Annise Parker Is Not Going Away

A very visible lesbian activist of the 1980s became the three-term mayor of America’s fourth largest city — and in Texas. With her sights set on statewide office, is Annise Parker proof Texas politics have grown up?

BY Tom Dart

May 12 2014 4:00 AM ET


Annise Parker with her wife, Kathy Hubbard, (second from left) and their children (from left) Jovon Tyler, Marquitta Parker and Daniela Parker celebrating the election heard ‘round the world

When she was first elected to the city council in 1997, after two unsuccessful runs, Parker was deliberately frank about her sexuality, turning it into an asset, or at least neutralizing it.

“You have to know who you are and be comfortable with who you are before you enter a political race,” Parker says. “I talk to potential GLBT candidates and they’ll say things like, ‘My sexual orientation is nobody’s business. My sexual orientation is not going to be a subject of the campaign, and I’m just not going to talk about it.’ I’m sorry, that’s not a good enough answer. The worst thing is for anybody to feel that you’re hiding something or there’s something that you’re ashamed of addressing in your past. “It’s an inoculation technique. Because I had been out, my assumption everywhere I went was everybody knows I’m a lesbian, because I was a public spokesperson for the GLBT community, past president of the gay and lesbian political caucus — I put that on every printed piece of literature we had as part of my political résumé,” she says.

“There was never an opportunity for someone to say, ‘Do you know she’s a lesbian?’ Well, duh. It’s here. There’s a certain element in the community that says, ‘If she will tell us the truth about that, I think she’ll tell us the truth about anything.’”

Steven Kirkland, the Democratic candidate for judge of Houston’s 113th district court, is a close friend of Parker’s and is also gay. He describes her as both tenacious and compassionate. “It was kind of an oddity — a curiosity — to get people to look at her, initially. The fact that she is as smart as she is kept their attention,” he says. “There are folks that will vote for her because she’s gay, there are folks that will never vote for her because she’s gay — they’re still around, although they’re fewer in number than they used to be.”

Parker says she considers herself a role model for the LGBT community and offers advice and support to young people and prospective politicians. She treats continued interest in her orientation as an inevitable step on the way to a point when sexuality ceases to be a factor in the curiosity.

“I’m looking forward to the time when it’s no big deal, we stop checking off these milestones — ‘the first gay and lesbian person to do X and Y,’” she says. “I will say that we’re inordinately interested in the personal lives of public figures. I think it will be that it’s not such a big deal that someone is gay or lesbian, but I don’t know we’ll necessarily stop thinking it’s interesting when they get married or divorced.”

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle reported that a Christian antigay activist had sent out 35,000 fliers warning of the “deadly grip” of homosexuality using a photo of Parker and her now- wife, Kathy Hubbard, with the headline: “Is this the image Houston wants to portray?”

Aggressive rhetoric falls like acid rain during Texas campaigns, but Parker is thick-skinned. “Being an out activist here in Texas in the ’70s, being a very, very, visible lesbian activist in the ’80s, it was a very different time. I had death threats. I would debate homophobes on radio or TV and come out to the parking lot by myself and find my car covered with Bible tracts or the tires slashed,” she says. “Nothing that’s ever happened in a public meeting since I’ve been an elected official compares in any way to the pressures or the dangers of being a lesbian activist in those days.”

In the week before we spoke, a federal judge ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, but stayed his decision to allow Attorney General Greg Abbott (he’s also the current Republican gubernatorial candidate) to mount an appeal. He did so swiftly, while Texas GOP leaders brayed disgust at the judge’s verdict.

The city of Houston is currently embroiled in a legal battle after right-wingers mounted a challenge to Parker’s attempt to offer benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees. But the right’s resistance is out of step with public opinion. Last year, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that about two-thirds of respondents back some sort of formal same-sex union, and support is growing.

In January, Parker married Hubbard, a tax consultant, at a private ceremony in Palm Springs, Calif. They held a large reception in Houston two months later. Together for more than 23 years, the couple have raised four children, all now adults; two daughters who were adopted out of foster care, a third girl who came to live with them as a teenager, and a boy they informally took in who was kicked out of his home for being gay.

“It was definitely bittersweet that we had to go to California,” she says. “I had said we wouldn’t marry until we could marry in Texas. But the Supreme Court ruling in the Windsor case was really a game-changer — to have the federal government recognize legal spouses was a level of attention and recognition that caused me to say to Kathy, ‘OK, I don’t want to wait.’”

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