Bearing Witness

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For longtime progressives Jimmie Sue and Dick Francis, the issue of equality is personal: they don’t want their gay son, a musician named Riely, treated as a second class citizen.

“There are a lot of parents who don’t have that reaction,” said Jimmie Sue. “We were unflinching. Riely is the sum of us. How could we ever walk away from our son?”

Riely is a professional percussionist with 20 years of musical experience, having most recently worked for the San Antonio and Honolulu symphonies. When he came out to them as a freshman at Rice University, they saw a therapist and spoke with her for a few hours; she told them they were just fine and that they should come in and counsel other parents. “I know that in Austin we are the proudest parents of a gay man!” Jimmie Sue said, with the kind of enthusiasm and twinkle in her eye that is every young gay man’s secret hope when he comes out to his parents.

Born in Elgin and raised in South Austin, Jimmie Sue received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UT after working as a teacher for seven years and raising their two children, Riely and Anne, she worked as a substitute teacher for 15 years before retiring in 1999. Dick’s family moved to Austin in 1946; he also attended UT, receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and later an MBA.

Jimmie Sue ’s southern Baptist upbringing informs much of what she and Dick do for the community and how they go about changing hearts and minds on a one- on-one basis. “We still do, to this day, talk one-on-one to everybody, including folks in my tennis group,” she said. “I had some people in my tennis group tell us that they have lesbian daughters and I had no idea about it.”

“She’ll meet somebody at the meat counter here at Whole Foods Market,” Dick said, prompting laughter. “She witnesses for the gay community one-on-one.”

When they came out as the parents of a gay son, they were living in a conservative part of Houston and Dick was working for Exxon. Jimmie Sue described it as a telling moment: some friends immediately felt sorry for them and couldn’t understand it; for others, it strengthened the bond.

Two years ago, the couple officially joined the First United Methodist Church in Austin where they regularly attend services. A 2005 case sparked their initial activism within the church. When a local minister in Virginia welcomed an openly gay person into the church, members sued through the court system of the United Methodist Church. Ultimately, it reached the church’s supreme court and the young man was thrown out and the minister was fired.

Their main project now, as members of the administrative board of the church, is the slow and arduous process to change language within the church’s constitution so that it specifies membership is open to all. Currently, the only characteristic that’s specified in terms of nondiscrimination is race. The next worldwide vote is in 2012.

Beyond their work with the Methodist Church and a history of involvement with the Human Rights Campaign, the two have been focused on electing democrats into the House of representatives to replace republicans; they helped elect three Central Texas women, all democrats, to the House. Both are passionate about extending social and economic justice and ensuring their availability for all Americans.

Lifelong partners and sweethearts, they met officially in seventh grade at Fulmore Junior High School, when Ann Richards was Jimmie Sue ’s social studies teacher. They dated in high school and were married midway through their college careers and have been together for what they describe as 47 blissful years. “After all these fun years, we still truly are passionate about each other,” Dick said.

A trip to Seattle took them through Laramie, Wyoming, the site of openly gay college student Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in 1998. They found the spot where he was attacked, not in the middle of nowhere as it had been depicted, but instead reachable by a dirt road not far from a subdivision.

“There was this beautiful butterfly that just began to fly around our heads–it was his spirit, of course–and it landed on this limestone rock,” said Jimmie Sue. “I collect rocks. I said, ‘Dick, we have to take that rock.’ and I did. Out of that rock and this little patch of dirt grew a flower.” When Judy Shepard [Matthew’s mother] came to visit Austin, Jimmie Sue met her and shared the story.

“We applaud those in the gay community who have worked so hard to bring gay rights into the sunlight,” said Dick. “We want them to know that, although we’re not always marching in Pride or attending gala dinners, the two of us are quietly, constantly, talking to straight friends, one-on-one, about gay rights.”

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