Goodbye, Bettie

Activist and arts lover "encouraged us to be as good as we ought to be"

Bettie Naylor, photographed for a 2004 
Best of Austin award
Bettie Naylor, photographed for a 2004 "Best of Austin" award (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Bettie Naylor was very much the life of the party at the Travis County Democratic Party convention on Saturday, two days after her death April 19 at the age of 84.

"There were about 500 people at the Aus­tin Convention Center," said activist and friend Celia Israel. "Just a few words from me about Bettie and then a moment of silence, which is hard to achieve at any political gathering, much less a county convention." Naylor "was a political force of nature," Israel continued. "The best way to pay tribute to her is to keep up the fight for equality and continue to give a damn about our fellow men and women. Bettie lives on in each of us if we will pay heed to her example."

An ardent political party member for many years, Naylor spent most of her adult life advocating on behalf of feminist and gay rights causes at the local, state, and national levels, where she was a widely recognized trailblazer. She was also an arts lover and patron. She is survived by her partner, Libby Sykora; her children Rick, Chuck, and Sharron Naylor; Sykora's son, Jeff Fisher; and three grandchildren.

A tiny woman who loomed large at the Texas Capitol for several decades, the out-and-proud late-blooming lesbian became the state's first official gay rights lobbyist in the Seventies. Employing her sassy wit and big smile, Naylor fought like hell to fend off hate legislation every session and still managed to form fast friendships with even the most conservative lawmakers.

As the state's right-wing tilt took on a harder, uglier edge under the national influence of Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, Naylor grew more discouraged with legislative politics during the 79th Legis­lature. As she told the Chronicle's Kate X Messer in a 2005 profile, "The bad thing is, some of the stuff that they're doing, we're never going to be able to get back." (see "Rare Bird," Features, June 3, 2005.)

Naylor may have been right about that. But as a mentor to many, she will always be remembered for how much she gave to the cause. In the early Nineties, Sen. Kirk Watson first got to know Naylor by sharing many elevator rides with her in the West­gate Building, where Watson kept a law office and Naylor resided. At the time, Nay­lor was among those encouraging Watson to run for mayor of Austin. "There was that wonderful way she had of giving you her full attention when she wanted you to know what she was thinking," he said. "She encouraged all of us to be as good as we ought to be. And you wanted to be as good as you could be, because you wanted Bettie to be happy. She was immensely optimistic, although in later years she more than once complained about where things were headed [at the Legis­lature], but she also maintained an optimism. She was just delightful."

Dianne Hardy-Garcia, former executive director of what was then the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (now Equality Texas) called Naylor "a fearless and tenacious leader. And she was just damn fun to be around. What I loved about her, and learned from her, was that she was always willing to drink with, pray with, and charm Republicans and Democrats alike in the quest for women's equality and LGBT rights," she said. "In her mind, all things were possible and she believed everyone could change and become more enlightened. Even [state Rep.] Warren Chisum. And [former Lt. Gov.] Bob Bullock. And [former House Speaker] Gib Lewis. And the list goes on and on."

Annie's List, a nonprofit that assists women running for elected office, had already planned to honor Naylor May 8 with a "Woman Warrior" award for her leadership.

A memorial for Naylor will be held at 3pm Saturday, May 5, at First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca. A celebration of her life will follow immediately at the Family Life Center, 1300 Lavaca. Memorial donations may be made to Family Eldercare, in care of the Bettie Naylor Fund, established in her name to provide care for aging LGBT seniors: 1701 Rutherford, Austin, TX 78754.

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