of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Fort Worth have criticized Vasquez’s support of interim Superintendent Walter Dansby, who is black. Vasquez believes Dansby’s 37 years with the district, despite the fact that he’s yet to take his superintendent certification test, means he’s the best man for the job, regardless of race. He was most recently the deputy superintendent. LULAC supporters have said they prefer Sylvia Reyna, the school district’s chief of administration, who is certified as a superintendent but who has only been with the district a year.

“We have to move beyond race,” says Vasquez, and “beyond diversity.” Most importantly, he believes, Fort Worth ISD needs “somebody who has ownership of our district.” He believes Dansby has that, and if it makes him unpopular with some in the Latino community, he says he doesn’t mind, because he’s being honest.

In keeping with his reputation for speaking his mind, Vasquez says that in-fighting in minority communities holds everyone back. In fact, he says, “I think I’ve had more bullying behavior in our own [LGBT] community than I’ve had outside.” He remembers a time when he first came to North Texas 20 years ago when he’d head to a gay bar and find that “everyone was white and pretty and skinny.”

Today, he says, “I see a lot of different faces.” He says that comes from “better communication.” To that end, says Vasquez, he’s willing to take the lead. “If you’re not going to say ‘hi’ to me, I’ll say ‘hi’ to you.”

If his go-getter attitude ruffles some feathers, Vasquez doesn’t mind.

“I feel pretty good, even though the Star-Telegram and downtown establishment aren’t happy, the community at large is.” Vasquez says he gets a lot of “praise” and “kudos” from his constituents, and “ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”

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