COVER STORY: Odd man OUT

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.”

—  John Wright

Mayor Rawlings joins 5 other council members at 1st-ever LGBT Pride Month Reception

Mayor Mike Rawlings speaks during Monday’s LGBT Pride Month Reception at City Hall.

About 50 people attended Dallas’ first-ever official LGBT Pride Month Reception at City Hall on Monday afternoon.

Mayor Mike Rawlings was among six council members who appeared at the event, organized by Councilwoman Delia Jasso and her LGBT task force.

Standing before a Pride flag draped from the wall of the Flag Room on the sixth floor, Rawlings spoke briefly at the start of the reception and drew cheers when he pledged to have “open doors” to the community.

“I met many of you during the campaign,” Rawlings said. “Some of you were supporting me, others were not. But I’ll tell you this: I knew that this was a fabulous community that I wanted to partner with when I became mayor. Thank you for what you have done for this city.”

Prior to the reception, Rawlings told Instant Tea he has no hard feelings about the fact that both Stonewall Democrats and the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance endorsed his opponents in the election — with DGLA even issuing a rare warning against him.

“Not at all,” Rawlings said. “We must all have a spirit of understanding. I don’t have anything like that [hard feelings].”

Rawlings didn’t specifically mention the LGBT community during his inauguration address at the Meyerson Symphony Center earlier in the day. But at the Pride reception, he told attendees that the community fits with the major themes he outlined in the speech: becoming a city of diversity, opportunity and excellence.

“As far as I’m concerned, you are right on with my plan, and I want to be right on with yours, and so we will continue to talk, and I am just pleased that we are here to honor gay and lesbian Pride Month in the city of Dallas,” Rawlings said.

—  John Wright

In case you hadn’t noticed, Texas is now down to just 3 openly gay city council members

A Victory Fund spokesman called Chris Hightower’s defeat in Arlington ‘heartbreaking.’

As we mentioned in our big election roundup from Saturday night, three gay city council candidates lost runoffs in Texas — Randi Shade in Austin, Elena Guajardo in San Antonio, and Chris Hightower in Arlington.

Shade was the only incumbent of the three, and her departure from office will leave Texas, the second-largest state in the nation, with just three openly LGBT city council members — Joel Burns in Fort Worth, Sue Lovell in Houston, and Scott Sherman in Pearland.

Openly gay Kemp City Councilman Jerry Hazelip didn’t seek re-election this year. And the two gay council candidates in Dallas, James Nowlin and Casie Pierce, lost their races May 14.

Of course, Texas still has plenty of LGBT appointed and elected officials (view the full list here), including high-profile ones like Mayor Annise Parker in Houston and Sheriff Lupe Valdez in Dallas — but nevertheless the lack of gay council members is cause for concern, according to Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

Dison said the Victory Fund, which endorsed both Hightower and Shade, doesn’t keep a running total of the number of gay city council members in each state. But he noted that Texas is one of the few big states that lack an out legislator, and city councils are often a stepping stone to higher office.

“Chris Hightower’s loss was heartbreaking, both because he came so close and because he was subject to some pretty awful anti-gay politicking,” Dison told Instant Tea today. “My understanding is Shade’s loss had nothing to do with her sexual orientation.

“Municipal offices like those are very important because that’s often where future state legislators get their start, and Texas really needs an openly LGBT voice in the Capitol.

“We hope our progress is constant, but sometimes the challenges seem to bunch up and we’ve got to redouble our efforts,” Dison said. “We’ve seen a lot of success in Texas and I think we’ll continue to see good people decide to run from both parties.”

Really? Both parties? A gay Republican candidate in Texas? Now that would be something.

—  John Wright

LOCAL BRIEFS: HRC and LULAC hold Cinco de Mayo

The Human Rights Campaign will partner with the local LGBT chapter of LULAC — The Dallas Rainbow Council to celebrate Cinco De Mayo.

The annual Salsa Cocktails event —featuring dancers, food and high-energy music — takes place at Havana, 4006 Cedar Springs Road, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 5.

“We have already confirmed Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez as one of our speakers,” said Kimberly Williams, HRC event coordinator. “Our dance group will also offer free salsa dance lessons for our guests.”

