Feature Politics is personal

City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo is SA’s first openly lesbian elected official

Several weeks ago, über-conservative and perennial City Council heckler Jack Finger approached the Council dais and remarked that District 7’s Elena Guajardo, a “ho-mo-sex-yoo-ull,” was serving as Mayor Pro Tem that day. Roger Flores of District 1 came to Guajardo’s defense and told Finger to move along.

In a socially conservative city such as San Antonio, that Guajardo was even elected to City Council is remarkable. Last June, as poll results dribbled in during the District 7 runoff election against Noel Suniga, it became evident that San Antonio had its first openly lesbian or gay City Councilmember. Guajardo beat Suniga by a margin of 54-45 percent.

During her election campaign, Guajardo met a man who had given up on a political career because he is gay. “This is sad, if you have a passion to be something,” she says, “and this restricts you from fulfilling a dream.” (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

“I have a dwelling spirit to serve and I had to trust that decision,” says Guajardo, who has been out only four years. “I remember the moment I decided to run: I said, If I do this, I have to do it honestly. If I didn’t, I would have to be careful and there would be so much energy spent, it would take away the mission of serving. I realized who I was and I wasn’t going to live in the closet.”

Yet, Guajardo’s decision to run was tested after the November 2004 national election when President Bush won a second term, ostensibly on a “moral values” platform that included a push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. “I thought, I’m going to get crucified,” she says.

Seeking advice, Guajardo called Houston’s first openly gay or lesbian elected official, Annise Parker, a former City Councilwoman and now that city’s comptroller. Parker introduced Guajardo to the Victory Fund, a campaign training school for gay and lesbian candidates. “I learned to be open and honest,” Guajardo says. “If we are, then what else is there to hide? We come totally vulnerable.”

Guajardo risked running, she says, because she had little to lose. “I didn’t have a partner at the time, so I didn’t have to worry about her losing her job. I don’t have children, so I didn’t have to worry about them being harassed at school. I’m retired and my house is paid for. My finances are such that as long as my dogs get treats, it’s OK.”

Although Guajardo’s sexual orientation didn’t figure prominently in her campaign, she wasn’t secretive about it. While her website boasted support from the Human Rights Campaign and the Stonewall Democrats, she says her campaign “was all about the issues.”

Yet, as Election Day loomed, Guajardo says, “I kept wondering when the bomb was coming.”

The bomb dropped five days before the May 7 election. A postcard was mailed to some, but not all, households in District 7 — which suggests that someone affiliated with the sender had analyzed the residents’ voting records — bashing three candidates, but singling out Guajardo for being a lesbian. The postcard contained no contact information and didn’t list who had paid for the mailing.

“I remember the moment I decided to run:

I said, If I do this, I have to do it honestly.”

– Elena Guajardo

“I thought, Oh my God, the phones are going to ring,” she recalls. “And nothing happened. I got angry phone calls about this postcard going to this extreme. And that’s how my neighbors found out I’m a lesbian; I had lived there 30 years.”

The mysterious postcard is part of the city’s long homophobic history. In 1976, when Betty Naylor, the first openly lesbian Texas lobbyist, tried to hold a small arts event in San Antonio, some people from local churches called it a “gay” event and protested at City Hall. “Someone got up and said they should put a fence around San Antonio so no gays or lesbians would be allowed in,” Guajardo says. “They didn’t say what happens to the people who are already here.”

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Would the rich gay, white men please stand up?
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Council also has an unsavory record of anti-gay activity. In the late ’90s, when the Religious Right vigorously beat back City Council’s attempt to introduce a domestic-partnership ordinance, Councilmembers wilted under pressure and didn’t pursue the issue. In 1997, City Council withdrew funding for the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center because some Councilmembers had been pressured by church leaders who were offended by Esperanza’s gay and lesbian film festival.

Although Guajardo’s election to Council represents a victory for the LGBT community, in her first term she doesn’t have the political capital to introduce a domestic-partnership ordinance, which would offer health benefits to City employees and their domestic partners — gay or straight. The marriage amendment, which passed in Bexar County 69-30 percent, indicates that “the city isn’t ready” for such an ordinance, Guajardo says.

Guajardo’s legacy may be that she inspires other “out” gays and lesbians to run for public office, and eventually to craft public policy that legally endows them with equal rights. “We need to have real power when we get to the table,” she says. “Politics is personal to us.”

By Lisa Sorg


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