When Jerry Simoneaux formally threw his hat into the ring to become the judge for Harris County Probate Court 1 last year, it was a moment he, an openly gay Democrat, wouldn't have believed was impossible even a decade ago.
“There was a time when I thought I’d never be able to run for public office, or be married, or have a family,” Simoneaux explains now. But even though the bad old days—when even engaging in homosexual activity was illegal in Texas—are finally gone, Simoneaux, who is currently an associate municipal judge in Houston, says today’s political climate and the continuing difficulties faced by members of the LGBTQ community in Houston and across the country are a big part of what prompted him to run for county-wide office.
Simoneaux is far from alone. This year he is one of 16 openly LGBTQ candidates from across Houston in the running in the March 6 primaries for local, county, state and federal races.
Why this sudden surge from the community? Well, there have been many galvanizing events in recent years. According to Mike Webb, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, these include the way the state reacted to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart took hours to start issuing licenses while State Att. Gen. Ken Paxton told county clerks they didn’t have to issue said licenses if it proved to be against their religious beliefs, as well as the city voting down the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance that same year.
Meanwhile, last year, the Texas Legislature spent most of its biennial session duking it out over Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet legislation, a proposed statewide “bathroom bill” mainly designed to force transgender people to use certain restrooms. And then there’s President Donald Trump’s failed attempt to ban openly transgender recruits from the U.S. military, as well as his statement on World AIDS Day that left out any acknowledgement of LGBTQ people.
Many LGBTQ candidates believe that getting involved right now is absolutely vital due to recent events, according to former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is now president and CEO of the Victory Fund, a national political organization focused on electing gay, lesbian and transgender people to public office.
“At the federal level, the Trump administration is moving to roll back equality for LGBTQ people, and here in Texas our state legislature continues to introduce a flood of anti-LGBTQ bills,” Parker says. “Our people are fired up and ready to run because we are tired of conversations about our lives happening without our voices in the room.”
Webb agrees. “Many of us experience first-hand how this level of intense discrimination impacts our everyday lives,” he says. “We are worried about our kids, our families, and our rights. Therefore, we are taking ownership over the progressive movement in Texas.”
But there are other factors at play here, including the fact that Houston’s community has come a long way in recent years.
Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston, says that this year’s surge in the number of LGBTQ candidates from Houston is also a reflection of long-term trends. The gay population in Houston was devastated by the AIDS epidemic, but the advances in treatment, paired with younger generations aging into political awareness, has helped to fill out the ranks in the community once again, according to Murray.
Back in the ‘90s, when Parker was first running for city office, she had to walk a fine line between being open about being a lesbian and not only being defined as the “lesbian candidate.” But nowadays, voters care less about sexual orientation and more about how a candidate’s stance matches their own, Parker says. And this increased acceptance of non-traditional candidates in metropolitan America has been felt at the polls, especially among millennials, Murray says, which has led to the success of candidates like Harris County District Judge Steve Kirkland, an out Democrat currently running for a place on the Texas Supreme Court.
Candidates with the backing of the fired-up LGBTQ community and liberals may not be a sure thing, Murray says, but they could at least make a good showing if they put their names on the ballot.
But can they actually win any of these races? Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, says many of the Houston candidates will have a good shot of doing well in the Democratic Primary elections (only one of the candidates is not a Dem), because they’ll be courting voters who already support progressive politics. Rottinghaus also says that voters are drawn to personal narratives, which gives LGBTQ candidates advantages in their stories of discrimination and overcoming adversity. A compelling narrative may help single out a candidate in a crowded primary field, something that could be extremely helpful with the Democratic primary come March 6.
As to the general election, it’s important to remember that despite the spots of blue cropping up on election night maps, Texas is still a Republican state with a crew of lockstep GOP voters who will simply be voting straight-ticket Republican.
However, candidates may also have some angles they could work, Rottinghaus says. The sheer fact of their candidacies suggests that they’ll be running more inclusive and open campaigns with platforms to match, which could draw supporters from various backgrounds. On top of that, for the right election, LGBTQ candidates can activate an impressive network of activists to help out, which would give any campaign a serious edge.
Win or lose, the flood of Houston LGBTQ candidates this year could be part of a larger trend. “An LGBTQ candidate clearly can’t win in every race,” Rottinghaus explains, “but as voters begin to see that they are quality candidates for reasons other than sexual orientation, acceptance levels will grow.”
Parker thinks this is only the beginning. “I expect to see the number of LGBTQ candidates in Texas and the rest of the country continue to grow in the years ahead,” she says. “We want to be difference-makers—fighting for equality but also for issues that improve the lives of all Americans.”
But first, we’ll see how all of this plays out with Houston’s homegrown LGBTQ candidates:
- Vanessa Edwards Foster, U.S. Representative, District 27, Houston
- James Partsch-Galvan, U.S. Representative, District 29, Houston
- Ali Khorasan, U.S. Representative, District 2, Houston
- Steve Kirkland, Justice, Texas Supreme Court, Place 2, Houston
- Charles Spain, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 4, Houston
- David Romero, State Senate, District 7, Houston
- Fran Watson, State Senate, District 17, Houston
- Jenifer Pool, State Representative, District 138, Houston
- Cooke Kelsey, District Judge, 113th Judicial District, Houston
- Beau Miller, District Judge, 190th Judicial District, Houston
- George Arnold, District Judge, 281st Judicial District, Houston
- James Kovach, Judge, Harris County Civil Court-at-Law No. 2, Houston
- Shannon Baldwin, Judge, Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law No. 4, Houston
- Jerry Simoneaux, Judge, Harris County Probate Court-at-Law No. 1, Houston
- Jason Cox, Judge, Harris County Probate Court-at-Law No. 3, Houston
- John Miller, Harris County Department of Education, Trustee Position 6, Precinct 1, Houston
Early voting started this week. Primary Election Day is March 6.