The XX Factor

Why Houston’s Good Old Boys Should Embrace Their New Lesbian Mayor

I admittedly can’t get enough of Annise Parker , Houston’s newly elected, lesbian mayor-partly because it’s just so much fun watching the rest of the country be so dumbfounded by my home state. To read the national press, you’d think Rush Limbaugh had suddenly morphed into a liberal. “There’s a Gay Mayor of Houston (Yes, Houston, Texas),” marveled The Baltimore Sun in a typical headline. At a time when more liberal states on the coasts (California, Maine, and New York) have rejected gay marriage, it may come as a surprise to many that a place so deep in the heart of Texas could become the biggest city nationwide, and one of only a tiny handful, to elect an openly gay mayor. (Others include Cambridge, MA.) To borrow from the title of a famous Texas political novel, Houston has become ” The Gay Place .”

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say my red state is in danger of slipping into the blue column just yet, contrary to many people’s assumptions, Austin is not the only haven for Texas Democrats. Obama actually carried Harris County (which includes most of Houston); more of a shock, he carried Dallas County, too. As Mimi Swartz recently put it , “Being mayor of Houston is more like being mayor of New York than, say, mayor of Austin.” Houston is the fourth largest city in the country-behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. As mayor, Parker will govern three times as many people as Sarah Palin ever did as governor of Alaska .

Parker is replacing the extremely popular but term-limited Bill White , who is now running for Texas governor. He is the first Democrat in forever to actually stand a fighting chance of winning (especially if Kay Bailey Hutchison loses the Republican primary to Rick Perry ). Sensing the historic opportunity for Democrats, Kinky Friedman gave up his own bid yesterday to help clear the field for White , who must still win the Democratic nomination from Farouk Shami , a West Bank-born hair-care magnate who invented ammonia-free hair color. (Texas, needless to say, is the hair-coloring capital of the world; even so, White is heavily favored to win.) Perry, of course, is the darling of the GOP’s conservative base but has far less appeal beyond it. One interesting result from the post-election analysis in Houston is that Annise Parker’s winning coalition included a surprisingly large number of Republican women (who, even in Texas, are more tolerant on social issues than their good-old-boy counterparts). This may bode well for White.

I hate Houston’s swampy weather, but as a native of Dallas, I sometimes look upon Houston’s incomparable assets with envy: Rice , its Ivy League-quality university (which Parker, as it happened, attended) and NASA , its community of reality-based dreamers. In fact, Parker’s approach to her new job appears to resemble the space agency’s: Yes, she’s hoping to reach for the stars but has promised to do it by attending to the city’s nuts and bolts. If nothing else, she’ll likely be good for business. Empirical evidence shows that cities that welcome diversity (including gays) attract the most creative people and innovative businesses. In this economy, even Houston’s good old boys may have reason to cheer.