Judge Steven Kirland and his husband Mark Parthie.
Judge Steven Kirland and his husband Mark Parthie.
Photo courtesy of Judge Steven Kirkland

Are Voters Ready to Elect a Gay Judge to the Texas Supreme Court?

It was when the Texas Supreme Court justices reversed themselves on benefits to same-sex partners, that Harris County District Judge Steven Kirkland decided he'd had enough.

Just the year before those exact same nine judges had upheld a ruling that the City of Houston could provide the benefits. But now, apparently bowing to political pressure, they’d changed their judicial minds.

So 57-year-old Kirkland, known as the gay judge, knowing that a statewide campaign would open old wounds about his alcoholism despite him being sober for 25 years, and realizing that not everyone in Texas would be happy about an avowed homosexual on the state’s highest civil court, decided he was going to run for a seat on that flip-flopping panel.

And that’s what he told his husband and partner of more than 30 years, Mark Parthie on that hot August morning in 2017. “I'm thinking of running for Texas Supreme Court.”

Parthie, a man who wouldn't raise his voice if all of Houston were on fire, didn't say anything. He just laughed. “I knew he had already made up his mind to do it,” Parthie says now.

Kirkland had been mulling the idea ever since members of the Texas Democratic Party approached him about standing for the election in early 2017. A Democrat has not been elected to statewide office in Texas since 1994, but the party still wanted to put up viable candidates, representatives explained, people who might even become true contenders if the stars aligned just right in November 2018.

Kirkland was flattered, but he didn't start seriously entertaining the notion until he was sitting at his kitchen table at the couple's more than a century old house in Houston's Sixth Ward reading the Texas Supreme Court's ruling that even though the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed the right to same-sex marriage in 2015, the City of Houston was not required to provide benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. (The justices had been pushed to hear the case again by Gov. Greg Abbott and other state elected officials.)

“It was a political decision,” Kirkland says now. “It had nothing to do with the law. The justices were just giving into pressure from the governor and the other politicians and they knew it.”

Right then, Kirkland, a longtime Democrat with a deep history in Houston politics who has defied the odds twice – by becoming the first openly gay Harris County civil district judge in 2008 and then coming back from two bruising electoral losses in 2012 and 2014 to win in 2016 – started seriously thinking about running for the Texas Supreme Court, the court of last resort for civil matters in Texas.

He hesitated, knowing a statewide campaign would inevitably mean Kirkland's personal life – the drunk driving arrests, the bottles of beer he used to keep in his desk, the years where he simply could not keep a job because it got in the way of his drinking – and his status as an openly gay man in the deep red state of Texas, would all be fair game.

But after President Donald Trump tapped Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett for a seat on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in September (pending a promise from Willett that the famed Twitter judge will stop tweeting about Trump, according to other state supreme court justices) Kirkland could no longer resist. He announced his candidacy in October.

The stories on Kirkland's plan to run for Place Two on the Texas Supreme Court, Willett's seat, almost universally trumpeted him as the recovering alcoholic judge, the first openly homosexual candidate for the state high court in history.

“That was interesting. These are parts of my life that have shaped me, but at the same time I have done good work as a judge that has nothing to do with that,” Kirkland says, noting his 27 years of legal experience and more than a decade of time spent on the bench. “I have been living my life honestly and openly for years now, but coming from the world I grew up in, it's both frustrating and incredible to see myself described as gay in a way that is public and acceptable.”

Kirkland got involved in Houston politics in the early 1980s, a time when the gay political movement went from being a powerful voice in Houston to being an entity that politicians avoided because association could weaken their campaigns, Brian Riedel, a sociologist specializing in Houston gay culture at Rice University, says. “For Steve to place himself out in the public eye as an openly gay candidate with no shame in that, but also to not wear it as a credential of his running, is a powerful shift.”

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a longtime friend of Kirkland's, says while it has gradually become easier to be a gay politician in Texas, there are still drawbacks. “It's a double-edged sword. Being an LGBT candidate gets you media attention, and opens more doors because people might be more inclined to support you because of this one part of your life. But it can also be a problem, if that becomes all people know about you,” Parker says. “The crucial question should be, will he be a good judge. Being gay, being a recovering alcoholic has shaped him, but it's not all he is.”

