That muffled cough and gravelly rumbling noise you heard last Wednesday had to be the sound of former-Houston Mayor Louie Welch rolling over in his grave.
Occasionally, something happens that affirms the positve arc of human history, and something beautiful and historic happened when Houston's current mayor Annise Parker married Kathy Hubbard on the 23rd anniversary of the day they began their lives together.
Welch is the conservative pol who famously said on the eve of the 1985 city elections that his plan for dealing with the AIDS epidemic would be to "shoot the queers." Welch lost that race, and he's since passed away; and borrowing his own words, one of "the queers" now runs the city.
"This is a very happy day for us..." Parker said in a statement released by her office. "Kathy has been by my side for more than two decades, helping to raise a family, nurture my political career and all of the other ups and down and life events that come with a committed relationship. She is the love of my life, and I can't wait to spend the rest of my life married to her."
History is full of arcs, but there is something amazing about this one.
Houston was the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in Texas during the 1980s. Welch served five consecutive terms as mayor before he retired a decade earlier, and when the city council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance for gay and lesbian city employees in 1985, he came out of retirement and led a citizen referendum to repeal it.
Welch's coalition included a front group called the Committee for Public Awareness, the local Republican Party, fundamentalist churches, and yes, the Ku Klux Klan, which embarrassed most Houston residents with a well-publicized march through downtown to show its support for the effort.
Things turned grim when the Chamber of Commerce decided to support anti-gay discrimination, even though the ordinance had no effect on private business. Chamber leaders leaned on Mayor Kathy Whitmire to withdraw it, but she rejected their "hate and venom" and held onto her political soul. So, the Chamber entered the fray.
The public voted 4-to-1 to repeal the ordinance, and with that momentum Welch launched his own bid to unseat Whitmire, who had been endorsed by the Houston Gay-Lesbian Political Caucus in her previous races. A group of candidates for down-ballot city council seats hoped to ride Welch's coattails, calling themselves "The Straight Slate."
Two weeks before Election Day, Welch had an interview with a local TV station to discuss his plan for the AIDS crisis. Unaware that a nearby microphone was live, he offered some insight into his four points: "One of them is to shoot the queers," he said. An estimated 146,000 people heard the comment and calls flooded into the station.
Welch apologized and claimed it actually boosted his fundraising. The gay-and-lesbian community countered with t-shirts that read: "Don't Shoot, Louie." The Welch campaign imploded, and Whitmire rolled to re-election.
Outside the spotlight working to turn out the gay-and-lesbian vote was Parker, a young Rice University graduate who was galvanized by the events and elected caucus president the following year. It was nearly impossible in those days for an open gay or lesbian person to win a serious contested race in Texas at any level.
So, Parker and the caucus went to work fighting the widespread notion that any type of public affirmation - even nondiscrimination ordinances - would promote a "gay lifestyle" that in the words of City Council Member John Goodner "would turn Houston into a Texas version of San Francisco." (Gasp!)
Parker wanted a career in politics, and she had been openly gay since her days as a student activist, so there was no use trying to downplay it. But like many gay and lesbian people, her "lifestyle" wasn't the frightful thing Goodner and other haters projected. She was part owner of a small bookstore where she met Hubbard in 1990, and they soon began a family that eventually included a foster son and two adopted daughters.
Parker lost her first two races for city council (in 1991 and 1995) as she balanced her work for the gay-and-lesbian community with a budding career at Mosbacher Energy, a company owned by the powerful Republican family with close connections to the Bushes.
Then, in 1997, 12 years after the heyday of Welch and "The Straight Slate," Parker won a runoff for an at-large position and became Houston's first openly gay elected official. She was re-elected twice without a run-off. In 2003, she moved to the second most powerful job in municipal government: city comptroller. After two terms as comptroller, she was elected mayor.
When Welch died in 2008, he received the municipal equivalent of a state funeral. Parker attended out of respect for the city she loves and wrote about the experience for Outsmart Magazine. The current mayor had business that forced him to leave early, and two former mayors slipped away before the end when they would be in the public spotlight. No other sitting official bothered to attend.
So, there was Parker, city comptroller, representing City Hall at the funeral of the man whose grotesque remarks drew her into public life. In her essay, she graciously praised Welch for leading the Greater Houston Partnership, for securing water rights the city uses today, and for launching the EMS function of the Houston Fire Department. She also addressed history's arc.
"Welch was a man of his time and that time had passed him by. He was a politician who learned his craft when reporters carefully edited the public personas of the powerful, and all interviews were on tape. The remark would be utterly shocking by today's standards of public humor, but it was crude and offensive even in the 1980s...
"So there I found myself, standing at attention with the honor guard, the lone representative of the elected leadership of the City of Houston. I still have my T-shirt, carefully saved. I think Mayor Welch might have appreciated the irony."