Voters Shunning Gay Rights--But Supporting Gay Candidates

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Dec 28, 2009

Recent high-profile setbacks to marriage equality in places perceived to be liberal (New York, Maine) has been countered by the election of an openly gay woman to the mayorship of Houston, Texas. The reasons? Gay candidates have the capacity for personal connection--and when relationships become personal, stereotypes fade away.

That sense of personal relationship doesn't exist for voters when they head to the ballot box to vote on social issues like, well, relationships.

It's a seeming contradiction that was the subject of a Dec. 27 article in the New York Times on the victory of Annise Parker, who patiently and carefully built her political career--and her political connections--to win the mayoral race in Houston, despite efforts from anti-gay organizers to derail her campaign.

The article noted that in 2005, 75% of voters cast their vote for an amendment to the state's constitution designed to take marriage equality out of the reach of gay and lesbian families, and yet not only did Parker win in Houston this year, but gay and lesbian candidates also emerged triumphant from electoral battles in Dallas County, Austin, and Fort Worth, as well as in Houston.

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund keeps tabs on GLBT candidates, defeats, and successes; the group says that across the country there are 445 openly gay or lesbian officeholders, perhaps more. In 2001, that number stood at 257.

Some of those gains took place this year; even as gay families saw a punishing legal trend against them continue, gay and lesbian candidates took office in Detroit, in Atlanta, and in Akron, Ohio.

But the success of referendums on marriage equality may not constitute the referendum on gay Americans that some conservative religious and social groups suggest they do. "Gay marriage ballot measures are not the best measure," Now York University political scientist Patrick J. Egan told the New York Times. "They happen to be about the one issue the public is most uncomfortable with. In a sense, they don't give us a real good picture of the opinion trend over the last 30 years."

That trend has been far more accepting of gay individuals than of gay families, and increasing openness on the part of GLBT Americans--at work, to their families, and in society at large--has been a key factor.

"More and more people have been coming out," University of Texas political scientist Sean Theriault told the Times. "Ten years ago, you could talk to a lot of people who didn't know a single gay person, and now, especially in the cities, you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't know anyone who is gay."

But being gay--especially as a political candidate--doesn't mean presenting oneself according to that one label. The Times reported that Parker was always open about her sexuality, but she also never sought to define her campaign or her politics according to that one factor. Rather, Parker focused on the issues that a wide cross-section of voters wanted to hear about: fiscal matters, for example, or crime.

When voters have a sense of the person, the article said, then stereotypes fall away; voters were not voting for gay issues when they voted for Parker. They were voting for Parker.

The article gave another example from Texas, that of Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, who came under attack for being openly lesbian. Her opponent sought to tar her with claims of a "gay agenda," but that didn't stop her from winning the office in 2004--the same year that saw George W. Bush elected for a second term. Her opponent's anti-gay strategy failed, the article pointed out, because Lupe, taking advice offered by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, simply acknowledged that she was a lesbian, noted that she'd never made a secret of it, and, in essence, said, "So what?" Voters agreed.

In 2008, Valdez stuck to the issues and handily won re-election. "It's like anything else," she noted. "When it becomes close and personal, it's not hateful anymore."

Parker's victory prompted Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson to liken her victory to that of Barack Obama, as the country's first black president, calling both electoral triumphs "mature moment[s] of Americans judging individual people of color and homosexuals by the content of their politics" in a Dec. 15 article.

Added Jackson, "Not yet answered is whether America is ready to let such figures use their office to remediate the economic and education disparities and the civil rights gaps that still bedevil people of color and gay and lesbian people in general."

Jackson noted, "Because of the conundrum, Parker crafted her message to deep-six strong passions on issues that could be construed as identity politics. That is similar to what Obama told me as a candidate in 2007 when I asked him how hard would he push Congress to repeal the vast disparities in federal sentencing for crack vs. powdered cocaine. Those disparities have unfairly imprisoned tens of thousands of nonviolent African-American offenders."

Added Jackson, "It is a political prison in which white and straight privilege is taken for granted while equality for others is still derided as special pleading."

Even TIME Magazine ran a piece on Parker's win, claiming that it "shatter[ed] all manner of clich├ęs about Texas, lesbians and politics in the Old South."

Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson declared, "The fact that an openly gay candidate wins for mayor in the nation's fourth largest city, in the South, in Texas, shows that when Americans get to know gay people as people, not as stereotypes, their resistance to treating gay people equally reduces."

But Parker's political skill and the care with which she set about creating ties of local allegiance, the article suggested, had far more to do with her win than any aspect of her personal life. "Indeed, Parker's victory may come down to that old adage: all politics is local," the TIME article said.

But that's okay: it means that gay politicians, like their straight counterparts, might increasingly expect to win their races based on little more than their ability to articulate a message. TIME quoted GLBT equality advocate Todd Hill, who remarked on Burnt Orange Report, a political blog, "I don't believe that Parker's victory gives life to wider LGBT agenda initiatives. But I do believe that her election gives momentum toward qualified, experienced and politically savvy gay candidates running for public office."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • BB, 2009-12-29 08:46:02

    "The reasons? Gay candidates have the capacity for personal connection--and when relationships become personal, stereotypes fade away." Yes, that would be typical Melloy "logic." It could never possibly be about the fact that the winning candidates were perceived to be better qualified for the job, DESPITE THEIR SEXUAL ORIENTATION. With liberal zealots like this author, it’s always about his issues. Mayor-elect Parker seemed to the intelligent citizens of Houston to be more qualified to RUN THE CITY OF HOUSTON. She was not elected because she’s a Lesbian and the city wanted to "send a message" to the world.

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