Rare Bird

Activist Bettie Naylor keeps a watchful eye on Texas

Rare Bird
Photo By Aubrey Edwards

High above the towering canopies of native trees that dot the Texas state Capitol grounds, beyond the imposing memorials to Confederate war veterans, volunteer firemen, and the hardy stock of pioneer women who settled this wild land, looms an endangered species. Outfitted in the same plumes as iconic, outspoken progressives like Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, and Liz Carpenter, this curious, elegant creature is a rare bird in these turgid times of conservative chest-puffery.

From her office vantage point, beside the rosy glow of the majestic Capitol dome, 78-year-old feminist, political powerhouse, and gay rights lobbyist Bettie Naylor keeps a watchful eye. Despite years of experience within the often confounding American political machine and more than three decades of social activism under her belt, what she witnessed throughout this most recent state legislative session disturbs her.

"I've been involved in state government for 30 years, and I'll tell you, I have never seen anything like this." Naylor speaks of the 79th Texas Legislative Session, during which tax and education issues remained virtually untouched, but distracting anti-gay legislation took up lots of time and floor space. "The bad thing is, some of the stuff that they're doing, we're never going to be able to get back."

On more than one occasion, she visited certain reps only to hear, "You know I don't disagree with you, Bettie." But when she asked why they wouldn't vote with her, she recalls, "They told me that they can't do that, because if they do, the Republican Party will run a candidate against them, and they will lose."

Her years of lobbying – for everything from court reporters to bar owners to lesbian and gay rights – have earned for her respect across political divides. She counts a number of the more conservative members of the Lege among her closest friends. But "friendship" still only goes so far – and what she has seen of its harsh limits this year upsets her.

"So when do you do something?" she asked these lawmakers. "When do you have principles? Your constituents expect you to stand up for what you believe in? When I asked one of them that, he said, 'You do not understand,' and I say, 'You are right. I do not understand.'"

Bettie Naylor's résumé outshines many of the left's brightest star players. But don't tell her that. Her insistence on sharing the glory and dodging the spotlight is legendary; this might be why so few profiles have been written about her. Or perhaps she's just too danged busy to revel in any limelight.

As a founding member of both the Texas and National Women's Political caucuses and as an active shaker in the Democratic Party, she helped spearhead and focus a good deal of the Seventies women's movement. In the later part of the decade, she found herself championing gay and lesbian rights. In 1977, she came to Austin and was instrumental in getting a particularly nasty amendment removed from an appropriations bill.

The bill proposed that "Texas-supported colleges and universities had the authority to deny use of campus facilities to homosexual and other subversive organizations," she recalls. "I got it taken out ... and it's what gave me courage to do this."

Bettie riding high 1932
Bettie riding high 1932

"This," of course, refers to becoming one of the nation's most highly regarded lobbyists and one of the best friends that the Texas and American gay movement has ever had.


Bettie Steele was born in 1927. Her father abandoned her family early on. She was raised Baptist by her mother and grandparents in Wichita Falls, Texas. Her Baptist upbringing factors greatly in the person she has become.

"There was this family friend who took my sister and I to Sunday school every Sunday for years. Well, one day I ran into him at the drugstore, and I had lipstick on. He told me I was going to hell. Well, that crushed me. So I never went to church again."

This devastating condemnation did not crush her faith. "Well, I didn't go to church again until I had kids," she explains. "It was very important to me to bring my children up with religion. We started going to the Episcopal Church."

After attending Harding Junior College in Wichita Falls and after World War II, Bettie met Van Naylor, fell in love, and got married. The couple had three children, her husband was called up by the Air Force to serve again, and together they traveled the globe as a military family.

"The reason I got into politics in the first place was because I hated the way the military treated wives and kids of servicemen. We were treated like second-class citizens. I complained about it all the time," Naylor says.

Her outspoken nature would have consequences. "Whenever families would travel, the military would put husbands and wives on different planes ... in case of accidents. And they would counsel the wives: 'Now, if there are any problems, be sure that everything's okay and that you're happy with each other and that you are not leaving anything unresolved. And I said I thought that was a good idea, but are you telling him the same thing?" Naylor pauses and leans in, "Bulllloney! There are two people in this relationship. Don't expect me to do that if you don't expect him to do that. So, they punished him for my being so outspoken.

"When they wrote up his commendation," she says with a gleam, "They noted, 'Major Naylor could not control his wife.'"

It's difficult to imagine it any other way, really, as Naylor's eyes twinkle, belying a hint of mischief. This sense of humor and independence of authority would certainly color her future.

The family settled in San Antonio. Just about the time their youngest daughter, Sharron, was finishing high school and Bettie was becoming active in local politics, she began to realize that her need to control her own life extended far beyond the scope of the U.S. Air Force.

