The Gay Non-Issue

The Legislature may push a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage—never mind that it’s already illegal—but the election of a lesbian sheriff in Dallas County says a lot more about the new politics of sexual orientation in Texas.

LUPE VALDEZ WOULD RATHER NOT TALK about it anymore. After she won the race for Dallas County sheriff in November, she was deluged with calls and requests for interviews. Everyone from the New York Times and National Public Radio to, well, Texas Monthly wanted to know how Valdez, a Democrat and a lesbian, had managed to get elected to do what seemed like a good old boy’s job—and this in an election cycle that saw Republicans prevail nationally and anti-gay-marriage amendments pass in eleven states.

By mid-November she’d had about enough of these interviews. “We’re trying to be polite, but we’ve got to stop doing them pretty soon,” she said. “I really need to get to work.” Though she wouldn’t take office until January, she’d already moved into an empty room in the sheriff’s department—a drab warren in the basement of a county courts building—so that she could start to learn how to run a 1,785-person law enforcement agency. For its sheriff to be Hispanic, female, and gay “is a little different image than they’ve had before,” she said, “but what does that have to do with the ability to lead?”

Her victory might not have been big news had it happened in a more liberal city like Austin (where Margo Frasier,  also gay, just stepped down as Travis County sheriff), and it might not have drawn much attention had the 2004 elections produced gains for Democrats and gays nationwide. But this was a year when one vague exit poll question planted the notion that an unprecedented number of voters preoccupied by “values” had reelected President George W. Bush and that these values had something to do with opposing abortion and gay rights. (This exceedingly blurry notion persisted despite the fact that no one knew which values the poll respondents might have had in mind.)

In Texas, gay people have long met with disrespect and worse, and this was still the case in the fall of 2004. Two men kissing on the grounds of the state capitol were ordered to desist by Department of Public Safety officers, who told them that “homosexual conduct is against the law in Texas.” Gay marriage continues to be a live political issue. In November Terri Leo, a member of the State Board of Education, insisted that sentences be added to middle-school health textbooks defining marriage as between a man and a woman. And state representative Warren Chisum, a repeat author of anti-gay legislation, introduced a bill that would amend the state constitution to define marriage as “the union of one man and one woman,” though marriage is already so defined in Texas law.

Valdez’s win ran counter to all that. Hers was the kind of story journalists love— who would have thought?—and a reminder of how far our society has shifted, in a very short period of time, in the direction of acknowledging and respecting gays and lesbians. Even in Texas. Eleven states may have passed anti-gay-marriage amendments, but George Bush himself suggested that he wouldn’t oppose civil unions if they were approved by the states, and Lupe Valdez won. Could a lesbian have been elected Dallas County sheriff twenty years ago? Ten years ago?

In fact, Valdez’s atypical profile probably helped her with some voters. Dallas has seen a little too much good-old-boyism recently: The previous sheriff, Jim Bowles, was investigated after granting a jail food-service contract to a friend and then charged with transferring campaign funds to personal accounts. The indictment was later dismissed, but Bowles lost in the Republican primary to Danny Chandler. In her campaign against Chandler, a 29-year department veteran, Valdez argued that the department needed an outsider to restore its integrity, and the Dallas Morning News agreed, endorsing her. She also benefited from the fact that Dallas County has grown more Hispanic and more Democratic in recent years, relative to its conservative past. Bush beat John Kerry in the county but by a slight margin: 50.3 percent to 49 percent.

Valdez is 57, her demeanor calm and straightforward. Shifting demographics and the sheriff’s department scandal may have boosted her chances of winning, but in person it’s clear that she had another advantage: She immediately seems trustworthy. A career law enforcement officer—most recently an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security—Valdez takes in stray dogs, devotes her vacations to community service projects, and makes a spare room in her house available to children from other countries who come to Dallas for medical treatment. If people could vote for their neighbors, she’d be elected all over the place.

The youngest of eight children of migrant workers, Valdez recalls sleeping on the backseat ledge of the car as her family drove from farm to farm, where they picked green beans and beets. When she was eight, her mother decided that the family would settle down, on San Antonio’s West Side, so that her two youngest could go to school. One of Valdez’s junior high teachers advised her that if she wanted to attend college, she’d be better off going to high school across town, and Valdez followed that advice, taking two buses every day to Thomas Jefferson High School. There, she was the only one who came to class with muddy shoes, because the streets in her neighborhood were unpaved, and often the only one who’d never heard of things the other kids had been taught in lower grades. “I was a C student, and I worked to be a C student. I had so much catching up to do,” she said.

Evidently she benefited from that early training in how to adapt to an alien environment. She went on to college in Oklahoma, then joined the Army Reserve—where she remembers being one of fifteen or so women in a several-thousand-person tank battalion—and later became a corrections officer, where she was again one of a handful of women. Typically, some of her male colleagues would protest at first that they didn’t know how to work with a woman. “I just let

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