After more than 40 years of activism and three terms as mayor of Houston, Annise Parker has taken on a new leadership role as CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute.
The change in leadership for the organizations was announced Friday at the annual International LGBTQ Leaders Conference. Parker, 61, told the crowd times have changed since she began her activism in the 1970s, but too many LGBT people “still have to fear” many of the dangers LGBT people faced decades ago.
“We celebrate milestones,” Parker said. “My race was one. But when you’re checking off milestones, it means you have not reached the end of the journey, and we don’t reach the end of this journey until all those fears are swept away and until all of our communities — across the United States, across cultures, across ethnicities — everyone of us has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
In an interview with the Washington Blade on Friday at the conference, Parker said the focus of her work would be on supporting LGBT candidates ready to make a difference.
“But it’s not just about having candidates, it’s about making sure that those candidates are funded and the Victory Fund does a great job of vetting candidates,” Parker said. “You have to have a good candidate, but passion’s not enough. You have to demonstrate their viability, and their ability to be successful.”
Parker takes the reins of the Victory Fund and Institute after the organizations were led for two-and-a-half years by Aisha Moodie-Mills, whose tenure was marked by historic wins by transgender candidates in local races in 2017. Moodie-Mills has left the organization with the stated purpose of championing work as a progressive activist.
Based on her long history in the LGBT movement, Parker said she brings a “different mindset” than Moodie-Mills and will be focused on the candidates, not progressive activism.
“I bring a different energy, I bring a different focus. My focus is on the candidate, but that doesn’t mean that anything we’ve done has been wrong or misplaced or inappropriate,” Parker said. “We just bring different styles and interests.”
Parker said the Victory Fund and Institute would take on the Trump administration “whenever we feel it’s necessary,” but keep electing LGBT candidates as the focus.
“Because it’s clear that simply standing up and speaking out against President Trump doesn’t have an impact, the best way to blunt his ability to hurt us is to put people in office who can vote against his anti-gay policies,” Parker said.
Parker will stay in Houston as CEO of the Victory Fund and Institute, but plans to travel often for the organizations, and will regularly be in D.C. Her tenure as CEO begins Monday.
Read the full interview here:
Washington Blade: We’ve seen a lot of success with LGBT candidates in 2017, particularly with the transgender wins in local races. How do you plan on building on that success going forward?
Annise Parker: Being successful in political campaigns starts with the candidate, so we are just as proud of the turnouts for our candidate training, the expressions of interest from candidates all over the country in running out and seeking Victory Fund support, so continuing to tap into the passion that people have right now and helping channel that into the campaigns.
But it’s not just about having candidates, it’s about making sure that those candidates are funded and the Victory Fund does a great job of vetting candidates. You have to have a good candidate, but passion’s not enough. You have to demonstrate their viability, and their ability to be successful. And so, that process is an important piece.
But then, once you have the right candidate in right race, it’s about making sure they have the resources and I know a lot of what I’ll be focused on, as the board does, is making sure that our candidates have the funding they need.
What I’ve seen over this — not quite a year — now, but through 2017 is the energy across the country. LGBT candidates, candidates of color, candidates who are women who are stepping up saying, “Enough is enough.” I want to make a difference and I’m going to jump into races, and they’re not discouraged at all by the idea that it’s an uphill battle, or that from an objective perspective, doesn’t look like they can win there.
They’re in it to win, but they’re not afraid of losing. They want to get out there and make statements. It’s a great time to come and tap into that kind of energy.
So we’re going to do that, but the fundamentals of Victory Fund haven’t changed in a very long time.
Blade: I wanted to ask you about that because I know you talked in your speech about how hard it was to be part of an organization in 1975 compared to 2017.
Parker: Different and it’s not different.
We have made tremendous progress, but if you look at when I was an activist in the 70s and 80s, I used to debate homophobes all the time, and they used to talk about the gay agenda. Remember the gay agenda? And I used to laugh and say there was no gay agenda.
Over time, I finally realized that there was a gay agenda, and the gay agenda is fairly straight forward. We want to be able to go to school without being bullied, we want to be to work at jobs we love and earn a paycheck so we can pay taxes to this country, we want to be able to serve openly in the military, we want to be able to walk down any street in America in safety, we want to be able to marry the people we love, we want to be able to adopt and raise children. That’s the GLBT agenda.
Many of those things we have achieved, but what we see now is how easily they can be swept away when we have the wrong person in the White House and the wrong attitude in Congress. So we made progress, but we can take this giant step back if we don’t keep our eyes focused on moving forward.
