Judge Steven Kirkland has led a prolific life. Having spent years in public services, Kirkland made history as the first openly gay District Judge in Houston. He’s a professor at the University of Houston; and he’s ready to take on another challenge. He’s running for a second time to become a judge for the 334th District Court. We sat down with the Judge for an interview to get to know the man outside the robe.
It’s been 8 years since you became the first openly gay District Judge in Texas. Looking back on that, how do you think things have changed in the state since then?
"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" fell first. We got gay marriage. We’ve had some tremendous celebrations. It’s kind of been a big change in how society accepts gay people. I think that has been very positive, but the shooting in Orlando shows we still have a ways to go. So, it’s been a pretty phenomenal change...Also, openly gay actors and athletes coming out has made a big difference in how the world sees and treats gay people.
Houston is very diverse and welcoming but what do you think Houston can do to become an even more welcoming place?
Air condition the outdoors (laughs). For people who live here, Houston works very well. It’s a wonderful place to get around. Everything is easy to get to; it’s all within reach, but you do have to know where everything is. We are not organized very well for visitors to figure out what’s going on. They have to have a local guide, someone who is in sync with them. We need to figure out a way to make it easier to find things, or give everybody a guide.
You’re very open about your past addiction to alcohol and your recovery. As a gay man, a local public figure, why do you think is important to talk about it?
Part of my recovery was coming out. I couldn’t do one without doing the other. I had to do them both at the same time. That’s part of the honesty that is required to be in recovery. Being a gay man, it is also important that I acknowledge that I have recovery issues. In part because the gay culture for the longest time, certainly when I was coming out, was centered around the bars; so, you had to find a way to socialize around alcohol. Being public about it and talking about it reduces the stigma, which means it doesn’t have a hold over me. I’ve noticed more people talking about recovery. We take the sigma away and make it better for the people who run into the same wall to find a way out.
Do you think there’s a generational discrepancy when it comes to activism and what we consider the new normal?
I would say yes, and no. I don’t think there’s ever been a whole lot of young activists, except in extreme situations like the Vietnam War. You see it now with Black Lives Matter. The young folks are leading that and they’re focused almost intently on that. So, probably there’s never been a big up-swelling of young activists except for those extreme events… Kids coming up, not until they hit a wall somewhere is there a reason for them to get active. The generational difference comes in how the young people evidence their activism versus the older folks, and that’s just a function of technology and how they communicate with each other.
What is your favorite thing about Houston?
That’s a tough one…There are a lot of favorite things about Houston. It’s a great place to eat. The food scene here is phenomenal. We get more restaurants offering more interesting food than almost any place I’ve ever been. The art scene is really exciting, from the big fine arts museums to the small galleries. There’s always something going on. It’s a great green city. I mean there are just so many outdoor things to do, even in the dead heat of summer.
Who is an inspiration for you?
My friend Annise Parker has always been an inspiration for me− I have to acknowledge that. It’s like saying your big sister is an inspiration to you; so, I say that grudgingly because she and I have been friends for a long time. I find inspiration in different places, not always in big public figures. I have a friend, Jesse, who is just amazing. He was very important to me early on because he took the ideas that you learn in the recovery room and he put them in life and taught me how to live in recovery. I get inspired by my students. When a student makes a connection between two trains of thought and I can see it happen, that’s very inspirational. So…lots of places.
What would you say to young voters that feel there’s no need to vote locally?
It sounds cliché, but the office that is closest to you is the one that is going to have the most impact in your life. If you want to have an impact on how police behave, then you want judges that will hold them accountable. If you don’t pay attention to that, you won’t have judges that hold them accountable because judges are politicians. They’re going to respond to people that show at the polls. I get it, life is busy. There are a lot of things that you’d rather think about than judges at Harris County; it’s something pretty dull unless you’re a policy maker. But, you don’t have to think about it too deeply; you just have to engage a little and show up.