When San Angelo mayor J. W. Lown , age 32, abruptly left office in mid-May, no-showing the swearing-in ceremony for his fourth term and announcing a day later that he had left Texas to be with a lover in Mexico, the easy first comparison was to King Edward VIII. Of course, the Depression-era scandal involving the eventual Duke of Windsor—he gave up England’s throne after falling for a then-married, already once-divorced American socialite—has long seemed like a relic of its time. Lown’s situation offered a significant update: His paramour was a man. And the man happened to be a twenty-year-old college student from Mexico who was living in the U.S. illegally. News outlets around the world, most of which first learned there even was a San Angelo during last year’s FLDS scandal, quickly took note of this latest incident of West Texas quirk. The New Zealand Herald picked up the story from England’s Observer and gave it the headline “Gay Mayor’s Illicit Love Is Talk of Conservative Texas.” Jay Leno cracked that the mayor should have known something was amiss when he picked up his boyfriend for dates “and the guy would jump in the trunk.”
But a funny thing was happening on the way to the News of the Weird section. Though San Angelo found itself squarely in the role of jilted bride stranded at the altar, the city did not respond with outrage, homophobic or otherwise. As comments leaped to the San Angelo Standard-Times Web site, a kinder sentiment emerged: “My sincere wishes for peace are with J. W.” “Just pray whoever takes his place does as good a job as he has. I really liked him.” And the posts came in a proportion that matched Lown’s 89 percent share of the electorate just ten days before. To be sure, the citizenry was upset to have been left in a mayorless lurch, and the suddenness of his departure was characterized as unfortunate in the charitable posts. But as for the presumably salacious elements of the story, local lawyer Greg Gossett, a board member of an evangelical missionary group called the Gospel Vision Foundation—and, by the way, the treasurer for each of Lown’s campaigns—referred to the city’s response in an interview with the Texas Observer as “a big yawn.”
City council member Dwain Morrison was one of those yawning, not that he didn’t believe the city had a crisis on its hands. He’s a retired fence builder and Church of Christ lay preacher, and at an emergency city council meeting held the day after Memorial Day, he took a hard-line stance on dealing with Lown’s departure. But his misgivings were about the prospect of appointing a new mayor, and his impassioned plea was for a special election. Notably absent from his speech was any reference to Lown’s sexuality. The number of concerned citizens in attendance was interesting also: exactly two.
I asked Morrison to show me his city a few days later. At first blush he is precisely the kind of person that the foreign press—any reporter from a town with a population greater than San Angelo’s 95,000—would expect to find here. He made news last year when, after a council-meeting invocation offered by a local Muslim, he stressed that he had prayed “in the name of Jesus Christ.” And when I met him for the tour in my hotel parking lot, he was combing his wide, gray cowlick in the reflection provided by the tinted windows of his car, an immaculately restored garnet-red 1969 Camaro.
He drove us to his district, just north of downtown, a heavily industrial area that he proudly called the poor side of town. “We’ve always been the ninth pup on an eight-faucet mama,” he said. He showed off old Lake View High School, where his father had graduated in 1948, he in 1968, and his three sons beginning in 1990. Then he stopped in front of the new middle school.
“This is one of them projects J. W. helped me out on. We had a road this wide”—he held up his fingers about an inch apart—“without curbs or guttering. Cars were driving back and forth while folks were dropping kids off, and it was the most dangerous thing in the world.” With Lown’s help, he worked a three-way, $125,000 deal with the state, the city, and the school district. The street was widened, sidewalks were added, and the kids were made safe.
As we rolled past Morrison’s church, he addressed Lown’s situation. “We all suspected he was gay, but he never flaunted it, so there was just no reason to consider it. Now, I’m totally opposed to that lifestyle because I do believe in Romans 1. I think it’s an abomination in the eyes of God. But whether you’re misbehaving with the cabana boy or the widow woman down the street, it’s all wrong. And many things I do are abominations in His eyes. So I’m not judging it. I don’t like the way J. W. left us high and dry. That was irresponsible. But I tell you what, he really was a good friend of mine.”
It was the same reaction I found throughout the city, from a pair of young nurses experimenting with jalapeño margaritas one evening at the new popular eatery in town to a trio of retired gentlemen enjoying morning coffee at the IHOP.
Thursday afternoon I visited the Sue Barber Bridge Center, home to one of the city’s numerous bridge clubs. It’s a small, white cinder-block shoe box, occupied after lunch, seven days a week, by up to forty ladies, all die-hard duplicate bridge players. Thursday’s session had just ended when I arrived, and the two women remaining, Sue Henry and Martha Godbey, were unable to explain to me what duplicate bridge was. But Sue called it “mean bridge,” and Martha called it “zero-tolerance bridge.” To understand the wonderfulness of those descriptions, you’d need to know that there is a single tree standing in the center’s front yard,