Blade: But what I wanted to get at there is do you think it’s simply enough for candidates to be out about their sexual orientation and gender identity, or is there something more that’s needed in 2017 in order to make an impact?
Parker: Yes and no.
It’s not enough to be a gay candidate. You have to be good at what you do. We have high expectations for our candidates, and that’s why we vet them, it’s why we look closely at their viability and the races they’re in. Not everybody who seeks a Victory Fund endorsement gets that Victory Fund endorsement.
But are we sending them out to be activists? No. We are sending them out to be who they are and represent their constituents and do the job they’ve been elected to do because when they do that, they make the really profound changes that we need to see that have been so transformative in America.
This latest anti-trans movement really, I think, unfortunately, wasn’t launched in Houston, but our HERO campaign [the 2015 campaign to preserve the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance] was where it really flowered. We had right-wing groups from all over the country, pouring money and resources in Houston. We had the right-wing ideologues coming through, the Mike Huckabees and Ted Cruzes coming though Houston and doing trans-bashing in Houston, and then they took it on the road to North Carolina and back to Texas with the statewide bathroom bill.
The difference in my more than 40 years of activism: No one in America can say they know no person who is gay or lesbian. Whether it’s simply they say, “Well, I know Ellen on TV,” whatever it is, they know someone, and very, very few people in America today can say they don’t know anyone, either in their family or their community who is gay.
But for too many Americans, transgender issues are unknown. They don’t know someone who is transgender; they don’t understand what the issues are, and they make them the other. And a lot of what we’re seeing is the arguments are the same arguments they used against us — us meaning the gay and lesbian part of the LGBT community — against the transgender community. Today, it’s the same arguments just slightly repackaged, but it’s all about taking something that is unknown and that you can create a fear around it and use it for either for political purposes or economic purposes.
And so, what is going to be so powerful, just as it took us a long time to get there for the gay and lesbian community, but this is a different era, and I think we’re going to make much faster progress, but what it’s going to take is our transgender brothers and sisters to get out there and speak for themselves, to go out as candidates and raise awareness.
And again, they don’t have to carry the flag for the community. They have to be out and they have to do a good job, and that’s what changes hearts and minds.
Blade: Let’s talk about the Victory Institute. Where do you envision that going as an organization, particularly the robust international program?
Parker: I started by saying the focus is on the candidates. We can’t win races if you don’t have the candidates, and that is the Victory Institute.
But we all understand we can turn this negative tide that’s coming out of Washington, we can firmly secure our rights here in America and we have to realize that agenda that I outlined, that still has to be won in all of these other countries around the world, and that we have a responsibility from our positions of relative privilege to make sure to support people who are doing the seminal work in those countries. It’s not about America; it’s about the LGBT community.
And some of the most horrific problems are going on in other places. When I was mayor of Houston, Houston has a huge international focus and I did a lot of trade missions. And everywhere I went, I made a practice of meeting with local LGBT leaders and women’s organizations, so I have met with lesbians in South Africa and transgender women in Indonesia, India and Brazil.
The tip of the spear right now is transgender issues. Their courage particularly in countries where it’s not — they’re not worried about walking down the street and having someone say something rude to them, they’re worried about walking down the street and having someone kill them. And we have to make sure that we stand together with them.
Blade: The anti-LGBT policies of the Trump administration are ongoing. To what extent will the Victory Fund and the Institute tackle that?
Parker: As an organization, our focus is on supporting candidates, but we are advocates for LGBT rights and issues, so with the other organizations in this space, we’ll stand up whenever we feel it’s necessary, but we also believe that the best way to blunt that — because it’s clear that simply standing up and speaking out against President Trump doesn’t have any impact, the best way to blunt his ability to hurt us is to put people in office who can vote against his anti-gay policies.
What I’ve seen over the last year, I actually did some extensive polling in Houston for other purposes, people in an odd way, they see Trump as a one-off. Trump is not the embodiment of the Republican Party for a lot of people. I know we like to think that that’s the case, those of us who are Democrats probably think that’s the case and we’re going to use that to demonize him, which doesn’t take much work, and use that to run. It’s not enough.
He’s Donald Trump, and there’s a core following that he has, but for most Americans, whether they love him or hate him, he’s over there, he’s a one-off, and it doesn’t translate into other down-ballot races.
Blade: That’s kind of what I wanted to get at with your vision for the Victory Fund and Institute. Would you say that they’re progressive organizations, or do they seek to advance LGBT people, LGBT rights regardless of political affiliation or ideology?
Parker: So that’s a really interesting question.
