by Brandon Wolf • Photo by Dalton DeHart
“I remember Houston’s first Gay Pride Parade,” says Houston city council member Ellen Cohen. “There was no way I could have imagined that one day I’d be riding at the head of that parade as a marshal.”
A longtime friend and supporter of Houston’s LGBT community, Cohen worked hard to defeat antigay referendums in both 1985 and 2001. This year, she is the 2012 Honorary Pride Marshal, a designation bestowed upon a non-LGBT ally of the community.
An Athletic Girl
Cohen was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. “So many people talk about dysfunctional families,” she says, “but my sister and I grew up in a functional family.”
Cohen says her parents appreciated her natural athletic abilities and gave her great support. She loved to ride her bike, take part in field games, and playbasketball.
“When I was young, girls played half-court basketball,” Cohen remembers. “It was thought that running the length of a full court could damage female reproductive organs.” She can’t seem to suppress a look of disdain at such a notion.
Cohen’s parents were strong people, and helped her develop a strong inner core and sense of self. She also learned early on to value people on their individual merits. “My parents never defined people by differences,” says Cohen. “They didn’t use terms like ‘the black family at the end of the block.’”
At the age of 14, Cohen spent her summer at a unique co-ed camp in Ontario, Canada, that offered a wide variety of physical activities. “My father was concerned,” she says. “He was sure I’d fall in love with a Canadian and move to Canada.”
Her father’s fears turned out to be prophetic. Cohen met her future husband, Lyon, at the camp. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “I saw him lifting a wooden canoe from a rack and putting it into the lake.” At age 20, she married him and moved to Montreal. They had two children, Marcie and Eric, both born in Canada.
No Stranger to Adversity
In her mid-20s, Cohen was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was very unusual for this disease to strike a girl as young as I was,” she says. The diagnosis came in the days before radiation and chemotherapy. “There were only two choices,” says Cohen, “radical mastectomy or death.”
After recovering from the surgery, she started a program called “Reach to Recovery.” The program is still in operation, run by the American Cancer Society. Volunteers are breast-cancer survivors who give newly diagnosed patients an opportunity to express their feelings and ask questions. The program helps build emotional grounding and enables patients to make informed decisions.
In 1977, the Cohens decided to move and chose Houston as their destination. “It was a fortunate coincidence,” says Cohen, because shortly after arriving in the city, her husband was diagnosed with a tumor on his spinal cord. “The initial prognosis was that he had three years, at best, to live,” Cohen recalls. But with access to Houston’s state-of-the-art medical center, her husband lived for more than 30 additional years.
A Lifetime of Service
Cohen eventually found work as the executive director of the Houston regional office of the American Jewish Committee. AJC is an advocacy organization that focuses on building bridges of understanding, advancing the security of Americans and the democratic world, combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, supporting Israel’s quest for peace and security, advocating for energy independence, and strengthening Jewish life.
Cohen is particularly proud of the black/Jewish dialogues she helped to build. “I worked with some amazing people, including Kirbyjon Caldwell and Bill Lawson.”
In June 1984, the Houston City Council passed a measure barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in city employment. The vote prompted a backlash among religious conservatives, who advanced a referendum to repeal the law.
Cohen and the American Jewish Committee worked against the repeal. However, the referendum was approved by a devastating margin of 80 to 20 percent in January 1985. The defeat caused many political figures to distance themselves from the gay community, but Cohen continued to advocate for LGBT equality.
In 1990, Cohen joined the Houston Women’s Center as president and CEO. The Center is dedicated to eliminating domestic and sexual violence. She oversaw a $6.2 million budget and a 120-person staff.
In 1998, Mayor Lee Brown issued an executive order protecting LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. Council member Rob Todd led efforts to fight the order in court, arguing that the 1985 referendum made it inappropriate for the mayor to institute the protections without voter approval. After three years of defending the policy in court, the City won.
But the victory was short-lived. Perpetual nemesis of the Houston LGBT community Dave Wilson mounted a “family values” campaign for an amendment to the City Charter, prohibiting the City of Houston from providing domestic partner benefits. Cohen stood with the gay community, against the amendment. Nevertheless, in November 2001, voters approved the amendment 51 to 49 percent.
A Legislative Career Cut Short
In 2005, Cohen was encouraged to run for the Texas House of Representatives. In 2006, she defeated opponent Martha Wong. The victory was especially meaningful to Houston’s gay community, because Wong had previously ousted longtime state representative Debra Danburg, an ardent ally of the community during her 22-year legislative career.
Cohen says her greatest accomplishment as a Texas legislator was the passage of a $3 billion cancer research bill in 2007. The bill created the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, whose mission is to undertake “groundbreaking” cancer research.
After serving two terms in the Texas legislature, Cohen lost her seat to challenger Sarah Davis by 725 votes in 2010. Her legislative career was ended by the anti-Obama backlash inspired by the right-wing Tea Party, which swept Republicans into office across the nation.
In November 2011, Cohen won the Houston City Council District C seat, where she is now serving her first term. She will be up for reelection in November 2013.
Houston’s ‘Can Do’ Attitude
Council Member Cohen’s corner office in the City Hall Annex has two floor-to-ceiling glass walls that provide a stunning view of City Hall and the surrounding area. She says that recently she was asked what Houston would be like in 20 years. Cohen responded that anything is possible in Houston. Looking across the street, she nods toward City Hall and asks, “Twenty years ago, who would have ever thought that Houston would have a lesbian mayor?
“Houston has always been a city of visionaries,” Cohen remarks. “There is a ‘can do’ attitude in this city. Anyone can land here and be successful—through hard work and honesty. You don’t have to have been born into ‘the right family.’”
Cohen notes that Houston is now among the top 25 destinations in the United States. Looking ahead, she predicts the expansion of Houston’s role as a port city and as an educational hub. “In the next 20 years, it’s possible that we may add another 4 million citizens. That would bring us very close to being the largest city in the country.”
Cohen says that her life has been “spectacular.” She feels very blessed to have had a wonderful 40-year marriage, two wonderful children, and to have survived cancer.
In addition, Cohen is grateful that her mother has already lived to the age of 97. Asked how her mother is doing, she answers, “Well, pretty good, I guess. The last time I called she didn’t have time to talk—she was on her way out the door, headed for the gym.”
Looking ahead to Houston’s Gay Pride events, she says that she especially enjoys the History Tent that has now become an annual institution. And as she reflects on the national gay community, Cohen feels confident that gay marriage will eventually be a reality.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.