The lesbian mayor of the country’s fourth largest city says she’s comfortable serving as a role model for the LGBT community and acknowledged being taken aback by the extensive international media coverage of her political victory.
In a nearly 30-minute interview, Houston Mayor Annise Parker spoke with DC Agenda before her appearance at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s 10th annual Champagne Brunch in D.C. on Sunday to discuss a range of issues and reflect on her first 100 days in office.
Parker recalled how she issued an executive order March 25 protecting city employees against job bias on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. She said she issued the directive because it was something she was “aware needed to be done.”
The inclusiveness of the directive makes it one of the most sweeping citywide job discrimination protections in the country for LGBT people.
Parker also encouraged President Obama to make good on his campaign promises to the LGBT community, even though she said she understands he’s had “huge economic problems, financial problems he’s had to confront.” She identified ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as an issue on which she’d like to see greater effort from Obama.
DC Agenda: You’ve been mayor of the city of Houston for just over 100 days. How would you describe your experience? Has anything surprised you?
Annise Parker: I feel like I’m doing what I’ve been meant to do. I’m the right person at the right time, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience. I trained for this job through my years as a lesbian activist, community activist, council member and controller. I even have the small business and the private sector experience. They all are coming together and I’m using every skills set I have.
… The one thing that I’ve had to spend a lot of time and energy on that I did not expect is that because the president made an announcement changing his funding for NASA, and Houston is a big component of NASA and it’s going to have a really potentially devastating impact on the jobs and the economy in my city. So that’s the only thing that was not on anybody’s radar, and that’s filled up a lot of my time and energy.
And so, I’ve been part of pulling together an interesting bipartisan coalition of our local congressional delegation in opposition to my president on that particular issue.
DC Agenda: Have LGBT issues come up during your tenure as mayor in a way that you didn’t anticipate when seeking office?
Parker: No, I’ve issued an executive order extending our non-discrimination protection exclusively to transgender employees, but that’s the only specific issue directed at my community. And that’s something that I was already aware needed to be done.
DC Agenda: Why did you see the need to issue this executive order?
Parker: I was a member of city council when our non-discrimination ordinance passed, and the interpretation at the time was that it was inclusive, but it was never as clear as I wanted it to be, nor the transgender community wanted to be, so that was just an opportunity just to fix something that had been bugging me for a while — and we have more and more transgender employees in city government.
DC Agenda: Were you surprised that the Houston Area Pastor Council spoke out against that executive order?
Parker: No, that’s a fringe group. It received virtually no attention from the rest of the city. Actually, I was surprised that anybody even noticed, but not surprised that no one beyond that really small circle paid any attention to them.
DC Agenda: Do you feel like you’ve been a role model or visible advocate for the LGBT community?
Parker: I believe I’ve been a role model for the LGBT community since the 70’s. During the 80’s, I was — with my colleague in government, Council member [Sue] Lovell — we were the two most visible lesbian activists in the city of Houston for a very long time. So, I’ve been a community role model.
And I am comfortable with that role and comfortable speaking on GLBT issues within some narrow constraints in that my first priority is to be mayor of the city of Houston — for all the citizens of Houston. And I was, as I prepared my campaign for mayor, I had to decide what issues I could advocate — like an executive order that’s strictly my signature going out that dealt with my 21,000 employees and the vendors that deal with them — and what would have to be something, in my opinion, that needed to come from the community.
I know I disappointed some members of the GLBT community in Houston when I said I wasn’t going to immediately advocate for an overturn of our ban on domestic partner benefits. But the reason for that was clear, and I said, I worked through these issues before I entered the race, and how I felt philosophically and where I was comfortable, and that is it was a citizen initiative and referendum that gave us the ban. It needs to be a citizen referendum that undoes that ban. If my community brings a petition to undo our ban on domestic partner benefits, I would wholeheartedly embrace it and help them win it, but it’ll take a vote of the citizens.
And so, the key for me is very clear communication that I care passionately about GLBT issues. I will go — here I am in Washington — to raise money for GLBT candidates. I will speak out when it does not interfere with my duties as mayor.
But on the other hand, I’ve — within the boundaries of the city of Houston and sort of the greater Houston area — I have a friendly incumbent role. I’m not getting involved in any local races, unless they’re actively anti-gay, and so I know that I’m a Democrat, but some of my Democratic colleagues are disappointed that I won’t help organize and take out incumbent Republicans. If they’re working with me, it’s about my city, not my community. So I have to wear multiple hats.
DC Agenda: Going back to the domestic partner benefits for city employees, what will the LGBT community need to put forward to undo that?
Parker: It’s a petition drive. It has to go to a vote of the voters. I cannot undo it as mayor. The mayor and council together cannot undo it. It’s in our charter through citizen initiative and referendum. It would need to be undone, and I could, yes, as mayor, with support of council, I could put the issue on the ballot, but the community has to show a willingness to get out and fight for this and that’s why I suggested they do their own petition drive and bring it forward because it’s ultimately going to be a political battle at the ballot box.
DC Agenda: Do you want to see the referendum undone during your tenure as mayor?
Parker: I would like to see the ban on domestic partner benefits undone during my tenure as mayor. I don’t know that any sitting politician wants to have a divisive vote during their tenure, so it’s a little bit different answer. [Laughs] But I’d also like to see a more complete non-discrimination ordinance that applies citywide. But that’s something that will have to be negotiated with the 14 members of city council, and that actually, too, could come — I think a non-discrimination ordinance is something that, since it already hasn’t been pre-empted by a referendum process, could be done on city council, but the community needs to be involved in that. It shouldn’t be something that’s all driven by city hall.
