Fallen barrier, little fanfare

Our view: For results-oriented voters in Houston, an openly gay mayor is no big deal

December 15, 2009

On Saturday, Houston Controller Annise Parker soundly defeated attorney Gene Locke in that city's mayoral election in a campaign that centered on the budget, public safety and other perennial issues of municipal governance. As far as Houston voters are concerned, the election marked a milestone because Ms. Parker managed to defeat the candidate favored by the city's business establishment. Now she's at work finding ways to solidify city finances and looking for a new police chief.

You may have heard about this election for another reason: Ms. Parker is gay. Much is being made of that now - of the odd circumstance of the election of an openly gay candidate in a city that has rejected giving benefits to the same-sex partners of city workers, in a state that has outlawed gay marriage, and at a time when gay-rights issues are facing an uphill struggle even in liberal states like Maine, New York and New Jersey.

Ms. Parker's election probably doesn't mean that Texas is about to change its ways as far as gay rights go any time soon. Voters interviewed by the Houston Chronicle said it was her experience that put her over the top and that sexual orientation had nothing to do with it. She spent six years on the city council and another six as city controller, during which she built a reputation as a policy wonk. Though she got her start in politics as a gay-rights advocate in the 1980s and never concealed her sexual orientation or her same-sex partner of 19 years, she stayed away from making sexual politics a signature issue. She's no Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco city supervisor who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California in 1977 and then pushed through a landmark gay rights ordinance before his assassination a year later. Mr. Milk became the poster boy for gay political empowerment; by contrast, on most issues Ms. Parker's platform was virtually identical to that of her opponent in the race.

Voter turnout was extremely low - under 20 percent - in the run-off election against Mr. Locke, a fellow Democrat Gene Locke, an African-American lawyer and business lobbyist who styled himself as tough on crime. Though some of his supporters tried to rally Republicans and social conservatives against Ms. Parker's candidacy because she is a lesbian, the attempt fell flat - a sign that most people didn't really care whether their mayor was gay.

In the end, that may be a more important development than any of the recent high-profile defeats for gay marriage at the ballot box and in state legislatures. People may get riled up about the hot-button political issues like gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, but the more their actual experience with gay people becomes routine, the harder it will be to drum up that kind of passionate opposition. Houston voters decided that having a gay mayor is no big deal; perhaps one day they - and the rest of the nation - will think the same about gay marriage as well. Readers respond I live in Houston and confirm that city finances were the issue. Yet the national media is only covering the "gay issue." FayeJ Just because we here in Texas support candidates based on their qualifications and experience instead of their sexual orientation does not mean we don't also support gay rights. Things are changing in Texas for gays and lesbians. Ms. Parker's election proves just that. Jane Vieu If Ms.Parker does a good job, she could have an even greater positive impact on gay and lesbian rights, influencing the public to rethink discriminatory policies. Caravan

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