In December of 2009, Houston became the largest city in the United States to elect an openly gay mayor. Mayor Annise Parker has since helped Houston become “America’s Coolest City” according to Forbes Magazine, the number one place to further a career according to monster.com, and one of the Top Ten places to visit in 2013 according to the New York Times.
She’s up for re-election this year for her third and final term, a shoe-in given her experience running Houston and her familiarity with her constituents.
But how did a lesbian rise to become the mayor in a city in Texas, the state most readily associated with ultra conservative politics and right wing religiosity?
“In the history of Texas, in the mindset of Texas, we’re more interested in what you can do than who you are,” Mayor Annise Parker explained to 429Magazine.
Politics at a local level are ruled not by the ideologues, but by the more practical concerns of its citizens: the health of the local economy, the state of the job market, and the maintenance of city infrastructure.
“When I ran for Mayor, I was the most experienced candidate. I was coming out of the City Controller’s office in the midst of a recession and voters clearly wanted someone who understood the financial perils and could help,” said Parker.
Mayor Parker has more than proven her ability to cultivate and maintain growth for the city of Houston, starting programs such as Hire Houston First that encouraged the use of local companies and workers for public projects, sustaining more than 6,000 jobs. She also fought to establish Rebuild Houston, a pay-as-you-go public program dedicated to street and drainage improvement that will provide Houstonians work for years to come.
Being an out lesbian actually helped Mayor Annise Parker get started in politics—starting out as the president of The Houston GLBT Political Caucus, the oldest organization dedicated to the advancement of civil rights for queers in the South.
Her involvement in local GLBT politics is something Parker put at the forefront of her campaign, making sure citizens knew who she was and what she had fought for.
“I was probably the most visible lesbian activist in the city of Houston in the 80s,” said Parker. “It was part of the biography that citizens already knew and I put it as part of my [campaign] literature because then I could actually talk about the things they were interested in, and not get sidetracked on what was my ‘gay agenda.’”
“Now that I’m in my ninth campaign, no one can say they don’t know that I’m a lesbian. My life partner has been on stage with me at every inauguration.”
While the state-wide politics in Texas are mired in ultra-conservative rhetoric spread by the Tea Party and hard right conservatives that pull the state of affairs heavily towards the right, the larger cities in Texas represent a fairly progressive trend towards acceptance of liberal views.
“The big cities in Texas—Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, El Paso—are democratic islands in the big red sea,” Mayor Parker told 429Magazine.
“As the big cities keep growing, and keep getting more blue,” she elaborated, “we’re going to have a really interesting dynamic here.”
The dynamic Mayor Parker is looking forward to is the expansion of civil rights for the GLBT community in Texas, a move which she sees as inevitable given the trend towards inclusion at a federal level.
The recent adoption of an anti-discrimination bill for the protection of LGBTQ people in San Antonio, which took place on September 5, the day we spoke, gave Mayor Parker a spark of excitement as she imagined the future trend in Texan politics.
“Dallas has such an ordinance, I know Austin does, and El Paso may as well. It’s definitely on my agenda for Houston.”
But the issue which gave Mayor Parker the most excitement was marriage equality, which she is personally invested in seeing happen in the state of Texas.
“I’ve been with my life partner for twenty-two years, and I vowed that we would marry when we can do it in Texas,” Parker told 429Magazine. “Texas passed one of those infamous Defense of Marriage constitutional amendments, but I can see it falling in my lifetime.”
“They may have to wheel me in a wheelchair but I’ll be there,” Parker said of her plans to get married once it’s possible.
“If a quarter of America lives in states with full marriage equality, this kind of imbalance [where some states recognize gay marriages and some do not] cannot stand,” Parker continued.
With more and more states granting same-sex marriage licenses, many from states where marriage is defined as only between a man and a woman take a short trip across the state border to tie the knot. They return to their states with a marriage license—and recognition from the federal government. This creates tension in states that refuse to recognize same-sex marriages at a state level, but have more and more of its LGBT citizens obtaining marriage licenses in other states every day.
“I see the change coming faster and faster,” Parker told 429Magazine. “The pressure is going to get more and more intense—and there’s no way to go back.”
Mayor Annise Parker will be in Los Angeles on October 6th at the twelfth annual Garden Party celebrating the Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing project. She will be hosting a brunch for her re-election that morning, and would love to meet supporters of her campaign.