It’s clear that Aisha Moodie-Mills is very much a part of the progressive movement. I like to consider myself there as well, but as an organization our focus is completely bipartisan and it is about finding capable, qualified LGBT candidates, helping them get elected.
Now, capable and qualified, someone who’s LGBT but is ashamed of it, someone who’s LGBT and actively supports anti-gay legislative initiatives, we would not support that kind of candidate. So does that make us a progressive organization?
We also build alliances. Many of our candidates are pro-choice, they have progressive political agendas and they build coalitions in order to get elected. It’s not as if there’s any place in America — well, maybe West Hollywood, who knows — where we are a majority, so it requires us to build coalitions.
And our LGBT candidates are masters of putting together strong coalitions across racial and ethnic lines, with labor, with environmental organizations and voters in order to put a winning package together, so by that definition, we are absolutely a progressive organization, but that’s not our focus.
Blade: Would you say you’d have a different approach than Aisha going forward, or is it building off what she did?
Parker: I think we have to reflect what’s happening in the world around us as an organization. I’m a generation of activists older than she. I have children older than she is — adopted children, children nonetheless — and I bring a different mindset.
I was an activist in the 70s and I have seen the changes and sort of the arc of our history. I bring a different energy, I bring a different focus. My focus is on the candidate, but that doesn’t mean that anything we’ve done has been wrong or misplaced or inappropriate. We just bring different styles and interests, and as I said, we have to have coalitions to get elected. Maybe someday the right will offer us opportunities for coalition building, but today all of our coalitions are going to be on the left and in progressive communities because the right has become so virulently anti-gay.
There are gay elected officials here who are Republicans and so stand up proudly within their party and never waver on our issues, and we need more of that.
Blade: In the past, the Victory Institute has sought to appoint LGBT people to the U.S. government. Will the Victory Institute continue that within the Trump administration? I’m aware of four Trump appointees who are LGBT. Would the Victory Institute support them?
Parker: Our goal is to put people into office where they can make a difference. It’s not very fertile ground to plow, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to plow it.
Blade: And will you continue to support Republican candidates who are LGBT?
Parker: Yes. But they have to, obviously, support, as I have outlined, the LGBT agenda.
It’s not about political party, it’s about making sure we have candidates who can advocate, or just being present. There are times when I was in office in the 18 years that I was in office that I had to stand up and articulate LGBT issues, but I think I was just as effective those times when I was simply there with my wife and making sure that they had to deal with me on human basis.
And if you talk to the office holders in the room, you’ll find out that they all have those kinds of stories where they’ve managed to change the trajectory of a bill or made inroads in some way simply because they were there and fully present in all aspects of their life.
Blade: Let’s talk about the approach to the candidates Victory Fund endorses. I think one big issue, and you talked about this in your speech, is religious freedom and the tension that has with LGBT rights, rightly or wrongly.
Parker: No one has a right to discriminate against me. I mean, that’s what RFRA bills are. The right to discriminate. If you are given the right to discriminate against me because I’m gay or because I’m transgender, why is that any different from you having to discriminate against someone who happens to be black or who happens to be a religion you don’t agree with. We have to fight against these bills.
Blade: But what would be your advice to candidates who are confronted with this? I remember when you were mayor of Houston, this became an issue with the subpoena of the sermons and there was this big argument that was infringing upon these pastors’ religious liberty.
Parker: There was a big argument. It happened without me knowing about it. I didn’t think it was wrong, but I rescinded it simply because it created too much of a peripheral issue. But that had to do with litigation around HERO. It wasn’t anything to do with RFRA or the ability to discriminate. That actually was around the litigation.
Blade: But what would be your advice to candidates who are confronted by those who say your views are an assault on religious liberty?
Parker: We are all Americans, and one of the bedrock values of America is that we treat each other fairly and decently and that everyone should be afforded the full rights of being an American.
We have fought wars against people who targeted minority populations. In World War II, millions of Americans died to fight an enemy that was specifically targeting Jews, Gypsies and LGBT people. It is fundamentally un-American. It took us a long time to get it right. We had to go through segregation, but it is fundamentally un-American to say I don’t like you, I’m not going to serve you. Once you allow someone to do that, it’s impossible to draw the line again.
Blade: One other thing I wanted to ask you about, we mentioned the Trump administration, I’m very curious as to what your take is on the massive hurricanes we had in recent months and Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. How would you evaluate the administration’s handling of the response?
Parker: And I had a great deal of fun with Ann Coulter and my hurricane weather control abilities.
His response to the hurricane?
Blade: How would you evaluate that?
