28-year-old Mary Gonzalez, who will soon become Texas’ 1st out lesbian lawmaker, prepares to try to change hearts and minds in the Legislature
ANNA WAUGH | Staff Writer
Mary Gonzalez was destined for politics.
With a father who served on the school board for 10 years, Gonzalez said she grew up watching Meet the Press instead of cartoons and observed how education and politics were intertwined early in life.
“Through him I got to see how politics could really make a difference in people’s lives,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, 28, was elected to replace outgoing state Rep. Chente Quintanilla in El Paso’s District 75 in the Democratic Primary May 29. The race has no Republican candidates, meaning Gonzalez will be the first woman to serve the district — and the first openly LGBT woman elected to the Texas Legislature. She will be the second openly gay representative, after Austin’s Glen Maxey, who served from 1991 to 2003.
Texas is one of only 18 states that lack an out legislator, which advocates believe is key to passing pro-equality legislation. Gonzalez was endorsed by the Washington D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the only candidate backed by the Equality Texas Equity PAC in the primary.
Victory Fund spokesman Denis Dison said the list of states without openly LGBT state legislators could drop to less than 10 after elections.
Although Gonzalez is joining a conservative Legislature, he said she will be able to at least influence dialogues in committees and during debates to change opinions.
“It will matter greatly that she’s there because she’ll be able to speak with her colleagues from a really authentic place about what it means to be LGBT in Texas,” he said.
Ann Johnson, who was endorsed by the Victory Fund last week in Houston’s House District 134 race, could join Gonzalez. Johnson won her unopposed Democratic primary but will face incumbent Sarah Davis in the general election.
“Our hope is that they come in together with really a stronger voice than even our allies could provide,” Dison said. “And we would go from zero to two, which is great because Texas is one of the largest states not to have any out state legislators.”
Chuck Smith, deputy executive director for Equality Texas, said it is proven that having an out legislator is necessary to pass LGBT legislation.
He said Equality Texas is excited to work with Gonzalez on priority LGBT legislation including an LGBT-inclusive employment nondiscrimination bill and family recognition for same-sex couples to have both their names on birth certificates.
“She will only have one vote,” Smith said, adding that her presence will provide peer-to-peer dialogue. “Hopefully this discussion will enable people who aren’t LGBT legislators to eliminate fear toward LGBT support. … If openly LGBT people can get elected to office, then other representatives can support LGBT issues without fearing of losing their elected office.”
A focused, compassionate El Paso native with her mind set on improving the district she grew up in, Gonzalez talked about her plans for mandatory infrastructure, clean drinking water and better education in her community. But while the historical importance of her election is not lost on her, she said she remained steadfast in her campaigning even as her opponents in the primary tried to focus the attention to her sexual orientation.
“I was out, but I wasn’t necessarily making it a central point of the campaign, obviously,” she said. “It’s really hard to talk about my sexuality when there are people without clean water in my community.”
Recalling that one smear campaign highlighted her support for marriage equality during the primary, Gonzalez said she was surprised Democrats were using it against her because LGBT issues are part of the party’s platform.
“It was really interesting that (my opponent) used my sexuality or my positions on LGBT issues as a negative, when as Democrats that should be a positive,” she said.
Gonzalez came out as bisexual to her family at 21. The oldest of 11 kids, she said her family supported her, though her parents thought it was a phase. Now, they recognize that her sexuality is part of who she is and helped her overcome the gay-baiting during the campaign — especially her brothers and sisters.
“I love my siblings. They’re my whole life,” Gonzalez said. “They keep me grounded and motivated.”
Gonzalez began her civil service in high school with various groups and organizations. She later pursued a degree in social justice at the
University of Texas at Austin. After serving as a political aide to former state Reps. Paul Moreno and Richard Raymond, she worked as a multicultural program coordinator at UT and then became an assistant dean at Southwestern University in Georgetown at the age of 25.
Her work in Austin led her to education because she wondered after seeing the political process firsthand how else she could make a difference.
“Changing policies is really important, but it’s also really important for the process to parallel changing people’s hearts and changing people’s minds,” she said. “We could pass marriage equality, but it won’t be until we are able to change people’s hearts and people’s minds that we’re actually going to be getting to the end of oppression.”
