Out lesbian Emy Lyons once lobbied state Rep. Myra Crownover for education funding; now she’s hoping to replace her in the House
DENTON — Emy Lyons exudes passion: passion for education, passion for LGBT equality and a passion for bringing change to Austin.
Lyons lobbied against the bill that cut $5.4 billion in funding to education, special education programs and disability programs in 2011. She showed up to share her story about how the funding helped her teenage son, Ethan, who has spina bifida and autism.
Wearing Birkenstocks and a sundress, Lyons said she shared her story and was encouraged to address the crowd gathered at the Capitol speaking out against the bill.
“So I put on a blue jean jacket, stood behind a podium and told my story,” Lyons said.
Later that day in March 2011, Lyons went to state Rep. Myra Crownover’s office to put a face to the bill and the people it would hurt.
She said she wanted her representative to know that not everyone who needs Medicaid waiver programs, which the bill cut, are indigent.
“Sometimes it’s just middle-class, average people who also need the services,” she said.
But Lyons said Crownover didn’t seem to empathize and instead politely asked if she had parents who could help her.
“It was very patronizing, and she was dead serious,” Lyons recalled. “So that was 2011, and I’ve been mad ever since. So I decided to run when I could.”
Lyons, a Denton native and a registered nurse for 32 years, is the only Democrat in Denton County’s House District 64 race, and she’ll face Crownover in November. Crownover, who’s held the seat since 2000, will face Read King in the Republican Primary.
District 64 covers parts of Denton County from Denton, Lake Dallas, Corinth and Hickory Creek. The University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College are all located in the district.
Aside from her fervor for education based on personal experience, Lyons said education is an important focus in the district with three universities in HD 64.
Lyons spoke candidly to Dallas Voice this week during her son’s Special Olympics basketball practice at Lakeland Elementary School in Lewisville, talking about two of her dearest passions, her son and education.
She’s had to advocate for Ethan’s education services at Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings to plan for special needs students. And she helped Ethan get on the team in Lewisville about four years ago because Denton didn’t have many options for students with special needs, especially ones with physical disabilities. So she joined the PTA, and the school welcomed Ethan onto the team.
Seeking out opportunities for her son also has helped her bring special education issues into focus for her education platform in the way special education classes are operated and special needs students are taught. Lyons used the example of her son, who learns more from direct instruction, not from observing other students, so it’s hard on him and teachers when he switches classrooms.
“I really, really dislike how we’re mainstreaming so many of these special education children to the point that, I think, is almost detrimental because we’re ignoring their disability, and we’re trying to change them and making them change to our way of thinking as opposed to just accepting them the way they are, finding a strength in their ability and going with that,” Lyons said. “So I’m making this kid who’s already struggling in society acclimate to my way of thinking, and I think that there’s got to be a change in that, and I think we’re wasting a lot of money in the Texas education system trying to do that.”
Other issues, like fracking and LGBT rights, also are part of Lyons’ platform. While not opposed to gas drilling, she said she wants to ensure that drilling is done safely.
“I want to make sure that what we do is safe and not going to harm the environment and create health concerns,” she said. “It’s a big issue in our area.”
As a lesbian who couldn’t marry her son’s other mother, Lyons said when they split up after 14 years together, it was her ex’s choice to pay child support and visit their son because they weren’t married. She said her experiences as a lesbian with a family would make her an advocate for LGBT families in the state House.
“I’d like the legalization of marriage so that there’s rights,” she said, adding that she’d like to marry her partner Melissa in the future. “I’ve never really wanted a formal ceremony because it wasn’t even a possibility, but I so want that now.”
Crownover received a D-minus on Equality Texas’ Legislative Scorecard last year, scoring a 50. She did vote against the anti-gay Krause amendment, which would have allowed clubs at universities to discriminate for membership. She also supported three non-LGBT specific bills endorsed by Equality Texas. They were bills to study youth homelessness and why companies have not selected to relocate to Texas, as well as a bill to implement metal health and suicide prevention programs in public schools.
When a resolution supporting marriage equality was slated to go before the Denton City Council in August, councilmembers who supported the measure backed out, afraid the resolution would hurt relationships between the city and Crownover, as well as with state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.
When conservatives in the district mention they stand for “traditional family values,” Lyons said she takes offense because she has a traditional family.
