Photo by Danny Fulgencio.
It never hurts to have a friend in your corner, especially a politician. Former state Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt has fought to save historic neighborhoods and to improve Dallas public schools. But perhaps she is best known as a supporter of gay rights. Despite the risks of being one of the first public allies in Dallas, she worked to pass anti-hate crime legislation and opened the home she shared with her late husband Jack to openly gay politicians running for office. Her advocacy earned her the nickname “Fairy Godmother of Texas” in the gay community. “It’s been an honor and a privilege and a lot of fun,” she says.
How did you first get involved with LGBTQ advocacy?
Nolan Estes, who was the DISD superintendent, was interviewed by the newspaper and said (the district) would fire any gay teacher in Dallas. Asked how he’d know if they were gay, he said the students or the principal or the parents could tell him. That would have been a Spanish Inquisition. I was on the school board. My husband brought me a cup of tea with the newspaper under his arm while I was still in bed. He said, “We have a problem.”
What happened next?
All the way to my office at Mountain View College, I was gripping the steering wheel, saying, “All right God, you’ve given me this ball. What am I supposed to do?” I called a friend, Milton Tobian, and he said, “If you touch this, you’ll be through politically.” I said, “Will you help me?” We went to every board member, but it got taken care of because the business community didn’t want such an issue in Dallas. We changed the personnel policy.
Were you worried it would ruin your career?
Oh, I didn’t care. I never gave that a thought. I wasn’t interested in being a politician. I was interested in doing something that was right.
What other advocacy stories stand out?
One of the gay bars had an arson, and it burned all the clothes of the female impersonators. I had evening dresses that I never wore, so I just donated them. When it opened again, they invited Jack and me to come as their guests. I took the opportunity to thank Dallas teachers and administrators for what they did for our children.
I got a phone call the next morning from a reporter at the Dallas Morning News. She said, “Tell me you weren’t at a gay bar last night. Tell me you didn’t thank the teachers. My editor says if it’s true, we’ll have to print it.” They ran it in the paper — a whole third of the front page with my picture in it. That’s when it hit the fan.
Was it dangerous to be an LGBTQ ally?
We got calls. We got death threats. It was terrible. My son was beat up. Our daughter had to have a police officer attend kindergarten with her. We had police in front of our house 24/7. If that’s what happened to me, think what it must have been like to be gay back then. That’s when I realized how awful this was. What a terrible, discriminatory thing. We got very involved. The ball just came to us, and we had to accept it.
How did you help in the state legislature?
I represented the largest gay district in the U.S. outside of New York and San Francisco. I was elected with their help. I tried to get the anti-hate laws passed, and it took all eight years I was in the legislature. I’m delighted for the first time this session there’s a gay-lesbian caucus. That’s great progress, but we need to stop this ridiculous talk about bathrooms. We need to get 21.06 off the books. It’s an unconstitutional Texas law that says any sexual activity between members of the same sex is a criminal act.
What are you most proud of?
I think it was that the gay community knew that an elected official, respected physician and their family believed in them, supported them and believed they deserved to be treated with respect and equality.