PGN: Last month, Pennsylvania elected its first openly LGBT state lawmaker. How important is having out elected officials in the fight for LGBT equality?
AP: It’s absolutely critical that we are at the seats of power. It’s not so much that we’re different or the legislation we’re involved with is different but, by being in the room, we change the debate if we’re out and open. The key is the “openly gay” part. Our colleagues can’t talk about antigay legislation in the abstract — they have to look at us in the eye and realize it affects us personally. There are issues that those of us who are out LGBT officials champion that others may not — nondiscrimination policies that include gay and transgender people — and we’ve advanced the rights of LGBT people who are adopting and in hate-crimes legislation and so forth. Being in the room is the most important thing: There are certain types of legislation that I believe wouldn’t be where they are today without LGBT legislators.
PGN: Some LGBT community members have an idea about Texas as a very conservative, antigay state. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
AP: Yes and no. Texas is a very conservative, overwhelmingly Republican state. But Texas has a history of evaluating people based on what they can do, rather than who they are. And people are willing to recognize the totality of an individual, not just the fact that they may be gay or whatever other characteristic. Texas also supports strong women. Currently serving is a lesbian sheriff of Dallas County, which includes the city of Dallas, and previously we had a lesbian sheriff of Travis County, which includes the city of Austin. We like tough women who carry guns. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country — people forget that — and we’re a global, cosmopolitan city. We have the third-largest consular core in the United States and are arguably one of the most diverse cities in the United States. We’re not a redneck wasteland as some people think.
PGN: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment since being elected mayor?
AP: Leading the city of Houston. Every mayor over the last two years has struggled with the global recession, has faced devastating budget problems. I’ve led the city through a very difficult economy but also made progress. I launched a major infrastructure initiative in the city and plan to do a major park initiative. Even in the midst of the recession, I have found a way to move the city forward.
PGN: What about your position has surprised you?
AP: The amount of media attention. On my election night and the following week, I got a shout out from Rachel Maddow, was a joke on “The Jay Leno Show,” a joke on “The Daily Show,” got a call from the president. I was inundated for several weeks with worldwide media requests. I’ve been out for a very long time. I was an out city councilmember, an out elected city controller. That was 12 years of being an out public official, but the exponential difference when I became mayor was surprising. I can’t go anywhere in Houston anymore without being recognized. So no more putting on my sweats and running into the grocery store. I have to get dressed up every day.
PGN: You’ve been involved with Mayors for the Freedom to Marry. What are some of the tangible effects that group can have on the fight for marriage equality?
AP: I joined Mayors for the Freedom to Marry and am one of the co-chairs, but I was not the initiator of this program. After our initial press conference, I went back to Houston and all of a sudden one of the very conservative pastors of one of our largest churches — they have about 15,000 members — went on a crusade against me. He was preaching about how terrible it is that we have a lesbian mayor and demanding I resign because I support marriage equality. It was truly bizarre and came out of the blue. It’s important that mayors do that and it’s important where this came from. The mayors of the largest cities in America came forward and said, This is important to our citizens. It’s important to our people. It’s important to our economy. It provides support and protection for families. We need to do this because it’s good for our community, and Congress, the president, you need to listen to this. Very seldom do mayors from all over the country pick an issue and galvanize around it the way we have. Mayors are the public face of their city. For these very diverse mayors to stand up and say that this is important and that it’s not about gay rights, it’s about what’s important to build a community, I think it’s going to have an impact.
PGN: What advice would you give to young LGBT people who have aspirations of holding public office?
AP: I speak to a lot of young people, both gay and non-gay, and I enjoy it very much. Often I hear from people who say they want to be in public office someday. That’s the wrong thing to say. I want to know what job you want. If you’re interested in potholes, trash pickup and water quality, you ought to look at local government. If you’re interested in other legislative issues, you can look at state government. It’s not about being in office — that’s nothing. It’s about doing the job. I love my job, and I’m excited to go to work every day. The other thing I have to say to young people is that you’re building your résumé every day. The jobs you take on matter, the reputation you build every day matters. It’s a different world out there, so don’t put stupid things on Facebook. If you think you may be a candidate for office someday, start thinking about it early. I was at a lecture once by Barbara Jordan, a noted Houston Congresswoman, and also a closeted lesbian. She was talking about the political climate and “gotcha” journalism and the issue of should a politician have a private life. It doesn’t matter if they should or they shouldn’t. If you decide in elementary school you want to be president of the United States, you have to start organizing your life accordingly. Those are the rules, and that’s how we have to play.
PGN: In terms of your own career, what can we expect when your term is over?
AP: I have another term I can serve. I frankly think mayor is the highest calling there is. I’m sorry I face term limits and can only serve six years as mayor of my hometown. I’d like to stay in politics, and I find I truly like being in a CEO position. So I’ll look for another.
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.