Susan Christian and Laura Spanjian are dedicated to the city—and to one another.
by David Goldberg
Photo by Yvonne Feece
In December 2009, City Hall got a facelift with the election of Mayor Annise Parker, who made international headlines and brought positive attention to Houston. Parker has kept her name in the press by embracing new initiatives, events, and programs that strengthen Houston’s quality of life. Susan Christian, the mayor’s director of special events for the City of Houston, and Laura Spanjian, the director of sustainability in the mayor’s office, have played a major role in these new initiatives. Separately and together, they are responsible for programs like the SundayStreets HTX events and the City Hall Farmer’s Market.
But Christian and Spanjian aren’t just a collaborative professional duo; they’ve been an actual couple for eight years, and are preparing for their second child in November. The couple met in 2006 at a Houston conference of the Victory Fund, which seeks to elect LGBT leaders to public office nationwide. Spanjian served as a board member and became close with then-City Controller Parker as the organization started mobilizing around her mayoral campaign. Christian was running the event, and once the two met, there was no going back. The only problem: Spanjian still lived in San Francisco. As Spanjian became a major player in Parker’s campaign, she and Christian embarked on a long-distance relationship. They toyed with the idea of Christian coming to California, but with the mayor’s victory, their future changed.
In 2010, Mayor Parker recruited Spanjian to the newly created role of Director of Sustainability in the mayor’s office. She was soon moving to Houston—and to Christian. “Mayor Parker’s line is that I needed another woman to bring me to Houston,” Spanjian says.
Christian has been a part of Houston city government for nearly 30 years. She moved to Houston from the small central-Texas town of Hico, which has a population of just over 1,300. “It’s a great place to be from,” Christian says. She started out in the mid-’80s in the Parks and Recreation Department, and within a few years had caught the attention of then-mayor Bob Lanier, who was looking to use civic events to bring positive national attention to the city. Since then, she’s developed the mayor’s civic celebration program into a year-round blockbuster, with 3.6 million people attending over 1,000 annual events. If you’ve ever enjoyed the Fourth of July Freedom Over Texas celebration, Thanksgiving Day parade, or the Children’s Festival, then you’ve got Christian to thank. “I believe events are a core service for any city,” she says. “They bring the city together, they improve the city, but they also serve as a catalyst for empowering neighborhoods to do very positive things. When you have positive interaction through events, negativity goes away very quickly.”
Christian has been at the center of Houston City Hall’s evolution through five mayors: Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier, Lee Brown, Bill White, and Parker. Even though she insists that diversity and inclusion at City Hall has been a priority since Mayor Lanier, she didn’t feel comfortable being open about her sexual orientation until the national and local culture started to change. “We all have different stories,” Christian says. “Mine was a much more guarded and closed story. I didn’t grow up in an environment that was accepting of the gay lifestyle. But the last four mayors have helped break those barriers down in a state and city that was accepting, but still didn’t talk about it too much. By the time we got to Mayor White, you saw a lot more gay people within that administration being more open, including myself. I felt as though I had more freedom to be myself and to cast off a lot of fear with my work environment. Mayor Parker has been very inspirational to me.”
Spanjian had the opportunity to move from a solidly progressive city government in San Francisco to one that is making positive progress in Houston. She feels that the mayor’s strong example has practically made LGBT acceptance a non-issue. “You become part of the fabric of city government,” she says. “You’re not unique for being gay; it’s just that you’re part of the administration.”
Spanjian’s role at City Hall is almost unprecedented. “Mayor Parker was very clear that she trusted me, and that she was going to let me do, within bounds, what I’d like, and that was fantastic,” Spanjian says. Her office has spearheaded Houston’s bike-sharing program, which recorded over 40,000 checkouts in the first six months of 2014.
Houston has become the largest purchaser of renewable energy in the nation. City offices will soon convert over 160,000 light bulbs to LED, which should reduce energy needed for lighting by half. Spanjian is currently looking over proposals for an innovative One Bin for All solid-waste program, which would streamline waste disposal for Houstonians by using sorting technology to effectively reclaim waste that is not currently recycled. “Because of those initiatives and because of Mayor Parker’s leadership on sustainability, Houston is really on the map as a green leader, which really hasn’t happened before,” she says.
The sustainability and events offices were seemingly made for collaboration, regardless of their leaders’ personal partnership. Spanjian’s office developed the SundayStreets initiative, which closed off a major street one Sunday in April, May, and June, and allowed pedestrians to have the freedom to roam, exercise, or play. But “it never would have happened without Susan producing the event,” Spanjian says. The two also collaborated on the wildly successful City Hall Farmer’s Market, now in its fifth year, which re-opened in September. Thanks to Houston’s new prestige as a green leader, Spanjian will be hosting this year’s national meeting of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network in town, with Christian producing the event.
While the two have been at the vanguard of much of Houston’s development, they both agree that much in the city needs to be improved. “Transportation needs to get on steroids,” Christian says. Spanjian hopes for a more dense, centralized downtown, with an increase in shared transportation and biking. Christian insists that this vision can become a reality with more interdepartmental collaboration.
As for LGBT programs, Christian believes that Houston’s Pride event could be “more substantive.” Spanjian wants Houston’s Pride events to rival those of cities like San Francisco, which has a film festival and a transgender march, among other ancillary events.
They are both proud of City Hall’s LGBT progress and its two gay council members, and they don’t want to lose momentum. “I would love more gay people to run for office,” Spanjian says. “We should have two to four LGBT council members. We should have another mayor in the future [from the LGBT community].”
“I’m equally interested in just having equality across the board,” Christian adds. “I want the best mayor possible, whether they’re gay or straight. I want them to be supportive of the diverse city that we live in, and every one of our cultures. To me, that’s what makes a great city—nothing more and nothing less.”
They were both impressed by the activism spurred on by the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which passed in May. The ordinance protects Houstonians from discrimination in city employment, city services, city contracting practices, housing, public accommodations, and private employment by defining 15 different protected characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Over 200 speakers—many of them young—signed up to deliver public comments to City Council, an unheard-of number. “I was so proud,” Spanjian says. “This issue ignited young people. They’re going to be politically active and on the right side of history for many years to come, and support more initiatives which aren’t necessarily gay or lesbian, but are about making Houston better.”
Since both Christian and Spanjian got their start in government work while in their 20s, they believe that empowering young Houstonians is essential to the city’s future. But Christian’s advice for young people, and especially young women, is to stay engaged. “What I’m seeing with a lot of women is that they are under a lot of pressure—raising families, working steadfastly to be [agents of change in various] fields. Then, at a certain point, you see incredible women step back,” she says. “And what I would say to these women is: we need your leadership and we need your talents.”
There’s no doubt that Christian and Spanjian are staying engaged with their work at City Hall while also making Houston a better place to raise children. Their son Eli, who is nearing three years old, already enjoys his central location in Montrose. “We live five minutes from the train, the zoo, and the museums—all of which Eli loves and goes to practically weekly,” Spanjian says. They are expecting their second son in November. “It’s a great place to raise a family,” Christian says. “We feel very embraced by this community.”
With successful citywide event collaborations, a beautiful home, and a growing family, it seems that Christian and Spanjian shouldn’t need to change a thing—except perhaps one. “One of these days, we’re going to get married,” Spanjian says. The couple is considering a wedding in California, where Spanjian’s family lives. “Or Texas will rise up, and we won’t have to,” Christian adds. With a couple this involved in local government, anything seems possible.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.