Plano passes flawed nondiscrimination ordinance

Posted on 12 Dec 2014 at 7:00am
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FIRST DOWN | Gay and lesbian Plano residents sat among opponents who carried anti-ordinance signs at the Dec. 8 Plano City Council meeting. (Photo courtesy Todd Whitley)

Gay and lesbian Plano residents called the ordinance a first step but trans community believes the ordinance makes things worse

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
The Plano City Council passed an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance on Monday, Dec. 8, by a 5-3 margin after a contentious debate, and not without angering some on both sides of the debate.
The ordinance prohibits “discrimination in places of public accommodation, employment practices, housing transactions and city contracting practices.”

Anti-LGBT opponents claim the new ordinance allows men to use women’s bathrooms, even though the ordinance has an exemption for bathroom use. LGBT rights advocates are unhappy with the vast number of exemptions listed in the ordinance.

Toyota’s impending move of its corporate headquarters from California to Plano provided the impetus for passing a nondiscrimination ordinance. Although none would speak to Dallas Voice on the record, some gay and lesbian employees of Toyota are concerned that their marriages will become invalid when they move to Texas. Plus, Plano only scored 22 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index.

Objections to the ordinance poured into the mayor’s and councilmembers’ offices from Attorney General-elect Ken Paxton from McKinney and a variety of Collin County lawmakers, including Jodie Laubenberg of Parker. Laubenberg is best known for saying on the floor of the Texas Legislature that rape kits prevent pregnancy.

Liberty Institute opposed the ordinance and is threatening to sue the city, calling the law unconstitutional.

“In effect, the proposed ordinance makes it a crime to do business in the city of Plano while maintaining Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other traditional religious views of marriage, sexuality and gender identity,” Liberty Institute said in a written statement.

While a number of Christian denominations and most branches of Judaism recognize same-sex marriage, the ordinance offers a number of exemptions including a religious exemption.

Other exemptions are offered for political, governmental, educational and non-profit organizations.

Todd Whitley, Equality Texas communications manager, was at the meeting and described the atmosphere as poisonous.

“It was as if the only thing missing was their pitchforks and torches,” Whitley said.

He did credit the mayor and council for remaining steadfast in their support. He said after listening to the accusations from opponents, Mayor Harry LaRosiliere told the crowd they were going to pass the ordinance because it was the right thing to do. Whitley applauded LaRosiliere’s leadership in refusing to table the ordinance and in getting it approved by the council.

Trans Pride Initiative Executive Director Nell Gaither said the ordinance opens with a “good, broad statement on discrimination,” but then becomes ineffective because of the exemptions.

“I’ve never seen such broad exemptions,” she said.

She said the city attorney’s statement on the exemption of non-profits specifically targets the trans community. The attorney referenced “men trying to access women’s services.”

Gaither said that referred to trans women accessing services from shelters.

Plano spokesman Steve Stoler gave Dallas Voice a statement from Plano City Attorney Paige Mims that concurred with Gaither’s assessment.

“Non-profits are excluded because many non-profits have a service model based on segregated classes that is vital to their mission such as domestic abuse shelters to protect women or substance recovery homes limited to one gender. Rather than carve out detailed exceptions for every non-profit scenario, the city decided to blanket exclude non-profits,” Mims said.
Mims also weighed in on the bathroom language.

“The city tried to balance privacy interests with equality interests,” Mims said. “Most public bathrooms are semi-private and not conducive for privacy reasons to being unisex. Whether bathrooms are segregated based on gender is at the discretion of the particular business. If bathrooms are segregated, people will use the bathroom that corresponds with their physical anatomy whether born with that anatomy or changed by surgery.”

Gaither questioned whether the Plano Police Department would start a new “genitalia unit” that would inspect anyone accessing a public bathroom in Plano. She said she is concerned that enforcement of this exclusion would make things worse in Plano for trans men and women than before the ordinance.

And Gaither warned that trans people would not be the only ones affected. Anyone who is not gender-conforming that accesses a restroom in Plano could be arrested and forced to prove his or her gender.

Gay and lesbian Plano residents who attended the meeting were more cautiously optimistic. All called  LaRosiliere a hero or new-found ally after he threatened the anti-ordinance crowd with removal from the chambers.

Jeannie Rubin, a founder of the Collin County LGBT group GALA, was excited about passage of the ordinance.

“It’s the first big suburban city to catch up with the rest of the world,” she said.

She said the city strategy was to keep discussion of the ordinance under the radar to keep the opponents away. The city used the same strategy in October when Plano updated its EEO policy for city employees. Those changes went into effect immediately with partner benefits set to begin in January.

Rubin said the deputy city manager has offered to become the liaison to the LGBT community and city staff has indicated the ordinance is a beginning. She expects the ordinance to be updated and amended as the Dallas and Fort Worth laws have been.

Rubin also said she expects other Collin County cities to follow Plano’s lead.

“In Collin County alone we have 22 cities,” Rubin said. “So this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Plano resident Dawnetta Miller, who spoke at the Plano City Council meeting, said, “Change is incremental. We’ve turned a corner in Plano.”

She acknowledged the shortcomings of the ordinance and said it could be revisited down the road.

Attorney Lorie Burch, who was raised in Plano and now lives and practices there, also spoke at the meeting. Burch called the city “conservative but welcoming.”
The discussion of the ordinance “brought out the most extreme side of our community,” Burch said. “They made the point we’re a bunch of bullies, but they were threatening lawsuits and voting [councilmembers] out of office.”

Burch acknowledged that the ordinance is not perfect.

“We didn’t get everything we want,” Burch said. “[But] we got a first down. Let’s keep moving the ball.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 12, 2014

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