By David Taffet | Staff Writer [email protected]

Lesbian candidate’s triumph in Houston mayoral race caps up-and-down year for gay rights

MEDIA DARLING | Houston Mayor-elect Annise Parker conducts a radio interview over the phone from the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston shortly after she was declared the winner of the mayoral runoff. (Cyrfus Anderson)

HOUSTON — Annise Parker’s victory in the Houston mayoral runoff on Dec. 12 was important to the LGBT community across Texas and drew interest from the media around the world.

In Dallas, many gays and lesbians watched returns as closely as they do for local elections.

After Parker was declared the winner, spokesman Denis Dison of the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund said, "This has been a bittersweet year for LGBT Americans. It’s nice to be able to smile this broadly."

He was referring to the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Proposition 8 and a loss at the polls for marriae in Maine, among other defeats.

But Parker’s election was a happy addition to what has been a good December thus far for the LGBT community. In California, gay Assemblyman John Perez gained the votes to become the Assembly’s next speaker. On Dec. 1, Simone Bell won a runoff in Georgia and will become the first African-American lesbian to serve in a state legislature. And this week, the Washington, D.C. city council voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

Local LGBT political officials said they felt the Parker victory was also extremely important.

"I believe Parker’s election as Houston mayor and the example she sets will have more significance and more positive impact for our community in the long term than the passage of any legislative agenda," said openly gay Dallas County Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons.

Chris Heinbaugh, gay chief of staff for Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, said he was extremely excited about Parker’s victory.

"I’m just so proud Houston voters focused on the issues," Heinbaugh said.
He expressed the opinion of many LGBT supporters of Parker.

"We really needed a victory," Heinbaugh said. He said it’s easy to lose the perspective that the losses were close and that several years ago we would not have come as close.

He said Parker won because she understands ­the symbolism of her victory but stuck to the issues.

His advice for those who’d like to follow in her footsteps is, "start at the grassroots, get on boards, work your way up."

Heinbaugh said he’s met Parker only briefly but that Leppert has a good working relationship with current Houston Mayor Bill White and expects that to continue with Parker.

"Our mayor has made a point of reaching out to mayors around the state," he said.
Three issues that the Dallas and Houston mayors have worked on together are the environment, transportation and education. He cited as an example a truancy program successfully started in Houston by White that involved going door to door.

Leppert instituted that program here.

Lesbian Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, elected in 2004, may have helped pave the way for Parker’s election. Valdez also contributed money to the Parker campaign and made phone calls.

She said she thinks people are getting beyond looking at a person’s sexual orientation or color and looking instead at what they can contribute.

"Here [at the sheriff’s department] people know about me but that’s not part of the conversation," Valdez said.

Addressing the anti-gay mailers sent in the final weeks of Parker’s campaign, Valdez said that she’s glad they backfired. She said when you throw mud, you end up standing in it.

"I think in Dallas, if you’re going to run a citywide campaign, if you don’t make contact with the gay and lesbian community, you’re not going to do well," she said.

Fitzsimmons said Parker’s election shows how far the community has come. He recalled a protest he attended in Houston in 1980, as one of the defining moments in his life.

He said the march protested Houston police shooting to death a man in what "smacked of an anti-gay hate crime."

When the march passed Houston police headquarters, officers watched from the lawn and others looked out the windows. 

"I have a sharp memory of the scene," Fitzsimmons said. "It was dim and overcast. And there was jeering — uniformed police officers jeering the marchers with anti-gay epithets. As an Anglo middle-class kid from Austin, it was really a shocking experience to see police officers actually behaving in that way.

"So it is really quite a testament to how much has changed that almost 30 years later, Houston voters elected an out lesbian as their mayor," he added. "Such a thing would have been unthinkable in 1980."

Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas, said, "Now she begins the work as mayor of Houston and focuses on the issues she was elected to deal with — the budget, flooding, police protection — and her sexual orientation is not a factor in how she governs the city."

"The Daily Show" had one of the best lines about Parker’s election.

After a piece on climate change mentioned that it snowed in Houston the week of the runoff, they showed Parker’s picture and Jon Stewart said, "Apparently hell did freeze over."  

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 18, 2009.
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