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, planted in honor of one Velma McCandless. She played at Sue Barber until her death, at the age of 103.
Sue and Martha were both decked out in all pink, and they giggled when I asked if it was Pink Thursday at the bridge club. But when I expressed surprise that snapshots of the mayor were still posted on their wall, tacked up amid dot matrix printouts of bridge pairs’ point totals, they looked at me as though I’d come to rob their iced-tea fund.
“Well, we had a big tournament and he came,” said Sue. “He declared it Bridge Day and brought us a proclamation.”
“We had a lot of out-of-town people coming, so I said, ‘Call J. W.,’ ” said Martha. “He was always saying hello to visitors and asking them to come back.”
When I mentioned the out-of-town interest in the mayor’s sexuality, Sue spoke first.
“We didn’t care if he was.”
“I don’t think anybody knew for a fact,” added Martha. “There were thoughts that he was. But nobody cared. He was that effective a person.”
“Well, my husband would’ve cared,” said Sue, starting to laugh. “I mean, he’s a real redneck. But he voted for him anyway because he liked him. And after he found out, he still liked him. My grandchildren were teasing him the other night, ‘Well, Granddaddy, if you’d have known he was gay, would you have voted for him?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I guess I would’ve.’ ”
“I think he’s probably the best ambassador this city’s ever had,” said Martha.
“I think so too,” said Sue. “And I really think if he came back, it’d be fine.”
Joseph Wendel Lown was unlike any mayor San Angelo had ever seen. He first ran in 2003, at the age of 26, promising to serve full-time. That was unusual. San Angelo has a council-manager form of government, in which the city manager runs day-to-day operations. The mayor’s job, in fact, pays only $50 a month, and previous mayors had been either working men without his free time or retired men without his energy. But Lown didn’t need a job. He lived comfortably off of an inheritance from his parents, who’d both died before he turned 22, and oil and gas royalties secured by a great-grandmother, his namesake, Wendella Lown, a Swedish immigrant to San Angelo who had bought up area mineral rights with money she made selling chickens and eggs.
His mother, Alicia, was an immigrant too, from Mexico City, who met his father, George, while traveling with mutual friends in Vienna. Three days later they got engaged in Paris. Longtime San Angeloans recall the blond-haired Alicia looking as if she’d walked straight off a Neiman’s runway. But her Mexican blood kept her out of the Junior League, and she set out to make sure no such doors were closed to J. W. She had him load his lawn mower in the trunk of her Mercedes and put him to work in the old-money neighborhood where the Lowns lived. A strong golfer, he hung around the country club in high school, frequently getting invites to play with community leaders. The right people began to view him as a member of the family, and when he ran for mayor, they gave wholehearted support.
Once elected, he devoted every hour to the city. A close adviser said he attended 1,600 community events in his first year in office. He took notes when he met people, then quoted their concerns at council meetings. When he visited elementary schools, he didn’t always read to the kids because he said it made more sense to have them read to him. With the help of his political mentor and real-life godfather, D.C. lobbyist Mario Castillo, he arranged official visits by the European Union ambassador and the Texas Historical Commission. He made San Angelo feel important.
Though executive power lay expressly with the city manager, Lown used his high profile to push his priorities. He was fiscally conservative and socially libertarian and, if city officials were required to declare party affiliation, would almost certainly have registered Republican. He was a watchdog for the city’s half-cent sales tax, automatically skeptical of any expenditure that didn’t go to infrastructure or promotion of local business. Despite discovery of a couple puppy mills in town, he opposed an ordinance restricting the number of dogs people could own; he didn’t think the city should tell people how many pets they could have.
He was not without critics, however. Important members of the city establishment never did warm to him. A detractor I spoke with called him immature, power hungry, and—somewhat perplexingly—willing to spend too much time at the job. In fact, Lown recruited compatriots to run against establishment candidates, people like Charlotte Farmer, a retired bank manager who, on Lown’s strong endorsement, won 69 percent of the vote against a long-serving incumbent. Lown also had a widely known feud with police chief Tim Vasquez. The mayor had opposed his request for a third assistant chief, and Vasquez, according to insiders, had accused him of smoking marijuana. Lown took a drug test to clear his name, but Vasquez declined to comment when I brought it up. He did say, though, “There was a hard contrast between my conservative beliefs and his liberal beliefs.”
