Ryan Levy, 2015 Male Pride Marshal, believes the world can be a better place, and he’s doing all he can to make it that way.
By Brandon Wolf
Ryan Levy thinks his passion for advocacy started at a high school presentation, when a group called Youth Ending Hunger explained that children in Houston were starving. “It was a real shock to me,” he says. “I guess I’d never been introduced to much outside my own experiences.” His response was to start a chapter of Youth Ending Hunger at his school.
The issue of youth hunger may have been Levy’s call to action, but he had been groomed since childhood to see the world through the eyes of an activist. His paternal grandmother, Harriet Kaplan, was very active in the Houston chapter of B’Nai B’rith (“Sons of the Covenant”), the oldest Jewish service organization in the world.
When Levy was a child, B’Nai B’rith was limited to male members, with females joining a parallel women’s auxiliary organization. But Kaplan was such a prolific volunteer and activist that she became the first woman to receive B’Nai B’rith’s “man of the year” award—renamed in order to honor her.
Kaplan was also one of the few Caucasians living in a largely African-American neighborhood. “She taught me to respect everyone equally,” Levy says. “She was progressive in ideology and in action.”
Levy’s Early Years
Born in Houston in 1975, Levy grew up in Missouri City—a right-wing, conservative suburb that was former U.S. Representative Tom DeLay’s congressional district. His mother taught second-graders, and his father was a chemical salesman for Occidental Petroleum. When he was four, a sister joined the family.
Levy was a happy, curious child, interested in the arts and opera, who enjoyed visiting the local library. He started cooking at a very young age, and remembers rushing home to watch Chef Martin Yan cook on Wok with Yan. It was his favorite show, and after watching it, he would cook what he had just seen on the show.
Every other night, Levy phoned his Memaw Kaplan. When he was 11, someone at school called him a “fag,” and not knowing what it meant, he asked her. “That’s an abbreviation for ‘Fine American Guy,’” she replied.
“I wasn’t very good at any sport that involved catching, throwing, or kicking a ball,” Levy says. “But swimming was easy—I just jumped in the pool and swam.” Of course, there is more to being a member of a high school swim team than jumping into a pool, but it’s a good example of Levy’s modesty about his numerous and impressive accomplishments.
In high school, Levy sharpened an already keen mind as captain of a debate team that attended tournaments almost every weekend. He taught religious education classes on a regular basis, and was a swimming instructor during the summers.
Levy was a good student—among the top five in a class of 800. His academic achievement earned him a $12,000 scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. “Ann Richards presented me with the check,” Levy remembers.
College Days at Rice University
Levy entered Rice University in 1993, studying economics and social science before gravitating toward political science. During his junior year, he was elected to head the Student Government Program Council. “We decided how to spend the money allocated for campus events,” he explains.
That year, Rice’s gay student organization asked for a grant to bring a speaker to campus for National Coming Out Week. Levy voiced his support for the request, but there were opposing forces that lashed out vehemently against it—especially Campus Crusade for Christ.
Although Levy wasn’t out yet, he gave an impassioned speech to the council, and when the vote was taken, the grant was approved. Later, he accidentally overheard a member of the gay organization say to another member, “I think we’ve got a family member on the council.”
Love and Law School
In 1997, Levy graduated with honors from Rice and looked forward to attending UT’s law school in Austin. However, the excitement of moving to Austin was blunted by the fact that he had found true romance the year before, and was going to be separated from the man he now loved deeply.
Levy met Ian Eastveld on an August night at Rich’s Disco in 1996. They danced, spent the night together, and have been inseparable ever since. But they were each enrolled at different colleges, and spent the next year in a long-distance relationship. Eastveld finally moved to Austin in 1998, and they found an apartment together.
During his years at UT, Levy was elected as the law school’s representative on Student Government, which reported to the university president. Levy was now out and becoming politically savvy. He decided to make a very bold move on behalf of the LGBT graduate students. Since the spouses of heterosexual graduate students enjoyed privileges such as parking permits, seats in the library, housing, and health benefits, Levy introduced a bill to extend those same privileges to the same-sex domestic partners of graduate students.
The 100 representatives in UT Student Government came from diverse backgrounds, and some had very conservative religious beliefs. After strong debate on both sides of the issue, Levy went to the podium and gave an emotional speech, indicating how personal this was for him.
The vote was tabled and re-scheduled for a later date. But nearly 75 percent of the representatives stayed after the meeting and asked Levy questions. Following some additional lobbying efforts, 99 of the 100 representatives voted in favor of same-sex partner benefits. UT’s president approved the request, and Levy worked with the administration to implement it.
