Vote comes after almost 4 hours of testimony from an overflow crowd of supporters, opponents of proposal to amend existing ordinance
FORT WORTH — Tory Van Fleet was one of the dozens of LGBT rights advocates who stood, smiling widely and applauding loudly, in the packed Fort Worth City Council chamber Tuesday night, Nov. 10, in the moments after the council voted 6-3 to add specific protections for transgender people to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
But for Van Fleet, the vote was not just a victory in the LGBT civil rights movement. It was a very personal victory.
"This is something I have been asking for since 2006 when news of my plans to transition came out at work," Van Fleet said after the meeting. "It’s something we’ve needed for a very long time."
Van Fleet works as a senior forensics analyst for the Fort Worth Police Department. Although she has said previously that her own experience in transitioning while an employee of the city was relatively smooth, she said Tuesday night that she has friends who faced many more problems and discrimination.
"I have a friend who was fired from her job at an airport owned by the city of Fort Worth. She and another transgender person were the only ones fired, and it was pretty obvious that it was because they were transgender," Van Fleet said. "This ordinance will stop that kind of stuff.
"We’re not saying you can’t fire someone for not doing their job or that you have to hire someone who isn’t qualified. We just don’t want people to be fired just because they are transgender," Van Fleet said. "This is not about special rights for a few. This is about the same rights for all."
The three councilmembers voting against the ordinance change were Jungus Jordan of District 6, Carter Burdette of District 7 and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Scarth of District 4.
Jordan said that while he finds it "extremely difficult" to separate deeply held moral and religious beliefs from his decisions and votes as a member of the council, he "abhors discrimination" of any kind and believes all people have the right to "pursue happiness."
Still, Jordan said, he was concerned that the City Manager’s Diversity Task Force, formed in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid and which had given its stamp of approval to the Human Rights Commission’s resolution in support of amending the ordinance, is "more of a focus group" and "not truly diverse."
"I am concerned about the rapid path we’ve come down," Jordan said.
Both Burdette and Scarth said their votes were not based on objections to the idea of amending the ordinance to include transgender protections. Instead, both men said, they wanted more time to study the issue and the language of the ordinance.
"What I would like to do is abstain, but I can’t do that," Burdette said. "I know that Human Rights Commission has been studying this issue for over a year, but we [council members] have only had it for about three days. I’d like for us to have the patience, the leadership and the political courage to take the time to engage in a candid workshop to answer some of these questions. We have the duty to deliberate on this issue."
Scarth, who has been in a wheelchair since suffering a neck injury while playing college football in 1979, said that he has faced discrimination himself, and while discrimination is "not always intentional and certainly not hateful," he opposes discrimination against anyone. Still, he said, he believed the council should have taken more time to study the issue before voting on the amendment.
"My concern is for the small businesspeople who don’t have the resources [to retain legal counsel] to be able to understand all the nuances" of the amended ordinance, Scarth said, adding that small businesspeople "could find yourself in court over something you had no idea about," suggesting that transgender people could believe that they had suffered unfair discrimination while an employer might not have even realized they were dealing with a transgender person.
"Ending discrimination against any person is important. And if it is that important, then we can wait to do it right," Scarth said.
But Mayor Mike Moncrief, one of the six councilmembers who at the end of the night voted for the amendment, had told his colleagues in a pre-council meeting that he would call the issue for a vote that night.
"This council does not ignore its challenges. We face those challenges," Moncrief said shortly before announcing that he would vote for the ordinance.
Moncrief said that he had asked himself the same two questions he asks himself before every vote: "Is this the right thing to do, and am I doing it for the right reasons?" and he added that he makes "no apologies" for his vote.
"I don’t agree with some of the lifestyles shared here tonight. But that’s not my choice. … I will be supporting this amendment, but I respect the opinions of those who disagree," the mayor said.
Councilmember Sal Espino of District 2 said he looked at the vote from both a historical and personal perspective. From a historical perspective, he said, "there have always been great tensions between people of religious views and those with more progressive views," and that religion had been used to justify slavery and later to oppose civil rights laws protecting people of color, women and those with disabilities.
Espino said that he respects people’s religious beliefs, but noted that the ordinance includes an exemption allowing religious institutions to refuse employment or housing to those who do not comply with an institution’s religious doctrines.
"I think we can have religious liberty and still treat people equally," Espino said. "Words do matter, and the words of this ordinance say that no discrimination will be tolerated."
Kathleen Hicks of District 8 invoked the memory of the late Chuck Silcox, a conservative on the City Council in 2000 who provided the swing vote passing an amendment to add sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination ordinance in announcing her intention to vote for the ordinance.
She also quoted from President Barack Obama’s speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s National Dinner in September.
Joel Burns, the openly gay man representing District 9, expressed his pride in his council colleagues for their willingness to address the issue, and to city staff and the citizens who spoke Tuesday at the council meeting.
"I encourage my colleagues to take courage and do the right thing," Burns said.
District 5 representative Frank Moss stressed that the ordinance was a matter of public policy and not a statement on personal choices.
"Any person ought to have the right to dress how they want or express themselves the way they want," Moss said. "This ordinance has nothing at all to do with what goes on behind closed doors. Within the public arena, there should not be discrimination against anyone, and this ordinance is about what happens within the public arena."
For many onlookers, the biggest surprise of the night came with District 3 representative W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman announced he would be voting to amend the ordinance.
"People like to see things in black and white. But we live in a gray world," Zimmerman said. "We all make choices. We are defined by those choices. But I am not sure we should be punished because of those choices."
Zimmerman said that the council could be making a mistake by amending the ordinance, but "sometimes you can’t determine if you’re making a mistake unless you just go ahead and do it. We have to work together or we won’t be the all-inclusive city we want to be. I challenge all of you to go out of here and help make this work."
Public comment over the change in the ordinance lasted for about four hours.
Supporters touted the amendment as a way to attract new businesses and visitors to the city, and many urged the council to "do the right thing."
Opponents, however, said that changing the ordinance could drive businesses and visitors away, with some suggesting it would destroy the "family-oriented culture" of the city and force people to go against their personal religious beliefs.
Many of the opponents pointed out that an overwhelming majority of Fort Worth residents had voted in 2005 to amend the Texas Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, and they urged the council to put the ordinance change to a citywide vote.
Still, at the end of the evening, Fairness Fort Worth spokesman Jon Nelson said he was encouraged by the vote and the debate.
"I feel good about our City Council having the courage to pass this ordinance. But I listened to the people who were here to speak against it, and they are, for the most part, good people. They believe themselves not to be prejudiced, and they were not, for the most part, full of hatred and vitriol," Nelson said.
"I think what happened here tonight shows that we need to communicate better with each other. I think we perhaps all learned that we’re not dealing with devils on either side, and that if we stop demonizing each other, we can learn to work together for the good of the city as a whole."
But another Fort Worth resident, Thomas Jennings, said he was dismayed at many councilmembers’ and citizens’ continuing use of the word "lifestyle" in talking about LGBT people, and their insistence that homosexuality is a choice.
"It saddens me to hear people say it is a choice. My own son hates me because I am gay. He tells me I am going to burn in hell because I am gay," Jennings said.
"Tell me, why would I choose a life that would make my own son say that to me? This is not a choice."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 13, 2009.