Now Kirkland is running for the Texas Supreme Court, and even though gay society is in something of a brave, new world – the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws more than a decade ago and it has already been two years since same-sex marriage was legalized – the increasing divide between conservatives and liberals in the United States make it unclear how Kirkland will be received on the Texas political stage.

Parker was elected mayor because Houstonians saw her as a fiscal conservative and a good steward of their funds, even people who were anti-gay. The question is, will people across Texas be able to look past Kirkland's history of alcoholism and gayness to see the wealth of abilities that would make him an excellent Texas Supreme Court justice?

***

Growing up in Abilene, a community packed as full of ardent Bible-thumping Southern Baptists as any other Bible-belt town in the 1960s and 1970s, Kirkland was whip smart but he was also skinny, scrawny and often picked on and beaten up by the bigger kids in his class.

When puberty hit, he noticed he wasn't feeling what his friends described about girls in their school. Once he thumbed through a dictionary to the word “homosexual,” heart thudding as if he was looking at something dirty. His breath got tight in his chest when he read attraction to the same sex was defined as a mental disorder.

From there, he went deep into denial. He studied hard in school, joined the high school marching band and played the trombone at Friday night football games (his sporting prowess was nil so playing football was out of the question). He kept himself neutral, obsessing with friends about Saturday Night Live's Coneheads, and slipping into a seat at the movie theater whenever “Rocky Horror Picture Show” played. He started drinking his senior year, downing Mad Dog 20/20 with gusto in the parking lot of the high school prom.

Despite the booze, Kirkland got into some of the top schools in the country – including Vanderbilt and Rice – and chose Rice because of the campus, the Texas Venetian-style red brick buildings and smooth green lawns, as much as his interest in computer science.

He arrived in Houston in 1978, the year after the first major LGBT protest had coalesced, with more than 10,000 people gathering outside the Hilton Hotel over anti-gay singer Anita Bryant's appearance at the Texas State Bar Association, but Rice was still a remarkably conservative campus. Despite this, Kirkland began to adopt more liberal and progressive politics, and to realize he was gay, drinking all the while.

A professor who oversaw Kirkland's dormitory pulled him aside one day during his sophomore year. Kirkland had excellent grades at the same time that he was always one of the main organizers for events on campus, the professor observed. “There's just one problem, Steve,” the professor said. “Every time I see you, you either have a glass in your hand or you're already drunk. You're drunk right now!”

“He had a point,” Kirkland admits now, “because we were at breakfast and I was definitely still drunk from the night before.”

The professor was one of the first people to warn Kirkland about his drinking, but Kirkland rationalized the amount of alcohol he consumed, and dismissed the warning.

Plus, he was easing into the world of being gay, and the bars were the main socializing spot for the gay community at the time. It didn't seem like an issue in a world where everyone drank. “The drinking was a way to remove the inhibitions so I could express myself. It made me feel handsomer, taller, wittier, more confident, all of the things that alcohol is supposed to make you feel, but with my aptitude and background, a family history of drinking problems, that was dangerous for me.”

Over the years, his drinking got worse, and he started being arrested for driving while intoxicated. One night he was blasting music in his apartment so loudly the neighbors – who had seen Kirkland driving home from the bar – called the police. They pressed charges and Kirkland ended up in jail for the night.

The next time, Kirkland blacked out and woke up rumpled and confused in city drunk tank, relieved he had not killed anyone. A former professor had a lawyer friend who walked Kirkland through the justice system, and Kirkland regained his driving privileges, but continued to insist he didn't have a problem.

But the reality of his alcoholism finally hit early in 1984 as Kirkland was motoring to Abilene to turn in his car to the bank after repeatedly failing to make the payments, sipping beer as he zoomed down the open highway. He told himself he was unemployed and broke because of the 1980s Houston oil bust, dismissing the fact he had been fired repeatedly because of his drinking.

Flashing lights in his rear-view mirrors alerted him, and he fixed his face, tried to look sober. But when the officer stepped to the window, Kirkland reeked of beer and he could barely meet the man's eye as he explained this was his last trip with the car, that he was broke.

