Thrilled to be counted with LGBT icons
It’s been a roller-coaster year for former Dallas City Councilman Ed Oakley.
In 2006, Oakley announced that instead of running for re-election to a fourth term on the City Council, he would be running for mayor of Dallas. Due in large part to his status as an openly gay man, many people considered him a long shot for the city’s top elected office.
But Oakley’s long record of service to the city as an appointee to various boards and commissions and three terms on the council and his reputation as a consensus-builder who listened and responded to citizens from all areas of the city appealed to voters. And he made headlines in May when he came out atop a long list of contenders to make a runoff with North Dallas businessman Tom Leppert.
A month later, Oakley lost the final battle to Leppert and, after 16 years in city politics, once again became a private citizen.
“This past year has been non-stop,” Oakley said in a recent interview. “Politics was never something I thought about. In fact, 20 years ago, I would have said anybody was crazy to even get into politics. Running for mayor would never have occurred to me.”
But last summer, Laura Miller announced that she would not run for re-election, and Oakley started talking to people about his chances.
“The real tell-tale moment for me came when I had about 50 people in a room [who said] I should step off the council and do it [run for mayor]. They thought I had the opportunity to win, and by the end of the day, we had commitments for about $2 million in donations.
“And this was broad-based support, not just from the gay community,” Oakley said. “When you have people like the Crow family and the Hunts all these conservative businesspeople from across the country willing to put money and support and manpower into the race, well, someone said either do it or don’t do it. I decided to do it.”
Even though Oakley did not win his bid for mayor, he says now he isn’t sorry he tried.
“It was the right thing to do,” he declared. “I don’t regret it. And it still blows me away to look at my finance reports from the campaign and see those from across the whole city who worked in my campaign. It just shows how far we’ve come, as a city and as a community.”
Oakley said he is proud to know that he has helped the city of Dallas move forward when it comes to LGBT rights.
“I think [my campaign] brought the city and our community one step further. Craig McDaniel was the first openly gay person to win a seat on the council. Then there was Chris Luna and John Loza and me. People have gotten used to it,” he said. “One of these days, Dallas will have a gay mayor, and I have taken it one step closer, so the next time someone from our community runs for that office, them being gay won’t even be an issue.”
Oakley, who now owns a construction business, got his college degree in industrial education and was managing a cabinet shop in Oklahoma City when the banks there went bust in the early 1980s and “things there got really tight,” he said.
He had already been coming to Dallas “for work and play” when a friend who had moved to Dallas encouraged Oakley to come south with him to find work.
“I started doing work for people in Dallas before I ever moved here,” he recalled. “The first building in Dallas I ever worked on in Dallas was a place called Mother Lode which was located where Sue Ellen’s is now. Then Frank Caven hired me to work on a club in Houston. I was there for about four months, and he told me if I were in Dallas, he would continue to give me work. So I moved here.
His first Dallas apartment was at Kings Terrace in Oak Lawn. But he bought his first house in Oak Cliff and “I’ve been in Oak Cliff ever since.”
It was Oakley’s involvement with planning and zoning issues involved in building and remodeling nightclubs in Oak Lawn that first brought him into contact with city politics. His first city appointment was to the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Commission. Then he spent six years on the Plan Commission before deciding to make a run for the City Council.
Dr. Charles Tandy was Oakley’s first council representative, but then districts were redrawn and Oakley found himself residing in the new District 6.
It was, he said, “a really strange district” that included parts of South Dallas then stretched all the way up to Farmers Branch along the Stemmons Corridor.
Oakley won his first term on the City Council as the District 6 representative. Then districts were redrawn again, and he ended up in District 3, which was then represented by Laura Miller. Miller was elected mayor, and Oakley won the District 3 seat, which he held for two consecutive terms.
Oakley said that he is proud of his service to the city and to the LGBT community, and that he has, in the past 16-plus years, had many proud moments. One of those “crowning moments,” he said was when he received the Extra Mile Award several years ago, with his fellow City Council member Bill Blaydes watching from the audience.
