Sign Up for the Outsmart Newsletter
HISD board member Anna Eastman is determined to see our school system’s LGBT employees and students protected and supported.
By Brandon Wolf
Late in the afternoon of August 11, 2011, Houston Independent School District board members cast their vote and adopted a new policy. The video display above their heads indicated a vote of 8–0 in favor.
There was no crescendo of cheers from the guests in the meeting room, and no unusual reaction from the board members. But many of the guests—and board member Anna Eastman—knew that history had been made. The nation’s seventh-largest school district had just adopted a nondiscrimination policy that protected LGBT employees and students.
That victory didn’t just happen by itself. Eastman had worked with members of Houston’s LGBT community for two years to bring the issue to a vote. It was also the culmination of a five-year effort spearheaded by activist Jenifer Rene Pool. “We needed the right board president in place, and we wanted there to be no opposition,” Eastman says. The mission was accomplished.
Growing Up Conservative
Anna Milliken Eastman was born in 1967 at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Florida. She was the sixth of seven children in a Catholic family. Her father was a skilled navigator who worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
When she was four, the family moved to Texas and settled near Dallas in Richardson, where she received an excellent public education. “The school district was noted for its solid academic record and its emphasis on accountability,” she says.
She enjoyed art, English literature, and geometry. She took piano lessons and played drums in the school band during middle school. In high school, she was a member of the Girl’s Service League. She had great fun as a member of the league’s clown troupe, entertaining hospital patients and nursing home residents.
Eastman was also a member of the Christian Young Life group, a teen organization founded on fundamentalist principles. She remembers that some members of the group would go into Dallas’ gay areas and attempt to save LGBT souls from the hellfire that awaited them. “I wasn’t interested in doing that,” she says. Instead, she focused on the friendships and good times that the group enjoyed together.
Then, unexpectedly, in the last semester of her senior year, the good times turned tragic. Eastman was in a car returning from a Young Life event when the driver lost control of the vehicle and ran off the road. Eastman’s seat belt broke, and she was thrown from the car. When her parents arrived at the hospital, they found her with broken bones and shattered ribs.
“It was a difficult exercise in truth-telling,” she says, having to admit that she and the others had been fooling around—just being silly, she thought. Eastman was confined to a wheelchair and housebound for the rest of her senior year. A home teacher was assigned to help her finish her studies. She was amazed at how many students regularly came by to visit her and keep her spirits up. When graduation day came, she says, “I walked across that stage to get my diploma.”
Eastman chose to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, using an academic scholarship. She majored in art history and minored in French.
After her sophomore year, she decided to take a year off for an au pair job in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a large family, and she helped the nanny take care of the children. She laughingly admits, “Yes, there were times when I led them in singing ‘Do, Re, Mi.’”
Returning to Texas, Eastman enrolled at the University of Texas. Her coursework included fine art, art history, studio art, and French. She especially enjoyed constructing three-dimensional assemblages in her studio art classes.
Eastman joined the UT Catholic Center, becoming involved in their social activities. She found one of her new friends especially attractive and developed a crush on him. One day he told her that he was gay. It broke her heart, but she still wanted to maintain a friendship with him. “I was so unbelievably naïve back then,” she admits. “I’d never known anyone openly gay before.”
In a short time, Eastman came to know a number of gay men as her new friend introduced her around. She found the men likeable and fun, and enjoyed their “underground lifestyle” in Austin.
It was the early 1990s and AIDS was rampant in the gay community, with no cure in sight. Eastman became involved in shopping for groceries and delivering them to men with advanced AIDS who could no longer get out on their own.
Eastman also developed a special friendship with a young gay man named Javier. She was devastated when she learned that he was fighting AIDS, and as his life ebbed away, she visited him often. After his death, she made an AIDS quilt panel in his memory.
Discussing fond memories of Javier during the interview for this article hit a chord in Eastman’s heart, and she found herself dissolving into tears. Witnessing the impact that relationship had on her was powerful—Eastman’s love and concern for the LGBT community is very real and very deep.
Graduate School and Beyond
Eastman moved on to Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where she spent a year and a half in a graduate program for social work. She studied statistics, family structure, community organizing, and psychology, and left with a master’s degree in social work.
While Eastman was still in Austin, she had met Brad—the man who would later become her husband. They were introduced at a social event and took to each other, despite the fact that he was Jewish and she was Catholic.
