Tony Carroll: A Trailblazer Who Discovered A Societal Need in His Own Pain

By Andrew Edmonson

My life has been profoundly impacted by three factors: the early taste of privilege, the racial prejudice of the South, and my sexual orientation as a gay man.”

Tony Carroll (1941­–2015)

The last time Houston friends heard from Tony Carroll, he and his husband, Bruce Smith, were visiting New York, doing what they loved—reconnecting with old friends and going to the opera and Radio City Music Hall, seeing Broadway shows, and looking forward to returning home to Houston to host their legendary New Year’s Eve party.

But Carroll, beloved psychotherapist and stalwart of Houston’s LGBT, philanthropic, and progressive political communities, never made it home. He died, suddenly, after suffering a heart attack, on December 29, 2015, in New York City. He was 74.

Tony Carroll.
Tony Carroll.

A trailblazer in providing mental-health services to Houston’s LGBT community, Carroll was the first openly gay president of the Texas Society for Clinical Social Work. In 2015, he was honored with the lifetime achievement award from the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Work, which praised him as “an indefatigable civic activist, a generous philanthropist, a passionate supporter of the arts, and—most significantly—a leader in the struggle for full equality for LGBT people.”

Voted Houston’s “Gayest and Greatest Therapist” by the readers of OutSmart magazine for over a decade, Carroll began his graduate studies in social work in the early 1980s. In an era when conventional wisdom held that LGBT relationships were inherently unstable, he studied 40 Houston-area couples who had been together for at least six years. His research demonstrated that homosexual relationships were just as stable as heterosexual relationships.

Over the last two decades, Carroll and Smith, a dentist, emerged as treasured elder statesmen of the Houston gay community. They frequently opened their beautifully appointed Montrose manse to raise money for a raft of worthy nonprofits, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Homeless Gay Kids-Houston, and their neighborhood civic association.

They participated in scholarship funding for HATCH Youth. Over the last two years, they had become board members and passionate advocates for the startup nonprofit Homeless Gay Kids Houston, with a goal of creating a drop-in center to serve the needs of homeless LGBT youth, raising awareness in the community and organizing fundraisers.

One of Houston’s leading gay power couples, known affectionately as “Mental and Dental,” Carroll and Smith championed a series of fair-minded candidates for public office, including the first out lesbian senator Tammy Baldwin, former Houston mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian, and former U.S. representative Chris Bell, City council member Mike Laster, and Judge Steve Kirkland.

“Tony was a huge force in the LGBT community,” observed Bell. “People love Tony and Bruce. They follow them, and listen to them. What made Tony incredibly special in the political community was that he really cared.”

A Child of Privilege with a Strong Sense of Social Justice

Carroll’s sense of social justice was honed by his experiences with the ugly realities of segregation in the American South in the 1950s. In a biographical essay written in 2014, he observed, “My life has been profoundly impacted by three factors: the early taste of privilege, the racial prejudice of the South, and my sexual orientation as a gay man.”

Born into a wealthy family in a small town in Arkansas in 1941, he was cared for by an African-American woman, Celestine, whom he called “a monumental influence in my life.

“A painful memory was etched forever in my memory as we drove across country to a new Naval base for my father,” Carroll recalled. “On a hot summer day, we stopped for lunch and a bathroom break. Celestine was denied access to either the restaurant or the restroom. It made no difference that her husband, Levi, was an infantryman fighting in Germany at that very moment. My heart was broken.

“1957 highlighted the ugliness of prejudice during the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, and again my heart ached hearing the hatred that spewed. And there was my beloved Celestine; I saw the pain in her eyes. Years later this loving woman with the beautiful contralto voice was elected secretary of the local NAACP Chapter. I was proud!”

As a college student, he established a music program at a nearby African-American high school. Later, he became a proud member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

His World Shatters When He Realizes He Is “a Queer”

In 1960, as a sophomore at Hendrix College, he fell in love for the first time, and discovered his sexual orientation. “My world shattered when I realized I was ‘a queer.’” His parents discovered his sexuality, and, for a time, disowned him. “It was my descent from privileged to outcast that informed my life’s journey caring for others, and ultimately rewarded me with a full and meaningful life.”

In 1964, he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Music from Hendrix College, with a focus on organ performance, conducting, and music theory. In 1968, in search of a larger community where gay men might be more accepted, he moved to Houston after teaching music and choral performance in the El Dorado, Arkansas, schools. From 1968 to 1980, he served as director of choral music at a number of Houston high schools, and as organist-choirmaster at several area churches.   