“I really wanted Bill, my conservative Baptist, Republican friend, to be there for that,” Oakley said. “I always felt my role as a gay person in politics was to change people’s minds about our community, one person at a time. And Bill Blaydes epitomized that for me. Through the work we did together on the council, I changed his mind about gay people. I changed his wife’s mind. If you can do that, one person at a time, you can change society.
“I know that sounds really hokey. But that’s the way I look at it,” he added.
Oakley, who is 55, said he is single right now, although, “since I have been married to the city for the last 16 years, I guess you could say I am divorced now!” But even though he has no partner at the time, he said family is a top priority.
“My immediate family has always been very supportive of me. My mother is 83 now, and she has been down here to work on every campaign I have had. She’s been here for every election day. So family is important to me, and this community, this city is my family,” Oakley said.
Oakley took a month off to vacation in Thailand after the runoff election. But now he is back in Dallas and ready to work. That means working in his own company, certainly, but he still plans to be involved in civic projects, too.
“I am not in favor of the campaign against the Trinity River Project, so I will help with the effort to defeat that vote. I am on the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce board, and I have been asked to submit an application for the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce board. So I am getting back to working and doing stuff in our community,” he said.
And he said he is thrilled to kick off this next phase of his life by being chosen as grand marshal of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.
“You know, I helped Alan Ross for years when he organized the parade. I have been helping with the parade for about 20 years, I guess. I started out helping with the barricades and working the parade route, things like that. Then when I was elected to the council, I was riding in the parade and so I was relieved of those other duties,” he said. “So the parade is very special to me. So, being chosen as one of only 24 males named as a grand marshal, that’s truly an honor for me. I mean, you’re up there with some real icons of our community. I was just blown away when they called me in Thailand and told me I had been chosen. I can’t even describe what this means to me.”
An honor for Legacy, not just for me
How does it feel to be named grand marshal of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade?
Ask Melissa Grove, and you’ll find out why she loves her job.
“I was just so touched and so honored when they told me I had been named grand marshal,” said Grove, executive director of Legacy Counseling Center and Legacy Founders Cottage. “It made me proud because I know that it is a reflection of the work that Legacy has been doing in the community for the last 18 years.”
She added, “I think me being named grand marshal is actually a recognition of the whole staff here at Legacy. We have the most dedicated staff and the most caring and talented therapists. This isn’t about me. It’s about Legacy as a whole.”
Legacy provides mental health counseling for people who are HIV-positive. It also provides in-house hospice care for those are in the final days of their battle with the virus. And Grove has worked with the agency for 15 of its 18 years in existence.
Grove’s association with Legacy began when she was working on her master’s degree as a therapist and was looking for some place to do her internship.
“They told me they had this counseling center no one would go to because it was for people with AIDS,” Grove recalled. “This was in 1992, and back then, it did seem pretty overwhelming to work with people with AIDS. But I looked at it and thought, “‘What a challenge! What a wonderful opportunity.’
“Because no one else wanted to do it, I really wanted to,” she added. “I was the second intern at Legacy.”
Even after she finished her internship, Grove chose to stay on at Legacy to lead the therapy group she had been working with. It wasn’t an easy task emotionally.
“In another of the groups not mine, thankfully eight of the 10 people in the group died in one month,” Grove said. “I was just 22 at the time, and I was terrified. I had my first real clients, and all I could think was, what do I have to offer these people? How in the world will I be able to help this person? But after a few minutes with the client, I realized I would be able to help them, and my fears dissipated.”
In those early days, Grove said, Legacy’s services were all about grief and loss counseling and “helping people prepare to die.”
“Back in those days,” she said, “we were dealing with people who were all very sick. Many of them were also very lonely and very desperate. Back then, and maybe in some cases still today, gay people couldn’t even tell other gay people that they were HIV-positive, for fear of rejection, for fear of losing families and friends, let alone their jobs. There was a lot of isolation. Our clients really had no other place to turn.”
Now, the clients and counselors face other issues, but these new issues are no less challenging, Grove said.
“The challenge now is helping people live,” she said. “Time and time again now we hear our clients say, “‘I was prepared to die. But I am not prepared to live.’ They don’t know what to do. Now they have to face all these challenges of actually living with a very unpredictable health condition that affects everything in their lives relationships, finances, careers, everything.”
