Annise Parker: Gay Can Be a Neutral Factor

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Mayor Annise Parker is the first lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city.  In 2009, the city of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., elected Parker as mayor, making her an LGBT political icon.  dot429 caught up with Parker to discuss her political career, her activism, and her role in the LGBT space.

 

What are your views on people being out in the workplace?  What are your recommendations for people who are not out who want to come out?

 

Parker: There are a lot of LGBT people who keep their sexual orientation low-key.  If no one asks about it, they don’t make an issue of it.  When I campaigned 14 years ago, I put the fact that I had been president of our gay political organization on every piece of literature I put out in the campaign.  I had been the president of our political organization here.  I had been an officer and board member of all the major political organizations on state and local levels and a number of other LGBT organizations as well.  I was known as a lesbian activist and I didn’t talk about it because I’d been all over the evening news and papers as a lesbian activist.

 

In 1995, I was marginalized by the media as the lesbian candidate.  When I ran a successful campaign in 1997, one of things I made sure that I controlled the message.  I actually met with the major media outlets and told them, “I haven’t been active in an LGBT organization in any public way in 10 years.  If you want to talk about what my opponents did in their volunteer hours 10 years ago, be fair.  If you call my opponent a business executive, well, I’m an all-company employee.  If you talk about my opponent as whatever they do for a living, you have to talk about what I do for a living.  If you talk about what I do in my volunteer time, it’s only fair to talk about what they do in their volunteer time. “

 

Amazingly, I think society had changed, I was very clear that I wasn’t trying to hide my sexual orientation, clear because I overtly put it in my campaign material.  In that campaign, while everyone was aware that I was a lesbian, it wasn’t the label that got hung on me.  I was not the gay or lesbian candidate for the council.  I was Annise Parker, oil company employee, Civic Club president, and lesbian activist.  I think the labels are important and make a difference.  I think it’s absolutely critical for LGBT people who want to enter politics to become comfortable with who they are and be able to articulate what they owe to our community and what their agenda is for their constituents.  I think it’s a disservice when they try to slide [being LGBT]under the radar.

 

Do you feel that your sexuality has played a role in hampering your progress in politics?

 

Parker: Clearly, it would have been a lot easier to enter politics [as a straight woman].  [Being gay] is not a positive; it can be a neutral factor.  What’s important is that voters have multiple data points about you.  I am a middle-aged mom with a long track record not just in the LGBT community but also in senior issues, neighborhood issues, and 20 years’ of work experience in the oil and gas industry.  So if voters see the complete package, they look for what’s important to them in terms of the position that you’re running for.  Still, coming out is the most powerful act that any LGBT person can do in any industry.  

As LGBT communities, we also have to become more comfortable with the range of our community.  In the 1970s, when I was first becoming an activist, it was all about, “We need to look like everybody else.  We can’t show our differences because we’re just like you.”  Then there were the 1980s, Queer Nation, and Act Up, who went, “Hell no, we’re not just like you.  We’re different and we’re going to be proud of our differences.”  And now we’ve gotten to a more mature, nuanced position, and it’s like, “There’s a whole lot of us, and we’re all different.”  What’s important is that we are true to ourselves and present our full selves to the world.

 

What are your current views on the LGBT move towards equality in this country?  How far do you think we’ve come?  What do you think our next steps should be as a community?

 

Parker: I’ve been doing this long enough to be able to look back and see that it is now a totally different landscape for LGBT people.  I can remember the first time I ever heard the word gay or homosexual.  I can remember the first time (back in the 1970s) I saw on TV any kind of depiction of a gay or lesbian person.  I can remember when the Houston police raids on gay bars stopped.  Just a few short years ago, the cutting edge debate was, “Can we please have domestic partner benefits?”  Now the debate is about full marriage equality.  And the other side is practically begging us to take domestic partner benefits and leave marriage alone.  The whole landscape has changed, and you can barely turn on the TV without seeing a gay character.  In the early days, the characters were all negative, and then we went through a period where it seemed like they had to be super-sanitized and nice, and now we’re getting to where there’s more of a range, which better reflects reality. 

 

Do you feel a certain level of responsibility in terms of representing the LGBT community?

 

Parker: I absolutely feel a sense of responsibility to our community, but I have been an activist for more than 30 years, and by virtue of being a leader in our organizations, I have been a public spokesperson and role model for the community.  It’s part of who I am and how I approach the world.  I’m always conscious that how I’m viewed will reflect on my community.

 

A lot of people claim that there is segregation and discrimination within the LGBT community.  What is your advice  for the community on how to be more collective and integrated?

 

Parker: Everybody has to become more comfortable with it.  The transgender community is becoming more integrated into the LGBT community, but when I first started my activism, everything was about the gay men, and lesbians were ignored.  Then it became more of a gay and lesbian community.  We are a fractured group with just as much bias towards each other as in the larger society.  We divide on racial and gender lines and around gender identity.  My kids view these issues through a completely different lens.  Rather than forcing everybody to get along now, we need to make sure we respect each other as we struggle through our own prejudices and hold the door open. The incoming generation’s sexuality will be more fluid, and their ideas of gender-appropriate behavior will be different.  Their views of the range of what our community is will be much less rigid.  And I’m very hopeful for the under-21s out there.

 

What are your keys to success?

 

Parker: Clear goals, working like crazy to achieve them, and slow, steady effort.  I don’t quit.  But you have to know where want to go.  You have to have a goal, be able to articulate the goal, and do the hard work necessary to get there.  

 

What are your future career goals?

 

Parker: I have a maximum of six years as mayor.  I intend to run for reelection this year and hopefully one more time after this.  Then I’ll worry about what that next political goal will be. 

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