This week’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US Let Love Define Family installment features an interview with Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker. Now serving her third term, Parker and her wife Kathy Hubbard have helped raise four children, two of whom they adopted from foster care.
In a red state known for its fierce independent spirit, the city of Houston is the shining star. It carves its own direction somewhere outside of Austin’s young liberal vibe and Dallas, with its quest for complete corporate conventionalism.
Houstonians are unique people. They are loyal to their history and yet proud of all things new. Perhaps this helps to explain how fourth ranked Houston beat New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago by electing and then re-electing twice the first openly gay mayor -- and a Democrat, at that.
As a native Texan, Mayor Annise Parker could be considered the definition of a true maverick. She is as surprisingly forthright about the job she was elected to do as she is about the responsibilities she feels as a wife and mother. So speaking with the mayor was a refreshing experience.
Rich Valenza: I’d like to start by congratulating you on your recent wedding in Palm Springs.
Annise Parker: Thank you. When Kathy and I first committed ourselves to each other 23 years ago, the idea that we would be able to marry would have been considered very far fetched and not in the realm of possibility. But over the years it has become increasingly available in other states. We had serious conversations about whether we wanted to go to another state to formalize our relationship.
There are lots of reasons why it’s important to enter the institution of marriage. We’ve certainly done all the things that lawyers tell you to do. We have wills and powers of attorney and other things for each other, but marriage puts all those things up together and adds a formal statement to the world that you are a couple and should be seen as a unit.
We had said we weren’t going to get married outside the state of Texas. Everything that I do, so much of what I do is political, that I said my marriage isn’t going to be political in any way. I’m going to wait until marriage comes to Texas. But then when the Supreme Court ruled over the summer in the Edie Windsor case, we understood it wouldn’t be recognized in the state of Texas but it would be recognized at the federal level.
What finally sealed the deal was when it hit the news. Our youngest daughter, who is now 18, was the first one to call me and said, “I’m watching the news. Does this mean that you and Mommy are going to get married?” Her call caused us to think about the messages that we send our kids and the messages we were sending by waiting. It just began to come together. Jan. 16 was our 23rd anniversary. Kathy and I always knew we’d get married on a Jan. 16. So two months out I kind of looked at her and said, “I’m ready to get married” and she said yes before I could change my mind.
Valenza: What effect do you think your marriage will have on your family and on your children?
Parker: I think we’re sending lots of messages. First, there's what any parent wants. I want each of my kids to find a loving partner. When they are ready and committed to that relationship, I hope they will formalize that relationship through marriage. Marriage is helpful and healthy from an emotional, financial and economic standpoint. It’s good for society as well. But because our kids are being raised in a non-traditional household, I think it’s also an affirming act. It’s another way we say to them, “Yes, you have two moms, but in all material respects we are just like every other family out there.” Through the ceremony, it also shows that our extended family is supportive and engaged in our relationship as a couple.
Valenza: Tell me about your family.
Parker: Kathy and I built our family by lots of different means. Our son, who is now 37 years old, was a gay street kid. He came to live with us when he was 16 and I just took him home off the street. He lived with us for a year, and we launched him. He lasted six months and he came back. He lived with us for six months. We launched him. He came back and lived with us for three months and we launched him again. He hasn’t lived with us again, but he’s our son. He calls us mom and he’ll always be our son. We have no formal relationship with him.
Valenza: What was it about this boy that made you and Kathy open up your home to him 20 years ago?
Parker: I had always wanted to be a parent. I got the parent gene. Kathy did not. I always wanted to be a parent -- I actually helped put myself through college as a nanny and enjoy kids. We’d met our son a number of times over the years. He’d been on and off the streets. His grandparents had raised him and he’d run away or they’d throw him out because they wanted to get the “gay” out of him. He’s a bright, articulate and gorgeous kid. I don’t know, one day I just said, “Enough.” So I said, “Come stay with us. We’ll give you place to stay and we’ll find some place for you to go where you can be safe.” We thought it was going to be temporary. It turned out we couldn’t find any place for him to go where he could be safe. Then it just went from there.
We have two daughters who were 7 and 12 when we adopted them out of the foster care system. We adopted the younger one first and then her half sister. They’re now 18 and 23. We attempted to adopt their younger brother. They were from a sibling group of six. We fostered him for a few months, but he went back into foster care.
There is a fourth child who lives with us. She’s actually 19 now. She’s our goddaughter. We have no formal relationship with her other than she’s been living with us for a couple years. She finished high school and now she and our youngest daughter are both freshmen in college.
Valenza: Such a large family that you’ve taken in. That is a terrific responsibility.
