By Veletta Forsythe Lill
Hello, my name is Veletta Forsythe Lill and I am the hand- picked successor of Dallas’ first openly gay councilmember. That was really the way I was described in the Dallas Morning News in the first profile article about me when running for my first elected office. That description probably placed me firmly in the public’s eye as gay - friendly, but that journey had been a long one.
Born the only child of the youngest children of 2 Midwestern farm families I found myself operating in multiple worlds at an early age. The Stewarts and the Forsythes had both been among the families who homesteaded the state and they had deep taproots in the rich, black soil of Central Illinois. My mother, a young nursing student at a Catholic hospital, married her high school sweetheart 6 months into her training because he simply could not wait until graduation. He, born on a farm, but yearning for the bright lights of the city, was handsome, smart and smooth talking. For 12 years after their marriage they would spend the growing seasons working family farms and the winters working in factories and diners in Chicago to save extra money.
Two years after my birth they would divorce. He would move to Chicago to make his fortune and she would remain downstate to raise her child as a single, divorced mother. With the help of a large extended family she would work multiple jobs to pay the bills, because neither his child support payments, nor his presence were reliable. He was simply put, a character. He had lots of acquaintances, but few close friends. He gambled and drank and excelled at selling anything. He wrecked cars, closed deals and made friends with mobsters and skid row inhabitants. He would show up at my grade school in a big finned Cadillac, with a blonde companion and then disappear for 6 months. My mother on the other hand was hard working and responsible almost beyond measure. Honest, hardworking, fair and reliable. She was also funny and forgiving and terminally cheery with a great sense of humor.
At an early age, I knew we were not exactly like other families. After all divorce in small towns in the 1950’s was not common. My mother would later remarry - a wonderful man who had no children of his own and did his best to emulate Ward Cleaver. He did, however, have a disability that would make him different too. Neither, my stepfather, nor my mother, ever spoke ill of my father, in spite of his “flaws.” My father would give me flair and my mother and step-father would ground me.
Being aware of being different usually means you are aware of differences in others. It also made me keenly aware of injustice. When I was about 5 years of age our upstairs neighbor Mrs. Fishwick wrongly accused me of breaking a birdbath in the backyard. I was unjustly punished. So incensed that I felt I must run away to my grandfather’s farm where no indiscretion, real or imagined was ever punished. I plotted my escape - packing my ballet bag with my finest tutu and ballet slippers, my favorite story book and stuffed dog named Lazy Bones. Even today elements of this story have relevance. After all, I still bristle injustice and I never travel anywhere without good luggage and a favorite pair of shoes.
Growing up in the 1950’s, 60’s and was an interesting time. Gliding back and forth between Chicago and downstate meant I straddled 2 worlds and I found myself in books. Books that would transport me to far away places and distant times. At some point much of my reading focused on Illinois’ homeboy, Abraham Lincoln (foreshadowing my interest in politics). I studied him to the point that one of my Mother’s friends told my Mom I had an “unhealthy interest in Mr. Lincoln.” Later, I would sit with my Grandma Forsythe, a Progressive Democrat, and listen to the speeches of John Kennedy on the radio. My high school rebellious years turned to the readings of the more radical - Malcolm X’s Autobiography, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, the writings of the Chicago 7, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. These years, tumultuous for America, shaped many of those of us who were coming of age. Vietnam War, the death zone of friends, the assassination of American political figures. All impacting my philosophy of today - equality, justice, fairness, transparency, even seeing government as a partner in truing the scales.
All of this proceeded through my college years of studying sociology, government and finally public health. Campus discussions, campaigning for McGovern, protests against Nixon. But how did I find myself a supporter of the LGBT movement. A natural part of my justice agenda of course, but probably more personal. Personal friendships that later informed my policy fights. A high school chum that I shared colas with, cried with over the death of Jimi Hendrix with and worked on homecoming decorations was gay. I would hear snickers and see bias. This was also the time when you could declare yourself to be gay to avoid being drafted, but it came at a price, yet young men I knew chose that path.
In college at the U of I I was given a Governor’s Fellowship. Part of that experience was to work a summer at the Illinois Department of Public Health. One of my mentors was a man named Frank who I worked with on public health policy, including migrant labor. Frank and I would visit the agricultural camps of Central Illinois and talk with the owners and the farmers. Frank was African-American, gay and a vegan and he spoke 4 languages and he had degrees in government, business and public health, but he didn’t always speak the language of rural farmers and those who run camps. We weren’t always welcome in the cafes of rural Illinois. Frank helped with the details of my wedding, took me to my first gay bar and he would later be lost to the epidemic.