But all those accomplishments and criticisms became irrelevant when Lown fell in love. The young man (whose name has not been disclosed) had been in the U.S. for five years, and his immigration status wasn’t questioned when he enrolled at Angelo State University because he had graduated from a Texas high school. Working on a public-speaking project for a spring semester class, he’d been directed to the mayor by a mutual friend. By all accounts he was a remarkable person, not unlike a younger J. W., handsome, devoted to community service, and a fixture on the dean’s list. He was also a salsa instructor. The mayor, said by his sister to have flat feet, size 13, fell for him hard. In March, with the campaign in high gear, they started dating.
By then the town knew of Lown’s orientation. An unmarried 26-year-old running for office had not raised speculation. But a 32-year-old mayor who escorted his sister to city functions was probably gay. Judging from his increasingly large reelection margins, the city could have handled news of a boyfriend. But that the boyfriend was illegal was a whole other matter. Lown felt desperate. Ten days after another landslide victory, the two made their run for the border, leaving a letter of explanation on the mayor’s desk.
A day later, they were in Mexico, settling in for an indeterminate stay at an unnamed location and looking into getting Lown’s partner a visa—which, under current law, will take at least ten years. After a couple short phone interviews with San Angelo reporters and one with the Associated Press, Lown fell silent. He exchanged brief e-mails with me in the first weeks of his new life, then simply stopped responding.
Then in July, he called out of the blue. In a thoughtful, sonorous tone—his friends told me his voice, combined with his impeccable dress and prematurely gray hair, makes him seem innately statesmanlike—he explained what he would. “My partner was completely forthright with me about his status when we started. But I didn’t want to think about it. The Wednesday before the election, I confided in someone close to me, and the next morning he called and read me the immigration law. That scared me. The laws of our country are harsh for illegal immigrants. And I understand that. But same-sex couples don’t have the same benefits as heterosexual couples. Otherwise we could simply have a civil union and cure the problem. That’s not possible.”
He had tried to break it off that day but immediately had doubts. “I realized, ‘This is it.’ When you know, you know. So I spent the days before the swearing-in packing my house. And every time I put a book or an heirloom in a box, I asked myself, ‘Is this right?’ Neither of us knew until we crossed that border. I said, ‘If you want to turn back, we can. But then this cannot continue. I cannot take the oath of office to uphold the laws of this country and remain with you.’ ”
He called it a shame that he had had to choose between San Angelo and this man but said that when it came down to it, there was no choice. “I went seven years—it’s almost biblical—without being with someone. So I’d completely devoted myself to the city. I guess that was a way of coping. Or not coping. I’d just never met anyone that moved me.
“My partner is the only person who ever reached me. I didn’t know I could love someone in a personal way.”
Greg Gossett’s law office looks like they all do, a desk covered with files, shelves packed with casebooks, and walls filled with diplomas, licenses, and photos of the family. The only thing unexpected is a funky-looking exercise device on the floor in a corner. “When I was J. W.’s treasurer,” he told me one morning in May, “people would come drop off contributions, and occasionally, as they handed them to me, they’d say, ‘I heard he’s gay.’ ”
He asked if I’d read Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains. “It’s a book I reread every five years or so,” he said. “Webb makes the observation that in the West you have a conservative population of tolerant people. The environment is waterless, and everybody’s spread out, so you have to rely on your neighbors. Also, you know everybody. You’re always running into them. So people can’t afford to be judgmental. As long as you don’t get in somebody’s face, they’re fine with you.”
And so went San Angelo. Five weeks after Lown’s abdication, mayoral candidates were filing for the special election, and the city was moving on. Beauty shop talk had filled in holes in Lown’s story—some people pointed to the feud with Vasquez as a catalyst for his dramatic departure, others to a supremely unlikely love triangle—but by then the theories had been debunked and were rarely discussed. All they really proved was that a gay mayor falling for an illegal alien wasn’t sexy enough by itself. It was a difficult fact for an outsider to grasp.
“So let me ask you this,” I said to Lown when we spoke. “Did you leave so suddenly because you had a gay problem or an immigration problem?”
“It was an immigration problem. A legal problem.”
“So you could have been the gay mayor of San Angelo? In the open? With a partner?”
“I was the gay mayor of San Angelo,” he said, sounding surprised I’d even ask. “What are you talking about?”