They became engaged in 1994, and celebrated by backpacking across Morocco and Spain—on $1,500. They were married in 1995, and moved to Brooklyn where Brad had found employment in a law firm.
Eastman found a retail job at Crate & Barrel. She smiles at the irony of a degreed social worker helping people choose just the right color-coordinated furniture and accessories for their homes.
In 1996, Eastman became pregnant with her first child. She and her husband didn’t want to raise children in New York City, so they moved back to Texas. They first lived in Austin, but moved to Houston when Brad was offered a corporate attorney position, writing contracts and assisting in negotiations. They found a bungalow in the Heights at Studemont and 11th Street. Eastman loved the diversity of the area.
The young couple had two more children, and Eastman happily settled into her role as a mother. The children were introduced to both Reform Judaism and Catholicism, and attended HISD schools in their area.
Eastman gradually became involved in the local PTA by taking on fundraising responsibilities. Then in 2002, her community became upset with plans for upgrading their local school because it involved sending their children to a different school on North Main Street while the construction was underway.
Sensing a situation that she felt she could make a difference in, Eastman spearheaded and then led the Travis Elementary PTA Ad Hoc Transition Committee in 2003. They facilitated moving students to temporary buildings while the school was closed for major renovations. Her social-work skills helped to minimize the controversy.
Two years later, a group of parents asked Eastman to consider the open position of Travis PTA president. She agreed to run, and served from 2005 to 2007. “I had little leadership experience, but I still agreed to do it,” she says. “It was a time of tremendous personal growth.”
Entering the Political Arena
In 2008, Eastman became involved in local campaigning for Barack Obama. She provided the office space for the Heights campaign office, and worked with the staff. Her husband had attended Harvard Law School at the same time the future president was there, and Brad was impressed with what he saw of Obama during those two years. “Brad knew he was an excellent speaker and leader,” Eastman says.
In 2009, the HISD board member from Eastman’s district decided not to run for re-election. Once again, a group of parents came to her, this time asking her to run for the board opening. “A campaign makes you vulnerable, but it’s also personally challenging,” she says.
Eastman was eager to win the endorsement of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, but since she was not aware of their deadline for screening, she was left out of the endorsement process. Determined to still capture votes from the community, she and her husband worked the polling locations, just feet from the caucus volunteers.
Eastman personally asked LGBT voters to give her their vote instead of the caucus-endorsed candidate, and she explained why they should. The strategy put her into a runoff, and she won by 190 votes. She was sworn in to her first term in 2010.
In 2013, she handily won a second four-year term. As a trustee, she has held each board leadership position—president, second vice president, secretary, and assistant secretary.
A Devotion to Houston’s LGBT Community
After taking office, Eastman immediately began working to convince HISD to adopt an LGBT nondiscrimination policy for both staff and students. She led internal lobbying efforts that resulted in HISD being the second school district in Texas to adopt a fully inclusive policy in 2011.
Eastman worked closely with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educators Network) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), offering training sessions at the campus level to promote inclusion and reduce bullying.
GLSEN provided “SAFE Space” kits to every high school in HISD, helping to create safe environments for LGBT youth. Eastman helped them promote Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, and the annual Day of Silence. She also facilitated the HRC’s “Welcoming Schools” program for elementary schools.
Eastman is an ardent advocate for transgender youth and their families. She has presented annually at the Gender Infinity conferences in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2014, she testified about HISD’s successful policy implementation before Houston City Council during the HERO proceedings. Being a school-board trustee requires a sizeable investment of Eastman’s time.
During the week of the monthly board meetings, she spends 25–30 hours in preparation. There are also constituent meetings, invitations to address luncheons, and fact-finding visits to schools. Having three children in the system helps to inform her work as she gets first-hand impressions and opinions from them.
In addition to her commitment to public education, Eastman has been involved in the larger community, serving on advisory boards for Holocaust Museum Houston, the Recipe for Success Foundation, and Undies for Everyone. She also advises efforts that work with adolescent sexual abuse, teen sexual health, and HPV (a sexual infection) prevention.
Eastman and her husband are opera fans, and she is involved with Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco, a unique initiative that brings opera into the lives of Houstonians through performances and workshops in schools, vocal training programs, opera camps, and the award-winning Song of Houston projects.
The late Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Anna Milliken Eastman is determined to use that powerful weapon in the fight to end homophobia and transphobia. Her dedication to Houston’s LGBT community makes her a true ally.
Brandon Wolf also writes about the female and male Pride marshals in this issue of OutSmart.