By 1999, Levy had become interested in the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Inspired by what HRC was accomplishing, he decided to organize UT School of Law’s first equal-rights political advocacy group, named OUTLAW. The group sponsored the law school’s first public forums on gay adoption laws, bringing together legal experts and legislators. “If you want something to happen, one person can make the difference,” Levy says. “I realized I couldn’t wait for someone else to do it.”
During Levy’s law school days, he and Eastveld gained a reputation for throwing great dinner parties, and invitations were eagerly sought. The two also cooked meals for Levy’s mock trial team.
In the spring of 2000, Levy was awarded a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree. He already had a job waiting for him at a Dallas law firm.
Ryan and Ian Do Dallas
Levy was the first openly gay associate hired by the national law firm Zelle Hofmann. He didn’t wait long to convince the firm to offer same-sex partner benefits.
Levy had already begun volunteering for HRC and Lambda Legal in 1999. Now residing in Dallas, he became involved in the local leadership of both organizations, serving on their boards.
Shortly after settling into life in Dallas, Levy attended an HRC reception that was held at the Sixth Floor Museum in the former Texas School Book Depository, the site of President Kennedy’s assassination. But the museum’s displays were not what interested him most that night. Two lesbian lovers, both teachers in Dallas, addressed the crowd and talked about their lives in the closet. If their relationship became known by school administrators, they risked termination from their jobs.
Levy was also fascinated to learn that HRC was looking to find a permanent home on Washington DC’s “lobby row.” The building they had in mind had housed B’nai B’rith since 1956, and the Jewish charity planned to move out in 2002. Levy was thrilled that the organization he had loved since childhood might be passing the torch to the LGBT community. In 2003, that dream came true when HRC opened the doors of their new national headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue.
Levy expanded his advocacy efforts to the Dallas Gay & Lesbian Bar Association, and became a volunteer and fundraiser for the annual HRC Black Tie Dinner. Meanwhile, Eastveld had opened a catering firm, and then a restaurant. Levy was right by his side helping—a lawyer by day and a restaurant manager at night.
In 2004, the couple traveled to Toronto, and were married. All four of their parents were there to witness the happy event. In 2005, they held a Houston commitment ceremony for the friends of their families. They chose a Jewish cantor to officiate at their exchanging of vows.
Starting a Whole New Enterprise
By the end of 2005, Levy was no longer interested in furthering his legal career. He and Eastveld had studied to become sommeliers and passed the certification test, so the couple bought a home in Houston and set out to become winemakers. They leased vineyards in Napa Valley and in Argentina. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, they harvested the vineyards and began aging wine in barrels.
In 2010, they finally agreed that the first harvest had produced a fine wine, and they set up as the NICE Winery. They also offered classes in wine education. With 10 different wines coming from six vineyards, the couple now sells wine to local restaurants, in local food stores, and online.
Making a Difference in Houston
Back in Houston after a decade away, both Levy and Eastveld dove head-first into community involvement. After working as HRC Houston volunteers for a year to earn the trust of the membership, they set out to turn the 2007 annual HRC gala into a truly successful fundraising effort. Using the model of the Dallas HRC, they made dramatic changes that abide to this day. In spite of initial pushback, the pair was firm in their resolve to reverse HRC Houston’s poor track record with raising money. No gigantic floral arrangements on
the tables, no chair covers, no open bar, no “fancy stuff.”
Levy and Eastveld played their cards well. The 2007 Houston dinner set national records for fundraising, netting over $350,000 for equal rights. Levy’s parents, Jerry and Gail Levy, delivered the fundraising “pitch” that night. Gail read a letter she wrote to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and also the response she received. The contrast of Levy’s warm letter and the cold response from Hutchison moved the crowd. The Levys asked straight allies to join the struggle. The goal was to enroll 30 new members into the Federal Club, but over 100 people joined that night.
After a decade of volunteer work for HRC, Levy was elected to the national HRC Board of Governors and became co-chair of HRC’s political activities in Houston. He led the local effort to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” convincing Texas representatives in Congress to support the repeal. Last year he got involved with efforts to pass the HERO nondiscrimination ordinance. Coming full circle, Levy is back at Rice, serving on the advisory board of the university’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
Looking to the future, Levy notes that there are still many issues to face after marriage equality is achieved—bullying in schools, discrimination in the workplace, LGBTs living in poverty, teen homelessness, and brutal conditions globally.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke of “soul force”—“that something which emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empowers us to act.” Ryan Levy, our 2015 Male Pride Marshal, has definitely harnessed his “soul force”—and Houston is a better place because of it.
Brandon Wolf also writes about the female and ally Pride marshals in this issue of OutSmart.