State Representative Garnet Coleman has served House District 147 since 1991. He is as much a fixture at the Capitol in Austin as the iconic pink dome itself. His next election, if successful, will take him over the 30-year mark as an ardent warrior and ally for Houston and its LGBTQ community.
“I come from a family that has always been politically active, primarily to move the black community closer to getting a seat at the table at all levels of government. I started thinking about those things a long time ago, before I was ever elected,” says Coleman of his early days in Houston.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1961, Coleman’s family soon moved to Houston’s Third Ward, where his father’s side of the family had resided for over 100 years—an astonishingly deep history, considering Houston itself only goes back to 1837.
Coleman attended Yates High School and then went on to the University of St. Thomas, located in the heart of Montrose (a neighborhood that was in full bloom at the time as one of the most famous queer communities in the country).
“I knew the gay clubs better than most people of my generation. Everyone I hung around was going to the gay clubs in the neighborhood. I had so many friends half-out and half-in [the closet] in high school and college,” recalls Coleman. “I also found a community that, from a political perspective, I agreed with and became friends with. I knew we could advocate together on the fights that needed to occur.”
Indeed, Coleman’s early alliance with Houston’s LGBTQ activist community led to the GLBT Political Caucus endorsement he received on his first campaign—a special election to replace Larry Evans, his predecessor in Austin. The organization has enthusiastically endorsed Coleman in every election since.
“That was an extremely gratifying moment, and I will never forget it.” says Coleman of that first endorsement.
The Proof Is in the Progress
There is a reason why Houston’s LGBTQ community has always supported the legislator. Early in his legislative career, Coleman was introducing positive legislation on its behalf. In 1999, he introduced a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation—a bill that he has tried to pass in every subsequent legislative session.
In 2013, he passed legislation to address the public-health threat posed by youth suicides, which led to sweeping changes in school policies across Texas relating to bullying and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Many of his legislative accomplishments pertain to legislation concerning HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. In 1995, Coleman successfully passed a bill that allowed for the manufacturing and marketing of at-home HIV testing kits, a tremendous accomplishment in those early days of widespread HIV screening. At-home kits provided an incentive for more people to test and seek treatment for complications related to the disease.
In 2011 he passed legislation that created the Texas HIV Medication Advisory Committee. In 2017, he passed legislation relating to the development of quality-based goals for the Texas Children’s Health Plan (CHIP) program, as well as HIV-care reforms in the Medicaid program.
Coleman admits he has built success through creating partnerships and alliances with others. He regularly aligned with legislators like openly gay former representative Glenn Maxey to draft legislation that supported the LGBTQ community. Today, Coleman looks to the Legislature’s LGBTQ Caucus, of which he is a member, and the five out representatives that advocate for relevant LGBTQ issues.
“Fast-forward to the last [statewide] election and the creation of the LGBTQ Caucus, which is a large number of representatives who are openly gay or bisexual. That’s a super change. When I started, there were those of us that did the work because it needed to be done in the absence of those voices. My son is gay, and we believed people like him should have access to the same rights that every Texan has. But now, people who actually are LGBTQ-identifying are doing the work. People who can advocate the best for a community do so from a real-life perspective,” says Coleman.
From Blue to Red to Trump
Over the course of 28 years of legislating, Coleman has had a front-row seat as Texas changed from blue (under Governor Ann Richards) to red (under George W. Bush and Rick Perry). In recent years, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick have taken the Republican Party even further to the right. Gone are the bipartisan days of the ’90s and early 2000s, when solutions were regularly reached by Coleman and his Republican colleagues. Current Texas leadership is dominated by the party of Trump. But even in these reddest of times for the Texas State Legislature, Coleman still sees hope for progress.
“Even though the LGBTQ community is under attack with things like the ‘bathroom bill,’ [those attacks are] not working. One of the best days recently was when every anti-LGBTQ bill got killed in the House. All of them died. If things were as bad as they appear, then all of those bills would pass. The corporate community respects their LGBTQ employees, and that has shut down any thought of doing a bathroom bill ever again. People won’t [move here to Texas] if these laws persist. The defensive support on LGBTQ issues is widespread,” says Coleman.
This lurch further to the right is starting to wear on Texas voters, according to Coleman. “Trump has really created a silent majority that doesn’t tolerate that hate. He created an election backlash in 2018, and I think you’ll see a continuation of that in 2020 with Trump on the ballot. We only need nine seats to take back the House, but any new seats we win will give us greater leverage than we had before,” predicts Coleman.
Working through Health Challenges
The 2019 session was challenging for Coleman as he battled some serious health issues relating to a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, which led to severe liver disease. “I had stage 2 liver disease, and I was not sure whether my health would allow me to stay. I spent a great part of the session on a scooter and a wheelchair,” says Coleman.
Because of Coleman’s long tenure in the House, his colleagues helped him by conducting meetings in his office and over the phone. You get the sense that even though many elected officials may have ideological differences, they still have a great deal of respect and compassion for each other—especially Coleman.
Coleman has also been open about his bipolar diagnosis, but he does not blame that for the health complications he worked through during this session. “Even though I have bipolar disorder, I’ve worked through that. It has created some challenges in the past. Sometimes I am not as nice as I should be, but I’ve learned how to work with it,” he admits.
Rumors about Coleman stepping away from politics have always circulated, perhaps because of his openness about these health challenges. Session after session, rumors are proven false. Coleman sees the 2021 legislative session as one of the most important ones ever in Texas, as the state looks at redistricting. His expertise will be particularly valuable to legislators, especially if his party takes back the House.
“I serve a district that was created by the Voting Rights Act, so if my health is good, as I expect it to be, then I am going to run again to do the work that I am meant to do. I am leaning in that direction. You heard it here first,” says Coleman.
All Politics Are Local
There is still some time until Coleman’s next race for District 147. Before then, Houstonians will elect a new mayor and several members of City Council. Although Coleman’s name will not appear on that ballot, he has a lot of opinions about who voters should choose to run the city. When you have thirty years of experience as an elected official, you also have a lot of influence on voters. Coleman’s opinions may be just the thing to sway voters in what is expected to be a tight race.
“Let’s be really clear. In the past, I supported and helped get elected some of the [City Council] candidates that are now running for mayor [and who] have no chance of winning. The only thing they are going to do in this race is to get Tony Buzbee elected,” warns Coleman.
“The proudest I was of this city was when we elected Annise Parker mayor, so I am surprised [at the candidates who] would use the trust of the progressive community to take votes away from [Mayor Turner], who cares for the LGBTQ community,” he says.
Coleman advises voters to follow the GLBT Political Caucus endorsements when they consider who to vote for.
Looking to statewide races, Coleman also weighed in on Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards’ bid to unseat Republican Senator John Cornyn in 2020.
“One of the reasons why Amanda should [be running against Senator Cornyn] is because people with her same credentials are getting elected right now to the Congress and Senate. People forget that Turner has a Harvard law degree, and so does Amanda. She would regret it if she didn’t run,” says Coleman.
In the meantime, Coleman will keep doing the work his constituents have trusted him to do for almost thirty years. Through blue and red times, in sickness and in health, Coleman has always shown up for his constituents and fought hard for communities who need a strong voice like his in their corner.
“It’s not what people say, it’s what they do. We as an overall community need to do things that make the world work for all of us. And in the Legislature, that’s what I hope I’ve done.” says Coleman.
This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.