“I have a very nontraditional relationship, but I have a very traditional family,” she said. “I’m a homeowner, we come home every night, we bath our child, we feed our child, we get him to bed, we say prayers, and that’s us.”
Lyons isn’t the first openly gay candidate to challenge Crownover. John Turner-McClelland, president of Stonewall Democrats of Denton County, was the first openly gay candidate in Denton County to run for the state Legislature when he challenged Crownover in 2008. He received 40 percent of the vote compared to Crownover’s 57 percent and the 3 percent the libertarian candidate brought in.
“I felt proud that I got what I got,” he said.
But the district has changed since then with redistricting making it redder with westward expansion, though Turner-McClelland said it now encompasses all of Denton and luckily South Denton, which is very Democratic.
Turner-McClelland didn’t have issues running as an out candidate in 2008, but the Denton County Republican Party chairwoman did write a letter to the editor in the Denton
Record-Chronicle encouraging readers to look up Stonewall Democrats and see if it aligned with their beliefs.
“That was her way of calling me out,” he said.
Turner-McClelland said Lyons has her work cut out for her in the district, but added that people could identify with her as a candidate.
“I think she’s very down-to-earth, comes across as the person next door,” he said.
But Lyons is one of two out candidates running for the state House in Denton County.
Daniel Moran, a 20-year-old UNT student, is challenging incumbent Republican state Rep. Tan Parker in Denton County’s House District 63. The district includes Flower Mound, Highland Village, Sanger and the western half of Lewisville.
Moran, a political science major with an emphasis on Constitutional law, decided to run for the seat after confronting Congressman Michael Burgess in August about his vote not to allow secular and humanist chaplains to serve in the military. Moran, an atheist, asked Burgess about the vote at a church and was shouted at by people in attendance. Since he’s not 25, the age to serve in Congress, he said he’d run for the state House to help give every constituent a voice. Moran will be 21 in April, complying with state law that requires legislators to be at least 21 years old. He also plans to address fracking in the district and Medicaid expansion.
“I will start in Austin to make a difference in the lives of the millions of people in Texas who are being ignored by their elected officials,” he said.
Moran identifies as bisexual and genderqueer, so hopes to fight for LGBT rights like statewide employment protections and the freedom to marry in Texas.
“I know it’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said about running in the district. “This is a very conservative Republican area. This is a bit of a stronghold for them. I’m not letting that deter me.”
Parker scored an F on Equality Texas’ Legislative Scorecard last year with 20 points for voting for the bill to create a study to determine why companies decided not to relocate to Texas.
A few years ago in high school, Moran tried to start a secular group and an LGBT group. But the school in Lewisville then changed its policy not to recognize any non-academic clubs. Religious clubs were then required to meet in designated rec rooms on campus but not during school hours. Moran tried to get his clubs to meet in those rooms but said they never got off the ground after religious groups took over the rooms and fliers about the his clubs were torn down.
Asked if he thinks it’ll be difficult to run as bisexual, genderqueer and an atheist in a red district, Moran said he hopes it starts a dialogue about secularism and identity in the LGBT community.
“I hope that this will create conversations about sexuality and gender identity and gender expression and about religion in politics,” he said. “I hope [my candidacy] starts that kind of conversation where it can open it up to more LGBT candidates and officeholders, as well as secular officeholders.”
Lyons and Moran are two of a record five out state House candidates seeking office this year. State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, and Celia Israel, who won a runoff for Austin’s House District 50 last month, are running for re-election. And former State Board of Education member George Clayton is running in North Texas’ House District 102.
Turner-McClelland said Moran’s run will be more of a challenge than Lyons’ because District 63 is more rural and conservative, adding that they’ll both have “an uphill battle in their district.” But he said they could do well in the races as times, and attitudes, have changed.
“2014 is obviously a lot different climate as far as being open as to who you are and being accepted, especially in Texas,” he said. “Back in 2008, you would have never heard anyone talking about marriage equality in the state. Six years later, it’s almost on the horizon.”
For Lyons, she’s not sure it’s the year for an out challenger to unseat Crownover. But she’s seen the energy among the LGBT community, especially younger voters, and she’s ready to take on the challenge.
“Is it the year for the change? I’d like for it to be the year for the change,” Lyons said. “It’s really interesting because I have a lot of young people that are so excited that I’m running.
And they’re so excited that I’m running because I am a single mom, I do have a special needs child and I’m also a lesbian.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 7, 2014.