Parker: All of our kids were older when they came to live with us. It’s different when you adopt an infant or a toddler into a gay household, because they get attached to the household before they get all the negative messages. Well, our kids had gotten all the negative messages before they’d attached to the household. There are a lot of things that we had to work through.
I’m 57 years old and Kathy is a little older. We started with a teenager, so we had the hard part first. Because of our ages, and [the fact] that it is more difficult to adopt an infant, we decided to go for older kids. But that was largely because of where we were in life. We have learned a lot about the foster care system and the challenges of adopting older kids -- where the foster care system is good about LGBT couples and where they’re not. With our two daughters that we adopted out of foster care, with both adoptions we had problems with the foster family.
Valenza: Is it difficult for LGBT people to foster and adopt in Texas?
Parker: Yes and no. I think the Children’s Protective Services and the Child Protective Systems in most states recognize that there are not enough families out there. They desperately need good homes. For the most part, the folks in the system understand that GLBT families can provide good loving homes. The challenge in Texas is that most jurisdictions don’t allow second-parent adoption, including Harris County where we live. So I formalized the adoption first. And then we went to another part of the state where there are judges that interpret state law differently. But for the majority of the state of Texas, they don’t allow second-parent adoption, you have to go and forum shop in order to make that happen. So that’s one problem.
The other problems came from the foster families. Now this was 10 years ago, but all three foster families we dealt with were religiously based. In fact our youngest daughter, who was 7 when we adopted her, was with a very conservative religious foster family. They told her she was going to go to hell if she lived with us. They scared her to death. She went into a hysterical state and it disrupted the adoption. CPS at that time said, “We’ll just start over. We’ll find you another child.” We said, "No, this is our child; we’ve already made the connection. You failed to control the foster family. You failed to deal with unnecessary trauma to our child.”
I’ll be frank: I pulled rank. I wasn’t a Mayor then, I was a City Council member, but I said, “This is going to be a big public issue if we don’t get this worked out. We will sit down with the therapist if you want to talk to us and this child. You can observe us.” And that’s what they did. They observed us. They put us in one of those glass walled rooms. It was very clear she wasn’t afraid of us, but that she had been told that God would punish her and that all sorts of things would happen to her if she went home with us. So the therapist had to talk to her to undo the damage that her foster family had done. Similar things happened when we adopted her older sister six months later.
Valenza: What is it about your children that you are most proud of?
Parker: I’m proud of them each for different things because they came to us in different places in their lives and with different issues with which to deal. I’m proud that our son who was living on the streets of Houston is now a businessman and respected member of the community. Kathy and I get compliments on him on a regular basis by people who run into him professionally. He has really made something of himself. I’m proud of where he is. It took him a while to get there but he’s a good man.
We are proud of our oldest daughter. She came to us after eight years of chaos and five years of foster care. She has attachment issues and she has a lot of trauma and she’s always going to have challenges, but she supports herself. She is a productive member of society.
Our other daughter and goddaughter, they’re just normal, snarky teenagers. They have great futures ahead of them.
Valenza: In your article last year in the Huffington Post you said that although people see you as a role model as a civic leader, you see your role as a parent as most important. Why is it that you feel that way?
Parker: Because that’s my heart. Families are permanent. That’s the message that we try to teach our kids. We’re a forever family. While I do in many ways affect the lives of millions of people as mayor, Kathy and I directly impact four lives that would have been profoundly different without us. Literally, in some ways, we have helped give them a future.
Valenza: You are a person of many firsts, that’s for sure. After three terms in office, you’re still very popular and well respected. As this is your last term as mayor of Houston, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Parker: I want to be known as a mayor who ran the city well -- who was unafraid of making hard decisions that were the right decisions for the city. And that if I couldn’t fix every problem that I inherited or that came down the pipe, that I made an attempt. There was nothing that I pushed away.
My emphasis has been on infrastructure and jobs and economic development for Houston. I believe that cities are a platform on which people build their lives. On which business operate and so forth. And that platform has to be a healthy one so I’ve put a lot of time and energy and political capital into infrastructure and I’m very proud of the fact that we are rebuilding Houston from the ground up.
Valenza: Do you have plans beyond being mayor? Will we be seeing you on the national stage?
Parker: I have no plans beyond mayor. I have to say mayor is the best political job in the world and I’m going to be mayor for as long as I can. But I can only be mayor for two more years, a little less than two years now. I hope to stay in public service, but I don’t know what that will look like. It may involve another political office.
Rich Valenza is the founder/CEO of RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adoption to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. RaiseAChild.US works with foster and adoption agencies that have received training in LGBT cultural competence through the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “All Children – All Families” initiative. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,000 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.raiseachild.us and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”