Almost immediately after Annise Parker won the Houston mayor’s race last December, a new phrase started cropping up in the local lexicon of one-upmanship. “Kathy’s done my taxes for years,” I heard a pretty young woman brag in the balcony of the SRO Wortham Center the day of Parker’s inauguration. Later that week I heard the same refrain. “Kathy’s done my taxes for years,” a writer for the Houston Chronicle told me offhandedly. It is the kind of semi-subtle name-dropping that accompanies any political transition—and drives insiders of previous administrations batty—though in this case it carries just a bit more inner-city, in-the-know edge. Why? Because the tax consultant in question is Kathy Hubbard, who for nineteen years has been Parker’s life partner—and is now the city’s first gay first lady.
The names of Houston’s governing couple, in fact, have been on everyone’s lips since Parker became the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. The pair made news around the world on January 4, when they strode victoriously onstage holding hands for Parker’s swearing in: two beaming middle-aged women in pantsuits (Parker’s was a shimmery purple, Hubbard’s was white) who moved the crowd of thousands to its feet. The first couple made headlines in South America, Australia, Spain, and Japan, and probably other planets too. Leno picked up the news right after the election: “Houston became one of the largest cities to ever elect an openly lesbian mayor,” he cracked. “Finally, a woman in the news not accused of sleeping with Tiger Woods.” After it snowed in Houston on December 3, the pair also inspired Jon Stewart. “I know what happened,” he said. “Hell really did freeze over.” And so it went. Many Houstonians heard from other incredulous observers outside the state, receiving correspondence similar to an e-mail I got from a friend in Washington, D.C. “How did this happen???” she asked. “I don’t understand.”
Of course, if you lived in Houston, you did understand, and you found yourself hauling out the same tired saws about Houston that local boosters have been pushing for decades. Even Parker couldn’t avoid it, talking up the place to those reporters from Melbourne and the Basque Country: Houston is the fourth-largest city in the nation. Houston has one of the largest gay populations in the U.S. Houston is sophisticated and diverse; the fourteen-member city council features a Mr. Hoang, a Mr. Rodriguez, a Mr. Gonzalez, several black men and women, and a white lesbian, Sue Lovell, along with the assorted plain vanillas, and that’s not a particularly recent development. Because, above all, Houston is tolerant—except, maybe, for the last few bitter weeks of the election, when Parker’s opponent allowed surrogates to attack her sexual orientation, a plan that backfired big-time. The city has always been a place where no one cared where you came from, where you could do whatever you were big enough to do. “You just put your head down and you work hard,” Lovell told me, chalking Parker’s victory up to the Houston Way. “If you do that, you get the respect.” (Lovell did add, however, that she had cried all the way through Parker’s inaugural speech, “which was one of the biggest surprises, because nobody has ever seen me cry.”)
For someone who has made history, Parker herself is fairly sanguine about her new role. On the day we met in her office, two weeks into the mayor’s job, she looked like a person who was just where she wanted to be—her smile seemed a lot more relaxed and far less practiced than on the campaign trail—and she interrupted the interview only once, to take a call from one of her two adopted daughters to coordinate dinner plans. If Houstonians aren’t exactly fazed by having an openly gay official lead them, it has a lot to do with the years that she—and plenty of other gays—devoted to inoculating them. Parker, who is now 53, held office for twelve years before becoming mayor, first as a city councilwoman and then as controller, with Hubbard at her side all along. “There aren’t very many questions I haven’t been asked,” she told me. She has never hidden her sexual orientation—not even as a student at Rice University, when she was shunned in her dorm for being a lesbian—and she worked in the earliest, bloodiest trenches of Houston’s gay rights movement, when advocates got their tires slashed and routinely received death threats. In 1998, when Parker first joined the city council, she and Hubbard crossed a stage holding hands for the first time; it was then that the city’s protocol office thought to ask Parker how, exactly, it should refer to Hubbard. (The no-nonsense Parker chose the less than lyrical “life partner.”) As Parker proved herself to be a highly competent, trustworthy city official, people carped far less about her gayness than about her Rice geekiness.
Still, Parker’s new visibility is a far cry from her old days as city controller. “The onslaught of media was off the charts,” she told me about the first days after the election. “I couldn’t get anything done.” Not to mention the great many people around the city who now seem to think they know her on a first-name basis (former mayor Bill White never got that treatment) and the many more who want to ask her the kind of up-close-and-personal questions that venture into Barbara Walters territory. In fact, Parker’s election has raised all kinds of odd, almost antique queries in the public arena, thrusting Parker and Hubbard into a new social minefield they now must navigate—with, by the way, the whole world watching. Will Hubbard be called first lady? What special projects will she choose to champion? What kinds of PDAs can the populace expect at city events? Could Houston become a gay mecca for tourists? Is the My Gay Houston campaign, launched by the convention and visitors bureau right before the election, good news or bad news? (Or as a religious group called Boycott Houston asked,