Deb Price | Houston Victory Ushers in the Future

Early in her victory speech, Houston Mayor-elect Annise Parker addressed the pink elephant in the joy-throbbing room, the history she’d just made as an openly gay candidate for the top office in America’s fourth-largest city.

“All right,” Parker said on Dec. 12, as her partner of nearly 19 years beamed at her side, “let’s get this out of the way. Here’s the announcement that you’ve been waiting for: I am proud, very proud, to have been elected the first, the very first graduate of Rice University to be mayor of Houston.”

Her supporters burst into laughter and cheers at what was a textbook moment for other aspiring lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender candidates. A little humor does indeed go a long way. But in this case, the humor carried with it some Texas-sized truth about why Parker won: Voters appreciated her deep Texas roots.

Parker was born and raised in Houston, graduated from Rice, worked 20 years in the oil and gas industry, then began a political career — serving six years on the City Council, then five as city controller, where she was in charge of billions of tax dollars and oversaw Houston’s investments.

As her campaign website put it, Parker has “Houston Hometown Values.”

Despite anti-gay mailings, she won a runoff against lawyer and political newbie Gene Locke, 53 percent to 47 percent. Denis Dison of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which helps elect gay candidates, predicts Parker’s triumph will “embolden out leaders to run for office and give young LGBT folks the courage to seek leadership positions while still living authentic lives.” Dison notes Parker always has been open in her campaigns about her sexual orientation.

Coinciding with Parker’s historic breakthrough — she’ll be the first openly gay person to lead such a large city — is other evidence that voters and heterosexual elected officials are growing more and more comfortable with gay people in public life:

— On Dec. 1, Atlanta voters elected the nation’s first openly lesbian African-American state legislator. Simone Bell — a community organizer — joins openly gay Rep. Karla Drenner in the Georgia House.

— Assemblyman John Perez, who is a gay Latino, was chosen unanimously by his Democratic colleagues on Dec. 10 to be the next speaker of the California Assembly. That’s a huge first in a trendsetting state.

— Democratic members of Congress polled by National Journal magazine ranked gay Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the all-important House Financial Services Committee, as their party’s “most creative thinker.”

These bright spots are consistent with polls showing widespread willingness to support gay candidates: Zogby America in August 2008 reported that 71 percent of Americans say they’d vote for a gay or lesbian candidate for the state legislature if that person “most shared your views on political issues.” Voters open to the idea included 59 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents.

Asked whether they would agree more with a person who said a gay candidate “does not share our values and would focus too much on gay issues” or with one who said “sexual orientation is not important to the job as long as the candidate has a strong record of getting things done for everyone in the community,” 72 percent chose the gay-friendly option. That majority included 61 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of independents.

On Election Night, Parker praised her big, dynamic hometown as a “city built on dreams.” She went on to describe it in language that also explains her own success: “Those dreams have always been powered by hard work, creativity, common sense and cooperation.”

What has the hard work of Annise Parker, proud mayor-elect of the biggest city in Texas, proven? Houston is, as she brags, “a city where the future has already arrived.”

Copyright 2009