Texas and Gommorah

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As this issue of the Observer went to press, Jehovah had not yet seen fit to rain fire and devastation on the wicked citizenry of Houston. Not since Hurricane Ike, anyway. But if you ask Eric Story, Republican candidate for Congress from Houston’s 29th District, the Good Lord was barely getting warmed up with that measly storm.

“When a city or state or a nation accepts the homosexual lifestyle, history tells us that destruction follows,” Story recently told the Houston ABC affiliate KTRK-TV. And nothing says “acceptance” quite like electing a gay mayor. Which Houston appears likely to do in December, when City Controller Annise Parker will face attorney and former civil-rights activist Gene Locke in a runoff election. In a crowded preliminary on Nov. 3, Parker led the field—and then, as the gays are so notoriously wont to do, flung her sexuality in the face of one and all by bringing her partner, Kathy Hubbard, and their two adopted daughters on stage with her to celebrate.

Around the same time, Story—who won 24 percent of the vote as the GOP challenger to Congressman Gene Green in 2008—was leading a fervent prayer at a sad election-night gathering for supporters of mayoral candidate Ray Morales, a Republican who finished fourth (and says he did not authorize the prayer). “God, I pray right now that you would hold off that judgment,” Story intoned. “Lord, we cannot stand idly by and see the lifestyle—that is, assuming she is going to take office—but you’re not finished yet.”

Story’s storm-warning was nothing new—right in line with the Revs. Falwell and Robertson’s famous assertion that their best friend God had initiated the 9/11 terror attacks as partial payback for Americans’ increasing acceptance of the “homosexual lifestyle.” The only thing that made Story’s prayer noteworthy was its jarring contrast with the tenor of Houston’s mayoral campaign, in which Parker’s sexuality had been a resounding non-issue. The only time it became an issue was when an anti-gay attack letter popped up in some folks’ email in September. Supposedly sent by a group called Christians for Better Government, the message endorsed Locke as the best non-gay choice. Locke immediately shot back: “I vehemently reject this so-called ‘endorsement.’ … Furthermore, as a church-going Christian, I reject any association with this bogus and divisive style of campaigning.”

The letter turned out to be fake. So far gone into “acceptance” is Texas’ largest city, apparently, that if you want to stir up mass homophobia, you have to invent it.

Parker can claim some credit for that. From her first successful run for city council in 1997, she’s been matter-of-factly upfront about her sexuality. “From my first election for city council, I printed it on my campaign materials and it is part of my résumé,” she tells the Observer. “I think they’re comfortable with me.”

Memo to Eric Story’s God: That comfort level with “the lifestyle” appears to be spreading beyond the borders of Harris County and infecting the rest of the state in surprising ways. Just this fall, the state’s Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, officially recommended the appointment of openly gay Judge Robert Pitman as U.S. Attorney for the state’s Western District—and stuck by it even after the religious right started squealing like stuck swine. Hank Gilbert, the cattle-ranching Democratic candidate for governor, announced an ambitious 10-point proposal for combatting discrimination against the state’s LGBT community. In Dallas, a district judge ruled that a gay couple married in Massachusetts could legally divorce in Texas and that the state prohibition of same-sex marriage violates the federal constitutional right to equal protection. (In a shocking development, Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott quickly announced an appeal. Gov. Rick Perry issued a loud oink.)

Meanwhile, a survey by the Texas Lyceum found that most Texans now support either same-sex civil unions (32 percent) or marriage (25 percent), while only 36 percent—and just 43 percent of Republicans—oppose them both. While a grain of salt is highly recommended when digesting that result, it’s another strong suggestion that Texans’ views have evolved since the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment passed four years ago with 76 percent of the vote.

Let’s not get carried away, though. Texas has hardly transformed overnight into the Amsterdam of the Southwest. Anti-gay bias remains pervasive and ugly, both in everyday life and politics. Queer Texans still face workplace discrimination, police harassment and hate-fueled acts of violence. The Texas GOP recently elected a chairwoman who’s a longtime leader of the far-right Eagle Forum, one of America’s most virulent anti-gay groups. And no sane person actually believes that Lone Star voters would swing the other way (so to speak) if another anti-gay initiative were to slither onto the ballot next November. But it’s safe enough to predict that the margin would, at least, be narrower. And it’s becoming possible to envision a long-term future in which gay Texans’ sexuality will be no more remarkable, or controversial, than the idea of a lesbian mayor in America’s fourth-largest city. Lord willing.