Things were different in Dallas back in the ’90s

Posted on 17 Mar 2010 at 4:46pm
By DAVID WEBB The Rare Reporter

Larry Duncan’s votes on LGBT issues when he was on the City Council in the 1990s should be considered in light of the political realities of the time


Larry Duncan

You would need to have been around during the 1990s — and earlier — to understand why votes by Dallas city officials on LGBT issues back then do not have as much significance as they do today.

In the back of my mind, little signals about Larry Duncan, a Democratic Party primary candidate for county judge who has been a longtime supporter of the LGBT community, kept going off.

But for some reason, it just never clicked until I read the recent report about his negative votes in 1992 on the Dallas City Council regarding lifting the ban on hiring gay and lesbian police officers.

A lot of time has passed, and it is a different era now.

I remember as a contributing writer for The Advocate going to a City Council public hearing where supporters and opponents of the measure spoke. It was a scene Dallas residents had never experienced or ever before dreamed they would.

The Dallas Tavern Guild chartered a bus or two or more to cart supporters to the hearing. The wives of Dallas policemen appeared carrying signs to protest the idea of their husbands riding in squad cars with "homosexuals."

It was a free-for-all.

I had recently left the employ of the Dallas Observer, and I remember sitting with the newspaper’s new star columnist Laura Miller, who had left the Dallas Times Herald where we first met as co-workers.

It was a volatile atmosphere, and I suspected that even Miller — who has always been comfortable with LGBT people and fearless in tough situations — felt relieved to spot me and to sit with me to interview some of the gay people there.

That was the mood of the city, and I know city officials struggled to come to grips with what to do. There was, after all, that perplexing dilemma — sodomy was still illegal. And politicians must answer to their constituents and consider other practicalities.

It was a time when most City Council members — not to mention the mayor — wouldn’t be caught dead participating in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.

I remember that a couple of years previous to that hearing when a city ordinance prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to HIV-positive people prompted gracious Mayor Annette Strauss to take a walk when the vote came up, rather than to vote on it.

Mayor Strauss was conflicted. She quietly supported issues of fairness regarding gay people, but she wasn’t going to weigh in on that one. That was the political climate of the time.

But even more recent times have shown the dilemma that gay-supportive politicians face. Laura Miller’s husband, longtime former Texas Rep. Steve Wolens and gay advocate, voted in favor of the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

It would be an act of practicality, he told me one day in the 2000s as I talked to him outside of a campaign event in Oak Cliff for mayoral candidate Laura Miller.

He kept telling me to quit taking notes so he could make his point and finally, in exasperation, grabbed my pen out of my hand. There was no way DOMA was going to be derailed, he said, and his yes vote on DOMA would help him achieve support from other representatives on issues where he had a chance of success.

Over the years Miller, who was the first mayor to ever ride in the gay rights parade, wrote a couple of columns as a journalist that angered some gay people. She had a simple rule, I believe, that no matter who it was she would treat them the same — good or bad.

But I don’t think anyone is going to be able to make a solid case to condemn Miller and Wolens when it comes to their stances on gay issues.

I believe there is a parallel here with Duncan. His opponent in the primary wasn’t around and voting during that period so it seems unfair to judge Duncan so harshly on the earlier votes. We don’t know how Clay Jenkins might have voted in that era.

I’m glad the information about Duncan has come out so voters can consider it. But I don’t think it should be the deciding factor.

It’s been hidden for a long time because most of us from that time are either dead, moved out of town or going senile.

Much of our strategy for achieving equality has been focused on recruiting straight allies. Now that Duncan is on our side, I don’t think we should condemn him for an opinion he held almost two decades ago, has abandoned and for which he has profusely apologized.

Let’s be fair when we cast our votes.

David Webb is former staff writer for the Dallas Voice who now lives on Cedar Creek Lake. He can be reached at davidwaynewebb@embarqmail.com. Read his blog at http://therarereporter.blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 19, 2010.

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