Living Legend

1820

Longtime activist and lobbyist Bettie Naylor discusses her influence on the Texas legislature, her ardent push for equal rights and the love of her life.

It was 1951, and the world was in turmoil. The Korean War continued to captivate humanity as the situation intensified from a civil war to an international conflict. Pilot Van Naylor had just been called back to active duty in the United States Air Force. His young wife Bettie prepared for the whirlwind of travel that would ensue, the long stints of time with her husband away while she raised their children on her own, the frenzied pace of military life. Yet despite life’s madness surrounding her, Bettie Naylor remained resolute, never one to compromise her integrity or principles.

One such example of Bettie Naylor’s undaunting doggedness during this time has become legendary: When traveling as a military family, she and her husband often were put on separate flights for safety reasons. Military personnel would encourage the traveling wives to resolve any marital issues with their husbands prior to the travel.

“They told us not to send our husbands off without working out any problems between us,” Bettie Naylor recounts. “I could see the value in that and I said that was a good idea. Then they said it’s the wife’s duty to make sure there weren’t any unresolved issues in the marriage before we parted ways for travel. I said, ‘Excuse me, but no it is not. Marriage is a two-way street.’ At that point in time, women tended to keep their mouths shut, but that really annoyed the heck out of me and I said as much.”

Photography by Michael Thad Carter

Photography by Michael Thad Carter

Later, a military write-up about her husband would denote that “Major Naylor could not control his wife.” Indeed, Bettie Naylor was not to be controlled by anyone or anything apart from her own conscience.

Since then, Bettie Naylor has had many an opportunity to voice her opinion. And these days, everyone listens.

A political activist and lobbyist in Texas for more than three decades, Naylor arrived in Austin in the mid-1970s with a take-no-bull attitude and an uncompromising agenda. Her early civic involvement with women’s rights causes had cleared the cobwebs in her mind and awakened in her a courageous spirit. After 30 years of marriage to a military man and a life spent raising three children, she’d had an epiphany.

Naylor realized that for many years she had not been true to herself about her sexuality. She resolved to triumphantly embrace this affirmation. With this insight came a sense of peace, and more significantly for Texas’ political realm, an inexhaustible passion for speaking her mind.

Changing the World, One Opinion at a Time

Having been involved in the Bexar County Women’s Political Caucus in San Antonio, Naylor learned how to lobby effectively in the political world. By the time she moved to Austin permanently, she elevated that skill to a full-blown crusade for equal rights. She quickly got involved as a lobbyist in the Texas Legislature and, almost immediately, life for women in the Lone Star State started changing.

“Back then, women were not paid attention to the way I thought we should be,” Naylor says, reminiscing about certain laws that prevented women from having credit in their names, or those requiring women to have a doctor’s note affirming they were taking birth control if they wanted to work.

“There were a lot of laws that changed for women in the ‘70s. And I just had the attitude that the only way things were going to change was for women to get involved. Our government is participatory; if you don’t get involved, you can’t really complain. Getting involved really makes a difference. Even early on, it didn’t intimidate me because I just felt like it’s what I needed to do.”

As a founding member of the Texas and National Women’s Political Caucus, Naylor continued to breathe new life in to the women’s movement, and gain some powerful allies along the way. In the early 1990s when Ann Richards ruled Texas’ roost, Naylor was still pushing hard for women’s rights, and often met with the governor to espouse her ideas.

“She said to me once, ‘You’re an uppity woman, aren’t you?’ and I said, ‘Why, yes, I am,’” Naylor remembers fondly.

Later, when Naylor was honored by the Human Rights Campaign, Richards was eager to comment on her behalf.

“Bettie Naylor is older than dirt,” Richards said in her classic tongue-in-cheek manner. “And I have taught her everything she knows.”

Naylor says she is still grateful for Richards’ support over the years.

While Naylor remains an advocate for women’s issues, her reputation as a gay-rights activist has become her claim to fame. But this distinction has not come without dissidence.

In 1977, a mere two years after Naylor had identified herself as a lesbian, she began establishing herself as a hero to gay people all over Texas. A scathing amendment in an appropriations bill that would have given Texas universities and colleges the right to deny the use of campus facilities to homosexual and other “subversive” groups enraged Naylor, who lobbied tirelessly until the amendment was removed from the bill.

“I was really kind of scared,” Naylor admits. “I had no idea whether we would be successful.”

When Naylor lobbied Democratic Sen. A.R. Schwartz to help abolish the amendment, he told her he hadn’t even realized it had been added to the bill, and vowed to help remove it from the Senate’s version, which he did. But when Naylor lobbied a certain Democratic chairman in the House, not telling him she was herself a lesbian, she was crushed by his response.

“I told him what I was working on and he said he didn’t think homosexuals should have any rights at all!” Naylor says, still indignant about his reaction. “That just absolutely floored me.”

Eventually, however, Naylor got her way, the amendment was removed from the bill and she was walking a path that she’d follow for the rest of her career.

