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Charles Spain Shatters Another ‘Rainbow Ceiling’

Houston Democrat will be Texas’ first openly LGBTQ appeals-court judge.

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Shortly after midnight on January 1, Houston’s Charles Spain will be sworn in as the first openly LGBTQ appeals-court judge in Texas history.

Spain, a 59-year-old Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Marc Brown to capture the Place 4 seat on the 14th District Court, which covers 10 counties in Southeast Texas, including Harris.  

“I was not running to be the first openly gay justice on the Texas appellate bench. However, I am mindful of whatever place that I have [in history],” Spain says. “It’s not important because Charles Spain is the person who’s there. It’s important because that’s a rainbow ceiling that’s broken. But what’s really important is that I do my job well.”

“It’s not important because Charles Spain is the person who’s there. It’s important because that’s a rainbow ceiling that’s broken.”

Charles Spain

Spain was one of 15 openly LGBTQ candidates in Texas who won their races on November 6, including seven from Houston. And Spain’s victory was part of a blue wave in appellate court races across the state. Previously, only three of the state’s 14 appeals courts had Democratic majorities. But in January, the number will grow to seven—including the 14th District Court.

“The sweep has thrown off the balance of the state’s judiciary, which before Tuesday was the best example of Texas Republican hegemony,” Emma Platoff wrote in the Texas Tribune following the election. “And it has teed up an ideological tension between newly Democratic courts of appeals and the state’s all-Republican high courts.”

A longtime advocate of the LGBTQ community, Spain will bring a fresh perspective to the 14th District Court. Cases that have come before the court in recent years include Pidgeon v. Turner, the lawsuit challenging same-sex benefits for Houston municipal employees.

“I was a founding member of the first LGBT college student groups in Waco, and co-founded the first state bar LGBT section [in the nation],” Spain says. And when he became an associate municipal-court judge in 2010, appointed by mayor Annise Parker, he became only the third openly gay male judge in the state.

Spain was born and raised in Houston, and graduated from Sharpstown High School. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Rice University and a law degree from Baylor University School of Law, he began practicing in 1988. He served as a briefing attorney for the Supreme Court of Texas, and as a staff attorney for both the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, and the 1st District Court of Appeals in Houston. When he stepped down in 2013 to open a solo practice specializing in civil appeals, he vowed to return to the courts as a judge. In fact, he ran for Harris County’s 270th District Court seat while still working for the 1st District Court of Appeals in 2010. 

“It really hurts to lose,” Spain says. “That’s why I almost didn’t run this time. But the demographics are changing, and with Beto O’Rourke, all the stars just aligned.”

Spain says he knew he was gay in high school, but didn’t come out until later.

“I wanted to get that law degree in my hand before I came out,” he says. “I wasn’t going to put my law degree at risk by throwing down the gay card at Baylor. That would have gotten you an invitation to go to Pat Neff Hall and speak to people in the administration.”

Today, Spain is married to fellow civil-appeals attorney John Adcock. “We’re just a couple of law nerds,” he says. They have a 16-year-old son, Jeff, and the family is heavily involved in Scouting. Spain is an Eagle Scout, and worked for three years as a district scout executive for the the Boy Scouts of America before coming out. At that time, the Scouts banned openly gay scouts and leaders.

“When Jeff was in third grade, John and I discussed getting him into Scouts,” Spain says. “We decided to do what was best for Jeff rather than stand on principle.”

But that didn’t stop Spain from working on the national level to end the bans as part of a group called Scouts for Equality. In 2013, the association dropped the ban on gay Scouts, and in 2015 the Boy Scouts of America finally reversed the policy and welcomed gay leaders. “The next day, both John and I became the first openly gay Scout leaders in the Sam Houston Area Council.” Today, Spain is the scoutmaster of his son’s troop at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church.

Spain’s other passion is vexillology, the study of flags. Growing up, his grandparents owned a little café in Crockett, Texas, and flew the Six Flags Over Texas.

“That fascinated me,” Spain says. “And then I studied flags in the Scouts. Flags are just the single most powerful political symbol. Just look at the Nazi flag if you don’t think so.”

Spain serves as secretary general for the International Federation of Vexillological Associations, which he calls “the U.N. of flag associations.” He once co-chaired the Texas State Seal Advisory Committee and was instrumental in getting the Confederate battle flag removed from the reverse of the state seal. He’s also very well versed in Texas history.

“The current Texas Constitution took effect in 1876,” Spain says. “It was right after Reconstruction. During that period, judges were appointed, and the people of Texas didn’t like that, so when the Constitution was written, it called for judges to be elected.”

Texas is one of only seven states where judges are elected in partisan races. “It’s just the system we have,” Spain says. “Whether elected or appointed, there is always going to be politics involved in the process. The thing about running for election is that you have to get out there and meet the people you are going to serve, and that meeting process teaches you something about the place where you live.”

This article appears in the December 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.  



Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and, among others.
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