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VAN OOTEGHEM, GARY JOHN

Gary John Van Ooteghem (1942–2000).
Gary Van Ooteghem, 1975. Image courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0013-1975-08-02-017.

VAN OOTEGHEM, GARY JOHN (1942–2000). Gary John “GVO” Van Ooteghem (rhymes with "Van Nottingham") was a certified public accountant, LGBT activist, organizer, and publisher. Son of William Victor and Hannah L. (Ties) Van Ooteghem, he was born at Bay City, Michigan, on February 2, 1942. A veteran of the U.S. Navy Reserve, Van Ooteghem received an associate’s degree from Delta College (Michigan) in 1963 and a bachelor’s degree from Ferris State University (Michigan) in 1965. He left Michigan for Chicago, where he became a senior auditor with the CPA firm Arthur Andersen & Co. and subsequently controller of several Chicago-based hedge funds. 

Van Ooteghem moved to Houston in January 1975 after he was recruited for the job of Harris County comptroller. His work with the Harris County treasurer was considered “brilliant,” and Harris County Commissioner Tom Bass even went so far as to describe Van Ooteghem as “the best accountant I’ve seen in local government.” Despite such praise, Van Ooteghem was fired after seven months as comptroller for his choice to stand before the Harris County Commissioners Court and publicly advocate gay rights. He filed a lawsuit against the Harris County treasurer for wrongful termination and won judgment from the county ten years later.  

The catalyst of Van Ooteghem’s appearance before the Harris County Commissioners Court was the story of gay United States Air Force sergeant Leonard Matlovich. A recipient of both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, Matlovich came out to his commanding officer in March 1975 for the purpose of challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. military’s ban on gays. Van Ooteghem read about Matlovich in June 1975 and was so impressed by Sergeant Matlovich’s courage that he reached out to him. Matlovich invited Van Ooteghem to meet him and Bruce Voeller (founder of the National Gay Task Force) in Washington, D.C., in July to lobby members of the U.S. Congress in support of gay rights and Representative Bella Abzug’s Equality Act. Van Ooteghem accepted the invitation and spent five days in D.C., where he gained useful experience in lobbying.

Inspired and energized by the experience, Van Ooteghem returned to work and informed his boss, County Treasurer Hartsell Gray, that he was gay. He furthermore told Gray that he planned to go before the Harris County Commissioners Court, as a private citizen, and propose a civil rights resolution to protect gays. Gray attempted to talk Van Ooteghem out of this plan, first by expressing concern for his personal safety, and then about possible reprisals against the treasury department. When this did not dissuade Van Ooteghem, Gray established a new policy on office hours which required Van Ooteghem to work from eight to noon and one to five. (Prior to this, Van Ooteghem was accorded the professional privilege of setting his own hours.) On July 31, 1975, Gray demanded that Van Ooteghem sign a statement acknowledging the new hours; when Van Ooteghem refused, Gray fired him. 

Regardless of the firing, Van Ooteghem still appeared before the Harris County Commissioners Court on August 1, 1975, to advocate a civil rights resolution to protect gay people from discrimination. He first spoke briefly regarding the county’s past reticence to guarantee the rights of minorities in general and then informed them that “another Civil Rights Act” was “on the horizon,” which would include legal protection of “affectional and sexual preference.” Van Ooteghem then confessed his interest in the matter stemmed from the fact that he was himself a homosexual. The Harris County Commissioners Court took no action regarding Van Ooteghem’s proposed resolution.

With the support of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Van Ooteghem sued his former employer for reinstatement and back pay. On August 29, 1975, lawyers Larry Sauer and J. Patrick Wiseman filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas against Hartsell Gray for the infringement of Van Ooteghem’s First Amendment rights. The case first appeared before Judge Ross N. Sterling, who ruled that, while “immodest flaunting of…homosexuality” could be cause for dismissal, advocating gay rights could not. Judge Sterling ruled in favor of Van Ooteghem on March 20, 1978, and ordered Gray to reinstate Van Ooteghem as comptroller with back pay. However, continued legal battles and Gray’s eventual resignation from the office of treasurer prevented Van Ooteghem from ever returning to his position as comptroller. (The issue of back pay was not settled until 1985.) 

Opponents appealed to overturn Judge Sterling’s ruling multiple times. The ruling was first upheld in 1980, when the appeal faced a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Circuit Judge Irving L. Goldberg, author of the panel’s majority opinion, stated, 

[T]he ability of a member of a disfavored class to express his views on civil rights publicly and without hesitation—no matter how personally offensive to his employer or majority of his co-employees—lies at the core of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

The implementation of a new working hours policy, completely at odds with the previous protocol, provided basis for the conclusion that Van Ooteghem’s speech was the motivation for his dismissal. Van Ooteghem v. Gray was unique compared to similar LGBT cases of the 1970s and 1980s because of its unanimous support from the en banc court of appeals and its lack of dissent from judges at any level of the case. Although the loss of his job forced Van Ooteghem to sell his house and his presence in the news sometimes cost him clients in his private accounting business, he felt that his victory in the case established “the right not to be afraid to say you are gay in Houston.”