A scandalous bikini, 1946
A scandalous bikini, 1946

In fact, she fell for a female activist colleague. Realizing that this attraction indicated much more than an interest in politics, Bettie understood that to be true to herself, she must change her life and end the marriage with Van.

"I told him I had never supported myself and that I wanted to try to do it," she recalls. "He didn't have a problem with that. But he probably thought, 'OK, she'll be back in five or six months'; after all, he had just retired."

Well, Bettie did not return. And while her departure certainly resulted in a family shake-up, it marked the beginning of a new life, one that would breathe new life into Texas progressive politics.

Bettie Naylor hit the ground running. Her work within the Democratic Party and with the women's caucuses became known, and soon, as her new life blossomed, she was heralding queer causes. The political became very personal. And vice versa.

"When I came up here in 1979," Naylor remembers, "I had legislators who could honestly tell me that they had no gay people in their districts. ... I would tell them, 'Well you do, but you don't know that you do, and they're not going to tell you!'"

Naylor's work would take her all over Texas, and to New Mexico and Washington, D.C. And she began seeing the development of queer community across the country. She also became quite comfortable in her new life as an out lesbian. Sometimes, however, home in Austin could feel somewhat confining. "Here, when the women I would meet at bars and parties would see me out in public, they'd turn around and go the other way. I guess it was because I was so out. So I would travel to New Mexico for my friendships and fun. Things finally began to change here in the mid-Eighties."

Through her well-known work with the caucuses and her emergent status as queer activist, Bettie was a natural pick to help establish the national Human Rights Campaign Fund. Founded in 1980 with the aim of getting gay-friendly candidates into office (and a blue and yellow "equal" symbol on the back of every Volvo), HRC is now one of the world's largest gay activism organizations in the world.

Naylor was also instrumental in organizing Texas gay bars. "I sent someone out to the TABC with the names of 100 or so gay bars in the state," she says. "I had him add up all the gross receipts and wrote to everyone on there that I had a name for – owners and such – and told each one of them that he was one of the contributors to this total amount in gross receipts to the state of Texas and that he had no power and no influence. And if they wanted to put together an organization, we would do so. So we put together the Bar Owners Association of Texas. I lobbied for them for 10 years. Boy I tell you, we got things under control. The authorities quit harassing the bars; it was really good."


While Bettie Naylor & Associates, Naylor's lobbyist firm, continues to take clients, the advocacy work she does for women and for LGRL (Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas) is all pro bono. "It's a responsibility," Naylor says of her unpaid activist work. "I believe very strongly – it's my Christian faith – that we are all put here to help each other. And that means we have to take responsibility."

And as anyone in any sort of politics work knows, the volatile mixture of faith and politics makes for some very interesting, if strange, bedfellows. One that might come as a surprise is Bettie's close friendship with Texas ex-Speaker of the House (1975–83) Billy W. Clayton. Like many former public servants, Clayton has practiced privately as a business and political consultant. "Billy Clayton hired me to work every legislative session," says Naylor, and a very natural friendship and mutual admiration developed.

Naylor telling former Mayor Kirk Watson what for at an HRC event, 2000
Naylor telling former Mayor Kirk Watson what for at an HRC event, 2000

She defends the career of the once Democrat turned Republican. "Billy was the first speaker to appoint a woman to chair of Calendars Committee, and the first to appoint ethnic minorities to chairmanships. Once, I asked him, 'How have you been so accepting of me?'" recalls Naylor. Clayton replied with words from the Bible: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

The two would take morning walks together, beginning from their offices near the Capitol, down Congress Avenue, across the bridge, and to the Deaf School, for years. One morning after their walk, Clayton surprised Bettie: "I've invited some people over, and we're going to start a Bible study group." He invited her to join. "So I go in," she continues. "And it's all men; I'm the only woman. There were lobbyists, a minister, someone from an accounting firm – all probably Republican. But over time, it became diverse." The group continues to meet every week.

Over the years, interpersonal involvements like this softened Naylor's view about working with those with opposing views. "Because I've gotten older and I've been doing this for so long," she asserts, "I no longer feel the need to be an activist all the time. When I started out in this business, I was more prone to point out that [my opponents] were wrong. But now I don't think that we are going to resolve things that way. Now, what I am trying to do is try to talk to them reasonably.

"I really believe with all my heart that we have to mediate things. I'm willing to give if they're willing to give – instead of fighting each other all the time. Like the abortion issue: That is pitiful. In my Bible study group, I am very honest about who I am. One of the women in my group – a devout Catholic – and I are going to brainstorm to try to get the pro-life and pro-choice people together to see if we can't resolve this difference without beating up on each other."

This brand of up-close and personal fellowship has transformed Naylor. She is inspired by some of the readings in the guide that makes up the group's study.

