Hard Choices: Annise Parker

People assume the toughest decision in my life was coming out. But being gay isn't tough—it's who I am. What's been tough is learning how to be social, and how to adapt to public life.

I'd lost two city council elections before—in 1991 and again in 1995. Every time I saw my name in print, there would be a reference to my orientation. It was as if "lesbian" was my last name. It was frustrating that it was the only thing people cared about. But when you have a public career, there are no boundaries. During a mayoral debate, some guy jumped up and said, "You've never once mentioned your gay agenda for the city of Houston." I responded that I was talking about my agenda for the city of Houston. I didn't tell people I was a candidate who happened to be gay. Nobody wants to hear that. I learned it's a distinction you show, not one you say.

Being a lesbian can make other people uncomfortable. Though there are also people who, if you get them past that issue, will treat it as a plus. They almost say to themselves, "If she'll tell me that, she'll tell me anything." Public office may not come naturally, but I've learned to put up with the scrutiny. When I was sworn in as mayor of Houston, the media attention worldwide was overwhelming. "Houston elected a lesbian? Houston?" I was even on the front page of the Times of India. It has given me a fantastic opportunity to change how people think about my city. I take a lot of credit for raising Houston's coolness factor.

I don't get death threats anymore, but I still have to work at being comfortable with the public part of the job. There are so many more images of gay and lesbian people today, and so many ways to be gay. I'm a middle-aged soccer mom and I appear in public with my spouse of 20 years and my kids. It's hard to make me scary. When the job is over for the evening, I go home and pull up the drawbridge. It's a relief when the scrutiny isn't there. But being honest about my personal life pays off every day.

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