Our community says goodbye to Sue and Jim Null, two of GLBT Houston’s most vocal and visible supporters.
By Nancy Ford
Photo by John Conroy
It wasn’t the easiest party to attend. On March 3, Bruce Smith and Tony Carroll played hosts at a reception at their Montrose home honoring Sue and Jim Null. Longtime PFLAGers in specific and proponents of equal rights in general, the Nulls have decided to leave Houston, their home of 40-plus years, leaving late last month for their new home in Brevard, North Carolina.
The online invitation to the reception soon became a tribute board, with postings thanking the Nulls for their years of dedication in their struggle for equal rights for all:
“Sue and Jim have been an incredible inspiration to us since we met them in 2007 during Freedom to Marry Week. Their tireless devotion to equality has encouraged countless GLBT individuals to come forward and stand up for their own rights, and has contributed to social change in our community and beyond. Words can’t describe how they will be missed by so many.”
“The city will collapse without Jim and Sue to keep an eye on it. I will never turn to the Chronicle editorial page with the same expectation again!”
“I would never have become a straight ally in PFLAG if it weren’t for Sue and Jim Null.”
“There are not words to express the outstanding, dedicated work of Jim and Sue. They are the definition of PFLAG.”
“It’s been tremendously affirming for us, without any question,” Jim Null says. “I was almost crying when I read the responses to that E-vite.”
Amid toasts and tears, Houston city controller Annise D. Parker presented a proclamation honoring Sue and Jim at the Carroll/Smith reception. As she displayed the proclamation, she commented, to assenting comments and knowing nods around the room, that North Carolinians had “no idea” what was in store for their state.
Sue Null’s PFLAG journey began in 1995. At that time the Nulls had opened their home to a young Korean man, Ike, who was learning English. She began attending meetings when she learned that Ike was gay.
“After hearing so many distressing stories of parents who rejected their GLBT family members, I stayed on to learn more and to participate in more PFLAG activities,” she says. (For the uninitiated, PFLAG is the acronym for Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the national support organization that began with a meeting at a New York City church in 1973. For info about local PFLAG meetings, click here.)
Sue’s husband, Jim, joined the local PFLAG chapter a year later. Eventually, Jim began writing all of the group’s grant applications, later serving as vice president and president for PFLAG Houston, and then as the PFLAG regional director for Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Most recently Jim was elected to the PFLAG national board of directors.
Sue held her share of PFLAG Houston offices as well, serving as the group’s secretary for several years, then advocacy chair.
All those years’ worth of mementos and souvenirs from their efforts could spawn the greatest GLBT garage sale of all time: Hate Hurts signs from PFLAG excursions to Washington, D.C., and lobby days in Austin. Brochures from the 2005 Love Won Out protest, responding to antigay billboards in Galveston touting ex-gay conversion therapy. Political push cards handed out in grocery lines. Placards from a presidential motorcade protest, decrying the current administration’s attempt to ban same-sex marriage in the U.S. Constitution. Citations including Sue’s 2000 Champions Award from the Houston Transgender Unity Committee and Jim’s 2003 Ray Hill Award for Advocacy By a Non-Attorney from the Stonewall Law Association of Greater Houston.
Among their most prized kudos, they say, are medals from 2004, when they were named honorary grand marshals of the GLBT Pride Parade.
“That was a real high point, a definite high point,” Sue reminisces. “We had marched in the parade before, of course. As you come around the bend, toward the end, the noise just gets so voluminous, so noisy in support of PFLAG.”
“We still have the big badges, the medals, hanging up in our living room,” Jim says. “We will have them displayed prominently in Brevard.”
A town with a population of approximately 7,000 people, Brevard, North Carolina, is a far cry from the über-urban style of living in the fourth largest city in the United States. But the couple has already found community in the local Unitarian Universalist church (in Houston, they were long-time members of First Unitarian Universalist Church).
“It’s nice to know that even in a conservative community you’re going to find these enclaves, these little groups of people with whom you can feel a sense of community and togetherness,” Sue says. “You will find kindred spirits.”
Located about 45 minutes from the renowned lesbian-heavy enclave of Asheville, Brevard has a small PFLAG chapter that Jim categorizes as “almost defunct.”
“Nobody would take over the position as president,” he says. “The people who have been doing it are just sort of burned out, so there really is not a strong, functioning PFLAG in that area right now.”
Will the Nulls reactivate the chapter?
“Yes, I think we probably will,” Jim says. “The PFLAG regional director lives in Hendersonville, just 20 minutes away from Brevard, so I would think we will be involved in trying to get something going.”
But Sue, a long-time educator and English as a second language instructor, has other plans.
“My idea is something considerably more moderate, given the size of the community,” she says. First on Sue’s agenda is to visit Brevard’s sole high school and other centers of learning.
“There is a university where I would want to make our presence known and educate counselors and all as to what PFLAG is, and that we are available as resources and back-ups. We are there to be called upon.”
Brevard is also home to a gay-owned campground, called Ash Grove, so there may be some ready-made allies right there.
