By Johnny Trlica
On June 25, 1978, a group of about 3,500 gays and lesbians gathered at Houston’s Astro Arena to formulate a plan to move gay rights forward. The keynote speaker was Sissy Farenthold. She caught everyone’s attention with her opening remarks: “The question has already been put to me! What business does a straight white woman with four grown children have addressing this convocation of gay men and women? The answer should be self-evident. No one is free unless we are all free.”
Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold died peacefully at home in Houston on Sunday, September 26 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. She 94.
When she first went to Austin to serve in the Texas House in 1969, she was one of two female Texas lawmakers. Barbara Jordan was in the Senate. While in the legislature, she successfully sponsored the Texas Equal Rights Amendment.
“At the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, where Sissy led the anti-war McGovern forces from Texas, she was tapped as a potential vice-presidential running mate for (George) McGovern. Gloria Steinem nominated her from the floor, seconded by Fannie Lou Hamer and former U.S. Rep. Allard Lowenstein. Although Sissy came in second, she was the first woman whose nomination for that position had ever been brought to a floor vote. Perhaps it was this, and her outspokenness, that earned Sissy a place on Nixon’s Enemies List—twice,” wrote the New York Times.
In the late 1970s, Farenthold became an active voice in the gay rights movement. Speaking in Houston in 1981, at the Gay Political Caucus she said, “Political control of sexuality does violence to fundamental human rights.” She called gay pride “an affirmation of personal worth … because sexual orientation is irrelevant to the living space and freedom due each individual.”
Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Farenthold graduated from Vassar College (at 19) and, in 1949, The University of Texas School of Law (at 22). She taught law at the Thurgood Marshall Law School at Texas Southern University, where her students included future U.S. Rep. Al Green; and at the University of Houston, where she taught one of the nation’s first classes on sex-based discrimination.
A life-long Democrat, Farenthold was instrumental in exposing corruption and criminal activity of many powerful Democrats in Austin. Her insistence on transparency and her fight against special interests ended the careers of many Texas politicians, including Governor Preston Smith, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes and the Speaker of the House, Gus Mutscher.
We need more Sissy’s.