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Gary J Van Ootegham

Page history last edited by Collier 7 years, 8 months ago

 

(From Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page)

 

Gary J. Van Ooteghem (1942-2000) was our first president.  He was recruited by the four founders of the Gay Political Caucus in 1975 after being fired from Harris County for expressing his 1st Amendment right to speak out to promote equal civil rights for the  LGBT community.  Wednesday, February 2nd [2011] would have been his 69th birthday.

 

We lost Gary far too soon, and he would surely be amazed at how far we've come since he fought the tough fight back in the 1970's.  Gary is a true hero of our community, and this write up from OutSmart Magazine shortly after he passed away is a touching tribute that reminds that Gary is, indeed, a role model.

 

Gary Van Ooteghem

 

by Ann Walton Sieber

 

 

Our community has lost one of its brightest stars. Gary J. Van Ooteghem died on July 6, while undergoing surgery at Twelve Oaks Hospital. He was 57. Gary was a true leader: Soon after he moved to Houston in 1975, Gary took the lead in advocating for gay rights and creating a gay community, and he pretty much continued to work for rights and community throughout the rest of his life.

 

 

 Almost exactly a quarter century ago, Gary Van Ooteghem made a decision which was to irrevocably change his life and the life of the Houston gay community. On August 1, 1975, Gary chose to go before the Harris County Commissioners’ Court and speak out about gay rights, as well as come out publicly about his own homosexuality. He did this even though he held a prestigious job with the county—as county comptroller—and even though his boss (county treasurer Harsall Gray) had forbidden him to do it, so he knew he would lose his job. Nonetheless, preceded by much publicity, Gary went before a packed Commissioners’ Court and proposed a civil rights resolution to protect gays and other minorities against discrimination, denouncing the politicians for their lack of initiative: “In place of Harris County taking any positive position on [the] problem of job discrimination of minorities within local government, you have allowed the federal government—by use of the 1964 and 1968 civil rights acts—to pull you screaming and kicking into the 20th century.”

 

 

The Gay Political Caucus (GPC) had been formed shortly before, and the GPC founders quickly recruited the high-profile Van Ooteghem as the GPC’s first president. From there, you can practically tick off the essential moments in Houston’s gay history, and Gary Van Ooteghem was there making them happen. He was seminal in pulling together the march against Anita Bryant in 1978. That same year he started the excellent bi-weekly newspaper Upfront (“in the cause of human rights,” it proclaimed under the masthead), which was in print for three years. Gary served as publisher, and wrote engaging and thoughtful editorials for each issue, from Harvey Milk to Gary’s grandmother and why the caucus should not discriminate against drag queens (see sidebar). Gary helped coalesce the gay community at the same time as he brought gay issues into the public spotlight. Mickey Leland was one of his political contacts, and ran endorsements from Gary (as well as other local gay leaders) in his campaign advertisements. Gary himself ran for both city council and Harris County treasurer, even though he knew winning was not a possibility. Gary helped start the Montrose Activity Center, an early precursor to the current Lesbian & Gay Community Center, and produced several plays there, with names like El Grande de Coca Cola. 

 

 

“What he did, he created a community here where there wasn’t one,” says Liz Vilven. Her father, Jim Vilven, had been the graphic designer for Upfront, and Gary was practically a member of the Vilven family. “Before Gary, there was no cohesiveness—he pulled it together.” 

 

 

“He didn’t do it by himself, of course,” Jim chimed in. “But he was in the forefront, getting it done.” 

 

 

The Gay Political Caucus wrote a tribute to Gary in 1977, at the time of his resignation: “The debt of gratitude that GPC and the gay activist movement owes to Gary Van Ooteghem is immense. Gary’s vision and drive have helped us accomplish what seemed to be impossible.... Clearly, GPC is more than a single person. But of all the people who have worked to make GPC the great force for positive change that it is today, Gary Van Ooteghem stands out very singularly.... Thanks for giving so much of your self so that all of us can move forward in obtaining our proper place in society.” 

 

 

Gary Van Ooteghem was born February 2, 1942, in Bay City, Michigan. As a young man, he served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, then moved to Chicago, where he worked first for Arthur Andersen & Co., and then subsequently for one of their clients, Midwest Investors, as its controller. 

 

 

Gary moved to Houston in 1975 to take the position as county comptroller. After Gary was fired from this position, he sued in a long drawn-out court case. He did eventually win, and was awarded back pay, but it all went to pay his legal fees. In his work life, Gary became the chief financial officer of the Doctors’ Club (a private doctors’ club in The Medical Center) and controller of Prentice Colour, Inc. and Allied Health Network. 

 

 

Gary was renowned for his sense of organization, his button-down leadership style, and his passion for meetings; he was described by gay historian Bruce Remmington as “conciliation in a three-piece suit.” In 1976, Gary started the Executive and Professional Association of Houston, a gay business organization. Gary was definitely controversial; he challenged the GPC, saying it was too liberal for a caucus that was supposed to be all-inclusive of a variety of political viewpoints, according to the Vilvens. Much later, Gary took an active role with the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston, serving as president from 1995 to 1998. Jim and Liz said that many mistakenly thought that Gary was more conservative or Republican than he really was. 

 

 

“Gary said that the Democrats were already on our side, so we need to work on the Republicans,” said Jim Vilven. “The fight’s not in the Democratic Party, he said, it’s in the Republican Party.” 

 

 

 

“Gary was where the fight is,” Liz said. “That got him in the door and in the face of the radical right.” Gary and Liz went together as delegates to the 1996 Republican convention, where they encountered such homophobic opposition that they almost got kicked out. “He was trying to get through to the good people at the Republican Party,” Liz said, “the ones who didn’t care who you were sleeping with.... He was trying to get these people to rationally think.” 

 

 

Although Gary was fiscally conservative, Jim says that he had definitely stood behind many a Democrat; he’d been a lifelong friend and supporter of State Representative Debra Danburg, and Jim says he and Gary were gearing up to campaign for Gore, adding emphatically, “He did not like George W. Bush.” 

 

 

Even though Gary may have looked like Mr. CPA on the outside, he also had an audacious playful side—for holiday gatherings, he’d bring construction paper and glue for group construction projects, or get everyone making Velveeta cheese creations. 

 

 

“Everybody would sit around and play like kids,” remembers Liz. “You know, that’s the hardest thing to do as an adult, find your kid again. Gary knew how to pull that creative self out of you. And you wouldn’t think that meeting him, that he’d be that kind of funny corny person.” 

 

 

In his recent civic activities, Gary had become quite active with gay youth, chairing the youth scholarship foundation for PFLAG/H.A.T.C.H. Gary also chaired a special candlelight service remembering and paying tribute to Matthew Shepard in October 1998, and chaired the High Noon Rally for Liberty in Fort Worth outside the state Republican Party’s convention in June 1998. At the time of his death, he was serving as chair of the Houston EMA Ryan White Planning Council. 

 

 

When Gary decided to make his stand before the County Commissioners’ Court in 1975, he had just returned to Houston from Washington, D.C., where he had met with Leonard Matlovich, one of the heroes of American gay history. A conservative sergeant in the Air Force, Matlovich had been awarded all the top military honors when he voluntarily came out to his supervising officer, creating the seminal case that challenged the military’s exclusion of gays. Perhaps it was this meeting that inspired Gary Van Ooteghem to play a similar role in the arena of his hometown. “Leonard Matlovich was my role model,” Gary was quoted as saying, “and I hope I can be someone else’s.” 

 

 

As with pretty much every other goal Gary put his mind to, I’d say that ambition has been fulfilled.

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