HRC protests continue in Houston

Posted on 17 Apr 2008 at 7:39pm
By John Wright

Dallas trans activist says Black Tie will be among events picketed this year in response to organization’s support for ENDA

An unidentified transgender activist holds a sign Saturday, April 12, outside the Hilton Americas-Houston, site of the Human Rights Campaign’s annual fundraising gala. The activists say HRC tried to intimidate them by calling police.

HOUSTON —Transgender activists who protested outside the Human Rights Campaign’s annual fundraising dinner in Houston on Saturday, April 12 are accusing HRC of trying to intimidate them by contacting police.

But an HRC spokesman who attended the dinner denied that, saying the organization followed the same procedure it has in other cities. The spokesman said HRC merely alerted representatives from the venue for the dinner, the Hilton Americas-Houston.

"The HRC Houston dinner was not unique," HRC spokesman Trevor Thomas, who was in attendance, said in a statement this week. "The local venue took standard security measures, as was the case in New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, by contacting local authorities when they were notified of an anticipated protest."

The protests in Houston and elsewhere have come in response to HRC’s support for a version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that doesn’t include gender identity.

In backing a sexual-orientation-only version of ENDA, which passed the House on Nov. 7, HRC broke with more than 300 local, state and national gay rights groups

The bill now awaits action in the Senate, and President Bush has threatened to veto it.

At Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner last year, just weeks after the House passed ENDA, a handful of transgender audience members left the room and gathered in the lobby when HRC President Joe Solmonese spoke. But a transgender activist from Dallas said this week she plans to organize a full-fledged protest at Black Tie this year.

"I will do everything I possibly can to bring as many people as we can," said Kelli Busey, who traveled to Houston to participate in last week’s protest.

Unlike Houston and other cities, Dallas has no fundraising dinner benefiting HRC exclusively. About half of the proceeds from Black Tie go to HRC, with the remainder divided between local beneficiaries.

As a result, Busey said she doesn’t plan to discourage people from attending Black Tie. Transgender activists in other cities have called for boycotts, and many elected officials skipped HRC’s fundraising dinner in New York in February.

"There are a lot of different organizations I belong to that benefit from the Black Tie Dinner," Busey said. "I don’t want to hurt our community."

In an e-mail response to Dallas Voice, 2008 Black Tie Dinner co-chairman Randy Ray didn’t specifically address the threat of a protest.

“We did not have a transgendered organization apply to be a beneficiary this year or express any interest in applying to be a beneficiary this year," Ray said. "We affirmatively modified our mission statement at the beginning of the year to be more inclusive, and the beneficiary application process was open to any GLBT-supportive nonprofit organization serving North Texas."

Ray was unavailable for further comment.

Transgender activists allege that the police presence in Houston was designed to minimize their numbers and was evidence that the protests are hurting HRC financially, a claim which the organization denies. Busey, one of about 10 who participated, said police outnumbered protesters by two-to-one.

"It was pretty much overdone, I think," Busey said.

Victor Senties, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department, declined to say for security reasons how many officers were present.

"You never know what’s expected," Senties said. "When there’s a protest, you don’t know how many people are going to show up."

Senties also declined to identify the party that contacted police.

Tere Perry, a spokeswoman for the Hilton Americas-Houston, said she was unsure whether it was hotel staff.

"I’m not avoiding the question; I just don’t have the answer," Perry said.

Perry suggested that some of the police officers may have been in the area for other events near the hotel, which included the dedication of a park and a professional sports outing.

"It was a big weekend in downtown Houston, so those folks [the protesters] may have gotten stuck in something they didn’t know was going on," Perry said.

Transgender activists also say they were escorted out of the Hilton-Americas when they went inside to hand out stickers and other materials.

But HRC’s Thomas said he witnessed the incident and that wasn’t the case.

"At no time was a person escorted out of the building, and no HRC officials interacted with any protester," Thomas said. "Unfortunately, erroneous information was spread by a small number of activists."
E-mail wright@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 18, 2008.

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