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Remembering Lee Harrington

Longtime LGBTQ activist was a catalyst for change in the 1980s and ’90s.

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Lee Harrington (photo via Kelli Gifford/GoFundMe)

Houston’s LGBTQ community was saddened by the news of longtime activist Lee Harrington’s death on June 17, 2020, after a long battle with bone marrow cancer.  

Harrington was a lifelong liberal Democrat and president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus from 1980 to 1982. His two terms in office occurred during a tumultuous time of civil-rights activism as local LGBTQ leaders worked to improve relations with the Houston Police Department.  

Harrington is perhaps best remembered by Houston’s LGBTQ community for spearheading the effort to move the annual Pride parades from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night, creating one of the nation’s first nighttime Pride parades.  

In addition to being a devoted father to his three sons Rick, Ray, and Frank, he taught journalism classes at the University of Houston for nearly two decades. He was a dedicated and popular instructor who prepared his students for jobs in journalism, advertising, and public relations.         

From Alabama to Houston

Harrington was born in 1943 in a small Alabama town. He remembered watching from the courthouse windows as local residents waited for their paper ballots to be counted by his grandfather, who was a county judge. Harrington felt that politics “had always been in my blood.” 

Harrington had a deep love of sports, and managed his freshman basketball team at the University of Alabama. After earning his bachelor’s degree in business, he led a Christian outreach program at Michigan State University in the 1970s. During that time he adopted his three sons, and eventually brought them along to many Michigan State sporting events.  

In June 1978, Harrington attended the Town Meeting I at Houston’s Astro Arena, a groundbreaking gathering of 3,500 LGBTQ individuals. The seminal event affected him so deeply that he moved to Houston and emerged from his semi-closeted life. “I was tired of hiding from myself, being a hypocrite and living a life that was not real,” he told a Houston Post writer in a story published on May 4, 1980.

Settled in Houston, Harrington became an enthusiastic supporter of the University of Houston Cougars as he worked to get the school admitted into a Power Five conference. He listened to Paul Finebaum on ESPN daily, exchanged emails with him, and even convinced him to visit UH and give the school more exposure. 

(photo via JD Doyle/houstonlgbthistory.org)

A Pivotal Political Figure

In January 1980, Steve Shifflet won a third term as GLBT Caucus president, and Harrington was elected vice president. Shifflet stepped down in April of that year over a policy dispute, which led to Harrington being elected president in a June special election. He then streamlined the Caucus processes for endorsing candidates and fundraising.  

In August, Harrington was in the local headlines after being fired from his position at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, which he said was due to his political activities in the gay community. In 1981, he sued the City of Houston over his termination. 

On September 15, President Jimmy Carter disembarked from Air Force One at Hobby Airport, and Harrington was in the receiving line to greet him. National news media took note of the fact that this was the first time a U.S. president had officially recognized a gay leader. Harrington was also included in the presidential motorcade from the airport.  

Harrington ran unopposed for his second Caucus term in January 1981. The organization saw its influence grow significantly that year, being one of the forces that helped put Kathy Whitmire into the mayor’s office. Newsweek magazine noted this rise of gay political power in Houston as part of its January 1982 article entitled “Gay Power in Macho Texas.”  

In February 1981, Harrington flew to Washington, DC, to organize a conference of LGBTQ leaders in June of that year. During the trip, Harrington met with Senator Robert Dole’s wife, a representative of the Republican National Committee, and an assistant to President Reagan.  

Harrington chose not to run again for the Caucus presidency in 1982, the year he was asked to be a special instructor for a course developed for the Houston Police Academy. He presented the four-hour course with another local gay man in an effort to give police officers an accurate, non-stereotypical picture of Houston’s LGBTQ community.  

In 1984, Harrington made his acting debut in a Diversity Theater production of Miss Stanwyck Is Still in Hiding.   

Lee Harrington (left) announcing that 1997 parade will be at night at the rally after the 1996 daytime parade (photo by Frank Parsley)

The Nighttime Pride Parade

Harrington was the driving force behind the 1996 campaign to make the Houston Pride parade a nighttime event. He was concerned about the extreme heat that parade-goers suffered during Sunday afternoons in June, especially those who were taking HIV medication.  

Using Sydney, Australia’s model of a nighttime Pride parade, Harrington worked with the City and Pride Houston, Inc., throughout 1996, and in 1997 the first illuminated parade made its way down Westheimer Road. Two years later, Harrington raised $10,000 to have a huge mirrored disco ball suspended over the intersection of Montrose and Westheimer for the parade.   

Attendance at the parades began to soar after the move to Saturday night. Families brought children to see the festivities and catch souvenirs tossed to the crowds from the glowing parade floats.  

Jack Valinski, the founder of Pride Houston, remembers working closely with Harrington on the logistics for the night parades. “Lee had a passion for it, and worked outside of the official committee, but he was always letting me know how he was doing. I remember seeing Mary Benton’s Channel 2 live news report, where she was standing on Montrose Boulevard near Westheimer with the entire intersection glittering from the suspended mirror ball behind her. Thanks, Lee!”

Harrington’s Legacy

Larry Bagneris, a former GLBT Caucus president and the organizer of Houston’s original Pride parade, noted that “Lee worked hard on the nighttime parade with his famous disco ball. He was also one of the first gay men that I knew to raise kids. Let us celebrate his life and the contributions he made to Houston’s LGBTQ community.”  

A former student who took Harrington’s Writing for Print and Digital Media course in 2016 remembers the LGBTQ-friendly environment he created for students. “He made it very clear that his class was a safe space for LGBTQ students. I wasn’t out at the time I took his class, so that meant a lot to me. 

“On the first day of school, he asked the class to anonymously write down our thoughts on gay marriage. On the last day of school, he read everyone’s papers out loud and we had a class discussion about our various opinions. Several students who didn’t initially support gay marriage admitted they left his class feeling differently. He was truly an inspiring but also a challenging professor. I definitely left his class a stronger writer.”

Harrington’s friends especially remember the emails he sent out each year to remind them to watch the Kennedy Center Honors broadcasts that were a special source of inspiration for him.  

Harrington always worked hard to persuade people through discussion, working with opponents, welcoming new allies, and plowing ahead with action. He remained interested in Houston’s LGBTQ community throughout his final years while battling cancer.  

Harrington requested that in lieu of a memorial service, everyone should work on getting out the vote in this crucial election year.  

JD Doyle and his Texas Obituary Project provided invaluable research material for this story.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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