The Reluctant Symbol

In December 2009, the fourth-largest city in America surprised the world by electing a lesbian mayor. Since then, the political landscape has shifted dramatically—making Annise Parker more important than ever 

By Mimi Swartz
Photograph: Dan Winters

No one who attended Annise Parker’s inauguration as mayor of Houston in January 2010 is likely to forget it. The 2,423-seat Wortham Theater Center was standing room only all the way to the crow’s nest, and when Parker crossed the stage with Kathy Hubbard, her partner of more than 20 years, the two women received a standing ovation. Both were dressed in sensible pantsuits—Parker’s was purple, Hubbard’s white—but the new mayor was radiant, from her frosted blond bob to her sensible heels. (Hubbard, ever the financial adviser, wore thick glasses and a somewhat stunned expression.) The chaste kiss they exchanged after the swearing-in—a long way from a lip-lock—would have started rumors of trouble between any straight couple but set this crowd aflame. It wasn’t just the large number of gays in the audience who were proud of themselves and their city; it was the straight crowd, too. Everyone there understood that the real Houston, the sophisticated place they knew and loved, was finally on display to the rest of the world—even if the rest of the world was amazed and befuddled that a town in Texaswas the first major American city to elect an openly gay leader.

But if her election was a breakthrough, Parker’s acceptance speech adhered closely to tradition. She’d never been given to public displays of emotion, and she wasn’t going to start now. Speaking in a low, firm voice, she graciously introduced members of her family, starting with her mom, then spent most of her time expressing gratitude to supporters and talking about how much work lay ahead. It wasn’t until the very end that she took special note of one particular group. “I want to speak now to those from my community, to those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,” she began, captivating the entire hall even as her voice dropped lower, gaining power at the same time. “I understand how much this day means. I feel your excitement and your joy, your apprehension and your longing for acceptance. I will gladly carry you forward.” Soon the crowd was on its feet, whooping and weeping at the same time.

It was impossible not to feel present at the beginning of something big. If a lesbian could be elected mayor of America’s fourth-largest city, political observers wondered how far left the country might swing. Then came the midterm elections, the trouncing of the Democrats and the country’s unmistakable political right turn, a shift that presumably boded ill for gay rights. And yet events suggest otherwise. In a cascade that marked 2010 as something of a landmark year, the military’s policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was ended, with eight Republican senators crossing the aisle to vote for repeal, and gay marriage gained traction, with a civil unions bill passed in Illinois and Proposition 8 struck down in California. And gay candidates had their most successful election ever. “We endorsed 164 candidates, and 107 were victorious,” says Denis Dison, vice president of external affairs at the Victory Fund, which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) candidates with money and political guidance. “The numbers show that 32 percent of Tea Party candidates were elected. Our success rate was 65 percent.”

First Published March 1, 2011

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