Parker: Inadequate across the board, but mediocre in Texas and in Florida and absolutely embarrassing in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Blade: Why do you think there’s that discrepancy?
Parker: I think it’s all about his voting base. In Texas we’re also fighting against an incompetent state government that is not fully funding the recovery.
And this is my opinion. I’m not going to speak for the Victory Fund here because this is far afield of that. But having been an elected official at the local level, the Bush 43 administration learned after Katrina, and the Obama administration absolutely, Texas, Republican leadership, Rick Perry — I had a great working relationship with Rick Perry — they understood what was needed to recover from those kinds of storms, and you saw that in Sandy.
Now I think we have an administration that fundamentally doesn’t understand the role of the federal government in disaster recovery, doesn’t want to spend money on people who aren’t part of the president’s voting base and have had a tremendous amount of turnover in those positions, so actually have lost the expertise to know what to do, so it’s a three-fer, and it’s causing tremendous problems.
Texas voted for Trump.
Blade: Houston did not, though.
Parker: Houston did not. The big cities across Texas are all Democratic islands in a big, red sea, but Texas voted for Trump. 20 percent of the refining capacity is in Houston or just on the border of the city of Houston. You would think from a strategic standpoint that he’d be focusing on making sure that there’s a complete recovery across the energy industry base down there, but it’s not happening.
And Puerto Rico? They don’t vote. It’s an afterthought.
Blade: I want to go back to Texas and talk about Pigeon v. Turner. [A case in which the Texas Supreme Court questioned whether the Obergefell ruling guarantees same-sex spousal to city employees. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision of the Texas Supreme Court, which remanded its findings to lower state court.]
Parker: Actually, it was Piegon v. Parker. It’s referred to both ways, but yeah.
Blade: You mentioned that in your speech. How concerned are you about that litigation?
Parker: When you track what happened, the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, and then the lieutenant governor of the state of Texas, the governor and the right-wing leaders across the state put pressure on the elected state Supreme Court, and they re-evaluated and then sent it back down to the appellate court.
It’s transparent to everybody in the state that they bowed to political pressure. That said, the argument being made by the right is that the Supreme Court says you can have marriage, but you can’t have benefits. There’s no right to benefits. Well, that’s absurd. Ultimately, if we get all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, they’ll straighten it out.
But from a practical standpoint, even if we lose Pigeon v. Parker, Pigeon v. Turner, even if the city of Houston loses, there’s no impact because the mayor of Houston is going to continue to offer benefits. They possibly have a pyrrhic victory which says no you don’t have to offer benefits, and well say, no, we don’t have to offer them but we’re going to. Mayor Turner’s clear on that and we’ll go forward.
But I have no faith in the Texas Supreme Court. In fact, we have several really great candidates running statewide. One of our LGBT candidates is a local elected judge who’s running for the state Supreme Court for precisely this reason, that they are making these kinds of political decisions. But there’ll be no practical impact from it.
Blade: My last question is as someone how has been part of the movement for so many years, how would you evaluate the LGBT movement now? Is it stronger than it was, or is it more anemic?
Parker: Yes and no.
It’s stronger in the sense there’s so many more people, it’s broader and deeper and it’s really reflective of the vast diversity of our community across America, but it’s weaker in only one sense. And that is that we have made gains and there a lot of folks who felt we can lay our burden down, no, we got this, it’s going to go in the right direction, I can go do other things, I don’t have to show up and vote every time, I don’t have to send money to all these organizations, I don’t have to protest or write letters or do this. Yes you do.
So on the whole it is much stronger, but it’s different and the issues evolve, and how we have to address those issues evolved. And I’ll just close with we had a vote on Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance.
And to be clear, because the media gets this wrong all the time, we had no non-discrimination ordinance. We didn’t decide to add gender identity and sexual orientation. We had zero ordinance. So we wrote a comprehensive ordinance that included everybody, and when the citizens of Houston voted it down, we don’t have an ordinance that protects black people in Houston.
Everything about the anti-HERO vote was about men in women’s bathrooms, but what was interesting is the average age of voters was 68 years old. If the average age of voter in the city of Houston election had been 50, we would have won. If the average age of voter had been 35, they would have laughed it off the ballot.
I think we’re going to win the war. In fact, we’ve already won the war, but we lose a lot of battles between now and then, and we can’t take our foot off the pedal. All of the things we’ve been doing for the last 45 years since Stonewall basically throwing ourselves into the political process, showing up, voting, protesting when necessary, we still have to keep doing it.
It’s extremely frustrating, the HERO vote because of the low turnout. And young people, you absolutely got it, but they have to vote.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.