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

AE: You married your wife Kathy in January of 2014 in Palm Springs, California. Previously you had stated that you wanted to wait until you could marry in Texas. What changed your mind?

AP: We would not have gone and married without the federal recognition, but once that happened we needed to show the Supreme Court–because we knew that’s where it was going to be won–just the weight of people, the mass of people that wanted this.


AE: Do you think that made an impact locally?

AP: Oh I got a lot of hate mail. Sure. You know, until the HERO ordinance came up, there’s only been two times when I was mayor that I actually got a lot of hate mail. One was when I became a co-chair with six other big city mayors of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry. One of the churches that organized against HERO sent me tons of hate mail. And then when I actually got married I got tons of hate mail.


AE: On that note, there were claims that your handling of the Equal Rights Ordinance was too personal. How do you respond to that?

AP: Yes. It is very personal. And without apology, I’ll say it’s very personal. But I don’t feel discriminated against. I’m the mayor of a huge city. Or I was the mayor. People extend me the courtesies of mayor. And I don’t feel the discrimination that people with less power and less authority experience.

I was a lesbian activist in the ‘70s. There’s nothing that happens in a political context that is in any way like that. It was a much different time. It was a much scarier time. People were still being arrested. We still had raids on our bars, and so forth. So, been there, done that, I’m not intimidated in that context. But I have a number of transgender friends and what they are experiencing today is as bad or worse than what we experienced in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I don’t have tolerance for it any longer. Suddenly after 16 years in office and four years as mayor, I start working on this, what I didn’t consider a solely LGBT issue, then I’m a single-issue mayor? Really? That made me mad too. Suddenly everybody sweeps away the things I had been working on the previous four years. So I got testy about that. And still, you can tell, I’m getting exercised.

Now what happened in the campaign, and I did not run the campaign. I was running the city of Houston. But there was an element that couldn’t believe that anybody, any thinking person, would believe the lies being told by the other side. That suddenly this vote would make every bathroom and locker room in the entire city of Houston unisex. And that men could just walk into women’s restrooms and say, “Oh, I’m feeling my woman side today. Get over it.” Really? People are that stupid? And that was kind of the attitude of the campaign.

Houston mayor Annise ParkerPhoto by Erich Schlegel/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

AE: Do you think there was anything the pro-HERO side could have done to see things end up differently? I know the anti-HERO side had been campaigning a lot longer.

AP: That was part of the problem. We didn’t expect to be on the ballot this November when we passed it in 2014.


AE: Did you know then it was going to be an issue?

AP: We figured it would be on the ballot. In December 2013, I called folks together, and we started working on the ordinance. And we did it with the expectation that it would be on the ballot, because we have a very low ballot threshold for repeal. So we figured they would do it, and we went into it expecting it. And then we passed it in May, and they had their petitions a week later. We fully expected it to be on that November ballot. And then they fumbled the ball on the petitions, and I was in the horrible position of, “Well if it’s ultimately going to be on the ballot we’d really rather it be on the ballot now before they get any traction. But I’m not just going to put it on the ballot just ‘because’, because it’s wrong to vote on people’s rights.” And so we went back and forth, and I finally said, “No, they fumbled the ball.” I said, “No, they didn’t meet the legal requirements.” So then we ended up in court, and it pushed us past the deadline of being on the 2014 ballot. The 2014 ballot was the one. If we wanted to be on a ballot, that was the statewide ballot. It’s more liberal.

But they didn’t meet the requirement. Then we ended up in litigation. What people need to understand is, we won in the trial court. My position was upheld. We won in front of the judge. They were on appeal, and in the normal appellant course, it wouldn’t have been on the ballot until this year, until 2016. But they kind of leapfrogged over the whole appellant system and went to the state Supreme Court.


AE: Republican-led.

AP: Yeah, and they’re all elected. Bought and paid for. I’ve said that publicly. Bought and paid for. And the Supreme Court essentially said, “We don’t care what the lower courts have said. We don’t care what the facts are. We believe this ought to be on the ballot.” And so suddenly it’s on the ballot with two months to go. So that was the biggest monkey wrench in the whole thing, is that it was dropped on us.

The other side had been organizing for about a year and a half against it. And because they were in collaboration with the Supreme Court they were ready to go. And they dropped the full ugly campaign on our heads. 


AE: You drafted HERO, and you introduced it to Houston City Council. But as mayor, you also oversaw its rejection by Houston voters. Do you think HERO will ultimately be what you’re remembered for as the mayor of Houston?

AP: I think it’ll be what I’m remembered for outside of Houston. For good or ill. But for Houstonians, first of all, I think they see the broader arc of what I’ve worked on in the 18 years I’ve been in office.

But I really think for the rest of the United States it’s all going to be HERO, which is very frustrating.

Elections have consequences. The average age was over 60. I think it was 68. So as long as young people don’t vote, we’re going to get results like this.


AE: You mentioned the rest of the United States seeing you as the “HERO mayor.” But that’s only if your political journey ends right now.

AP: I don’t know what my political journey is going to be.


AE: So you’re not thinking about statewide or county office right now?

AP: I might be interested in a statewide race or a county race because I can’t run for anything else at the city. But that would be in 2018, so that’s a few years off. I’d like to continue to serve. I’m not interested in–I had a 20-year career in the oil industry. I had a small business for 10 years. I don’t want to do either one of those things again. So that means either in politics or the non-profit world in some way. We’ll just have to see what happens.