With more than 2,000 employees under her direction, Valdez oversees Dallas County’s largest department
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez has added sexual orientation and gender identity to policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the sheriff’s department.
The changes to the sheriff’s General Orders, a policies and procedures manual for the department’s employees, took effect in January.
Valdez, who was re-elected to a second term in November and is the nation’s only lesbian Latina sheriff, said in a statement this week that her staff regularly reviews and updates the General Orders to best meet the needs of the department.
"We continually strive to ensure that all employees are treated fairly in the workplace," Valdez said. "It has and will continue to be our policy to educate all personnel about the expectation that everyone in the department must act in a professional manner toward each other and the public at all times."
Valdez oversees the largest department in Dallas County government, with more than 2,000 employees. The sheriff’s department is also the first in Dallas County government to adopt employment protections for transgender people.
Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, also openly gay, and District Attorney Craig Watkins have added sexual orientation, but not gender identity, to employment nondiscrimination policies for their departments. Fitzsimmons has said he plans to add gender identity during the next periodic update of his department’s policies.
County Judge Jim Foster, openly gay chairman of the County Commissioners Court, said during his campaign in 2006 that he would seek to add sexual orientation to nondiscrimination policies covering all of the county’s 6,000-plus employees.
However, Foster said he abandoned the proposal after determining that the other four members of the Commissioners Court are opposed to it, including Democrat John Wiley Price.
"I was told by Commissioner Price to not ever let a paper with that information on it ever come through his office or through this court," Foster said. "He was very adamant."
Price didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
"The Republicans have made it clear that they won’t support it at all," Foster said of the other three commissioners.
The city of Dallas has had an employment nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, but not gender identity, since 1995.
Nationally, hundreds of local governments and about 20 states have adopted protections for LGBT workers.
LGBT legal experts say government employees are already protected against anti-LGBT discrimination by the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, they say local government policies are symbolically important and can dictate recruitment and training.
"It’s an acknowledgement that they’re going to treat people fairly, and that’s a big deal," said Ken Upton of Dallas, a senior staff attorney with Lambda Legal, the LGBT civil rights group. "The fact that we say it is a big deal, I think, because it’s an acknowledgement that we recognize that. I’m proud of her [Valdez] for doing that. I think it’s a great move."
It remains to be seen whether Valdez will face any backlash for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the department’s General Orders. Last year she indicated that law enforcement unions representing sheriff’s department employees were opposed to the changes. Scott Evans, president of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Association, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Valdez faced criticism in 2006 after she appointed a gay and lesbian liaison for the sheriff’s department. And six weeks before last year’s election, she was accused of "promoting a gay agenda" because of a survey that was used in diversity training on sexual orientation for department employees.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Shelley Knight, who oversees both the diversity training and the General Orders, said the department hasn’t made any special effort to publicize the changes. However, Knight said employees are required to have a working knowledge of the General Orders.
"The General Orders have been out a month," Knight said. "Nobody’s said anything."
Asked why it took four years in office for the sheriff to implement the changes, Knight said it hasn’t been one of Valdez’s top priorities.
Knight, a sheriff’s deputy for almost 18 years, added that she doesn’t believe there’s a problem with anti-LGBT discrimination in the department. However, she said she thinks the changes are still important.
"I think it’s important to have any of them in there, whether it be race, sex or any of it," Knight said. "That way, if something comes up, you can take care of it."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 13, 2009.