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InsideOut At City Hall: Learning from Lessons Past

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Reflections on Thanksgiving, GLBTs in Iran, and war.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been in public office almost a decade, but around my house November has become synonymous with voting, Thanksgiving, and the annual gathering of gay elected and appointed officials. While enjoying my favorite pumpkin pie after a fine Thanksgiving meal, I can almost forget that, in the odd-numbered years, the family holiday is sandwiched between two important local elections, the November general election and any necessary runoff elections a few weeks later.

By this time, you may have already voted in the November 6 general election. If not, please exercise your important right to elect your representatives and keep your card handy for the City Council runoff elections in about a month.

Neighborhoods on the Line  

That loud noise you’re hearing around the neighborhood may be the rock colliding with the hard place. Neighbors can be heard muttering the unthinkable Z-word: zoning. As I have stated before, Houston will never have traditional zoning. The city is already a complicated patchwork quilt that cannot be untangled. Though I worked hard for zoning the last time it was on the ballot, I am frustrated when Houstonians fixate on some variation of “if only we had zoning” rather than work to create new, or implement existing, ordinances that can give protections.  

You and your neighbors may live far from 1717 Bissonnet, but I bet you could look up and imagine a 23-story high-rise right behind your homes, rising up all by itself nowhere near downtown or other tall buildings.

You wanted new neighbors, and more traffic’s just a bonus! Do you enjoy people looking down into your shady backyard, which used to enjoy sun? And what a view…all the way to the 23rd story. If things weren’t bad enough, you might want to brace yourself for a drop in property values.

Those opposed to the high-rise have begun a petition drive (www.stopashbyhighrise.org). The mayor and I, as well as Council members Sue Lovell, Anne Clutterbuck, and others, have publicly stated our opposition to this highly incompatible development. It’s simple when you visualize it: Do we want high-rises popping up all along two-lane streets like Bissonnet surrounding neighborhoods like concrete mountains? In their proper place, these high-rises provide wonderful homes for people, and they have every right to live in them. Determining the “proper place(s)” for high-rises and a healthy mix of high-rises, townhomes, and single-family homes is a challenge facing City Council.

I believe we need to explore additional protections that address the height and mass of buildings in relation to surrounding properties. I would also urge quick movement on new regulations requiring a traffic impact analysis and appropriate traffic mitigation for any high-density development. If mitigation is not feasible, building permits should be denied.

There are already numerous examples of Houston’s failed policies regarding development. Residents in many of our neighborhoods have been fighting the fight for so long they are literally exhausted. Let Southampton be the last time this happens.

GLBTS in Iran

Let’s get this straight. There are no—repeat—no “gays” in Iran, this word from the Iranian president himself in his recent United Nations speech. President Ahmadinejad certainly qualifies as one of the world’s masters of denial. As you may know, he also asserts that the Holocaust never occurred. A bigot is a bigot is a bigot. I mention Ahmadinejad not because we need to be reminded that discrimination runs rampant in the world, but because I see a ray of hope in his outrageous outbursts. His speech prompted an openly gay Tehran man to write about Iranian gays in the New York Times (our Houston Chronicle reprinted it) and push the topic of GLBTs in repressive countries further into the spotlight.

As I have said many times, progress must often be measured in tiny steps. I salute the courage of those who come out under conditions that literally put their lives at risk.

War

As I write this, I’ve just finished watching Ken Burns’ amazing PBS series, War, hence my mood is far more reflective and global than usual. If you haven’t had a chance to watch it, I strongly recommend it. What a life-changing event.

My grandfathers were too old, and my father too young, to serve our country in time of war, although my father served in the 82nd Airborne, stationed in Okinawa, and later did two tours as a civilian in Vietnam. Still, I grew up hearing stories from my parents and grandparents about the enormous sacrifices required. I have a treasured shoebox of letters from my great uncle written from Burma during that bloody campaign.   

The documentary almost transports you right back to an American street in the 1940s. Images of daily life surround you—food rations, kids collecting scrap metal, male and female factory workers, omnipresent war bond sales, everyone following the war because literally everyone knew a soldier. Not to mention blackouts and sunken ships along the coast, including the Gulf Coast. I had not heard the story about saving cooking grease and turning it in so it could be used to make munitions.

Yes, some Hispanics and Native Americans criticize it for not “adequately” reflecting their contribution. As for GLBTs, War does note that many homosexuals died in the camps along with Jews, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, and others. We, of course, know that GLBTs served in all branches of the service and in all theaters of the war, many making the ultimate sacrifice for a country that still does not grant them full equality.  

I was profoundly moved when former soldiers agonized as they talked about the countless brutal deaths they witnessed—and will never forget—in this necessary and justified war. They did not compare World War II to other wars but seemingly left the viewer to make their own thoughtful comparisons.  

Annise Parker is Houston city controller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected official in the top 10 largest U.S. cities. On November 8, she was re-elected to a second term. Her city website is www.houstontx.gov/controller/. Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (TimeWarner Cable 16) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m.

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Annise Parker

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker is the President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund and LGBTQ Victory Institute. A complete list of Victory Fund-endorsed candidates is available at victoryfund.org/ourcandidates. They currently have 16 endorsed candidates running in Texas.

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