Discovering a Societal Need in His Own Pain 

“A promising career in music was made difficult by the internal and external struggles of being gay,” he recalled. “Committed romantic relationships were hard in a socially rejecting society. I began seeing a therapist, Frances Sands, MSW, in 1969, and my life began to change as the result of her compassion and acceptance. Although I returned to graduate school in music in 1972, the experience with Frances set the stage for my entering the Graduate School of Social Work in 1981.

“Truthfully, in my own pain, I saw a societal need, and hoped to help both. I entered the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work with the intent of establishing a private practice that was sensitive to the needs of GLBT people.”

Finding His Soul Mate

A turning point in his life came at a meeting of the Log Cabin Republicans in 1995. Carroll met his soul mate, Smith, a dentist known for his pioneering international work with HIV infection control and his involvement in establishing what later became Bering Omega Foundation’s Bering Dental Clinic.

“It was pretty much love at first sight,” Carroll recalled.

“I was terrified and transfixed at the same time,” remembers Smith. “I remember thinking, so that’s Tony Carroll, whom I had known of and admired for years. Later that evening, a mutual friend, George Rimmey, turned around, looked at us chatting, and said ‘Do either of you have dates for the gala?’ We each said no. George took our hands, put them together and said, ‘Well, you do now.’”

They shared a passion for opera, European travel, entertaining friends in grand style, and for the political process. (They both eventually left the Republican Party in 2004).

They married in Toronto in 2003. When they remarried in New York City in 2011, after same-sex marriage was legalized there, The Houston Chronicle did a news story. As gay marriage swept the nation in 2014, the Houston Press featured them in a cover story during Pride week. Over time, they had become the face of the gay community, both to the larger straight world and to the LGBT community itself.

Through their example, they also continued to impact others on a more intimate scale.

“Tony and Bruce came to PFLAG numerous times, and shared their stories of coming out, becoming a couple, and leading quite successful lives,” remembers Jeffry Faircloth, co-president of the Houston chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

“At one of my very first PFLAG meetings back in 2004 or 2005, Tony and Bruce were on a panel sharing their story. I was only 20 at the time, and I remember very much thinking that they were such role models for people like me.”

In the early 2000s, Ann Sieber, editor of OutSmart at the time, came to interview Smith about his dental practice over breakfast with Smith and Carroll. She left their home having gained deep insights into romantic relationships that she has applied to her own marriage.

“In our culture, recovering from homophobia, being a loving, mature, stable gay couple was in itself a liberating act, a strike against oppression and misconceptions. They lived their lives and their love in such a kind and big way that I feel a whole community benefited because of it.”

The memorial service for Tony has been set for Saturday, January 23, from 4–6 p.m. at Bradshaw Carter (1724 West Alabama, Houston, TX 77098).

In lieu of flowers or gifts, Bruce urges contributions in Tony’s name to Homeless Gay Kids-Houston, The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Lambda Legal, or to the progressive charity of your choice.

Andrew Edmonson chaired the Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and has served on the boards of the AIDS service organization Body Positive, Halloween Magic, and the Houston chapter of the American Marketing Association.

Bruce Smith Remembers Tony

A loving reflection on his husband’s life.

The trailblazing psychotherapist and Houston LGBT activist Tony Carroll died at the age of 74 on December 29, 2015. From 1995 to 2015, he shared his life with Bruce Smith, a dentist known for his pioneering international work with HIV-infection control.

In this piece, Smith recalls how they first met, Carroll’s little-known career as a musician, and Carroll’s lasting legacy.

On first meeting Tony:

Love at First Sight: Tony Carroll (l) and husband Bruce Smith shared 20 wonderful years together before Carroll passed away in December.
Love at First Sight: Tony Carroll (l) and husband Bruce Smith shared 20 wonderful years together before Carroll passed away
in December.

Tony is quoted as saying, on first meeting Bruce, “It was pretty much love at first sight.”

Yes, for me it was love at first sight, too. I was terrified and transfixed at the same time. I remember thinking, so that’s Tony Carroll, whom I had known of and admired for years. This was after about 10 years of being single (after my first and only relationship), and I was increasingly miserable being alone.

So I attended a Log Cabin meeting, my first one. Afterwards, seated across the dinner table from Tony, I was completely captivated by his generous and thoughtful conversations, his acute intelligence, and his passion. As we were leaving, tickets were being offered to the annual Log Cabin gala. George Rimmey and Ed Inderwish (a wonderful couple of 50-plus years who became two of our best friends) were just in front of us. George turned around, and asked, “Do either of you have dates for the gala?”  Each of us said no.  George took our hands, put them together and said, “Well, you do now.”

Tony said that he went home and told his house-guest, Courtney, “I think I’ve found him.”  Her reply was, “If you pick up that phone, I will break your fingers!” Well, I called Tony about 6 a.m. the next day, and even though it took a couple of weeks to arrange a dinner date, we have not been apart since.