The officer let him go. As the patrol car rolled away, Kirkland sat at the steering wheel, almost shaking with relief. It was only as he started to reach for the bottle of beer stowed below his seat that it finally clicked – he was an alcoholic. He decided to get sober. “That was when I finally realized the people who had been telling me I had a problem were right,” Kirkland says now.

From there, he worked to put his life back together. In quick succession, he discovered his two great loves.

First, there was law. Kirkland applied to law school at the University of Houston on a dare, and once he got in he found he had a passion for examining legal problems and puzzling out the reasons the law worked the way it did. He snagged a job as a paralegal at Texaco and went to school at night.

He also met a handsome bank teller, Parthie. After weeks of stalking his crush, waiting in line at Parthie's teller window even when every other bank teller was available, and one failed attempt to get a date, Parthie agreed to go to dinner. They've been together ever since.

Meeting Parthie was the nudge Kirkland needed to come out to his family. On Christmas, shortly after he and Parthie started dating, Kirkland and his mom were driving to his grandmother's house outside of Abilene when he asked what she would think if he brought home someone special, a man, for the next holiday.

“I don't think I could handle that,” his mom responded.

Kirkland left after Christmas and didn't speak to his family for the next five months. “I decided that if they wanted me in their lives they were going to have to take all of me. I was young and impatient, but that was how I saw it at that point. It was all or nothing,” he says now.

He finally relented and called on Mother's Day. Soon after the entire family met Parthie and were won over by the cookies he brought to the gathering. Even Kirkland's dad, a tough truck driver nicknamed “Cigar” came around. “My dad went from not saying anything about Mark to telling off Baptist preachers whenever he goes to a service and they start talking anti-gay,” Kirkland says. “I've been lucky.”

***

Still, his life stayed compartmentalized. Kirkland's position at Texaco encouraged him to keep many things – his recovery, his partner, his progressive politics and environmentalism – quiet. “I never lied if someone asked me something directly, but the oil industry was a place where almost no one ever asked,” he says.

Instead, he worked in the background on various campaigns for years. Parker and Kirkland crossed paths in the early 1980s because both were involved in local politics. But their focuses were slightly different. “I was an LGBT activist, but Steve never was. I was focused on the Houston Gay Political Caucus while he was focused on the Harris County Democratic Party,” she says.

When Parker decided to run for Houston City Council Kirkland was her campaign manager, first in 1991 and again in 1995. “He helped get me out of the car to go to yet another campaign appearance, he gave me energy when I was rundown about it, and when I lost and was in the fetal position, he got me out of that too,” Parker says.

Kirkland was content to stay in the background until he was laid off from Texaco in 1998. “I like to call it my liberation, but it hurt like hell at the time,” he says.

He finally got openly involved in politics. Kirkland was appointed a municipal court judge in 2001 and noticing the number of homeless people streaming through his court who could not pay even the smallest fines for misdemeanors, he helped set up a program allowing them to work off fines through community service at local shelters.

In 2008 he ran for the 215th Civil District Court, and the campaign was the first time he was identified as “the gay judge,” he says, mostly as an effort to differentiate him from his primary opponent. “We were so alike it was one of the only things that really distinguished me from him. We even looked alike from the back, the same build, bald spot, everything,” Kirkland says now, laughing. He and a slew of other Harris County Democrats were swept into office on President Barack Obama's coattails.

He brought his own experiences to the bench, and found that he loved being a judge. “My mom claimed I planned to be a judge my whole life, but I really didn't. But I know my life helped me be a better judge. If you can critically examine your own life it makes it easier to spot and weigh the evidence of other people's lives fairly and equitably so that you make a fair decision.”

His decisions also cost him his seat. When Kirkland was up for re-election in 2012, he faced a challenger in the Democratic primary, a lawyer named Elaine Palmer. Palmer was recruited to run for the seat by George Fleming, a high-powered attorney Kirkland had recently ruled against in a lawsuit where clients claimed Fleming's firm had inflated their attorneys fees in a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company. Kirkland's decision cost the firm millions. Fleming heavily funded Palmer's campaign, according to campaign finance records and reports from the time.