HRC and LULAC will talk about recent national and local successes. The public is invited to attend. The event is free, although a $20 donation to HRC at the door will get two free cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

“Both HRC and LULAC will have information about membership and ways to get active,” said Jesse Garcia, president of LULAC 4871. “We have great projects coming up this summer. We invite community members ready to get involved to come learn about opportunities to further equality.”

—  John Wright

Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat, on why she’s going to the Log Cabin Republicans Convention

Sheriff Lupe Valdez

The Log Cabin Republicans will hold their National Convention in Dallas this coming weekend, and we’ll have a full story in Friday’s print edition. But because the convention actually begins Thursday, we figured we’d go ahead and post the full program sent out by the group earlier this week.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the program is a scheduled appearance by gay Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is of course a Democrat.

Valdez, who’ll be one of the featured speakers at a Saturday luncheon, contacted us this week to explain her decision to accept the invitation from Log Cabin (not that we necessarily felt it warranted an explanation). Here’s what she said: 

“We have more things in common than we have differences, but it seems like in politics we constantly dwell on our differences,” Valdez said. “If we continue to dwell on our differences, all we’re going to do is fight. If we try to work on our common issues, we’ll be able to accomplish some things.”

On that note, below is the full program. For more information or to register, go here.

—  John Wright

Oak Cliff Mardi Gras attracts a wide cross-section of the community

Despite cold temperatures and strong wind hundreds of runners participated in Dash for the Beads as Mardi Gras weekend in Oak Cliff began Saturday, March 5. Runners included groups from Oak Cliff elementary schools, “traditional” families and many members of the LGBT community.

—  David Taffet

Carnivale returns to Oak Cliff

CARNIVALE ON PARADE | Entries in the Oak Cliff Mardi Gras parade set for Sunday reflect an eclectic mix, with everything from the Oak Lawn Band to the Catholic School Dad’s Club participating.

Oak Cliff Mardi Gras celebration promises an eclectic mix of participants and sponsors, including many from LGBT community

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Oak Cliff celebrates Mardi Gras with a two-day event this weekend, beginning with the second annual “Dash for the Beads,” a 5K run, one-mile walk and costume contest.

As with many Oak Cliff events, the sponsor list and participants in the weekend include an interesting and diverse mix. Sponsors range from GayBingo, Hewitt Habgood Realty, Monica Greene’s new restaurant Bee and attorney Chad West to the Oak Cliff Lions Club and Oddfellows.

“It’s why I love it over here,” said Old Oak Cliff Conservation League President Michael Amonett. “It’s an interesting, eclectic mix.”

The walk begins in the Bishop Arts District on Saturday, March 5, at 8:30 a.m. and the “Dash for the Beads” run at 9 a.m. Runners will proceed west on Davis Street, turn north on Tyler Street then east on Colorado Boulevard, with a detour through scenic Kessler Lake Drive, and return to the starting point on Bishop Avenue.

After race participants return, race awards will be followed by costume awards. Judges for the contest include Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Councilwoman Delia Jasso.

Vendors will have booths in the Bishop Arts District throughout the morning. The Cliff Blues Band will provide live music. DJ Ish follows and Ballet Folklorico performs.

A masquerade ball begins at 8 p.m. at the newly restored Kessler Theater on Saturday night. Lil Malcolm and the House Rockers will headline the evening. Zydeco Blanco will open.

Weekend organizer Amy Cowan called OCarnivale at the Kessler a semiformal masquerade ball with people dressed in everything from jeans to black tie — with lots of masks.

The Mardi Gras celebration continues on Sunday with a crawfish boil at 3 p.m. in Bishop Arts. Tickets are $15 in advance and a limited number will be sold at the door for $20.

That will be followed at 4 p.m. with the Mardi Gras parade.

Parade entries reflect an interesting mix and include everything from the Oak Lawn Band to St. Cecilia Catholic School’s Dad’s Club. Cowan said they have 48 entries.

Following in New Orleans style, several Oak Cliff krewes have formed with names like Krewe of Winnetka Heights and Krewe du Cliff Temple. Cowan is part of the Kings Highway Krewe, which has a 24-foot float.

She said Krewe La Rive Gauche always has the best costumes and that Friends of Kidd Springs Park’s entry features a 10-foot Eiffel Tower.

