AUSTIN — Texas Stonewall Democrats met in Austin this weekend for the first Equality Forward Summit to discuss how to gain support for pro-equality measures and ultimately turn Texas blue.
The event was the first collaborative effort between the Texas Democratic Party and the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus and drew about 150 people for the weekend’s workshops.
About 250 people, many standing, packed a room at the Hilton Austin Airport hotel after a day of workshops on Saturday to hear former Congressman Barney Frank speak about his time in office and the change he expects in the future.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker introduced Frank, during which she said she still considers herself an activist and has since learned of a gay agenda.
“I don’t know of any gay agenda, but I have been doing this long enough that we do have a gay agenda,” Parker said. “Our gay agenda is the ability to have jobs that we love, to support the families that we care about and to pay taxes.”
She said No. 2 on the gay agenda was serving openly in the military, which has been accomplished, No. 3 is feeling safe in schools and being free from bullying, and No. 4 is the freedom to marry.
Parker said all of the items on the list will gain support from Texas votes but it is Stonewall and the state party’s job to get that message out.
“But just as we as Democrats have a message that will resonate in Texas, the GLBT community has that same agenda that will resonate across Texas,” she said. “And when we openly advocate for that agenda, I’m standing here as proof that being who we are, being open and honest, we can win at the ballot box.”
In an interview with Dallas Voice, Parker said her run for her third and final term as mayor will be a challenge as her opponent, lawyer Benjamin Hall III, has indicated he’ll spend as much of $3 million of his own money on the race. Houston municipal elections are in November.
“I fully expect to be re-elected, but I’m going to have to work for it,” Parker said.
As for lesbian New York mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, Parker said “she’s got a great chance” and will be “a candidate to beat.”
“I don’t think anybody would be surprised if she won, but for our community it would still be a huge deal,” Parker said.
Frank began his keynote speech by saying “this is the frontline of our fight for equality.”
The first member of Congress to come out voluntarily, Frank he said he was worried about what people would think about him when he introduced gay rights legislation in the Massachusetts House in the early ’70s. While he thought about how he would respond if someone asked him if he was gay, he said no reporter did because they wouldn’t ask unless something bad had happened.
Finally in 1987, he said times had changed and he wanted to come out. So he arranged for a reporter to ask the question and he gave his prepared statement of, “Yeah, so what?”
“In 1974 I was hiding,” he said. “What changed was we stopped hiding. We told people who we were.”
Frank said other members of Congress would tell him it was OK to be gay but he shouldn’t talk about it. He said LGBT people don’t talk about their relationships any more than straight people. And while others told him he was lucky that there is less prejudice now, he would respond, “No, there never should’ve been the goddamn prejudice in the first place.”
Frank said reality will beat prejudice in a fair fight when people come out and get to know their officials. He said the arguments in defense of past prejudice is always the same, that people don’t have an issue with “those people” but enacting laws would be “socially disruptive.” He said those arguments are as ignorant today as they were decades ago and encouraged the crowd to work hard to elect Democrats and ensure they support LGBT rights.
“I wish LGBT rights was not a partisan issue,” he said. “But I also wish I could eat and not gain weight.”
When Frank first thought about getting into politics in the 1950s, he said he was afraid because he was gay, but he said his coming out helped him become a stronger voice for the community.
“Sixty years ago I was worried that being gay was so unpopular that I would never be able to be a highly respected elected official,” Frank said. “But you know what, today my marriage to Jim polls better than my having been a congressman.”
In an interview with Dallas Voice, Frank said Texas as a state is “moving in the right direction,” but while other places like Massachusetts and New York are essentially free from prejudice, it could take more than 10 years for Texas to enact pro-LGBT legislation.
“In other parts of the country, Texas is one that’s not as good, but I think the momentum is with us,” he said. “I think this fight will be over in 10 years. It may take longer in Texas.”
Nationally, Frank said “we’re on the verge of winning [equality].” He expects the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, but added the Employment Non-Discrimination Act won’t pass Congress until both chambers have a Democratic majority with a Democratic president.
A Sunday awards luncheon concluded the summit where Dallas lesbian activist Erin Moore, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, and Tarrant County and San Antonio Stonewall chapters were recognized for outstanding achievements.
Moore received the Buck Massey Legacy of Leadership Award for her work over the last year in helping marriage equality make it into the Texas Democratic Party’s platform and national platform. Coleman received the Lone Star Equality Advocate Award for his championing for LGBT rights, and both chapters accepted the Roberto J. Flores Club Achievement Award for their outstanding work and growth.
Pansexual state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, addressed the audience during the luncheon and encouraged them to go home and start working immediately on the next state election.
When she was asked if she would run openly during the campaign, she said she “never considered running for office and not being out. It was not even a question.”
But when the media took LGBT woman and turned it into “lesbian,” it upset her. She said she dated someone who began to transition, so she identified as pansexual to include the entire gender spectrum that she dated along.
After coming out as pansexual in a Dallas Voice article after she won her May primary, the article turned into thousands of articles on her pansexuality. She said she began to receive hate mail and didn’t leave her house for two weeks because she was so depressed.
“That is a lot for people to handle especially if think you about people in Texas,” she said.
But when she started getting encouraging letters, many from Stonewall Democrats, she said she found courage and took that with her to the capital to be a voice for LGBT Texans.
When state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, withdrew his amendment to cut funding for LGBT resource centers at state universities last week, she knew it was because she was in the room.
“I have no doubt in my mind that that amendment was pulled down because I was on the House floor,” she said to cheers from the audience. “There is a difference when someone on the floor identifies.”
Gonzalez said she’s excited for lesbian activist Celia Israel, who plans to run to replace state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, next year.
“I am proud to be who I am. I am proud to be out and proud to be authentic and say how it is,” Gonzalez said. “But I don’t want to be the only one.”
“If we ever want to see change, if we want to see our bills out of committee, we need to change the seats,” she said. “It’s out fault that we are not winning. We have the potential but need to start working.”