The campaign used Kirkland's past against him. In the lead up to the primary election, Palmer's campaign ran radio spots and sent out automated phone messages that spun Kirkland's history of alcoholism as “breaking news” and implied he had recently been arrested for drunk driving. Mailers showed a photo of Kirkland holding a wine glass of seltzer water and tinted the photo so it looked like wine, claiming he was drinking again. None of the ads ever acknowledged that Kirkland had been sober more than 25 years.

The night Kirkland lost, Parker was watching the returns with her now-wife Kathy Hubbard, Parthie and Kirkland. “That was the only time in all these years I wondered if he would be able to not return to addiction,” Parker says now. “He never even came close, but losing was devastating.”

Friends and local politicos (state Sen. John Whitmire even gave him a pep talk the day after the primary in the middle of Memorial Park) advised Kirkland to try again, and in 2014 he ran for the 113th district court. This time, Fleming backed the Republican challenger in the general election, again running advertisements implying Kirkland was a drunk. “It was frustrating and it hurt, but this time we knew it was coming and were ready,” Kirkland says. He still lost.

But in 2016, Kirkland went up against a Republican incumbent for the 334th Civil District Court, and won. Still, his friends were shocked when he announced his candidacy for the Texas Supreme Court last month. Whitmire called him up and told Kirkland he was stumped. “Why on earth are you doing this?”

For Kirkland, it came down to Texas Supreme Court opinions issued over the past year, he says. Usually, he could understand the jurisprudence behind a ruling even if he did not agree with it, but increasingly he was reading opinions he felt were being decided by politics, not sound legal reasoning. “It's hard enough to get people to respect law when lawyers and judges are behaving, but when judges start playing politics, it really undercuts the legitimacy of the law. I was so angry seeing that, I finally had to stand up.”

Once Kirkland knew he wouldn't have to give up his seat on the 334th Civil District bench, he felt he had nothing to lose by entering the race against Willett.

He knows he only has the slimmest chance of winning.

Willett, currently slated to run for re-election, will be particularly difficult to beat, Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, says. “He's the Twitter judge, and is very popular on both sides of the aisle. Even people who don't agree with him like him. Willett is a really tall order to challenge.”

There's also the reality of midterm elections in Texas. Despite the controversy that has surrounded Trump since he took office in January, there has not been much backlash for the GOP in Texas. Republicans will show up to the polls, Democrats will not and straight-ticket voting means those who might have crossed party lines to support Kirkland are less likely to do so, Rottinghaus says.

Kirkland's status as an out gay man could work against him in the statewide election. “The one thing people may know about Judge Kirkland is that he's gay,” Rottinghaus says. “That can be a positive for some and a negative for others. A Republican may be less likely to embrace an openly gay candidate, and Texas is still dominated by Republicans. It's hard to overcome that politically.”

***

Kirkland has not prayed in years. When he attends church – mostly for family functions and political appearances – he uses the time to meditate. He took a moment before standing up in front of an adult Sunday School class on a Sunday in October to clear his head before talking about the 14th Amendment, one of his favorite presentations.

Once up there, he was comfortable in front of the crowd – an unflappable calm combined with an eagerness to get the people in the audience as excited about the concept of law as he is. It's tempting to imagine all of his campaign stops will be like this, a friendly audience eager to hear him speak, but he knows a Houston Sunday School class is very different from the Texas he will soon see on the campaign trail.

Parthie is bracing for the campaign. “I wonder about it sometimes, why people care so much,” Parthie says. “In some ways the things he has been through because he is gay, because he has had addiction problems, might make him better. But really, he's just a judge and it should be about that.”

Parker and other friends have raised concerns about Kirkland's safety. “I never worried much when I was running, but in this political climate, with the ugliness that has come into Texas politics, I worry,” Parker says.

Kirkland's only worry has been over what his great nieces and nephews may hear about him during the campaign, but he maintains the benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks. “If we don't get out there nothing ever changes and if we don't show up they win already. Just being on the field as I am will be a victory.”

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