Bettie Jo Naylor, Texas lobbyist and women’s and gay rights activist, was born Bettie Jo Steele on June 23, 1927, in Wichita Falls, Texas, to Carson Steele and Hazel Carentha (Marlow) Steele. Abandoned by her father early in life, Steele and her younger sister, Barbara, were raised by their mother and grandparents in a Baptist household, introducing Steele to the religion that influenced the rest of her life. She attended Hardin Junior College (now Midwestern State University) in Wichita Falls and afterward met Air Force pilot Richard Van Naylor. They were married on June 15, 1946, and had three children—Rick, Chuck, and Sharron.
As a military family, they traveled the world. Neither marriage nor the military deterred Bettie Jo Naylor from her outspokenness. She disagreed with the expectations the military had for the families of soldiers and openly voiced her opinions. Because of her outspoken nature, her husband received comments on his commendation stating, “Major Naylor could not control his wife.” In the early 1970s during their daughter’s final years in high school, the family lived in San Antonio, where Bettie Jo Naylor became interested in local politics. By 1971 she joined the women’s movement, the Democratic party, and the Bexar County Women’s Political Caucus. Her attraction to a fellow female activist initiated Naylor’s self-realization about her sexuality. After an almost thirty-year marriage, Naylor divorced her husband in 1975.
In the middle to late 1970s Bettie Jo Naylor moved to Austin, Texas, where she became an outspoken and successful activist and lobbyist for the rights of women and the LGBT community. Naylor lobbied Texas legislators on behalf of the Texas Gay Task Force (TGTF, later known as Equality Texas). In doing so, she became the first openly gay lobbyist in Texas. One of Naylor’s earliest political victories came in 1977 when she successfully lobbied for the removal of an amendment to a state appropriations bill that removed the rights of homosexuals and members of other groups who the legislature referred to as “subversive” to use campus facilities at universities and colleges. In 1978, while serving as the spokesperson for the Southern Region of TGTF in San Antonio, Naylor led a news conference opposing the visit and performance of Anita Bryant at the Waco Junior League charity ball in Waco, Texas, and Bryant’s nationwide “Save Our Children” campaign. Bryant, an American singer, sought to overturn laws and local ordinances throughout the nation that protected homosexuals from discrimination based on sexual preference. Bryant supported the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which provided “equality of rights under the law” regardless of sex.
While Bryant fought against the proposed constitutional amendment, Naylor became a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus and Texas Women’s Political Caucus and in 1981 served as the national convention chairwoman in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where caucus members gathered to plan and support a variety of issues, including the ratification of the ERA. In addition to her efforts on behalf of TGTF and the Women’s Political Caucuses, Naylor was a founding member of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and served on its board of directors. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the Bar Owners Association of Texas (BOAT). She served as BOAT’s executive director and lobbied for the association for ten years to protect gay bars in particular from discriminatory state legislation. In the year 2000 at the age of seventy-two, Naylor attended and spoke at the Millennium March for Equality in Washington, D.C. There she encouraged members of Congress to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a law designed to prevent the discrimination of gay employees.
Throughout her adult life, Bettie Jo Naylor relied upon her religious and spiritual beliefs. Though she had ceased attending formal Baptist church services while she was still young, she remained deeply religious later in life, meditated for hours at a time, and attended a Bible study group each week begun by Billy Clayton, her friend and former speaker of the Texas House. Through her participation in the Bible study group and her years of experience as a lobbyist, Naylor’s perspective on lobbying changed, and her willingness to compromise and work with others increased.
In 2009 Naylor retired from more than thirty years of lobbying and her lobbying firm, Bettie Naylor & Associates, but she did not slow down. She continued to be active and volunteered for community groups in Austin, such as the Zachary Scott Theatre (known in 2018 as ZACH Theatre), Family Eldercare of Austin, Austin’s Habitat for Humanity’s Pride Build, and Annie’s List. At a meeting of Annie’s List, a networking group designed to endorse female Democrats for political positions, Naylor met Libby Sykora. The two women began a relationship in 2003 and remained partners for nearly a decade until Bettie Jo Naylor passed away in her sleep on April 19, 2012, at the age of eighty-four. Services were held on May 5, 2012, at the First United Methodist Church on Lavaca Street in Austin, Texas.
On September 22, 2012, the Austin City Council dedicated the section of Fourth Street, extending from Congress Avenue to Rio Grande Street, to Naylor by naming the section Bettie Naylor Street “in honor of the legacy and work” Naylor accomplished for the citizens of Texas and the nation. The HRC continues to honor Naylor’s memory each year by presenting gay and lesbian individuals and couples with the Betty Naylor Visibility Award “for promoting and embodying LGBT visibility” at the HRC’s annual gala. Further preserving her memory and political impact, Naylor’s personal and professional papers were donated to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.