These days, gay Houstonian Barry Mandel, 63, is both the president and the park director at downtown’s Discovery Green. But it’s not the first time he has served his city and its LGBTQ community. He has, in fact, committed the majority of his life to public service.
Mandel’s activism started in the same way it did for so many LGBTQ leaders—in the early 1980s as AIDS first reared its ugly head. He decided to join the AIDS Foundation Houston board and start fundraising. “A fundraiser in those days consisted of a coffee can being passed around at Mary’s and other gay bars in town,” Mandel recalls.
In 1985, then mayor Kathy Whitmire and a group of City Council members passed the City’s first equal-rights ordinance. “A group of religious leaders collected enough petition signatures to take the issue to the voters, and we lost 3 to 1,” Mandel explains. “Those same religious leaders organized a group to run against Whitmire and those Council members who supported the ordinance, and they called themselves The Straight Slate. I couldn’t sit by and let them win, so I went to work for Kathy and helped re-elect her and all of those Council members.”
Mandel has served as president of the Houston Downtown Alliance and as the executive director of the Theater District Association. In addition, he has served as a board member or volunteer with Casa de Esperanza, The NAMES Project, Houston Challenge Foundation, Houston’s Police Review Committee, United Way, Houston Food Bank, and AIDS Foundation Houston. He is a graduate of Leadership Houston’s Class VII and the American Leadership Forum’s Class XX. Currently, he serves as a board member for Holocaust Museum Houston and the Undies for Everyone program, as well as a director on the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.
Mandel was working at Legacy Community Health as COO and capital-campaign director during the construction of their building on California Street when a headhunter approached him about becoming president of Discovery Green. “I told her I didn’t know a thing about running a park.” She called him again two weeks later and said, “They keep bringing your name up. You should at least talk to them.”
Because construction on the park had begun after Mandel left his position running the Downtown Alliance to go to Legacy, he had never even been to the park. “I told her to let me go see it and I would let her know. We went to visit the park on Easter Sunday in 2010, and I was overwhelmed with how beautiful and active it was.” He quickly agreed to talk to the park’s board, and he’s been at the helm ever since.
The park’s mission statement states that Discovery Green is to provide “an uncommonly beautiful, urban green space in the heart of Houston that serves as a village green for our city, a source of health and happiness for our citizens, and a window into the incredible diversity of arts and traditions that enrich life in Houston.”
But, Mandel admits, “We really didn’t have something LGBTQIA+ focused. So in 2011, we came up with ‘Rainbow on the Green’ to take place the night before the Pride parade.”
This year will mark the first large-scale, in-person Rainbow on the Green event since the pandemic. “Last year’s Rainbow on the Green was promoted mostly virtually, with just a small number of people watching in-person,” Mandel says. “This year, we’re honoring a young activist in Houston.”
Kinsey Sicks Dragapella will be performing a family-friendly version of their act. “They call themselves ‘America’s Favorite Dragapella Beauty Shop Quartet.’ They perform original music and lyrics, as well as parodies of well-known songs. Their work, while extremely comedic, is often highly politically charged,” Mandel notes. Christina Wells, who gained notoriety on America’s Got Talent, will also perform, as will a number of Houston’s top drag artists. “As always, it will be free and fun!”
Mandel realizes it’s important for him to be a part of Rainbow on the Green “because representation matters. My LGBTQIA+ community is part of the fabric of Houston. Rainbow on the Green helps start the community’s [annual Pride] celebration that culminates in showing our Pride as we march.” he adds.
It might surprise people to know that Anthony Rapp, of Rent and Star Trek fame, was on hand for the inauguration of Rainbow on the Green in 2011. During his performance that day, the New York legislature announced the passage of same-sex marriage in New York. “He was able to go onstage and make that announcement,” Mandel recalls with a smile. “The crowd went wild.” Four years later, in 2015, as Rainbow on the Green was being set up for that evening’s concert, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
As for the future, Mandel is enthusiastic about the potential for both Rainbow on the Green and Discovery Green. “We will continue to highlight the incredible talents of our community for the entire city to see, share, and enjoy.”
Rainbow on the Green featuring Kinsey Sicks, Christina Wells will be held at Discovery Green June 24 at 7 p.m. The show is free and family friendly. For more info, visit discoverygreen.com.
This article appears in the June 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.