Out and About

The social politics of being the first openly gay mayor of Texas’s largest city.

March 2010By Comments

FIRST LADIES: Annise Parker (right) celebrating her victory with her partner, Kathy Hubbard, on December 12, 2009.

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, “Do you want a Texas version of San Francisco?”)

The hazards of this uncharted territory became clear as soon as Parker declared her candidacy. Many of the big power brokers in town, who had supported Parker in the past, backed off because they didn’t believe a lesbian could win. (“How many elections do I have to win before I become electable in Houston?” joked Parker, who had already claimed victories in three races for city council and three for controller.) At the same time, Parker had a contingent of loyal supporters who believed she couldn’t win without an extreme makeover. All women who run, not just gay ones, experience this, but anxiety over Parker’s fashion sense sometimes sounded like anxiety over her homosexuality. Parker is pretty, but she would never be confused with a Best Dressed List contender. Suddenly, people wanted her to wear more-feminine suits. They wanted her to wear more makeup. They wanted her to ditch her sturdy, sensible shoes. (“Not gonna happen,” one of her campaign aides told a friend of mine who had proffered that advice.) Even when Parker did get dolled up, there was talk: Lesbians generally have an easier time flying under the radar than gay men, but the fact that both Parker and Hubbard wore pantsuits to the inauguration was seen as a way to deflect curiosity about who was the boss in the relationship.

Then there were issues of physical contact. Former mayors Bill White and Bob Lanier were inordinately popular, but neither was ever a symbol; Parker, on the other hand, required heightened security because, along with those who might pose a danger to her, there are those who want to come close, to touch, to whisper words of thanks. During the election, she had to ask her security guys to ease up. As she told a local gay publication, “Especially for people who have been very wounded, it makes it very special and very real to be able to touch me.” Other touching was more controversial: A straight couple can hold hands and kiss in public and no one notices; the chaste cheek kiss between Parker and Hubbard after the mayor was sworn in was front-page news. If the same kiss had passed between John and Cindy McCain, it would have been interpreted as a sure sign of trouble. And would Parker and Hubbard boogie together at the concert at Discovery Green the night of the inauguration? The answer: No, though the famously shy Parker did dance to “Tighten Up” alongside Archie Bell.

These are only the first of a great many changes, and a lot more scrutiny, that Parker and Hubbard will have to get used to going forward. Thanks to the attention they’ve attracted around town, Parker has learned the hard way to give in to the constant presence of her new security detail. “Kathy and I went to Costco, and I couldn’t get anything done,” Parker told me. “She’s the one going to the store now.” As for Hubbard, no one knows yet whether having a gay first lady will be a plus, a minus, or neither, and some of that will depend on Hubbard herself, who is by all accounts warm and genuine, though, like Parker, a bit reserved. It’s also true that the demands of Parker’s job may put more domestic pressures on her partner, leaving Hubbard with less time to cut ribbons, host teas, or welcome LGBT conventions, should they recognize the benefits of Houston.

It helps, however, that in Houston there have never been a lot of rules governing the behavior of first couples, at least in recent memory. Years ago, partners were just invisible: “Houston’s new mayor, Jim McConn, was inaugurated Tuesday in the presence of four predecessors. From left are Neal Pickett and wife, Lewis Cutrer and wife, Fred Hofheinz, Mrs. McConn and McConn,” noted a Houston Chronicle photo caption in 1978. Kathy Whitmire, who took office as Houston’s first female mayor in 1982 and served until 1991, was a widow, though she did wind up dating some pretty hot-looking men. During the Bob Lanier years, from 1992 to 1998, his wife, Elyse, brought a Reaganesque glamour to the role, initiating beautification projects, hosting spectacular events, and launching a national PR campaign to boost Houston’s positive profile. Loved and feared, she kept an office at city hall and served as her husband’s most trusted adviser. (As one wag noted, “Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., provided an office for his wife, but he was also smoking crack cocaine.”) In contrast, Lee Brown’s wife, Frances, an educator, wanted nothing to do with her husband’s administration, preferring to focus on her work for the city school district. (She frequently cited the children of Houston as more important than politics.) As a mom and attorney turned full-time novelist, Bill White’s counterpart, Andrea, limited her scope, concentrating mostly on schools and literacy, as well as a program called We’re All Neighbors, which brought diverse groups of Houston women together.

In other words, the definition of public roles is for the taking, though few believe that Hubbard will be asked to apply her financial skills to the city’s looming money problems. “Kathy Hubbard should be as involved as she wants to be,” Elyse Lanier advised when we spoke in January. “What keeps you out of trouble is to stay away from areas you aren’t supposed to be in, unless the mayor wants your help in those areas.” She added, “The best role is to be supportive of your spouse.”

For gay couples, of course, that is easier said than done. Parker won by 55.6 percent but with a 16.5 percent turnout in a runoff, which isn’t exactly a groundswell. On the other hand, there’s no reason to think she’ll put her private life in a closet just because she has become a more visible elected official, choosing instead to telegraph that she is comfortable with who she is—and that everyone else should be too. Compared with previous (and sometimes crazy) controllers and other people on the (often crazy) Houston City Council, her demeanor has always been exemplary. Back in 2000, when one council member was busted for having an affair with another council member’s wife, Parker and Hubbard were known as the most stable couple in that group. They raised their children well, they were fiscally responsible, they volunteered in their community—attentive to neighborhood, not just gay, issues—and they dressed like churchgoing Republicans. Or as her political consultant Grant Martin put it: “If Annise had been a straight white male, she would have been the dream candidate of the Houston business establishment.”

In a way, the questions about Parker and her partner say less about the two of them than about those—many of whom live far, far from Houston—doing the asking. Like other gay women in public life, Parker has spent a lifetime knowing which lines to cross and which to avoid. “In her subtle, brainy way,” commented one gay man who has long been part of the city’s art scene, “she has never made the personal public.” Besides, her plate is already more than full: She’s got to hire a new fire chief and police chief pronto, as well as face down a looming fiscal crisis that no one thinks is going to be pretty. Parker knows that the better she is at her job, the quicker people will forget about issues that are, after all, peripheral. “For Houstonians, it’s about getting the trash picked up,” she said. Sooner or later, maybe the rest of the world will feel the same way.

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