On Tony’s musical achievements in Arkansas and Houston:

In Arkansas, when he was deeply involved in music teaching, conducting, and accompanying, his first teaching job was choral master for the El Dorado schools, who regularly took top place at numerous competitions. He described El Dorado as a wealthy oil town at the time, where they would “ship in Steinways by the boxcar load, and thought nothing of flying in Leontyne Price to sing for a cocktail party.” They poured huge amounts into their music program, and considered it their “crown jewel.”

So much so that when a football game conflicted with a choral competition—many of whose members were also on the football team—the football players quit the team so they could go to the choral competition. The football coach was furious.

After he came to Houston, one of Tony’s favorite accomplishments was his time as organist-choirmaster at Bethany Christian Church on Westheimer, near River Oaks Boulevard. Having a couple of degrees in organ performance and a minor in theology, he had no trouble assembling a glorious choir, often hiring paid singers for particular parts and performing large pieces (one being the Fauré Requiem).

This little stone church wanted a new pipe organ, and did not care what it cost. Tony hired John Ballard of Ballard Pipe Organs in San Antonio, and together they designed an English-style pipe organ, patterned after the one at King’s College, Cambridge. After many herculean labors, they achieved their goal, as Tony usually did.

On Tony’s legacy:

I think he would be particularly proud of making the world a better place.  He was an incredible wit, and a great lover of all sorts of people.  He had the most amazing ability to bring different types of people together, thereby igniting great changes for the betterment and equal rights of many different communities, not just the LGBT community.

We Remember Tony

Tony Carroll touched the lives of many in Houston, from the clients he counseled to other activists with whom he worked to create social change. Jeffry Faircloth, Chris Bell, and Fiona Dawson remember Tony.

Jeffry Faircloth

PFLAG co-president Jeffry Faircloth shares his memories of the profound impact that Tony Carroll and his husband, Houston dentist Bruce Smith, had on the PFLAG organization (formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), both at the local and national levels.

One of my very first PFLAG meetings back in 2004 or 2005 was one in which Tony and Bruce were on a panel sharing their story of coming out, becoming a couple, and leading quite successful lives. I was only 20 at the time, and I remember very much thinking that they were such role models for people like me.

Tony and Bruce have always been paid members of the organization, giving their time and resources to help families. Most of all, they have given their big hearts. Everyone at PFLAG has loved them so very much.

Every month, our PFLAG chapter has put on an educational presentation, and recently we began trying to bring in national speakers on an annual basis. We have had a vision to turn this into a really fun annual event by putting on a fundraiser party the night before the PFLAG meeting, with the national speaker as our special guest. We did this for the first time in 2015. Our special guests were Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, the gay male couple who were the plaintiffs in the California Proposition 8 U.S. Supreme Court marriage equality case.

Tony and Bruce were in my thoughts all along for possibly providing the venue for the fundraiser the night before. I reached out to them, and they were both really excited about the idea. They provided both their beautiful house and all the refreshments. Paul and Jeff were simply amazed. It was such a stunning success for PFLAG as an organization. Tony and Bruce gave me one of the proudest moments ever in my young life at the fundraiser, and I love them.

The one thing I will always associate with Tony and Bruce is their involvement with Homeless Gay Kids Houston. Several PFLAG parents and members had taken the lead in trying to come up with a solution to these awful and heartbreaking stories of LGBT teenagers being rejected by family members and left out on the streets. PFLAG’s helpline has received many phone calls, and young people have attended our meetings with this type of crisis. For a very long time, people just felt helpless about what to do about it.

In my own personal coming-out story, having had a Pentecostal Christian upbringing, I was about one step away from being thrown out of my house as a teenager and a young adult. Everyone knows that this is one of the more serious problems facing our community; it happens all the time.

We owe an incredible amount of gratitude for what Tony has done for LGBT youth in such situations. What he has done will reach into future generations.

Chris Bell

Beginning in the 1990s, Tony Carroll championed the political career of Chris Bell, from his tenure as a member of Houston City Council (1997–2001) to his service as a member of the United States House of Representatives (2003–2005) to his Houston mayoral bid in 2015.

Here he shares his memories of Carroll’s passion for politics, his incisive wit, and his ability to galvanize the LGBT community. 

When I first met Tony and Bruce, they were Republicans. At that time, my wife, Alison, was also a Republican. Perhaps Tony and Bruce were drawn to us initially because of that.   

They then became incredibly passionate members of the Democratic Party. Through it all, they always had the best interests of the LGBT community at heart, wanting to move it forward.

