Annise Parker on being “Houston’s lesbian Mayor,” HERO and her political future

Annise Parker made headlines across the United States and around the world in 2009 when she became the first openly LGBT person elected mayor of a major U.S. city. But having been first elected to city council in 1997, she was no stranger to Houstonians. The out politician spent 12 years as a city councilwoman and city controller before winning the top job and serving three consecutive terms as mayor. However, due to term limits Dec. 31, 2015 was Annise Parker’s last day as mayor.

The latter part of her time in office will always be remembered as the time that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was repealed in a referendum vote where it lost by a 61-to-39-percent margin. The post-HERO era sees the former mayor starting a three-month fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in February, and possibly considering a run for higher office.

I was recently in Houston and had the chance to interview Annise Parker in her beautiful heritage home. We got into a whole bunch of issues, including her thoughts on the label “Houston’s lesbian mayor,” her time as an LGBT activist, where things went wrong with HERO, and what’s next for her.

464835028Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images Because of how we tend to paint Texas as a whole, some of it justified, it surprises a lot of people that you, being not only a lesbian but a Democrat as well, were able to win three consecutive terms as mayor of Houston. Can you describe your city for somebody that doesn’t know Houston?

Annise Parker: Well first, all of the big cities in Texas, and three of the largest cities in the United States are in Texas, are Democratic strongholds in the big red sea that is Texas. Houston is a cosmopolitan global city of business. I think it’s that business focus that makes us very pragmatic and welcoming. One in four Houstonians is foreign-born. When I say that, people immediately think, “Well, of course, there’s a large Latino population.” And there is. About 40 percent of Houston is Hispanic-origin. But every language of business that’s spoken anywhere in the world is spoken in Houston. We are the largest refugee resettlement area in the United States. We have 92 foreign consulates here because we have such a large international population. And in addition to the refugees and the immigrants, we have a large ex-pat population.


AE: I’ve read some of your interviews before, and I know that you don’t want your legacy to be “Houston’s lesbian mayor.” But I also know that you’re aware that this label has brought positive national and international attention to the city. Can you speak to that a bit?

AP: I’m about to turn 60. I have been a lesbian activist since my teens, so for more than 40 years. And I have often been a spokesperson for the LGBT community in the ‘70s and in the ‘80s. In a very different era, frankly. Yes, I’m an out lesbian. That was part of my public persona.

I’m just very aware that once I was elected at all three levels of government to represent Houston that that’s my priority. That I don’t speak for the community. But it’s not as if I could go back into the closet. There’s a difference between being an out lesbian in a public position and being comfortable in my own skin and making sure that, now my wife, was part of public life in Houston, and taking positions that as mayor I should take in terms of the LGBT community. It doesn’t bother me to be the “lesbian mayor of Houston”, but that’s not all I was and am, and that’s not what I led with. I was the mayor of Houston.

But I’m also not unaware of that the fact that I was a novelty–my election was a novelty. Fourth largest city in the United States. I represent more people than the governors of 15 states. And this is a big media market. It got a lot of attention. No one ever paid any attention to Houston before, except to say disparaging things about the weather, or the people, or the oil industry, or the fact that we’re kind of a messy, sprawling unzoned city. So the fact that suddenly worldwide media was paying attention gave me an amazing platform to talk about Houston. People would come in and wanted to interview the “lesbian mayor of Houston”, and I would take the interview, but I wouldn’t talk about my lesbian experience or anything. I would pivot away from that and talk about either how Houston is not what they think it is, proof being my election, or just to talk about the Houston that I know today. It was an amazing opportunity to change the vision of Houston that a lot of people had.


AE: Before your first run for a spot on city council, was there ever a moment’s hesitation that you having been an out lesbian for a long time could hurt you at the polls? Do you attribute your first two losses to that at all?

AP: Of course. Every time I saw my name in print, it was “Annise Parker, lesbian” or “Annise Parker, gay.”

In ’97, I decided to run at-large for council. But I knew I had to be “Annise Parker,” not “Annise Parker, lesbian activist.” I had to, not go in the closet, but not make that my last name. And so I had to control my image. I had to learn how to raise money, and really upgrade my campaign skills.

I went to the two newspapers–daily papers. I went to the TV stations, the radio stations because we actually had radio stations that covered politics then too, and laid out information from the other campaigns and I said, “Here you talk about my opponents’­–what they do for a living. I’ve been an oil company employee for nearly 20 years. I volunteer in these lesbian and gay organizations, but you talk about what they do for work, and you talk about what I do as a volunteer.” And at that point, I had not been an officer or a board member of a gay or lesbian organization for a decade. I was a homeowner. I was a civic club president. I was a United Way volunteer. I was doing different things. And I said, “So even if you want to talk about what their current volunteer activities are, well my current volunteer activities are I’m the United Way senior services volunteer. There’s some fairness and equity here that I expect.”

I’d love to think that I was really, really persuasive, and I think I called them on it, and the reporters and the station managers got it, but the world was changing too. They decoupled my name from the “Annise Parker, lesbian activist.”

But they’d find some way in the story after the jump to say that I was a lesbian activist. So it was always there. And from my side, every piece of literature I put out in that campaign, on the résumé piece it was “past president, Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.” Because I thought it was important for our community to know that I wasn’t trying to run away from the community. But it’s an inoculation technique. By me putting it in all my literature, nobody from the outside could think I was trying to hide it either, and I wasn’t.