Not long after he appeared before the commissioners court in 1975, Van Ooteghem was recruited to be the first president of the Houston Gay Political Caucus (GPC, later GLBT Caucus). The GPC was newly-formed in 1975, and Van Ooteghem’s high profile boosted the caucus’s political momentum. By September 1975 the GCP had registered 1,500 new gay voters and maintained a mailing list with more than 3,000 recipients. In 1977 Van Ooteghem and the GPC were central to planning the Anita Bryant Protest, the first major political act of Houston’s emerging LGBT community. Van Ooteghem served as president of the GPC from 1975 to 1977, and then again in 1994.

In April 1978 Van Ooteghem established his own LGBT newspaper, Upfront (later Upfront America), which remained in print for the next three years. In his opinion, the other LGBT publications serving the community at that time were “inadequate,” failing to report on issues Van Ooteghem considered important. Planning for Town Meeting 1, an “assembly of Houston area Gay rights supporters,” also began that April, and Upfront provided a means to disseminate information about the event, as well as host debate on its topics in the form of editorials. 

Compared to his LGBT activist peers, Van Ooteghem was somewhat “unorthodox” for his political affiliation with the Republican party, considering his liberal views on human rights. He ran for public office twice on a Republican platform: first in 1982 for Harris County treasurer, which he lost to Democrat Henry Kriegel; and again in 1993 for a place as a Houston city council member at-large, which he lost to Gracie Saenz. Van Ooteghem was a member of the Texas chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization which worked with the GOP to advocate equal rights for LGBT Americans. The Texas Chapter was newly-chartered in 1993, when Van Ooteghem ran against Saenz. He remained closely involved with the Log Cabin Republicans for a number of years and served as one of three directors at the founding of their Houston Chapter in 1995, and then as the Houston Chapter’s president from 1995 to 1998.   

Van Ooteghem was involved with numerous civic and human rights organizations over his twenty-five years in Houston. In addition to working with the GPC and Log Cabin Republicans, he was a co-chair of the National Gay Task Force and the Gay Rights National Lobby (now the Gay Rights Campaign) from 1976 to 1977. He co-founded several LGBT-oriented institutions, such as the Texas Human Rights Campaign, the Montrose Activity Center (an LGBT community center), and the Executive & Professional Association of Houston (EPAH, an LGBT business organization). Van Ooteghem also served on the boards for both the Texas Civil Liberties Union and the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. At the time of his death, he was serving as chair of the Houston/Harris County Ryan White Planning Council, which administers money to agencies serving people with HIV in Houston.

Van Ooteghem died on July 6, 2000. He had been admitted to Twelve Oaks Hospital for pneumonia and died from a heart attack following a surgery to treat blood clots. His remains were cremated and sent to Bay City, Michigan, where they were interred next to his mother at Elm Lawn Cemetery.

Nine days after his death, a celebration of his life was held at the Alley Theatre. In honor of Van Ooteghem’s passion for meetings, the program for the event was titled, “Agenda: GVO’s Last Meeting.” State Representative Debra Danburg, who hosted a reception afterward, said of the service, “The meeting will be run the way Gary taught us. It will start on time. Please arrive early to sign in and bring your checkbooks.” The minutes of the “meeting” were a biography of Van Ooteghem’s life; the old, new, and unfinished business portions were a time for those present to share their memories of him. In lieu of flowers, community members were asked to make donations in Van Ooteghem’s honor to charity: either to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH) Youth Scholarship Foundation, the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program, or another charity of choice.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

“Agenda: GVO's Last Meeting,” Funeral program, Alley Theater, Houston, Texas, July 15, 2000 (http://www.texasobituaryproject.org/070600vanooteghem2.html), accessed February 9, 2017. Pokey Anderson, “My Right to be what I am,” Pointblank Times (September 1975). Molly Ellen Bundschuh, Cowboys, “Queers,” and Community: The AIDS Crisis in Houston and Dallas, 1981–1996 (M.A. thesis, University of North Texas, 2014). EPAH Gramme, July 2000. Houston Chronicle, August 25, 1981; May 16, 1984; November 5, 1985; November 4, 1993; January 22, 1994; July 9, 2000. Houston GLBT Political Caucus (http://www.thecaucus.info/), accessed February 23, 2017. Houston Post, October 6, 1978; December 9, 1978; January 19, 1982; June 24, 1984. “H.R. 4482 — 94th Congress: Equality Act.” Govtrack (https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/94/hr4482), accessed February 6, 2017. Arthur S. Leonard, Sexuality and the Law: An Encyclopedia of Major Legal Cases (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993; Routledge, 2013). Log Cabin Republicans of Houston Collection. Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Houston Public Library. Montrose Star (Houston), December 24–30, 1976. Montrose Voice (Houston), October 29, 1980. Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price, Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court 
(New York: Basic Books. 2001). Bruce Donald Remington, Twelve Fighting Years: Homosexuals in Houston, 1969–1981 (M.A. thesis, University of Houston, 1983). James T. Sears, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001). Upfront, December 22, 1978. Gary Van Ooteghem, “Presentation Concerning Civil Rights for Homosexuals,” Statement to the
Harris County Commissioners Court, No. 74.75, Houston, Texas, August 1, 1975.

Jo Collier

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Handbook of Texas Online, Jo Collier, "Van Ooteghem, Gary John," accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fvaoo.

Uploaded on February 23, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.