Tony was a huge force in the LGBT community. People love Tony and Bruce. They followed them and listened to them. What made Tony so incredibly special in the political community was that he really cared. It wasn’t just about who could win. It was about who he felt was really passionate for the cause. He had a way of cutting through to that essence.

When I first got involved in politics in 1995, there were a large number of people in the LGBT community who didn’t want to talk about gay marriage. They didn’t see it as a possibility, and they didn’t want to be weighed down with it.

My first fundraiser was at a gay friend’s home. The question of gay marriage came up, and the host said, “We’re not going to talk about it.” A family lawyer who was there said, “I don’t believe in gay marriage. But if it does become legal, I’m going to become one rich queer.”

After telling Tony that story one night, he responded, “Did you know that homosexual relationships last as long as heterosexual relationships, according to most studies?” I wasn’t aware of this, and it totally changed my perspective on the issue.

In 2015, Tony and Bruce hosted an event at their home for people to sign up for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and support my candidacy for mayor. Afterward, some folks asked for a picture. As I was posing, I felt a hand firmly placed on my buttocks.

Afterward, I went over to tell Tony about the experience. He responded, “Did you like it?”

Tony was funny, cynical, honest, and loving.

Houston’s last election in 2015 was tough for all of us. Tony was very supportive of me early on. After it all ended, I received the type of e-mail that Tony typically wrote: kind, generous, and supportive.   

It absolutely breaks my heart that he won’t be with us going forward. When he passed away, our world got a lot smaller.

Fiona Dawson

Fiona Dawson is a filmmaker and longtime LGBT activist who has served on the board of the Human Rights Campaign. For her role in creating the film Transgender, at War and in Love, Dawson was honored in November by the White House as a “Champion for Change.” 

In 2007, I was sitting in a sterile office at my corporate job in Houston, Texas. Although I enjoyed the work, it wasn’t satisfying my soul, which longed to be out in the world fighting for equal rights on the largest, loudest platform possible. My tiny cell phone rang and I picked up with a cheery, “This is Fiona!” Delightfully, the caller said, “Hi, Fiona. This is Tony Carroll. How are you?”

Always enchanted to hear Tony’s voice, I enthusiastically told him I was great, and returned the question. After exchanging pleasantries, Tony said in a very serious tone, “Bruce and I have been talking about you, and we really want to say thank you for all the work you have done for the LGBT community.” Wow. I was immediately blown away by such an accolade from one of the most influential gay couples in Houston. Tony continued, “And we’ve decided we would like to give you Invisalign.”

Humbled and embarrassed, I was lost for words. Receiving the gift of teeth-straightening is a unique and slightly awkward situation to be in. Were my teeth really that bad? Well, I am British, I joked to myself. In all seriousness, I knew they could do with a little neatening up, as I’d already looked into it with my dentist and decided I couldn’t afford it. But then if I were to accept this offer, how do I tell my current dentist? I wasn’t even Bruce’s client. Finally, I certainly did not feel that I deserved such a generous gift.

But that’s who Tony and Bruce are. I can’t say “were,” because I refuse to accept that their power is in the past. As individuals and as a couple, they devoted themselves to people on the micro and macro level. Like many other benefactors, they support their causes financially, they open their home for social gatherings, and they are political thought leaders. But then they go the extra mile to help individuals in the most private and personal of ways.

After going through the whole straightening and whitening process with my teeth, I felt so indebted to Tony and Bruce and imagined they’d want me to do something to return the favor. I don’t have much pull, but at least a cheesy grin on their website, or something to show what great work Bruce had done. But they never asked, and they didn’t pick up on my offers. So the years have carried on, and I have carried a little guilt for accepting such a generous gift without people knowing the depth of their quiet generosity.

I’ve always been a little shy about telling this story, but given Tony’s death, I feel that the story needs to be told. In 2010, I quit my job to make my dreams come true in the media. Apparently, an overnight success takes 10 years, so by now I’m over halfway there. Many loving and generous friends have supported me along the way, and Tony and Bruce’s extraordinary help has paved part of that path for me.

Just before I left Houston, I was sitting as a client in Tony’s counseling chair. Although I felt confident about my sexual orientation, I was riddled with insecurity about my place in the world and about navigating relationships. Tony gave me clarity and a framework for how we behave with those we love, which I still use as a model today.

As a couple, Tony and Bruce have helped so many of us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I know that personally, because Tony and Bruce were among the few people who believed in me (and gave me the gift of straight teeth!). I now have the confidence and courage to be myself in the world. I’m sure that is a gift Tony has given to thousands more. Thank you, Tony. Your legacy lives on in all of us. And Bruce, we are surrounding you with love every step of the way.


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