Women on Top
Lesbians are great leaders -- you can find them in the upper echelons of government, heading major nonprofits, running LGBT community centers and delivering breaking news. EDGE takes a look at some of the ladies who are at the top of their game.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Annise Parker began her political career in a neighborhood civics club, which fostered the sense of community leadership and honesty that are her trademark. In her first run for public office, in 1998, Parker made history by defying local good-old boy politics and winning an at-large seat on the City Council as Houston’s first openly gay elected official. She held the post until 2003, and then served as city controller from 2004 to 2009. Since 2010, Parker has been mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city, making her one of the nation’s most visible lesbian political leaders.
"From my very first campaign to the present, they have known I am a lesbian," Parker said of her constituents in an interview with EDGE. "I believe being open about it has helped me be successful in politics. Voters tend to think, "If she is upfront about this, she’ll be upfront with us about anything.’ They trust me not to hide the truth."
Certainly, Parker, a Democrat, has never put gay rights on the back burner. To take only one example, she made sure the Bayou City has one of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the U.S. She serves as a co-chair of Freedom to Marry, the foremost national organization fighting for marriage equality. Parker and her domestic partner, Kathy Hubbard, live with two adopted daughters and one foster son.
"Like any public official, the sum total of my experiences, of being an outsider, personally experiencing anti-gay bias and personally having been the target of hate crimes, certainly impacts some of the decisions I make," Parker said. "But it is not the focus of what I do in the mayor’s office. Of course, these are issues important to the LGBT community, but in the broader sense, they are about doing the right thing and treating everyone fairly and equally."
Parker tends to focus on bread and butter issues: creating jobs, rebuilding her city’s infrastructure, quality of life, fiscal responsibility and improving public safety.
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn
The first woman to rise to the top post on the New York City Council, Christine Quinn ranks as the city’s second-most important politician. Quinn began her career in public service as a community activist. In 1991, she managed the groundbreaking run of Tom Duane, who was the city’s first out-gay council member. She went from serving as his chief of staff to head the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which combats gay bashings and bullying. When Duane became a state senator, she took over his seat in the City Council, where she represents the gayborhoods of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and part of Hell’s Kitchen.
As the representative of the fractious body, Quinn stands by Mayor Michael Bloomberg during all significant press conferences. Her position and close ties to the mayor have made her his heir apparent. In January, The New York Times estimated her campaign war chest as having topped $4.9 million just for the Democratic primary. Adding public matching funds would give her the maximum $6.7 million allowed for mayoral candidates. Among other big players, former Mayor Ed Koch has endorsed Quinn for his old job.
Whatever the outcome of the race, Quinn has proved her dedication to improving life for her constituents on Manhattan’s West Side and for New Yorkers in general. Early on, she was a formidable voice protecting tenants’ rights when she worked for the Housing Asset Renewal Program. She has been a forceful voice for investing in early-childhood education, and she was instrumental in legislations to improve energy efficiency and require manufacturers to recycle electronic waste.
LGBT rights have always been a priority on Quinn’s legislative agenda. One of her major achievements was making New York require contractors doing a certain amount of business with the city to include same-sex and domestic partners in employee health care plans. Her Irish heritage being as much of a force with Quinn as her sexual identity, she has taken a firm stand against the exclusion of LGBT groups from the privately run annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Quinn was among elected officials and activists who began an alternative parade in Irish neighborhoods in Queens, one of the five boroughs (or counties) that make up the city proper.
In May, Quinn and corporate lawyer Kim Catullo made the society pages with their wedding only days after President Barack Obama endorsed marriage equality and nearly after a year after same-sex marriage was legalized in the Empire State. They live in Chelsea with their two dogs and spend weekends in a house on the Jersey Shore.
Fox News’ & Salon’s Sally Kohn
Rachel Maddow has it easy. As the lead anchor at MSNBC, Maddow occupies a secure liberal bully pulpit. But Sally Kohn doesn’t preach to the choir. Instead, she regularly represents the other side as one of the few liberal commentators on Fox News Channel.
Having worked at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Center for Community Change, Kohn combines the activism of a community organizer with the acumen of a lawyer. She began as an occasional contributor on Fox -- the voice of America’s right wing -- and soon realized how important it was that the channel let her give opposing points of view to its viewers.
"There are a lot of voices at Fox, and I am only one of many liberals there," Kohn told EDGE. "I chose Fox because I’m no fool: I understand power, and Fox has the largest audience, so I wanted to be there." Kohn may try to play down her role, but she is increasingly seen as one of the country’s most potentially powerful progressive voices.
Kohn’s visibility began several years ago, when she gave a speech at a conference and someone suggested she try television. A training program at the Women’s Media Center gave her the tools to be an on-air personality and allowed her to bring her experience in community work and advocacy to a national TV audience.
While Kohn bemoans the dearth of minorities or LGBT among its talking head ranks, she gives Fox points for "making a real institutional effort to be inclusive. I’m pretty sure it was the amazing Gloria Steinem, one of the founders of the Women’s Media Center, who said media is our virtual campfire," Kohn said. "To be able to be a part of that on any scale is tremendous. I spent the bulk of my career talking to people about important things in church basements or cafeterias, maybe reaching 100 people on a good day. So to be able to talk to millions is an unbelievable opportunity."
Kohn receives constant feedback. Every time she appears on Fox, she receives at least one letter, email or tweet telling her that she made a difference or expressed her point well -- whether the subject is marriage equality or tax policy. "I get to have a particular vantage point and don’t have to pretend to be objective," she said of her Fox gig. "I get to wear my opinions on my sleeve. To anyone who said I’m too opinionated or too stubborn, they can now shove it."
Kohn firmly believes that we all need to find the best way to stand up for our beliefs. That’s the only way to keep pushing core values and ultimately make the world a better place to live. "I think the best advice I ever received and could ever give is to find the thing you are passionate about and pursue it with love and vigor, no matter what," said Kohn.
Kohn lives with her partner and their 4-year-old daughter in Park Slope, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, with a large lesbian population.