After a stellar freshman year in the House, queer state Rep. Mary Gonzalez says her social justice advocacy drew primary challenger
EL PASO — Out state Rep. Mary Gonzalez finished the legislative session last summer with four passed bills and a reputation as an outspoken supporter on LGBT and women’s issues.
But Gonzalez said despite the gains for District 75 in El Paso, her advocacy brought the threat of two primary challengers. Now she’ll face Rey Sepulveda, president of the Fabens school board, in the March 4 Democratic Primary. No Republican has filed for the seat.
“I think when you’re vocal, and I think we’re outspoken, especially about issues that are somewhat controversial or sensitive to individuals … I think it makes you an easier target,” Gonzalez said about drawing a challenger. “I know the reason I have an opponent in the primary is because I was so vocal on so many social justice issues and even though we did have what I would say a phenomenal first year, first session, that doesn’t take away from the fact that being a leader in this area is still considered a vulnerability.”
Gonzalez passed four bills in the session that were signed into law. The bills provided safe water and improved infrastructure for the impoverished colonias in her district, adjusted testing requirements for recently immigrated students and created avenues to bring dairy farming back to her district.
She said she’s proud of the legislation she passed because the bills will “literally make a difference in the daily lives of my constituents.”
But Gonzalez, who is pansexual, also said her being open about her sexuality helped create an understanding among legislators about LGBT issues and identities. Her work in the Legislature won her Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ Freshman of the Year.
“My personal accomplishment that I’m proud of is the ways in which we started to change people’s understanding and the professional [accomplishment] is the bills that we know will change people’s lives in the district,” she said.
The Washington D.C.-based political PAC Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund endorsed Gonzalez for re-election. Victory Fund Press Secretary Steven Thai said Gonzalez’s work in the Legislature was vital last session, and she’s “emerged as a champion for her constituents.”
“Mary Gonzalez shattered a glass ceiling by becoming the first LGBT woman to serve in the Texas State Legislature, and we are proud to have endorsed her in both of her races,” Thai said. “Texans cannot afford to lose Mary’s important voice in the House.”
After being gay-baited and targeted for supporting marriage equality in the Democratic Primary in 2012, Gonzalez went on to win without an opponent in the general election. Later that summer, she came out as pansexual in an interview with Dallas Voice, and is the only out pansexual lawmaker in the country. She said the experience of working in the Capitol after all the news of her sexuality was a struggle because fellow lawmakers thought they already knew her. But she proved them wrong.
“So people had an impression of me, unlike other freshman state reps,” Gonzales said. “Other freshman colleagues, they could come in and introduce themselves to their colleagues or to other people in politics.
“My impression was already there. We were able to overcome that and by March people just really knew I was here to work, that I was really effective and that I was actually really smart. And I would hear that, ‘I didn’t know what to think of you,’ ‘I was really confused by you,’ ‘Now I realize.’ You would hear that over and over again.
“So, that to me is a really big accomplishment, to help people A: gain a greater awareness and B: challenge their stereotypes and C: create a different understanding of identity. That’s huge. That’s a culture shift. And so I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. “
As the first openly LGBT woman elected to the state House, and only the second out legislator after Texas was without an out representative for more than a decade, Gonzalez was an advocate for pro-LGBT legislation.
Her work on pro-equality legislation included anti-bullying legislation, the “Romeo and Juliet” defense bill, which made it out of committee, anwould’ve provided legal protections for same-sex minors in intimate relationships under the defense.
She also co-authored a freedom to marry bill and joint authored a workplace protections bill and the accurate birth certificate bill, which would allow both same-sex parents to put their names on a supplementary birth certificate. Her work earned her an A-plus on Equality Texas’ Legislative Scorecard, and she was one of the organization’s Top 10 legislators.
Chuck Smith, executive director at Equality Texas, said Gonzalez was the first legislator the statewide organization endorsed in the 2014 political cycle because of the expectation of a primary opponent. He said her work in the Legislature speaks of her hard work for her district and as an LGBT advocate.
“I think Rep. Gonzalez has done a fabulous job for her district. Many of the bills that she passed are especially helpful to economic development and education in her district,” Smith said. “Rep. Gonzalez has done an awesome job of helping to break down stereotypes and to establish herself as a human being who’s elected there by people to do a good job and she’s been very effective at doing that.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 14, 2014.