After her initial stint as a Legacy intern, Grove went to work in the private sector. But she couldn’t get away from Legacy, and a few years later, the chairman of the Legacy board called to ask her to come back. Legacy was seeing a whole new problem for its clients, and the board wanted Grove to come back and help them meet the need.
“The problem was that some of the clients were too sick to come in for their appointments,” Grove explained. “We would go to them, but a lot of times they were just so sick. They were dying, alone and with no one to care for them. It was because of that experience, which happened over and over again, that the board at the time decided to open an AIDS hospice. They wanted to hire me to come back to open Legacy Founders Cottage and figure out how to pull it off without any resources.
“We were creating something that was very much needed, and we were having to do it with very, very little,” she said.
It was a rough go at first, Grove said, funding the project and finding a workable model. But the community came through, as it had so many times over the years.
“Legacy has always been a grassroots organization. We have received so much support over the years from the community, and that’s what has gotten us through,” Grove said. “You walk around the house today and you’ll see that everywhere. You’ll see the chair that someone donated or the picture that a client painted. This place has been personalized with 11 years worth of love from the community, and it’s always such an emotional experience for me, just walking through it.”
She continued, “There’s just so much support from the GLBT businesses and individuals. They are generous not just once, but over and over again. It is a never-ending well of generosity, and it never ceases to amaze me. If I have a need, I just put the word out, and everything I ask for is fulfilled.”
The Legacy Founders Cottage opened in 1996, the same year the new AIDS “miracle” drugs came out, and Grove said she figured the hospice wouldn’t last long.
“I was actually hoping we would be obsolete very quickly,” she said. “But here it is, 11 years later, and there is more of a need than ever.
The people coming here today are the ones who haven’t been so good at taking their medications consistently or who weren’t diagnosed quickly enough,” she continued. “One of the beautiful things about Legacy, really is that our therapists at the counseling center are able to convey a message of caring for yourself and adhering to your medication schedules. We can support people through the rough spots. And we can also teach them how to tell others they are HIV-positive. That is still a very difficult and complicated issue, because when you tell someone you are positive, you are still risking losing their love. So many HIV-positive people just avoid relationships altogether out of fear of rejection.”
Grove’s job with Legacy keeps her on the run. But she doesn’t have to worry about rejection at home, she said. Her husband Dan, who works in international relocation helping with executive moves from one place to another, is beside her all the way.
“I have a very understanding husband who puts up with the 2 a.m. phone calls and with me coming home from some event in a bar smelling like cigarette smoke. I have to go to events all the time, everything from lots of drag shows to black-tie events. So he bears a lot of the burden of dealing with the household,” Grove said.
Grove said her mother still lives in the White Rock area, where Grove herself grew up, and is also very supportive of her daughter’s work.
“She just celebrated her 75th birthday, and she will be at the parade on Sunday,” she said.
Her 17-year-old stepson, she added, is also firmly in her camp. In fact, he came home from college last weekend to attend the Be An Angel auction event, one of Legacy’s largest fundraisers each year.
Grove described herself as a “firm believer in silver linings,” an absolutely necessary characteristic for anyone who has worked as long as she has in the AIDS community. And for her, the silver lining of the AIDS epidemic has been that “it has empowered the LGBT community to stand up for itself.”
“I see my stepson and his friends today, and to them, being gay is no big deal. It’s just normal. And it is just so exciting to me to see that. I think the tide is changing,” Grove said. “As a therapist, I have seen how much emotional damage this [homophobia and discrimination] has done to people, and I couldn’t be happier to see that beginning to change now.
“I think, 15 or 20 years from now, people are going to look back at the way things were, and they will think this division [over sexual orientation] was just ridiculous to begin with. They will wonder why anyone ever thought it was a big deal,” Grove said. “I have been lucky to meet so many wonderful people over the years, and I think it’s part of my job to be a liaison between the communities, to try and open people’s eyes. I hope I do that well.”
This article appeared in the September 14 edition of the Dallas Voice.