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Houston's Parker scores big as lesbian mayor of a sports town
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman

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HOUSTON—Her third-floor office, here in downtown, is about a five-minute drive from Minute Maid Park, home stadium for the Houston Astros—and this city's new mayor, Annise Parker, definitely is a baseball fan. It's probably her favorite sport, although she admits she doesn't get to as many Astros' games as she'd like to.

Parker, an admitted sports fan, was a season-ticket holder for the entire run of the WNBA's Houston Comets, from 1997-2008. This sports town is known as Clutch City for its NBA Rockets, and the Houston Dynamo won back-to-back Major League Soccer titles in 2006 and 2007.

So who better to analyze the LGBT scene in the four major men's sports—baseball, football, basketball and hockey—than Parker, who watched in late 2009 as Houston became the largest city in America to elect an openly gay mayor.

"It will happen, and that will be another huge milestone. [ Sports ] is a huge closet that we really haven't breached, yet," she said.

But when, in five years?

"No doubt, a major active player [ will come out while still active ] ," Parker said.

And he'll come out on his own, not someone outing him.

"I think someone being outed doesn't really count because this is about us being open and honest about our lives, not being forced to reluctantly come out. We need role models, and anyone who is forced out of the closet," is not a willing role model, she said.

And if not from one of the big four sports, certainly a male player from the huge, worldwide soccer scene.

"I think some major soccer stars will come out in the very near future," she said. "I don't know enough about the culture of hockey; I [ also ] wouldn't be surprised to see some baseball players [ come out while active. ] ."

Such news truly would be ground-breaking and, she jokes, "it will take me off the front-page, which is great."

Parker added: "It would be huge because then [ sports ] would be another milestone that we can mark off."

Parker, 53, certainly knows about groundbreaking milestones. She is, after all, a budding legend, joining a small group of openly gay U.S. mayors that includes the leaders in Providence, R.I.; Portland, Ore.; and Cambridge, Mass.

The mayors of Paris and Berlin also are openly gay.

Less than three weeks after being inducted, Parker sat down for an exclusive, wide-ranging interview that spanned the LGBT scene. She was opinionated and charming, with a Texas accent mixed in.

"We're still transitioning; there's a lot of stuff going on," she said.

No doubt. Parker's election caused a worldwide media blitz after she was sworn in Jan. 2, with her partner ( Kathy Hubbard ) and three adopted children ( two daughters, one son ) nearby. She was the media topic in Japan, Australia, South America and India.

"It didn't occur to me that [ being elected ] would have that kind of global reach.

I could see it being a big deal in the United States, and it clearly had an impact in this region. But it just never occurred to me that people [ around the world ] would have been interested," Parker said. "What an awesome responsibility."

"Sure, [ my election ] is a significant event, but it's just one more milestone, and we're on our way to a future where we stop counting these milestones because we should be integrated into a larger [ picture ] society," said Parker, who defeated former city attorney Gene Locke with 53.6 percent of the vote in a race that had a turnout of only 16.5 percent.

Gay marriage

"We shouldn't judge the success of our movement on what happens with these marriage initiatives," she said. "I have been out for close to 40 years, and have seen tremendous number of changes and great progress for our community. The way that we have achieved most of that progress is by individuals stepping up and stepping out, living their lives openly and honestly. Some of what we've achieved, we've achieved through the direct political process—and that's why it's important that we have open gays and lesbians in political office. But it's more important to have individuals living their own lives openly and honestly. The issue of marriage is so culturally fretted, so tied to [ the ] politics of the church, issues of faith, contract laws, and so many other things that I just think we need to re-focus on the successes we have had in domestic partner benefits, in job protection, in non-discrimination ordinances that, to me, it's more important to knock off [ the ban on ] gays in the military."

Parker was asked on the campaign trail if she was going to personally get involved with trying to change the gay marriage situation in Texas. However, Texas lost a ballot initiative on the matter, so it would require a vote of all the citizens of Texas—"and I'm just much more focused on what I can do in my own city," she said.

"I certainly support full marriage equality, but it's not the highest thing on my personal political agenda," Parker said. "I have other responsibilities that, as mayor, must attend to first."

U.S. military: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

" [ Gays ] should have full rights to serve," Parker said. "The infamous gay agenda [ is ] : we want to get married and we want to serve in the military; how mainstream is that.

"I frankly have not been able to pay much attention to it. I certainly felt that the President made a commitment to over-turning [ Don't Ask, Don't Tell ] , and he needs to follow through on that commitment. But I don't know where it is [ toward happening ] ."

So has President Barack Obama been slow repealing the military's ban on openly gay individuals being allowed to serve?

"I have great sympathy for him because I haven't [ yet ] been on the job for three weeks, and I'm swamped, getting whacked by a lot of folks who want to know why I haven't done, this, this and this," she said.

But it will happen, in time, she said. Especially since the U.S. has to catch up to the militaries of the rest of the world, she added. "It's something that's past time to happen," Parker said.

Anti-gay trail

Parker endured limited anti-gay attacks during the mayoral race, which surprised her.

The ugliest attacks came from a group of Black pastors who spoke out against her for what they called her gay agenda, and two separate anti-gay advocates who sent out fliers in the mail calling attention to her support from gay groups and to her relationship with her partner. Her opponent denied having anything to do with the attacks.

"I fully expected to have some anti-gay attacks during the campaign," she said.

Victory Fund

Parker's alliance with the pro-LGBT Victory Fund dates back 15 years, and it certainly was helpful in the 2009 election, she admits.

The Victory Fund came to the aide of Parker's campaign with money and volunteers to staff telephone banks in a get-out-the-vote effort.

"The Victory Fund was a help," she said. "It was more important when I ran 12 years ago." In 1997, Parker prevailed in the runoff election to City Council, becoming Houston's first openly gay elected official.

"In an odd way, it was almost like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that an independent, third-party group had vetted me as a candidate and decided that I was worthy, and then contacted their members in the Houston region, and their financial contributions were very important.

"They were a big part of my fundraising base, but it wasn't the critical element.

"The Victory Fund certainly was, and is, extremely helpful and I value their support, and am grateful to them for it."

Parker's ties to the Victory Fund date back to 1994.

Today, there are more than 750 openly gay appointed and elected officials in North America, such as Parker. Yet, when she first aligned with the Victory Fund, "that number was very small," she said. "We knew where we wanted to go, but we couldn't imagine how fast we would have made some of these advances that we have made."

And progress not just in politics, Parker noted, using lesbian Ellen DeGeneres, who was named as a judge on the popular FOX-TV show American Idol as an example.

Times, they sure have changed.

"We're still at the stage of marking milestones, and we've made amazing progress. If we consider the birth of the modern gay-rights movement to be Stonewall in 1969. In 40 years, we've made huge progress," Parker said.

"We're not going to give up on the marriage issue; we're not going to give up on serving in the military; we're not going to give up on full employment equality; we're not going to give up on our rights to adopt children. Those are non-negotiable things, and we'll get there."

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