Annise Parker served as the 61st Mayor of Houston, Texas. Most headlines featuring Annise’s life story focuses on the fact that she identifies as a Lesbian. And while she proudly identifies as such, Annise’s work extends far beyond her sexual orientation. Not only was Annise one of the first openly gay mayors of a major city in the United States but she was also the second woman to serve as mayor of Houston. Annise went on to create Houston’s first “pooper scooper” ordinance, make great strides in restoring Houston’s Old Sixth Ward, and serve as a professor at Rice University. Put simply: Annise is breaking the mold.
Annise was born to native Houstonians, generally growing up in Spring Branch—a suburb of Houston, Texas. She described her early upbringing as rural in the “shadows of the big city.” When she was roughly twelve years old, Annise’s family moved to Mississippi, South Carolina, and then clear across the Atlantic Ocean to Germany. Eventually, her family returned to the United States. Annise recalled experiencing a wide variety of communities in a short period of time. She credited her youth to opening her eyes to the differences of the world.
For Annise, community building was something she was exposed to at a young age. As a public servant and community activist, Annise followed in the generational footsteps of her parents and grandparents. Annise’s first role model was her maternal grandmother. Born in 1899, Annise’s grandmother started teaching at the age of sixteen. With her teacher’s salary, she was able to put herself and several of her siblings through college. Both Annise’s grandmother and mother graduated from college when very few women graduated or were even permitted to attend. Annise’s grandmother broke the societal norms placed on women at this time by waiting until her thirties to get married and travelling solo internationally. Annise credits her maternal grandmother with instilling a sense of confidence and independence in her.
Annise was exposed to politics long before she became the 61st Mayor of Houston. She has early memories of standing in the voting booth with her parents. Her most profound memory was President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Though her parents were “Goldwater Republicans,” as she described them, she recalled her parents sitting in horror in the aftermath of the assassination. In this moment, Annise recognized the impact that a single individual had on not just the country but the entire world. “The whole world stopped,” she recalled.
Following her graduation from Rice University, Annise began what would become a twenty-year career in the oil and gas industry. Around this time, Annise was recruited to run for office. “Like a lot of women, I waited to be recruited. I waited to be asked to run,” she said. In 1991, Annise was recruited to run for Houston City Council as part of a redistricting legal challenge. In the early 1990s, Houston was moving to single member districts which opened up new vacancies. At the time, Annise was known in Houston for her activism within the LGBTQIA+ community. Unfortunately, Annise did not win. “I ran [in 1991] because of community expectations, not because I really wanted to run,” she said. But in 1995, Annise wanted to run. Annise ran for Houston City Council after then-city council member Sheila Jackson Lee was elected to U.S. Congress. There were nineteen candidates—Annise finished third behind two other candidates that had already served in elected office.
Though she was not ultimately elected during her 1995 city council campaign, Annise felt empowered to run again in 1997. As a gay woman, Annise felt others limited her to politics related to her identity. In both of her citywide races leading up to her 1997 campaign, Annise was always referred to as “the gay activist” in media coverage. For Annise, her 1997 city council campaign broke the barriers she was confined to. Annise kept a portfolio of her media coverage, noting each time her sexual orientation was mentioned while other candidates’ orientations were not. Local television stations and newspapers took notice—expanding their coverage of Annise’s campaign beyond her association with the LGBTQIA+ community. Annise was able to reintroduce herself to voters. And in 1997, Annise became the first openly gay candidate elected to Houston City Council.
As a city council member, Annise focused on building infrastructure and tackling development issues. One of her most proud accomplishments was her advocacy for the “pooper scooper” ordinance. This ordinance permitted Houston Police Department officers to write tickets when animal owners leave behind their pet’s fecal matter. Annise originally thought of the idea when she used to convince her wife to carry plastic bags on their dogs’ walks. She was further inspired to advocate for the ordinance after witnessing Harvey Milk propose a similar ordinance.
Annise went on to serve as City Controller for Houston from 2004 to 2010. As Controller, a position that serves as Houston’s chief financial officer, Annise’s top priority was building a data management system. Then, Annise was elected as the 61st Mayor of Houston, serving in this role from 2010 to 2016. Annise was the second woman to serve as mayor and one of the openly gay As Mayor, Annise prioritized the maintenance of critical infrastructure in the city. Houston is a flood prone city, ranging -7 to 82 feet above sea level. Annise prioritized updates to the water, sewage, and drainage systems to alleviate the severity of the city’s flooding.
Annise has since retired from elected office but still spends her time involved in the political sphere. Now, Annise serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Victory Institute, a national non-profit dedicated to elevating openly LGBTQ leaders into all levels of government. Looking back on her time as a candidate and elected official, Annise admits she struggled with a work-life balance. Her youngest daughter regularly joked Annise was never home while she was running and serving in office. When she served as Mayor, Annise would try to be home by 9 PM each day and, once she arrived home, would turn off her work devices unless it was a serious matter. And though she was busy, Annise was excited to go to work every day. “I got to marry the things I was passionate about with my day job,” she said, “[If] you take a job doing something you love, you never have to work.”