An interview with Texas’s first openly gay Latino city council member.
by Megan Smith
As a young boy, Robert Gallegos sat at his kitchen table and told two of his older brothers that when he grew up, he wanted to be involved
in the community. Several decades later, a now-grown Gallegos leans back and, with a warm smile, recalls this story—this time as the newly sworn-in Houston city council member for District I, and the first openly gay Latino council member in the state.
“I got that fever back then,” he says. “I remember telling my brothers that I wanted to see what I could do to help the community . . . and I’ve kept that promise to myself, because for thirty-some years I was involved in the community, and now I’m here representing the district.”
District I—which encompasses the East End, EaDo (around the new BBVA Compass Stadium), and most of Downtown Houston—has always been home for Gallegos. Born in the old Parkview hospital on 75thStreet and Harrisburg Boulevard, he is the youngest of seven. His parents immigrated to Magnolia Park in the 1920s as young teenagers and were some of the first Latino immigrants to settle in the area. His father moved from Michoacán and his mother from Jalisco, Mexico. “I take pride that I’m an East Ender, someone that is from District I, and now I’m representing District I,” Gallegos says.
His passion for the community first translated into a political role during his time as president of his parish’s Catholic Youth Organization. The group’s mentor was very politically involved and had members campaigning and handing out fliers for their selected candidate. “These were the days before social media,” he laughs. “And my parents never said no [to me participating], especially since we were advocating for Kennedy.”
At first, Gallegos kept his love for the community on the sidelines of his career in logistic sales in motor freight and international trade. He served as the president of his neighborhood civic club for 15 years and consistently volunteered in his free time. But when former Harris County Precinct 2 County Commissioner Sylvia R. Garcia (now a state senator) offered Gallegos a position as the liaison for District H & I, Galena Park, Jacinto City, and Aldine, he decided to make his passion for the community his full-time job. “It was a dream come true, in a sense, because I was out there in the community, which I enjoy doing, and I was getting paid for it,” he says.
Gallegos says he enjoyed almost eight great years working for Garcia, but after she lost her re-election to Republican newcomer Jack Morman and some political “cleaning house” happened, he found himself working as a detention officer for the Sheriff’s Department. During this time, however, running for office was always in the back of his mind. After encouragement from friends and family, Gallegos knew that if he was going to run for city council, the time was now.
Campaigning was not easy, Gallegos says, and his run divided the LGBT community. He chose to be screened for endorsement by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, but was surprised by the outcome. The Caucus chose to endorse his opponent, Graci Garcés, a straight ally to the community, over Gallegos.
“I got up there and said that I’m the only openly gay candidate in this race and I’m the only candidate that has actually been active trying to elect other openly gay candidates,” Gallegos says. “It was kind of like a fight trying to get this endorsement. I had my supporters there, and my opponent had hers there as well. We even brought one of my four-by-four [campaign] signs, which had ‘joto’ (which roughly translates to ‘faggot’ in English) written on it. [People] were going around spraying that on my signs, and I wanted to let [the Caucus] know that this is what’s going on and that I was asking for their support. And from the screening committee, I had more points than my opponent. If they would have followed that, I would have gotten the endorsement. But then there were a few individuals, I guess on the officers’ end of it, for some odd reason felt that I wasn’t a viable candidate. Of course, they were wrong.”
Although Gallegos did not receive the Caucus’s endorsement for the November election, he e-mailed the organization following their January officer elections and extended his congratulations to the Caucus’s new president, Maverick Welsh. Welsh returned the congratulations, and Gallegos is optimistic about their future working relationship. “I’m very willing and more than happy to work with the Caucus,” he emphasizes.
Gallegos did, however, receive an endorsement and funding from The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national political action committee dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBT public officials. “That was great,” Gallegos says. “There were two or three people there during the GLBT Caucus endorsement that were from the Victory Fund, and they saw and heard what
was going on. While I was waiting outside, [they] came out and said ‘We’ve got your back.’”
The Victory Fund supported Gallegos, as did the people in District I. He won the runoff election with almost 53 percent of the vote, making him a pioneer within the gay Latino community. “I feel that it’s letting other Latinos and Latinas out there—that are gay and feel like maybe they don’t belong because of the culture—know that they are individuals, and [to pursue] whatever dreams they have because they can accomplish whatever they want to accomplish,” he says.
Gallegos’s personal dreams for District I include major infrastructure improvements in the aging neighborhoods—many of which have recently had their centennial celebrations. “We have a rich history in District I,” he says. “We have some of the oldest neighborhoods in the city.” Gallegos says he will make sure that some of the money from the ReBuild Houston initiative, which seeks to improve Houstonians’ lives by improving drainage and street infrastructure, is used for his district.
Enhancing the natural beauty of the bayous within District I is also a top priority for Gallegos. In November 2012, Houston voters overwhelmingly approved a major bond referendum that provides $100 million to Bayou Greenways 2020, a project that will bring hike-and-bike trails to all of the city’s bayous. “In District I, we have some of the larger, beautiful bayous—Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou, and Sims Bayou—so as District I council member, I want to make sure that, of course, we get our hike-and-bike trails so we can have them hooked up and our residents can enjoy jogging, walking their dogs, or riding their bikes.”
Gallegos will be using those trails right alongside the members of his district, as he is—like many of us—trying to get back into the habit of regularly jogging. Some of his staff are even trying to convince him to participate in the MS 150 this April, where he would bike from Houston to Austin to fundraise for multiple sclerosis research.
Above all, Gallegos wants the members of his district to know that he is accessible to them and always willing to listen to their needs. “Not one [of District I’s previous council members] ever invited me to their office. To the conference room, yes, but never to the office,” he says. “So, if I have guests, I try to invite them in so they can know where their council member’s office is. My door is always open.”