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.
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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 them vent, and then you go in there and you work with them,” she said. Over the course of her career Valdez worked as a federal corrections officer, as a government agent for the General Services Administration, for the Department of Agriculture, and finally for the Customs Service.
She retired to run for sheriff while corruption was dominating the headlines, hoping to restore the department’s public image and support the “whole bunch of individuals who’ve just been doing their jobs, doing what they’re supposed to,” she said. “Instead of standing around griping about it—because that’s what a lot of the community was doing, and I was part of that—I decided to get in there and do something.”
Emphasizing values like integrity and trust, her campaign targeted precincts that had supported women candidates in the past. Valdez and Chandler debated twelve times (“We didn’t know any better,” Valdez said of her novice campaign staff). The issue of her sexuality did not surface publicly until the last week before the election, when Chandler’s campaign joined forces with the Texas Eagle Forum to attack Valdez for having accepted the support of the Washington, D.C.—based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. What that support meant, Chandler charged in a mailer and in a public statement, was that Valdez would promote a gay agenda, and in particular gay civil rights legislation. (“Ms. Valdez’s personal lifestyle is her own business and should not enter into the race,” Chandler said in his statement. “The difference here is that she is promoting the endorsement of the Victory Fund.”)
The Victory Fund’s Web site does state that to gain its support, a candidate must “publicly endorse federal gay/lesbian civil rights legislation, and similar state and local anti-discrimination laws or legislation.” Even so, the last-minute attack smelled of desperation, an abject play for the homophobe vote. Valdez responded by saying that as sheriff she would not be in a position to influence legislation; her job would be to run the sheriff’s department, that is, to oversee a county law enforcement agency and a seven-thousand-inmate jail system. The majority of voters were undeterred by the specter of a gay agenda: Valdez won by 17,825 votes, out of 658,171 cast.
“I’ve always been honest about who I am,” Valdez said afterward, “but I never put it on a résumé.” When it comes to the subject of homosexuality, her real agenda seems to be to talk about it as little as possible. I mentioned Chisum’s bill to ban gay marriage: What was her opinion of it? “It has nothing to do with being sheriff,” she said. That answer might be evasive, but it’s also true—and practical. Presumably you don’t win allies in the Dallas County sheriff’s department by taking positions on gay marriage or any other political issue unrelated to law enforcement.
To judge by the numbers, there are some Dallas voters out there who disapprove of gay marriage but who would agree that the issue has nothing to do with running the sheriff’s department. Some 58 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage (though roughly 60 percent support civil unions), so it’s probable that many people who voted for Valdez likewise oppose it. While gay marriage is a divisive issue, in large part because it challenges religion-based ideas of what marriage is, there is no biblical injunction against gay law enforcement officials. In the absence of one, many voters in Dallas showed themselves to be open-minded.
Strong strains of live-and-let-live individualism and Bible Belt Christianity have long coexisted in Texas, and both strains are evident in how people here treat their gay neighbors and co-workers and family members. In coming years, Texas is likely to keep shifting, along with the rest of the country, toward greater tolerance. (Polls show that young Americans tend to support gay marriage.) Warren Chisum may well be able to get his superfluous anti-gay-marriage amendment on the ballot, and if so, it will probably pass, but Chisum won’t be on the winning side for long.
Meanwhile, Lupe Valdez has got other business on her mind, like how to win over the skeptics in her department. “The honeymoon lasts maybe twenty-four hours, if that,” she said. “If I would want any attention, I would want it on the fact that we want to bring humanity and integrity back into the whole system.”