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Houston Mayor Annise Parker opens up about her family, same-sex marriage, the struggle for LGBT rights

SAN DIEGO -- Annise Parker became an LGBT political icon in 2009 when Houstonians elected her mayor of the fourth-largest city in the U.S.

San Diegans will have a chance to meet her when she shares her story and speaks at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund Brunch on Sunday, Feb. 13, at the Catamaran Resort Hotel & Spa.

Naturally, her mayoral victory drew national media attention. Many were surprised that such a victory was possible in a state like Texas, which has a Republican governor and two GOP senators in Washington.

Parker, however, was not surprised.

She tells San Diego Gay & Lesbian News that even though Texas is predominantly a conservative state, the city of Houston is very different.

“Yes, Houston is conservative,” Mayor Parker said. “But it is also a very national city. We have two foreign councils, about 22% of Houstonians are foreign born; the city has changed rapidly over the last 20 years.

“If you look at its history, it is more concerned about what you can do than who you are. Houston is a ‘show me what you got' kind of place. I had six successful city wide campaigns before I ran for mayor,” she said.

“Houstonians were familiar with me and they voted for me because they knew I could get the job done,” she added. “If the voters had only had the fact that I was gay, they would not have elected me, but they had a lot of other facts.”

The road to politics

Annise Parker was born May 17, 1956, in Houston. Her mother was a bookkeeper, and her father worked for the Red Cross. His work took the family to several locations, including Mississippi, Germany and Charleston, S.C., where she graduated from high school.

When it was time to attend college, Parker knew she wanted to return to Houston. She received a National Merit Scholarship to Rice University in 1974, and worked several jobs to pay for her room and board.

Parker graduated from Rice in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology, and began a 20-year career in the oil and gas industry —18 of them at Houston’s Mosbacher Energy.

“I fell into the field,” she recalled. “The oil and gas industry makes up 50% of Houston’s economy today, but at that time it was about 80%. So if you were working in Houston you were likely working for oil.”

Outside of work, Parker was very active with various organizations.

She recalls the 1970s as a period heavily influenced by feminism. Although at Rice most students focused on academics, she became involved with the League of Women Voters as well as the “baby gay movement” in Houston. She would eventually become president of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

“I had a good job that allowed me to do a lot of organizing in my free time,” Parker said. “For the first 10 years after college I really threw myself into gay politics. I was a board member and officer for so many gay organizations, I got burned out," she said.

“So I spent the next 10 years involved with civic clubs, which are really close to city government. Than I realized I was going to work every day to support my volunteer habits and I wanted to use that passion to make a living.”

Parker stepped onto the political stage in 1995, but she lost her first bid for Houston City Council. She took the lessons from that campaign, reorganized, and in 1997 won a seat on the City Council, making her Houston’s first out elected official. In 2003, Parker was elected city controller. She served two additional terms before she was elected mayor.

Mayor Parker confesses that she is considered the “black sheep” in her family for being the only Democrat, but when she first ran for office she did so as a bipartisan independent, reaching out to folks from across from the political spectrum.

“I have never comprised who I am,” she said. “I was in the closet in the '70s but I was arguably one of the most prominent lesbian activists in the '80s. My work within in the gay community was part of my resume.

“I wanted my community to know that I was with them so I put it out there, and then no one could say I was trying to hide it, and interestingly enough I did not have to talk about being gay,” Parker said.

She credits her elections to Houstonians’ ability to elect the person who is best able to do the job for the city.

A monumental victory

Mayor Parker's election was the Victory Fund's top political priority in 2009, a year that saw 54 of its 79 endorsed openly LGBT candidates elected to public office.

Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said her victory holds tremendous significance for the gay community and was a watershed moment in American politics.

"Annise was elected by fair-minded people from across the city because of her experience and competence, and we're glad Houston soundly rejected the politics of division,” Wolfe said of Parker's election. “This victory sends a clear signal that gays and lesbians are an integral part of American civic life; that we're willing to lead; and that voters will respond to candidates who are open and honest about their lives.”

On Sunday evening, Jan. 3, more than 500 people from the LGBT community packed the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel to celebrate her victory. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) was among the many prominent organizations present at the celebration.

HRC President Joe Solmonese echoed Wolfe’s sentiment, calling her election a milestone in the quest for LGBT equality.

“Annise is an incredibly qualified and gifted public servant who focused her campaign on public safety, the economy and the future of Houston. She stood up to last minute anti-gay attacks with grace, courage and determination,” Solmonese said.

For her part, Parker recalls that overall her race for mayor was a relatively civil campaign. She had the full support of partner Kathy Hubbard, her children and family.

“There was some gay baiting in the runoff but not to the extent that it could have been. My kids were not targeted,” she said. “I was not the ‘scary lesbian’ candidate. Kathy has been on stage with me every time I was inaugurated. And although we try to not expose our kids too much to the media, we have not hidden them.

“I have had death threats when I was an activist. I have had my tires slashed and my property defaced, but not as a public official. Yes as mayor I do get hate mail, but it is standard-part-of-the-job kind, and I do have a security detail,” Parker said.

On the night of her election, Parker praised the support of the Victory Fund and its donors, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help fund her campaign.

"I am so grateful to the Victory Fund and its supporters for believing in this campaign from the beginning,” she said. “This race was about the future of Houston, and whether we will face that future proud to be an open, welcoming and fair-minded city.