With or without the official calling card of PFLAG, the Nulls will undoubtedly continue to write letters to newspaper editors, call radio talk shows, make TV appearances, wear equality-affirming T-shirts everywhere, and “embrace every possible opportunity to speak out in favor of equality and respect for GLBTs,” Sue says.
Among the many victories they have witnessed in Houston in recent years, the Nulls are perhaps most pleased with the changes that have occurred in local mainstream press coverage of GLBT issues.
“The Houston Chronicle has certainly changed totally in coverage and attitude, and PFLAG played a significant roll in that,” Jim says proudly.
Sue lined up a meeting with the paper’s editorial board in 1999, an idea she says came from local activist Deborah Bell, now KPFT Queer Voices co-host and chair of the Lesbian Rights Task Force for the National Organization for Women chapter in Texas.
“Deborah was saying that NOW or some feminist group had done something similar with the newspaper editorial board. So I called up, wrote an e-mail, and they agreed,” Sue says.
The Chronicle ‘s editorial board met with the Nulls, PFLAG Houston representatives including Don Sinclair, Jane and Irv Smith, Roger Donnelly, and others for an hour and a half, Jim recalls.
“It was very interesting. It was clear that they didn’t have any idea what to expect,” Jim says. ” They kept asking us, ‘What are your issues? What is it you care about?’ People were giving them sort of vague answers, and they were becoming frustrated.
“Finally, I said, ‘Let me tell you one: Our lesbian daughter and her partner would like to adopt a child. There’s a bill in the Texas legislature now, sponsored by Talton out in Pasadena, that would prohibit gays or lesbians from adopting children. So we are opposed to that.'”
Jim says the group discussed the bill for a few minutes, and then moved on to other things. Two weeks later on a Saturday morning, they realized the fruit of their efforts.
“Lo and behold, the Chronicle had this huge editorial opposing Talton’s bill!” Jim says. “The editorial was almost poetry. It was just beautiful.”
But their struggle hasn’t been all poetry and plaques. The 2001 defeat of the city charter amendment to grant domestic partner health benefits to Houston city employees was particularly bitter for the couple.
“We were all unhappy about the marriage amendment last year, but we knew we could not possibly win that,” Sue says. “But this other one, back in 2001, we thought we might be able to win. And it was close. Really, really close.”
Despite the couple’s Energizer Bunny-like dedication to obtaining equality for all, Jim cites one area where he feels they have fallen short.
“I’ve always been disappointed that there seems to be almost no awareness in the GLBT community that PFLAG is really a support organization for them,” he says. “The gay community thinks PFLAG is just an organization for the parents, and the parents think we’re just here for the gays.”
At the same time, Jim applauds the local GLBT community’s financial support of PFLAG, particularly from groups like the Krewe of Olympus, the Hollyfield Foundation, Bunnies on the Bayou, and the John Steven Kellett Foundation.
“Year after year after year, the support we’ve gotten from various foundations and social groups in Houston has been absolutely wonderful. If we hadn’t had that, we wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things that we have done—the billboard campaign, all of the Healing the Hurt conferences, all of the brochures going into schools and so forth.
“What’s happened is, we produce results so we get support and we can produce more results.”
Of all of PFLAG’s achievements in recent years, Sue says the relationship built between PFLAG and the transgender community has been particularly gratifying for her.
In the late ’90s, the national board of PFLAG amended its mission statement to include transgender people.
“At that point, they also urged all the chapters to amend their mission statements and their programs. This in Houston was a somewhat touchy issue. The relationship between the transgender community and PFLAG was somewhat scarred,” Sue recalls.
Somebody told her to look up Vanessa Edwards Foster, a transgender activist.
“Vanessa was very eager, also, to do whatever she could do to mend the relationship between the transgender community and PFLAG,” Sue says. Together they set up an educational panel, with PFLAG national sending a representative to share the national viewpoint.
“I think about 50 people attended. It was phenomenal!” Sue says. “For many of us, it was the starting point to really opening our eyes and opening our minds toward a group of people most of us knew little or nothing about. And I think we have progressed since then. We have a growing transgender support group during our monthly meetings. The transgender support group started very small, but now it’s going pretty strong every month.
“We couldn’t have imagined way back in ’99 when we started this panel to try to understand each other and talk to each other that we were going to end up where we are now. Our next president’s stepdaughter is transgender! I’m very happy that that happened.”
Sue and Jim say they are looking forward to moving closer to two of their daughters, Christie and Cathy, as well their new granddaughter, especially since their son and his family live in France. But at the same time, the Nulls find it painful to leave behind their beloved Korean son, Ike, and the vibrant gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in Houston.
“For us, it has been such an incredible journey of learning, of growing, of sensitivity, of compassion. It has been so valuable, so rewarding, so worthwhile,” Sue says.
And for us, as well. Good luck, dear friends.
Got a comment?—[email protected].
For local activists, including PFLAG Houston, life without the Nulls is difficult to imagine. But PFLAG continues to meet:
Monthly meeting are held on the first Sunday of each month, 2 p.m., at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
PFLAG Houston board of directors meets on the second Thursday of the month, 7 p.m., at the Houston GLBT Community Center (where the group maintains an office).
A mid-month discussion group meets at on the third Thursday of the month, 7:30 p.m., at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.