Houston mayor race shows progress - and limits - of gay rights

Annise Parker, who is openly gay, was elected mayor of Houston Saturday. It makes Houston the largest US city to elect a gay or lesbian mayor.

Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle/AP
Houston Mayor-elect Annise Parker celebrates her election victory during her runoff election night watch party at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Saturday.

By electing Annise Parker mayor Saturday, Houston became the largest city in the United States to elect an openly gay candidate. More broadly, however, the city threw into sharp relief the conflicted – though not necessarily contradictory – stance that defines many Americans’ attitudes toward the gay and lesbian community.

Houston chose Ms. Parker, the city controller, over Gene Locke, a former city attorney, with 53 percent of the vote. Yet, in the past, Houston has voted against extending benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian members of the city government. And Texas has outlawed gay marriage.

The distinction neatly sums up the American mood. As gays and lesbians become broadly accepted in society and politics, that acceptance is marked by a firm boundary beyond which voters do not yet appear willing to cross: same-sex marriage.

Sexuality not an issue

Saturday’s election is clearly a historic moment for the gay and lesbian community, particularly in a conservative state like Texas. Sexual orientation played virtually no role in the campaign – the exception being some mailers and e-mails sent from social conservatives near the end of the race.

Though she emerged as a gay rights campaigners in the 1980s, Parker ran a race based solely on her experience as controller, saying she was the savviest choice to lead the city out of recession.

"This is about the best person for the job, period," taxi driver Arthur Berry told The Wall Street Journal. "I could care less if she is a lesbian. She has the right experience."

A poll by the Houston Chronicle found that 77 percent of respondents didn’t care about Parker’s sexuality.

In some respects, Harris County – which includes virtually all of Houston – does not align perfectly with typical Texas politics. In the 2008 presidential election, it gave Barack Obama 19,000 more votes than Sen. Jon McCain – this in a state where Senator McCain won by 950,000 votes. Moreover, both candidates in Saturday’s nonpartisan election were Democrats.

A victory of degree

Yet the victory for the gay and lesbian community is a victory only of degree. Other large cities – such as Providence, R.I., and Portland, Ore. – have elected gay mayors. Houston is merely the most populous.

In no state, however, have voters ever sanctioned gay marriage. In some cases, there have been victories of degrees. Most recently, Washington State in November voted to extend benefits to same-sex couples. Yet on the same day – in a far more symbolic vote – Maine defeated a ballot to allow same-sex marriage.

The defeat was particularly chastening because New England includes four of the five states where gay marriage is legal (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut – the fifth is Iowa). In each of those states, though, gay marriage has been instituted by legislative vote or legal decree. Maine was expected to be the first to establish legal gay marriage by popular vote.

The mustering of conservative church groups to defeat the measure was seen as decisive. "It's something very core to what a lot of people believe," the Rev. Bob Emrich of Newport old the Portland Press Herald. "We probably will never know how much was done in small, rural communities in churches."


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