Years before Will and Grace became a groundbreaking hit TV show and even before comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out, Ralphy Lozano was standing up for the LGBTQ community. In popular hangout spots, such as bars and restaurants, around his traditionalist town, the teen and his high school-aged friends gathered and refused to hide their true selves, essentially disrupting the status quo. Now, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran has made history by becoming the first openly gay candidate elected to public office in the South Texas town of Del Rio. The proud first-time candidate received 62 percent of the vote and dethroned incumbent Robert Garza, who served as mayor for four years.
Lozano ran on a platform for change and unification for all in Del Rio. For him, this meant focusing on the issues and values that connects his constituents. “I don’t believe I’m going to get too far if I start going under one identity. I have to think about unifying the city,” Lozano tells me.
He didn’t receive campaign donations from any LGBTQ groups, and he didn’t necessarily seek their support. As a matter or fact, Lozano is about $5,000 in debt after his successful grassroots campaign. But his queerness is an important aspect of his identity. Last year, Lozano marched as part of Del Rio’s Veterans Parade in heels, which garnered national headlines – something that caught him by surprise. He didn’t view his choice as a political statement, but rather something that is part of who he is.
“I’ve always thought that veterans’ parades recently have been so dreary, and I feel like we should be celebrating veterans,” he adds. “Some of us have experienced some really traumatic experiences in war zones and losing friends and suffering from PTSD, but we survived. We survived the worst that humanity has (to offer).”
That day, he celebrated life and American freedom by donning patriotic heels. He didn’t wave an LGBTQ flag, but he did advocate for women’s equality, specifically about closing the wage gap. “I don’t feel like LGBT rights can be fully accepted if we don’t accept women,” he states. He hopes to also raise awareness of the kind of discrimination that gay men face. “When a man decides to paint his nails, put on heels or put on a skirt, whoa, we have a problem with that.”
Following his appearance at the Veterans Parade, a meme of him made the rounds on Facebook with a caption that used homophobic language to describe him. This strengthened his resolve to run for office, especially after former high school classmates noted his ability to unify cliques, ranging from goths to football players at the 15-year-reunion he helped organize. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando – which resulted in the death of 49 people, most of whom were queer – that hit close to home also played a role in his decision.
At the local level, he has inherited a host of problems and controversies he hopes to help mediate. These issues – which include 20-yearlong drainage challenges, reinforcing elected officials’ term limits, paving streets, ensuring taxpayer money isn’t frivolously spent, and dealing with a former employee who is suing the city potentially using the Whistleblower Protection Act – affect all his constituents, regardless of gender identity, race or other status. “They’re concerned about jobs, they’re concerned about their streets, and me too,” he says. “I feel like, ‘How can I even advocate these social issues if I don’t have anybody that can feed their families?’”
The bordertown of Del Rio is home to a population of 35,998 residents and has a history of division among the more affluent and primarily Caucasian north side, and the financially challenged and largely Latino south side. Lozano is among the first wave of Latinos to graduate from Del Rio High School once the campuses from both sides consolidated into one school district.
Lozano also acknowledges a division exists within City Council, something he’s committed to changing. What’s happening in his hometown is a microcosm of what’s taking place throughout the state. In our current political landscape, many loudly share their opinions, drowning out the voices of others, particularly members of the LGBTQ community. Lozano hopes to get those of different backgrounds and points of views to find a middle ground.
Earlier this year, Houston’s OutSmart Magazine reported at least 52 LGBTQ candidates running for office across Texas. San Antonio native Lupe Valdez, a gay Latina who previously served as Dallas County sheriff, made national headlines after winning the Democratic gubernatorial bid in May. With his win as a gay man, Lozano is part of a new wave he even didn’t realize was taking shape. But now that he’s made history, it’s time to see what he does with that power.
Update, June 1, 2018 at 10:40 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story misidentified what Lozano wore to the Veterans Parade.