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Dallas sheriff: Being first is just fine

Published: Thursday, October 21, 2010

Updated: Thursday, October 21, 2010 11:10

Lupe Valdez

Noel Bracy

Sheriff Lupe Valdez references “The Interpreter” talking about overcoming bias Oct. 12.

When Lupe Valdez was elected sheriff of Dallas County in 2004, she broke many ceilings. She is the only female sheriff in Texas, the first Hispanic and the first "out" lesbian.

For Valdez, being the first is something she got used to long before her election. She has been in law enforcement more than 35 years, and in a field dominated by men, she was often the only woman in almost every hierarchy she belonged to and every training or class she attended.

Valdez began with one of those recollections in her Coming-Out Week lecture Oct. 14 in the auditorium of McAllister Fine Arts Center.

"About 25 years ago, I was in Quantico, Va., for an undercover class as a federal anti-terrorism agent," she said. "Being the only female, I had an advantage — there was no line for the women's bathroom," she joked, triggering a loud laugh in the audience.

"When I came out of the bathroom, I heard one FBI top manager saying as loud as he could, ‘I'll be blankety-blank-blank if I ever have to take orders from someone who has to sit down to pee.' In that moment, I promised myself that I would never allow another person to be publicly degraded that way," she said.

Now Valdez runs a metropolitan jail system with about 2,000 employees, many who verbally attacked her during her campaign because of her sexual orientation.

"My opponents delved farther and farther into the negative, coming out with offensive slogans," she said. "When I took office in 2004, those people were terribly afraid to be fired."

Not only did Valdez not fire them, she worked to change their minds. "The revenge has to stop with us," she said.

"Sexist people, racist people think we minorities would behave the same way they treated us, but we have to look beyond our hurt egos."

This positive attitude was eventually successful for Valdez. "We ran as if we were losing," she said, adding that it was amazing to "think that a Democrat, a woman, a Hispanic and a lesbian would dare run for sheriff in Bush's backyard."

Nevertheless she ran, carefully considering when to play the gay-card. "I wasn't out publicly at that time. Only a few people knew that I was a lesbian," she said.

The news, however, began to spread. Sooner or later, she had to come out, before her opponents did it for her. "I remember entire nights spent with my staff, discussing whether to come out or not, and how."

She delayed as long as she could. "I wanted to make sure that my sexuality wasn't the first thing they knew about me," she said. "I wanted to convey the message that the skills and the motivation are the important things, regardless of one's sexual orientation."

Finally, Valdez came out during a press conference in the simplest way she could. ‘Yes, I'm a lesbian,' I said. ‘And what's the big deal? Don't 35 years experience count?' And we went ahead speaking about the program," she said.

Valdez recalled the victory in 2004 as an unexpected joy not only for her but also for the many minorities she represents. In 2008, she was re-elected. At 63, she wants to run again in 2012. If she loses, she will find another way to serve the community.

"But to tell the truth, I'm very popular," she smiled.

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