DC Agenda: Let’s move to federal issues. There’s been a lot of criticism that the Obama administration hasn’t been making good on the promises made to the LGBT community during the 2008 campaign. How would you evaluate how well the Obama administration has handled those issues?
Parker: We’re clearly not high on the president’s agenda, but I don’t know that we necessarily should be, considering the huge economic problems, financial problems he’s had to confront. But we deserve to be on the agenda somewhere and he did make promises to the community, and I think we have been more than patient.
DC Agenda: If you had to give the president a grade on how well he’s done on these issues, what would it be a why?
Parker: Oh, I hate giving letter grades. Maybe a B minus.
DC Agenda: What makes you choose a B minus?
Parker: It sounded a little bit better than a C plus. I cut him some slack because he came in and he has tackled some really, really tough battles, but he made commitments during the campaign, and I think it is always important to be very clear what you intend to do and then do what you said you were going to do.
DC Agenda: Is there any one particular LGBT issue that you’d like to see more initiative from President Obama on?
Parker: Gays in the military. That has just been festering out there for a very, very long time.
DC Agenda: What do you want to see specifically from President Obama on this issue?
Parker: To press forward to a resolution that allows our service members to serve openly — easy for me to say, since I don’t have to navigate the politics of Congress or the Joint Chiefs.
DC Agenda: How important do you think President Obama’s memorandum offering hospital visitation benefits to same-sex couples was and do you think it’ll particularly help LGBT Houston residents?
Parker: I think it’s an important action. I think it’s a humane act while it has been a problem for some members of our community, that is something that fortunately has gotten better over the last few decades of working on that issue. I appreciate him doing that, but it is a problem that we have been making progress on. More and more of us have chosen to take the legal steps necessary to allow us full access.
DC Agenda: This November, we could see an unprecedented number of LGBT candidates running for office. What advice do you have for those candidates?
Parker: Every race is different. The dynamic of every race is different. I’m asked since I’ve been in my office — starting my 13th year now in office in Houston. I’m asked regularly about the candidates, what they should do, what they should know.
I would say the most important thing is run for the position that you want, be passionate about the issues. I see too many people who say, “Oh, I want to be in office.” You have to love what you do. Don’t run for local government office or city office if you don’t care about trash pickup and potholes and barking dogs — and I do.
And then decide what your positions are on the range of gay issues that you [are] going to be asked, understand what your answers are, and go out and be honest. Voters appreciate honestly.
DC Agenda: Is there any race that you’re particularly paying attention to this November?
Parker: Not really. I am focused on our races in Texas. We’re electing a governor of Texas. And there are — as I said, I’m staying out of my local races in Texas, including the governor’s race, but I’m very passionately interested in it because it will have an impact on my constituents.
DC Agenda: Have LGBT issues or anti-gay rhetoric been playing any role in the gubernatorial election?
Parker: Not as far as I know so far.
DC Agenda: What do you think former Houston mayor and Democratic candidate Bill White’s chances are for election as Texas governor?
Parker: Difficult but not impossible. He’s a very smart, hard campaigner. He’ll have plenty of money to spend and he’s running against a governor who has the potential for fumbling the ball, so I certainly think it’s a competitive race, although it’s an uphill battle.
DC Agenda: How concerned do you think LGBT Americans should be about Democrats losing control of either chamber of Congress this fall?
Parker: It’s not unusual to have a midterm fallback for the party in power, but because so many state Republican parties have been hijacked by the Tea Party movement, and many of our Republican Congress members have taken a turn to the right, we need to be very vigilant to make sure that we don’t allow Congress to backtrack on our issues and that we do our best to keep out those who have taken these hard right turns.
DC Agenda: Do you think your position as mayor has influenced how the people of Texas or the Texas state government have looked at LGBT issues?
Parker: I hope so. I have been fielding media [interviews] from around the world, actually. I think it’s also affecting how people around the world view Houston and view Texas. I’ve had dozens and dozens of national and international media interviews since my election, and they fall into two categories: one category is “Wow, you’re a lesbian mayor,” and the other category is, “How did this happen in Houston or how did this happen in Texas?” It gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about my hometown and why it’s different in Texas.
DC Agenda: Same-sex marriage is prohibited by the state constitution in Texas. What do you think would need to happen to reverse that?
Parker: A statewide referendum. I mean, literally, it’s a very simple answer. It would have to be declared unconstitutional by our state Supreme Court or we would have to do a statewide vote to undo it.
DC Agenda: What kind of planning do you think we’d need to see from the LGBT community for that to happen?
Parker: … It’s not just about putting more openly LGBT elected officials or putting more into — we have a statewide Equality Texas, a statewide organizing and lobbying effort. It’s going to take all of us convincing our families and our friends that recognition of intimate relationships is an important issue to them as well. We have to win the hearts and minds fight before we go back to legislative fight, and that’s a slow process.
DC Agenda: When, if ever, do you see that happening?
Parker: Really within my lifetime, but I don’t know how long that’s going to be. I have been an activist for more than 30 years, so, more like 35 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes for our community, and I can take the long view. I think it would have been unimaginable when I was out in college organizing on campus to have three members of Congress — let alone the mayor of Houston — who are out and open. We are so far beyond what I would have expected to see back then.
DC Agenda: Would you be interested in pursuing other political office after you’ve finished your tenure as mayor?
Parker: I haven’t even thought about it. Hopefully, I will be able to serve my full allotted terms under term limits — a maximum of six years. At that time, I will have been in office 18 years in Houston, and I’ll have to consider what I want to do next. But I love local government. I think it’s the most important level of government because it’s the most immediate to the people.