It wasn’t until Gonzalez worked in education that her passion for politics truly came alive. She discovered how connected the political and education worlds were, and said she realized while working on her Ph.D. that if she wanted to help sustain a quality education for citizens, she’d need to return to the capital.
“These worlds work to inform each other and so I think its great that I move in and out of both worlds to make a difference,” she said.
Gonzalez still maintains leadership positions, serving as president for the national Latina-based service sorority Kappa Delta Chi and on the board of allgo, an organization that supports queer people of color and allies in Texas and plans programming. She said she helps with long-term strategic planning on the board and supports fundraising.
When Gonzalez begins her work in the state House in January, she’ll be the youngest representative. Being young and in power is nothing new to her, and she said she’s used to standing her ground amid older co-workers to be effective.
“I think in a lot of positions me being young, not only being young but looking young (was hard). I’m 5 feet tall, and small,” she said, laughing.
“I don’t look like what you would normally imagine to be a state representative.”
Although she’s not sure what legislation she’ll be able to pass for the LGBT community, she said she’s sure her presence in the state House will help end “some of those really ridiculous conversations” about sexuality, because there will be “someone from the community there.”
“I also think it’s important for me not to be the sole voice of LGBT issues at the Capitol because I think that will hurt the movement,” she said.
“I think what I can definitely do is work with all the Democratic Caucus to make sure we have more awareness and we’ve learned how to advocate for the LGBT community and do so in effective way.”
But her election is still a first, something not lost on others like Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
Valdez said she was thrilled when she learned Gonzalez had won but also knows she’ll face challenges as the only open LGBT lawmaker.
“For one thing I’m glad we’re going to have an open lesbian in the state Legislature, but unfortunately because she is only one there’s going to be a lot of roadblocks in some of the things she would want to do,” Valdez said. “It’s always difficult to be the only one, and unfortunately our state Legislature is mostly Republican, so she may not find as many allies as would be necessary for good work to be done through her.”
Valdez emphasized that Gonzalez’s position has the power to influence lawmakers to look past hate and discrimination and get to know an openly gay person, changing negative views.
“As more of us stand out, there can’t be as much hate when they know you and look at you in the face,” Valdez said. “Once you get to know them and once you get close to them, I think some of that discrimination goes away and she’s making that possible in the state Legislature.”
Valdez offered the same advice that she said helped her succeed when she was new in office: a strong support system of people she trusts and respects.
“When everything is dark, she needs to find a way to reach out to some light,” she said.
One of those people she’ll look to for guidance is former state Rep. Joseph Moody, one of Gonzalez’s mentors. Moody lost his District 78 seat to Republican Dee Margo two years ago after winning the seat at 27, and the two will meet in a rematch in November Moody said he never doubted that Gonzalez would win her race. He said her “amazing amount of talent and a great energy to get things done” overcame the negative attention on her sexual orientation.
“I know that the issue of equality has been somewhat front and center in El Paso. I think El Pasoans are very accepting people and I think that the issue really wasn’t one that mattered,” he said. “I think that they looked past (her sexuality), they saw that she was a great person and it was just part of who she is.”
As for Gonzalez’s future political career, Moody said he sees no limits in what she can accomplish, building relationships and passing legislation that could impact the entire state.
“I think she’s well on her way to becoming a great leader for our community — and not just for our community but the entire state of Texas,” he said. “She’s going to make a difference on a wide range of issues from equality to education, healthcare and infrastructure.”
Gonzalez is still recovering from her historic election after a whirlwind of a campaign, which began right after she concluded teaching a social justice class at Southwest University. She said she’s focusing on taking summer classes with a goal of finishing her Ph.D. within the next two years — her only immediate goal for herself.
“I want to finish by the time I’m 30 … but that’s my only deadline for myself,” she said.
Gonzalez’s election became an international phenomenon with the world’s attention turning to Texas as its first lesbian state representative was elected, the press holding up her success for other LGBT youth and labeling her a role model for the next generation. But Gonzalez said she doesn’t quite consider herself a role model yet as she still strives to impact change in the many communities to which she belongs.
“I think anyone who works to be a leader should consider themselves a role model so they can realize that their actions impact other people,” she said.
“I can’t speak for LGBT youth, [but] if that is what they would like to assign to me, that’s fine and I take that with full responsibility.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 29, 2012.