In another distinguished move in the 1980s, Naylor personally helped organize all the gay bars in Texas – a group that until then had no representation in the Legislature. She fought to ensure the establishments were not punished or fined simply for their gay affiliation, and successfully lobbied for the group for 10 years.

She also lobbied on behalf of the Texas Gay Task Force (which later became Equality Texas), the First Amendment Coalition of Texas (a group she continues to lobby for), and was a driving force behind the HRC and other efforts working to reach equality for gay people. And in nearly every attempt, Naylor has been successful in some manner. She credits this to her ability to compromise and to encourage others to do the same.

“I think in a way the [legislators] have got some respect for me,” she says, hesitating to give herself too much credit, as is her way. “They know about some of the accomplishments I’ve made and I think that helps. If I really pushed them, I don’t think it would work as well. But I like working with them. And I see it as my job to get them to change their minds about certain issues.”

Others, including Naylor’s partner Libby Sykora, say it is Naylor’s passion combined with her renowned negotiation skills that make her so influential.

5“She has an ability to discuss touchy subjects with people who have diverse attitudes, listen to what everybody has to say and develop a win-win for everybody,” Sykora says. “She’s so gracious to everyone and so genuine. And she’s always willing to compromise as long as she can maintain her values. It’s really a natural talent she has.”

Roots that Run Deep

Raised Baptist in Wichita Falls, Naylor has long been a spiritual person, and never missed a chance as a child to attend Sunday school. In fact, she’d often gather the other neighborhood children together so she could preach to them.

As an adult Naylor’s spirituality is present in every decision she makes. She has attended several local churches, and meditates regularly. There was one period of time in which meditation was such an important part of her life that she’d have to set a stop clock at two hours to bring herself back to reality.

“I learned a lot from that,” she says. “And my beliefs and values I wouldn’t trade for anything.” To this day, Naylor still meets weekly with the Bible study group established by her longtime friend Billy Clayton, the late Republican Speaker of the House who befriended Naylor early in her lobbying career. It is this steadfast spirituality that often drives her in her political career. Several years ago, when the Texas Legislature proposed the Texas Marriage Amendment (a proposition that would effectively ban same-sex marriage in the state), Naylor felt personally attacked by the effort. And though the propo- sition would end up passing both the Senate and House (and later became law thanks to Texas voters), Naylor felt she made some headway with some notably anti-gay lawmakers.

“I think many fundamental Christians feel like gay marriage and the idea of gay people goes against Christianity. But that’s just their interpretation,” Naylor asserts. “That’s not what the Bible says. I mean, how did I get this life? God gives this to me. And I’m extremely grateful. If people just open their minds a little bit, I think they can start to change their views.”

For instance, Republican Rep. Warren Chisum, who authored the anti-gay-marriage bill, has since become a little less vitriolic about the issue of gay parents’ rights, Naylor says.

“It used to be that very few people knew a gay person. That’s all different now. Everyone knows someone in their life or family who is gay,” Naylor maintains. “As they get to know us, their ideas are changing, and they understand that all we want is equal rights.”

As for the ban on gay marriage, Naylor is optimistic.

“I think I’ll live long enough to see that change.”

The Most Amazing Woman

These days, the 80-year-old matriarch of women’s and gay rights is hardly retired, though she admits she’s limited her commitments to a degree. Naylor still attends charity events regularly, and even helped organize community and fundraising support for Austin Habitat for Humanity’s Pride Build, a project in which gay and straight members of the community have come together to build a home for a 64- year-old grandmother.

Naylor says her future goals may include getting involved in some other charitable organizations, perhaps those that help children, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Bettie says she’s going to live to be 120 years old, and I’m sure she’s going to be involved in community and political efforts until then,” Sykora says with a laugh. “She’s just tireless like that.”

Sykora and Naylor, who got together after attending some meetings through Annie’s List – a political network in Texas that works to support female Democratic candidates – have been inseparable for four years, and have become quite the power couple in Austin’s elite circles.

“Libby changed my life,” Naylor says, beaming. “At first I told her I was very independent and that relationships don’t work out for me. Boy, was I wrong. Libby is just so wonderful to me, so generous and loving. I’m so content now.”

Sykora says their relationship slowly evolved from a close friendship to what she calls “a love that neither of us had ever experienced before. We’ve just been so blessed.”

The couple enjoys spending time with each other and their children (Sykora’s son Jeff, and Naylor’s two sons Rick and Chuck, and daughter Sharron), and both say they are thankful for every day they spend together.

As for Naylor’s iconic status, Sykora credits that to Naylor’s ability to get others to develop a passion of their own.

“She has this wonderful passion in her own life, and she has a skill of inspiring others. And there’s an amazing gratitude people show her for what she has helped accomplish,” Sykora says. “Like others, I just admire her so much as an individual, as a person and as a woman. Truly, she is probably the most amazing woman I have ever met.”

 

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