Many in the LGBT community would turn out to be my first friends when I arrived in places like Dallas. Tony Hoover, who would become my best buddy when I went to work for Fidelity Investments after moving to Dallas. Always walking in multiple worlds I was also a transfer provisional member of the Junior League. So some nights in the 1980’s you might find me at JR’s and sometimes at the Junior League Headquarters on Inwood. I was also involved in neighborhood activism and would find myself friends with folks like Craig McDaniel, Rob Parks and Hector Garcia. We worked with Councilmembers Craig Holcomb and Lori Palmer on everything from neighborhood zoning to public housing and health policies. In 1992 I would become Lori Palmer’s appointee to the Human Services Commission. Here I first encountered Texas’ own Cathie Adams, sent to the city’s Human Services Commission as the antidote to liberals like Hector Garcia and myself.
In this time period Craig McDaniel makes the final decision to run for city council and a group of friends - gay and straight - is asked to help prepare him for the run. On Sunday afternoons for months on end we sit in Craig Holcomb and Hector Garcia’s house “practicing” the speech about his vision for Dallas - which centered on safe neighborhoods, basic services and access to city hall, but we must also concentrate on Craig’s coming out as not only a candidate, but as the only openly gay one. He is a neighborhood focused candidate, who happens to be gay. His campaign will remain focused and Craig will be elected as Dallas’ first openly gay council member, with his partner sitting on stage with him and the Turtle Creek Chorale singing at the 1995 inauguration. This will prove to be a pivotal time for the city, Mica England sues the city and later wins a settlement based on discrimination by DPD.
Prior to Craig running for a second term in 1995 Craig and Chris Lunca champion the first non-discrimination ordinance based in city hiring practices. These were important landmarks and I am glad I have been able to witness them. But my friend Craig also had to face a dark side of discrimination, with death threats and false rumors.
Craig and I came out of the neighborhood leadership mold, but protecting the gayborhood and speaking out on issues of equality were as shared as any of our experiences. I commit to the future of the work and as well as to running for his council seat when he decides to not run for a 3rd term. Buckle up girlfriend. We have a lot ahead, but as Ed Oakley once told me, it is sometimes harder to shut out the straight woman talk about LGBT equality issues, than it is the LGBT community. Strong alliances are what changes minds.
I believe it is why we are where we are today in LGBT rights. It is why the work of Martin Luther King changed us as a country. It is why we need to bond together with African Americans and Latinos and even the business community to achieve change. No one stands alone.
I never thought that representing the LGBT community meant that I just rode in parades (although heaven knows I have walked in the parade, ridden in a car, a horse drawn carriage and a pickup truck. My husband has ridden with me, my son rode with me. I have been a participants, a judge and a grand marshal. These are all important symbolic gestures. But representing communities means more than symbolism it means hard work and making policies and laws that work for everyone. I am proud to have been a part of a legacy of changing, hearts, minds and laws to better serve the LGBT community, but I didn’t do it alone. Working with folks like John Wimberly, Steve Atkinson, Cece Cox - elected officials like Craig McDaniel, Chris Luna, John Loza, Laura Miller, Ed Oakley and Elba Garcia, but also the Lois Finkelman and Leo Chaney, Don Hill and Sandy Greyson. With business leaders like Don Carty who represented the regions largest employer when we passed the non-discrimination ordinance for employment, lodging and public accommodation. Lawyers like John Rogers and David Schultz who wrote ordinances to withstand the assault. And as a result Dallas was ahead of other cities, but years in many cases. State laws Lawrence v TX fell during my time. Hate crimes bills included sexual orientation. We worked to make neighborhoods safer and educate people on issues that mattered to all of us.
I have always been fortunate to have my loved ones support me - my husband who couldn’t be with us tonight has always been with me in spirit. My son, who once asked me if I had any male friends who weren’t gay or married, has stood by me.
And while we have had many victories and I anticipate the last big one to come soon. Just know that victory can be sweet, but it is rarely forever. And whether it is fair pay, a woman’s right to choose, a right to vote or safe working conditions, we are still fighting the battles. Continue to build your bridges and embrace your allies.
The text is from Valetta's Outrageous Oral, Volume 14 remarks.