Norma’s, a popular Oak Cliff diner since 1956, has a vintage fire truck in the parade. Valdez will march with a sheriff’s posse on horseback.

Cowan said most mayoral and council candidates will be participating.

The parade begins on Davis Street at Windomere Avenue. The route follows Davis Street to Madison Avenue where it returns to Bishop Arts on Seventh Street.

Among the parade sponsors is Hunky’s.

“We’re going to open at 10 a.m. on Saturday,” said Hunky’s owner Rick Barton, referring to the Bishop Arts location only. “We’ll be decorated and festive.”

Cowan said traffic and parking will be difficult.

“Take public transit or ride your bike,” Cowan said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Lupe Valdez, ‘famous modern day lesbian’

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and author Erin McHugh (via Facebook)

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez is among the “famous modern day lesbians” featured in The L Life, a new coffee-table book by Erin McHugh that contains 160 pages of portraits and interview profiles. The book, released Tuesday, is selling for $32.50. From AfterEllen.com:

The lesbian phone tree worked its magic for McHugh and photographer Jennifer May, who worked for more than a year to coordinate who and where and when they’d be meeting with to feature in the book. The L Life is 160 pages of insight into each individual woman’s life, and the women in it are from all over the country. From household names like Jane Lynch to politicians and activists like Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Hon. Christine Quinn, the stories they tell are about realizing they were gay, coming out, living out in high-profile positions and moving through life as successful lesbians. …

The L Life may have some lesser-known lesbians on the “famous” scale, but that doesn’t mean the subjects are any less powerful or inspiring. In fact, the book is almost better because of it. Where else do we get to hear about Lupe Valdez, the out Latina Dallas County Sheriff? Or the Executive Vice President and General Manger of Logo, Lisa Sherman?

—  John Wright

Plaque in Tyler park to honor Nicholas West, murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in 1993

Nicholas West

On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Project TAG (Tyler Area Gays) and Tyler AIDS Services will unveil a plaque in Bergfeld Park honoring the memory of Nicholas West.

West was kidnapped from Bergfeld Park on Oct.  31, 1993. He was tortured, shot and left for dead. He was targeted because his three assailants presumed he was gay. At their trial, they confessed that they wanted to kill a homosexual.

West’s two murderers received the death penalty in the case.

The story was featured recently in the Investigation Discovery channel series Hardcover Mysteries. Dallas Voice senior editor Tammye Nash, who interviewed one of West’s killers on death row, is portrayed in the show by a svelte brunette whom we all agree is perfect for the part. The story of West’s murder was also featured in Arthur Dong’s 1997 documentary Licensed to Kill.

This summer’s production of The Laramie Project was in West’s memory.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez will attend the unveiling of the plaque for West with her Smith County counterpart, J.B. Smith. So will Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass.

Following the dedication at 6 p.m., a World AIDS Day remembrance will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 230 West Rusk St. in Tyler at 6:30 p.m. followed by a candlelight vigil.

—  David Taffet

A conversation with Houston Mayor Annise Parker

PARKER IN DALLAS | In her only interview while in Dallas as the honorary grand marshal of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she doesn’t live her life just out of the closet, but out on the front lawn. Her city is competing with Moscow for a major petroleum convention, and she plans to meet up with that city’s mayor to tell him what she thinks of his treatment of gays and lesbians in Moscow. Read the complete interview with Parker online at DallasVoice.com. (Photo courtesy Steve Krueger)
Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks during Dallas Pride on Sunday, Sept. 19. (Photo courtesy Steve Krueger)

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she was delighted to be asked to come to Dallas to be Honorary Grand Marshal of the Pride parade. And she was a little surprised other cities hadn’t asked her.

“It’s a little hot outside,” she said soon after arriving in Dallas. “We do our parade at night for a reason.”

Parker said she forgot to bring a hat, but she never wears hats in Houston. Her reason sounded a bit like another Texas Democrat, Ann Richards.

“My hat covers the hair,” she said. “They have to see the hair.”

Unlike many gay or lesbian politicians, she didn’t come out after successfully launching her political career. She said she started as a lesbian activist on the front lines.

“I was debating the nutballs in public,” she said.

Parker came out in high school. In college she founded Rice University’s first LGBT group and began her political career as president of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

During each campaign, the GLBT Political Caucus and her partner, Kathy Hubbard, have always been included in her literature.

