It Takes Only One Vote to Become First Lady
Kathy Hubbard loves Houston’s vast diversity.
by Brandon Wolf
Photo by Brandon Wolf
Houston’s First Lady, Kathy Hubbard, longtime partner of “the first out lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city,” has been making some history of her own during the last four years.
The role of Houston’s First Lady is undefined, and each of Hubbard’s predecessors had her own way of handling the job. The visibility of recent mayoral spouses has run the gamut from Elyse Lanier’s office in City Hall to Frances Young (Brown)’s chosen near-invisibility. Kathy Whitmire, whose husband died five years before she became mayor, remained single during her ten-year administration back in the ’80s.
The position is also unfunded—if the mayor’s spouse accompanies the mayor on a trip, they pay their own expenses, including airfare. About the only thing they are truly expected to do is to be at the mayor’s side during the swearing-in ceremony.
Our current First Lady met with OutSmart magazine in late August and talked about her experiences in fulfilling this role. She is warm and approachable, attentive and genuine. She approaches life with a calm pragmatism that is tinged with a mischievous sense of humor.
“A Naturalized Houstonian”
Hubbard was born in Boston and grew up in chilly Buffalo, New York. She is the oldest of four children, with two sisters and a brother.
In 1979, she traveled to Houston for the first time to visit her sister who was living here. She says she was ready to live in a warmer climate. Houston could definitely provide that, but it was her trip to the Galleria that sold Hubbard on the city. “I was amazed when I saw people of all races and nationalities there,” she remembers. She fell in love with this diversity and moved to the city the next year.
Her entire family has been very supportive of Hubbard’s twenty-three-year relationship with Annise Parker. Although her parents still live in Buffalo, they have attended every one of Parker’s swearing-in ceremonies—three as council member, three as controller, and two as mayor. They hope to return to Houston next January if Parker wins a final two-year term on November 5.
Coming to Grips with a New Role
During Parker’s first mayoral race, Hubbard says that she was too busy with the campaign to think about what she might do as First Lady. While candidates for mayor need to talk about what they will do if elected, the spouse’s role is rarely a topic of discussion. “It only takes one vote to become First Lady,” Hubbard says with a smile.
The reality that she might have a very public position hit her during the 2009 victory party after the election that put Parker into a runoff. “Someone came up to me and asked if I would be a host at the next annual picnic of their nonprofit organization.” At first Hubbard didn’t understand, but then realized people were already starting to get in line to win her attention.
Even on the night of Parker’s runoff election victory, Hubbard took nothing for granted. It wasn’t until she and Parker stepped onto the stage at the victory rally that it became real. “It was one of those thunderbolt moments,” she says. “I knew I would remember this for the rest of my life. It suddenly seemed like we could accomplish anything, and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe there is hope for world peace.’”
What Does a Houston First Lady Do?
Hubbard is frequently seen accompanying Mayor Parker to fundraising galas and other events. With her usual gracious style, Hubbard often poses for pictures with attendees and answers questions from local society reporters.
But the bulk of Hubbard’s effort is spent representing Houston and her partner at consular events. Houston is a port city and conducts business with many foreign countries. As a diverse melting pot, Houston has large populations of citizens from around the world who have made Texas their new home.
Houston is home to ninety-four busy consulates that host public events to celebrate their countries and their cultures. Hubbard says it’s not possible to accept all the invitations she receives. Instead, she tries to attend events where several consulates join together to celebrate a common interest.
Fittingly, her biggest event is the annual reception for spouses of consulate officials. “Most of the attention is given to the officials throughout the year,” says Hubbard. “So we organize one big event annually to recognize their spouses, because families are important, too.”
The event is held during the holidays, and the venue used to be the beautiful “Rienzi” mansion in River Oaks that was willed to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. “But we outgrew that,” Hubbard says, “and now it’s held in the newly renovated Julia Ideson Library.”
Accomplishments that Matter
As she reminisces, Hubbard highlights four accomplishments she feels have been especially important:
Gay inclusion—Hubbard says she has tried to be involved in anything where the heterosexual spouse of a mayor would traditionally participate. “I believe we’ve helped people see that gays are just like everyone else, and that we belong here.”
Adoption—“We brought attention to the importance of giving children a home,” Hubbard continues. “Our own children are all past eighteen now, and they are doing fine. Having gay parents hasn’t affected them adversely.”
Good will—“I’ve always been interested in people getting along with each other,” says Hubbard. “It’s still hard for me to understand why so many don’t seem to be able to. I’ve done what I can to foster acceptance of all people.”
The environment—“Healthy planet, healthy people,” says Hubbard. Hubbard’s public role has given her many new opportunities to spread the word about the importance of recycling and protecting our environment. She has teamed up with predecessors Elyse Lanier and Andrea White to continue promoting bayou cleanup efforts.
The Ups and Downs of Political Life
On the positive side, Hubbard says that being the First Lady has increased the size and importance of her contact list, affording her the ability to promote favorite causes and to help link people who share similar goals for the city.
Hubbard says she also gets to make trips to interesting places. When Mayor Parker visited Turkey last spring to promote the new non-stop flight linking Houston and Istanbul, Hubbard joined her. She was especially moved by a tour of Anıtkabir, a mausoleum dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
On the flip side, Hubbard says she doesn’t get to see as much of her partner as she used to. “Three days a week she is out the door at 7 a.m. for a breakfast meeting, and we’re lucky if she arrives back by 8 p.m.”
Hubbard says she also misses spending time with old friends. “We just don’t have the luxury of ‘hanging out’ with the kind of schedule we have to follow. And when we do find some free time, we often pull up the drawbridge and enjoy staying home.
“I can’t go slumming to run errands anymore, either,” she laughs. “Some of the outfits I used to wear just don’t work when you’re the First Lady of the city.”
In addition to her First Lady duties, Hubbard still runs her own bookkeeping service. “I’m thankful for great employees,” she says, when asked how she gets it all done.
As for her children, they miss seeing their other mom. “They practically have to make an appointment,” she sighs. “But then, they have discovered they get the best seats in the house at sports events and the rodeo! Life compensates.”
Hubbard is philosophical about it all. “As the old saying goes, ‘Everyone gets what they need, but no one gets all that they want.’”
Being a Part of Human Rights History
During the 2009 mayoral campaign, an opponent sent out a mail piece that clearly featured Hubbard standing with her partner at an inaugural ceremony. A headline asked, “Is This the Image Houston Wants to Portray?” The implication was that it wasn’t—but voters didn’t buy that outdated attack strategy.
Hubbard says she doesn’t take the negativity personally. “I understand their psychological construct, and the fact that they think we violate their beliefs and values.”
But there is a line that cannot be crossed. Hubbard mentions a mailer from a self-appointed “Texas Ethics Advisory Board” that condemned her support of Planned Parenthood. The mail piece included pictures of Hubbard’s children. “How dare they endanger my children’s lives! Adults can disagree civilly, and there are ways to go about dealing with differences. But only cowards hide behind children!”
Other than these rare episodes, Hubbard says people have gone out of their way to be welcoming. “If there are people who are purposely excluding me, I guess I haven’t had time to notice—because there are so many people who are kind and accepting.”
Hubbard ends the interview with a favorite memory of Mayor Parker’s appearance on The Colbert Report. “He asked her if she had a partner, and Annise said she did. Then he asked her if she called me the First Lady. ‘No,’ Annise responded, ‘I call her Kathy.’”
Brandon Wolf also writes about Mayor Annise Parker in this issue of OutSmart.