Equality Texas political director says no anti-gay measures seem to be in the works for 81st session, but some could still arise
At least six bills with positive implications for the LGBT community have already been prefiled for consideration in the 81st Texas Legislature, according to Randall Terrell, political director for Equality Texas.
And, he said, more could be on the horizon for the session, which convenes on Jan. 13.
To make things even brighter, Terrell said no negative measures targeting the community have been filed yet.
"Isn’t that nice?" Terrell said in an interview on Wednesday, Dec. 3. "Defensive stances for us will always be a priority. But the time has come that legislators will start moving away from those negative bills."
The 2005 passage of a constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriage took that issue "completely off the table for now" in Texas, Terrell said, leaving anti-gay forces with "nothing they can throw at us" on that front. And measures barring gays and lesbians from being foster or adoptive parents that have been constant threats in past legislative sessions are not likely to arise this time around, he said.
"We were certainly disappointed with the results of the Arkansas initiative to prohibit gays and lesbians from becoming foster or adoptive parents. It was basically obscene. … But the obvious contenders to push those bills are gone now" from the Texas Legislature.
Former Rep. Robert Talton, a Republican from Pasadena, had introduced measures barring gays and lesbians from foster or adoptive parenting in several previous legislative sessions. But LGBT advocates managed to block passage of each of those attempts.
Terrell said that Talton retired from the Legislature to run for Congress, but lost that bid in the Republican Primary last spring.
Republican state Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampas was also a perennial backer of anti-gay foster and adoptive parenting efforts. But he went on record after the passage of the anti-gay-marriage amendment saying he would no longer pursue such measures.
"He tried to promote a bill at the beginning of the last session that would establish a system giving preference to foster parents in heterosexual marriages. But just the practicality of enforcing that would have ruined the foster parent system, and it didn’t go anywhere," Terrell said.
Terrell acknowledged that there are "other possible negatives" for the LGBT community that could come up in the 2009 Legislature, "but none are as broad as the foster and adoptive care bills we have seen in the past."
Terrell added, "The ground has changed in terms of where we are going, both as a movement and in the Legislature. We may become someone’s whipping boy on some issue during the session. But we are really more likely to see positive things happening. That’s a sign of progress."
Topping the list of positive measures is House Bill 353, filed by Democratic state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin. Its intention, Terrell said, is to clarify authority in medical decision-making.
Based on a Maryland statute, HB 353 is a "fairly comprehensive" bill that would help ensure that domestic partners are given access to their ill partners and included in the process of deciding on their medical care.
The "most interesting part" of the measure, Terrell added, is the section actually defining a domestic partnership. A domestic partnership, according to the bill, is "a relationship between two people that agree to be in a relationship of mutual interdependence in which each individual contributes to the maintenance and support of the other individual and the relationship, even if both individuals are not required to contribute equally to the relationship; are at least 18 years old; are not related within the third degree of affinity or consanguinity; are not married or in a civil union recognized in any other jurisdiction; and are not in another relationship described" elsewhere in the bill.
The measure also lays out the requirements needed as proof of domestic partnership.
Democrat Roberto Alonzo of Dallas has filed HB 197 that would prohibit discrimination in issuing insurance based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other things. And Democrat David McQuade Leibowitz of San Antonio has introduced HB 18 to provide a hotline for students to report harrasment or bullying.
In the Senate, Democrat Rodney Ellis of Houston has introduced SB 107 that would create a Texas Health Benefit Plan Security Program that includes a non-discrimination clause, and Democrat Judith Zaffarini of Laredo has filed SB 29 that includes a definition of cyber-bullying.
Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, has filed SB 228 that would add homeless people to the list of those protected under the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which already includes sexual orientation, but not gender identity.
"This one is important to us for a couple of reasons," Terrell said. "First, because it is the right thing to do. But also, there is a big crossover between the homeless population and the transgender population.
"We really hope to see transgender added to the list, and this could be the opening we need to do that."
Another bill has been drafted — but not yet filed — that would require the University of Texas and Texas A&M university systems to offer partner benefits to "other qualified persons," leaving it up to the schools themselves to define who is included under that umbrella.
Terrell said supporters of the measure had been working quietly on the measure in hopes that it might "pass forward without much notice" from opponents. But protests at the UT-Austin campus over the issue have generated a lot of media attention in recent weeks.
Several hundred people turned out for a Nov. 12 rally, with supporters calling on the school to offer such benefits. They said it is, first, the right thing to do, but also said the lack of such benefits interferes with employee recruitment and staff retention efforts.
Domestic partner benefits these days are "industry standard, university standard," Terrell said, adding that UT has three statutes requiring the system to be competitive in recruiting and maintaining staff and faculty.
The domestic partner benefits bill, Terrell added, is just one of several "really interesting bills" he expects to see prefiled in the next few weeks before the legislative session opens. "It’s going to be an interesting year," he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 5, 2008.