“That way I owned it,” she said. “Kathy describes our relationship as not being out of the closet but being out on the front lawn,” she said.

The election received an overwhelming amount of media coverage.

“It’s unprecedented for an election for mayor of Houston to make the front cover of the Times of India,” she said. “It was difficult to slog through. It was a distraction at the beginning.”

Parker said she doesn’t think most of Texas was as surprised by her election as the rest of the country or the world. She mentioned a number of lesbian elected officials around the state including Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

She attributed her victory to a number of factors. Houston always elects moderate Democrats, she said.

Of the seven candidates running in the general election, she started with the highest name recognition. This was her eighth election and her opponent’s first.

“He made some rookie mistakes,” she said. “He got distracted. He got in bed with the right-wing hate-mongers.”

The week before coming to Dallas, Parker had been in New York and met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

She said he joked that he was partially responsible for her win. Had he stepped aside, Christine Quinn, the lesbian who heads New York’s city council, would have probably made a bid for office.

“All the gay money across the country would have flown to New York,” she said.

Actually, most of Parker’s donations were local, and while she didn’t have the most money for her campaign, she had a greater number of donations than her six opponents combined.

Parker seems to be settling into her new position.

She strengthened the city’s non-discrimination policies by executive order. Her revisions included gender identity and expression and extended protection to all city-run facilities.

Partner benefits for city employees can only be granted by popular vote in that city. She said she expects that the LGBT community will soon begin collecting signatures to bring that proposition to a vote and said she would like to be able to include Hubbard on her insurance.

Parker said that in effect she is making less than Bill White did as mayor because she has to pay for Hubbard’s health insurance.

With 2.2 million constituents, Parker said she couldn’t be just the gay mayor, but she would continue to use her position to advance LGBT rights when possible. She helps raise money and speaks for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund around the country and said their training was extremely helpful.

And Parker said Houston has benefited from being the largest city in the world with a lesbian mayor. Her recent trade mission to China is an example.

Earlier in the year, Parker was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful people in the world. She said she never would have made the list had she been “just another white guy.” One of China’s top trade officials was also on the list.

In August, Parker led a trade delegation to China. The Chinese trade official, she said, probably met with her because both were on the list and because of the curiosity factor. Men hold most government positions in China, she said, not out lesbians.

She said that while that was how her being a lesbian has benefited Houston, she can also use her position as a bully pulpit.

She may make a return trip to China where Houston and Moscow are competing to bring a convention to their cities. She said she hopes the mayor of Moscow is there and that Houston wins the convention over his city.

Parker said she plans on calling the Moscow mayor out on his terrible treatment of gays and lesbians. Among other things, he has canceled permits for Pride parades in the city and last weekend had his city’s best-known gay activist arrested.

With the November election approaching, Parker said she is remaining officially neutral in the state’s races.

“To represent my city I have to get along with everyone,” she said.

As mayor of the state’s largest city, Parker said she’s had more contact lately with Gov. Rick Perry than former Houston mayor Bill White.

“But I am absolutely livid that Rick Perry has an attack ad on Bill White that features me,” she said. “I don’t want to be used as a wedge in that campaign.”

Parker said that Perry used a quote of something she said while controller. She said it was not out of context and might have even been impolitic to say at the time. But she described her relationship with White as a good working relationship despite a disagreement on a particular issue at one time during their three terms in office together.

Parker maintains a high popularity rating in Houston and said she thinks her city is getting used to their new high-profile mayor. Among the reasons, she said, is that she is the only mayor of a major American city who hasn’t had to lay off any workers.

Parker did admit just one area where Dallas beats Houston — light rail. However, she said the two cities are working together to get a high-speed rail link built between them.

In January, Parker and Hubbard will celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Parker said one thing Hubbard did not share with her was the parenting gene. It took several years before she convinced Hubbard they should be parents.

They have raised three children together. Their foster son was an openly gay teen who they took in at age 16. Later, they adopted their two daughters at ages 12 and 7. Their younger daughter is 15 now and still at home. Her son, who is now 34, rode in the car in the parade with her.

Houston’s mayors serve two-year terms so Parker will be running for re-election next year.

—  Kevin Thomas