Part four in a series for Houston Pride Week.
Once formed, "The Caucus," as the Houston LGBT Political Caucus became known, quickly organized a series of actions that would see the political power of the LGBT community expand exponentially. By the end of the decade, even straight candidates would seek and welcome its endorsement. One of its first important actions was the protest of pop singer Anita Bryant's appearance in Houston.
Outspoken and violently opposed to homosexuality, Bryant had become a "family values" symbol and mouthpiece, and she was invited to Houston to sing "country and patriotic songs" for the Texas State Bar Association convention in Houston on June 16, 1977. Writer Chris Love describes the raucous 3,000--strong protest by gays as "Houston's Stonewall moment." Hill also marks the Bryant protest as a key moment in Houston LGBT history.
"She really did us a favor by coming out against us. After Anita spoke here, things started coming together like they never had before."
By the time the first Pride Parade took place in 1979 (with vice squad raids on Mary's and other gay establishments occurring the week prior to the parade), the caucus had proved its power by endorsing and helping elect Eleanor Tinsley, the first woman to be elected to an at-large council position. It marked the first time a straight local political candidate publicly accepted the caucus's endorsement.
Tinsley did so against the advice of numerous operatives in her campaign, who warned she would lose votes if she accepted the endorsement. Tinsley responded, "I believe I will gain more votes than I will lose, and it's the right thing to do. I want to be on the forefront of this civil rights movement."
Along with Tinsley, the Caucus was also instrumental in breaking the good-old-boys hold on city government with the election of future mayor Kathy Whitmire as comptroller in 1977 and councilwoman Christin Hartung.
Sue Lovell is another woman who worked tirelessly for LGBT rights through the Caucus during this crucial period. She became part of the organization in the late Seventies when she printed the caucus's newsletters at no cost at her Spring Branch print shop. She was an active participant in the historic election of Tinsley in 1979, and she became a caucus board member in 1980, vice-president in 1982 (the same year she founded AIDS Foundation Houston), and the organization's first female president in 1984. She narrowly lost a race for president of the organization in 1985 to current mayor Annise Parker by a single vote.
Continuing her political activities, Lovell was elected as a member of the Democratic National Committee in 2000. She was subsequently elected to Tinsley's former Houston City Council At-Large Position 2 in 2005, where she served three terms. Lovell has held myriad committee positions on the council and chaired the Historic Preservation subcommittee. Among her accomplishments, she led the effort to initiate the light-rail system.
The Caucus would be one of the dominant political forces in city and county politics from 1979 to the present day. It reached a major high point in its storied history with the election of Annise Parker as mayor in 2010.
Shortly after her election, one of Parker's first exercises of mayoral powers was to appoint the city's first transgender judge, attorney Phyllis Frye, another Seventies fighter for LGBT equality.
When it came to transgender cross-dressing laws, Houston got in early, adopting an ordinance as far back as 1861.
As an attorney and advocate for LGBT causes, Judge Phyllis Frye first became well known in the community in the mid-Seventies when she began to lobby city council to rescind the city's cross-dressing ordinance. While Frye herself was never arrested under the ordinance, she was aware of the glaring 1972 arrest of Anthony "Tony" Mayes, who later became simply Anne Mayes. Mayes was a well-known cross-dresser who was arrested multiple times under the statute. The 1972 arrest was reported thoroughly in local gay newpaper, Nuntius.
In 1976, with her own sex correction in its final stages, Frye began lobbying city council to repeal the ordinance with letters to every member of the council. Only councilman Johnny Goyen was sympathetic, telling Frye he was "dismayed" by the treatment of Anne Mayes.
Frye continued her council efforts and maintained a heavy schedule of speaking engagements and lectures about the need to repeal the ordinance and other transgender issues. Progress was slow to nonexistent, although by 1979 she had won over another supporter, council member Ernest McGowen. In 1979, however, the election of Eleanor Tinsley over strongly anti-gay incumbent Frank Mann signaled to everyone in city politics the power of the gay community at election time. Much of the harsh public bashing of gays by city politicians was muted as a result.
But when councilman John Goodner spoke disparagingly of Frye's campaign to repeal the ordinance in the spring of 1979, several council members took him aside privately and explained the facts. Councilman Lance Lalor spoke with Goodner and suggested that Goodner himself offer a motion to repeal the ordinance, which he did.
The ordinance was eventually repealed in true Houston political fashion: Through sleight of hand. On August 12, 1980, with Goyen acting as Mayor Pro-Tem due to Mayor Jim McConn being out of town, and with two conservative councilmen out of chambers on phone calls, Goyen called for a vote on the repeal of the ordinance. In minutes, one of the thorniest legal levers used to intimidate and repress the Houston LGBT community was no more.
Likewise, challenges to sodomy laws represented another important aspect of LGBT strategy. The community was dismayed when the Texas legislature reformed the sodomy law in 1973, removing any illegality from anal or oral sex between heterosexuals, but keeping the same activities illegal vis a vis homosexuals.
It seems only fitting that Houston figured prominently in the challenge that finally overturned Texas sodomy laws.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
On September 17, 1998, Harris County deputies arrested John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner for "deviate sex" under Chapter 21, Sec. 21-06 of the Texas Penal Code, known as the "Homosexual Conduct" law. The arrest took place in Lawrence's west-side apartment, which deputies entered without permission after receiving a call that there was "a black male going crazy with a gun." The call came from another man who had been partying with Lawrence and Garner, then dropped a dime on them when he felt jilted by Lawrence.
On the advice of gay rights activists from Lambda Legal, who represented the pair in court, both men pled "no contest" and were fined $125 each. All along Lambda Legal intended to use an appeal in the case to challenge the state statute. They began the appeals process almost immediately.
After a series of conflicting reversals in Texas courts, the case was eventually accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court on December 2, 2002. On June 26, 2003, in a 6-3 decision the court ruled the Texas statute unconstitutional for violation of due process and equal protection guarantees.
This is the fourth part in a series of posts marking Houston Pride Week.