Houston's stereotype-breaking election
Some of the media coverage of the Houston mayoral race took a bit of a man-bites-dog tone. Houston? The one in Texas? Gay??
Yes. Yes. And yes.
With Annise Parker’s win on Saturday, Houston became the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country and is thought to have the sixth-largest openly gay population among all American cities. When I lived there in the ’90s, in the same Montrose neighborhood where Parker lives now, the city didn’t exactly fit Northeastern stereotypes of conservative, big-hat-and-buckle-wearing Texas. I remember sitting in a neighborhood sports bar one night when a half-dozen men in drag, and wearing roller blades, came in for the football game. People scarcely looked up from the TV.
The general meme is that the East and West coasts are bastions of tolerance compared with places like Houston. And Houstonians did vote several years ago to prohibit the extension of benefits to domestic partners of city employees (though coastal access doesn’t guarantee equality either, as California and Maine residents demonstrated this year to their shame).
But Houstonians overwhelmingly said they didn’t care about Annise Parker’s sexual orientation. Seventy-seven percent of likely voters queried this month told the Houston Chronicle that it was a non-issue in their decision for mayor. At some level, this doesn’t surprise me. This is the same place that, against every common principle of community development, remains the only major American city to eschew formal zoning ordinances, letting people build pretty much whatever, wherever they choose. The city tends to operate with a live-and-let-live ethos that is, in many ways, decidedly Texan and should logically extend to people’s personal lives.
Of course, live and let live goes only so far: Gay marriage is still barred by Texas’s constitution, and Annise Parker’s partner still can’t participate in her city benefits program. But when asked to look at two individual candidates to manage the city, balance the budget and get the trash collected on time, Houstonians decided that Parker’s personal life wasn’t particularly relevant. It will be interesting to see how long it takes other ostensibly more liberal cities to follow Houston’s progressive lead.
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