“Houstonians said yes to a future like that.”

Religion, same-sex marriage and hope

Mayor Parker and her partner, Kathy Hubbard, celebrated their 20th anniversary on Jan. 16. They met when Parker was president of the Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus. Hubbard was also a member, but as Parker recalled an “occasional participant.”

“I don’t remember her too well from those days, but she had developed a crush on me at the time,” Parker said. “A business partner and I started a lesbian bookstore in Houston in 1988, and Kathy had just launched her first income tax business."

Parker further explained that Hubbard approached her for the bookkeeping business, but having already hired an accountant, Parker chose to have Hubbard work on her personal taxes. During one of their business-related meetings, Hubbard asked her out on a date, but Parker declined, expressing interest in a friendship instead.

“Apparently we were dating for eight months and I didn’t know it,” Parker said. “I had been in a relationship before and I was determined to not get into another one. I would date other women and afterward I would speak to her on the phone, tell her about the dates, until eventually I realized she was far more interesting than the women I was dating.”

Early on in their relationship they became a family, when the first of their three children entered their lives.

“Our oldest son, now 34, was a gay street kid with nowhere to go. He came to live with us when he was 16 and basically became our foster son. He is still very much part of the family today,” Parker said.

Their two daughters, now 15 and 20, were adopted when they were 7 and 12. Parker recalls the adoption process was not without its hurdles, given the foster and adoption laws in Texas.

“A lot of the recruitment for foster families in Texas is religious based, and both foster families tried to disrupt the adoption,” she said. “Also, Texas did not have provisions against LGBT adoption but we had to do a first parent adoption in Houston, and file for Kathy to be added as the second parent in San Antonio.

“It caused some problems at first, but the girls were old enough to know what a gay couple is. Obviously it is much easier if you are raising an infant and that’s all they know,” she said.

Her two oldest children are out of the house, but still reside in Houston; and her youngest child is what Mayor Parker describes as a “thriving, normal teenager.”

Despite the close-knit family that Parker and Hubbard have built, Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages or offer any domestic partner benefits. In 2001, the state Senate voted on the issue, but domestic partner benefits were defeated 51-49.

“We barely lost,” Parker said. “I anticipate the LGBT community will come forward soon to try to overturn that and make employment benefits fairer. I cannot put Kathy on my insurance, for example, and we end up spending a lot of extra money to insure her.”

Mayor Parker also said that she would love to get married, but in no way does she want it to be a political spectacle or have to wed Hubbard in another state.

“I believe it will happen in my lifetime,” she said. “The world is changing so rapidly on LGBT issues, especially from my early activist days to today. It’s frustrating the progress is slow, but it happens.”

She prides herself on having a diverse group of supporters, as well as reaching out to everyone, whether they are Democrat or Republican. Nowhere is that more evident that with work with churches.

Religious organizations are often the loudest voices speaking against LGBT equality, but Mayor Parker sees evidence of progress in those areas as well.

“I am not a member of a local church but do attend regularly,” she said. “In the South, [politicians] participate in church circuits, which is where you try to reach out to different members of the community. You are usually in and out because sometimes you visit several churches in one Sunday afternoon.

“We don’t go unless we get permission first, and while the pastors are usually happy to have us, a few times I have been surprised by a junior pastor or a member who stands up to speak up on LGBT rights.”

One of the biggest churches in Houston is the church of mega-evangelist Joel Osteen, who recently made headlines with his views of tolerance but not acceptance, stating that homosexuality is a sin and not God’s “best” creation.

At her public mayoral inauguration, Osteen led Houstonians in prayer, a gesture that angered members of both sides.

Nevertheless, Osteen thanked God for “raising [Mayor Parker] up” and honored her as an elected official. She also defends and stands by her decision to invite Osteen.

“I have been to his church, I know how he feels, but I invited him because he is a Houstonian. He is a big part of the city and yes, we have a relationship,” Parker said.

“You don’t build bridges with people who disagree with you by ignoring them or pushing them away,” Parker added. “On that day he was clearly acknowledging that I was mayor and that he would support me, and I was acknowledging that everyone is welcomed at City Hall.”

With regards to setting an example and being a role model, particularly for LGBT youth, Mayor Parker said, “The most important thing I can do and have done is to be the ‘out gay mayor’ and continue to present myself as the mayor and equal to other mayors.”

To learn more about Houston’s mayor, follow Parker on Facebook, Twitter, or visit her website .

Victory Fund Champagne Brunch in San Diego

Join the Victory Fund and special guest, the honorable Mayor Annise Parker of Houston, for its annual Champagne Brunch in San Diego.

In 2010, more openly LGBT candidates won election to public office than in any year in America’s history.

Date:Feb. 13
Time:11 am to 2 pm
Location:Catamaran Resort Hotel & Spa, 3999 Mission Blvd., San Diego 92109
Tickets:Individual Ticket – $100; Table Captain (sell 10 seats) - $100; Table Host (buy 10 seats) – $1,000

Additional information is available HERE

About the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund works to elect LGBT leaders to public office for one simple reason. They change America's politics.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender office holders are our clearest and most convincing champions for true equality. As leaders in government, they become the face and voice of a community. They challenge the lies of extremists and speak authentically about themselves, their families and their community.

Since 1991, the Victory Fund has helped thousands of openly LGBT candidates win election to local, state and federal offices.