"I told my Bible study group that I would bring this over to Talton and Chisum," she says with a big grin, referring to Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, and Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, two notoriously conservative House members with a particular devotion to anti-gay legislation. She holds up a page from the book the study group is reading, the best-selling, pop-Christian tome The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

"'Real fellowship,'" she reads, "'happens when people get honest about who they are, and what is happening in their life. Every time you understand and affirm someone's feelings, you build friendship.' This part is from Colossians: 'Each one of you is part of the Body of Christ and you were chosen to live together in peace. ... We were created for community.'" She looks up shaking her head. An uncharacteristic sadness washes over her face.

"Don't the Evangelical Christians believe that? It just amazes me! How do they call themselves Christian? I don't see how you can and feel that you have to hurt people." Speaking face-to-face with these people, some for decades, Naylor has learned the difference between principle and politic. This year, the politics felt personal.

"It's their right to believe whatever they want to believe," she says sitting up straight. "But it is not their right to do things to us and to hurt people. If we don't come to a mutual understanding," Naylor fears, "our country is destroyed."

While earnest work toward reconciliation is a dream of Naylor's, this ambition does not change the fact that the tactics demonstrated by the right wing during this last legislative session deeply offended her. Even though Naylor is not willing to give up without a fight, she resigns herself to the fact that HJR 6, the anti-gay marriage amendment proposed to the Texas Constitution, was a straw dog, set out to galvanize the right wing's base of support.

Speaking at the Millennium March in Washington, D.C., 2000
Speaking at the Millennium March in Washington, D.C., 2000

"It's such a volatile issue," she says sadly. "I think we [the gay community] were taken. We have allowed the people who oppose us on this thing to set the tone. They come up with the language, and we answer it.

"I don't think the gay community cares about the word 'marriage.' That word exists to give the Evangelicals points. Well, OK, keep it. But don't take those same civil rights away from us because of the word 'marriage.' They're going to keep throwing that word out there as much as they can. We have a lot at stake; if we don't work to defeat that amendment, I think our movement is gone. We are talking about having the rights to make your relationship legal.

"The saddest thing is," Naylor says, showing a little less resignation and a little more indignation. "I don't see anyone doing anything about it. What is that? In my day, we'd be in the streets yelling and screaming and throwing rocks. But we're not. We're taking it. Why?"


After three decades of social action, you'd think Bettie Naylor would be ready to pass the torch. "Young women must get involved in issues in the lege because they've got new ideas. They grew up in a different time," she reasons, and furthermore, she feels it's their turn. "I want these young women to take responsibility and not let us lose all that stuff that a lot of us, their grandmothers and mothers, worked their butts off to achieve.

Our government is totally participatory. If you don't participate, your opinion means nothing. How many people do you know even know who their representatives are ... or their council members? That's pathetic, in my opinion. If we all knew, then the people, not the elected officials, would run government."

But Naylor also understands that it's not as simple as inheriting a torch. There have been decades of good ol' boy politics within the progressive ranks. No wonder some people feel outside the system.

"The national progressive organizations must do more outreach and be far more diverse than we are. We talk that line, but we never do it. I'm just as guilty. I complain about it, but I don't know what to do or how to do it. I shouldn't have to have instructions or information on how to do it. Just go over there, into other communities, and volunteer or be a mentor to a kid in school.

"I criticize the Democratic Party because the white men in charge did nothing to develop leadership in any other community – black, brown, gay, women. We are going to have to rebuild the DP from the bottom up."

Naylor is grateful to the community leaders who picked up the torch on their own, despite the discouraging lack of outreach. She points out that the leading charge against the anti-gay marriage amendment was headed by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is African-American, then Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who is Hispanic.

"I don't see us going that far with their issues." Naylor admits. "They've got stuff going on that we don't even know about, much less offer our help. We could do that." She marvels at the performance this session of House Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, whose show-stopping speeches may not have lifted the conservative gridlock, but made points loud and clear: "I pray that someday there will be more representatives representing Texas like her.

"I come from the generation of eternal obligation: I did what was expected of me. But I realized after 30 years that wasn't what I wanted," says Bettie. It's clear that despite her changes in course, this sense of obligation continues to motivate her.

"I have found that I am slowing down. Probably the biggest advantage you have when you get older is you don't have to do anything you don't want to. I don't obligate myself nearly as much as I used to. But I can't not do what I do."

From her vantage point, way up high where ideals flutter and defy the rush of prevailing winds, Bettie Naylor keeps watch. From up there, higher powers seem a little less daunting, yet humility abides. From up there, it's easier to survey what goes on down below with a sense of compassion, big picture, insight, and hope. And from up there, Bettie Naylor has a heart big enough to invite us all to reach for higher standards and bask in the glow of potential that majestic dome offers.

That dome is pink, after all. end story

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