Lambda Legal files lawsuit against city of Houston over spousal benefits

Upton.Ken

Ken Upton

Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston to ensure spouses of legally married same-sex couples will receive health benefits.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of three city employees after a challenge to the coverage forced them to withdraw and cancel the coverage.

Parker announced last month that the benefits would be extended in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. But last week, state District Judge Lisa Millard signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city of Houston from offering benefits to same-sex couples after the Harris County GOP chairman filed a lawsuit.

“City employees who are married to same-sex spouses are doing the same work as coworkers who are married to different-sex spouses—at the end of the day this case is about equal pay for equal work,” Ken Upton, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal’s South Central office in Dallas, said in a statement. “These employees, some who have worked for the City for many years, acted in good faith when notified the City was extending health coverage benefits to their legal spouses.”

Noel Freeman, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and a president of Houston GLBT Political Caucus, is an administrative coordinator with the City of Houston Public Works & Engineering Office who has worked for the city for nine years. He and his husband, Brad, have been together for more than 11 years and were married in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

“The notice from the City was like a punch in the stomach. Brad and I were so excited when we learned we could enroll him on my plan that we signed him up within an hour of finding out,” Freeman said. “And now, just a month later, they tell us they’re going to have to take it away, that once again I will be paid less than my married heterosexual colleagues for the same work. How is this fair?”

The other plaintiffs in the suit are Yadira Estrada, a Houston police officer who married her partner of seven and a half years, Jennifer Flores, in Maine in June, and Ron Reeser, a systems administrator who married his husband, Vince Olivier, in Canada in 2008 after they had been together for three years.

Upton said the city’s refusal to implement the health benefits change and offer the benefits to same-sex spouses after they signed up for coverage is unfair.

“By refusing to recognize the legal marriage of same-sex couples for the purpose of providing employment benefits, the City deprives some Houston families of a critical safety net and financial security,” Upton said. “By stripping legally married gay and lesbian city employees of spousal benefits, including health insurance coverage, the City not only inflicts severe hardship, but sends a signal that their families are less worthy than those of their coworkers. This the Constitution does not allow.”

—  Anna Waugh

Republican Houston judge blocks city’s partner benefits until Jan. hearing

State District Judge Lisa Millard

State District Judge Lisa Millard

State District Judge Lisa Millard signed a temporary restraining order Tuesday prohibiting the city of Houston from offering partner benefits to same-sex couples after the Harris County GOP chairman filed a lawsuit.

Out Mayor Annise Parker announced that health benefits would be offered to legally married same-sex couples for city employees last month in light of June’s DOMA ruling.

“This is one of the most egregious acts by an elected official I’ve ever seen,” said Jared Woodfill, chairman the Harris County Republican party. “They just decided to, unilaterally, as a lame duck, thumb their nose at the will of the people and just spit on the U.S. Constitution.”

The lawsuit alleges that Parker violated the city’s charter when she extended the benefits for same-sex couples, the state Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas constitutional marriage amendment.

But attorneys for the city told the Houston Chronicle that the lawsuit will likely be thrown out because the men who filed it likely don’t have legal standing.

The Houston GLBT Political Caucus issued a statement late Tuesday.

“The Harris County GOP doesn’t care how many hundreds of thousands of taxpayers dollars are wasted on this frivolous lawsuit,” Caucus President Noel Freeman said.  “Heading into an election year, this isn’t about marriage or taxpayer funding of benefits, it’s about turning out social conservative voters.”

So far only three city employees have added same-sex spouses to their benefits, including Freeman, but now that coverage will be on hold. And if the spouses received care since the benefits went into effect on Nov. 20, they may have to pay for the entire cost.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that simply being a taxpayer does not grant standing to sue elected officials.” Freeman said.  “We believe this case will ultimately be dismissed for a lack of standing in accordance with established case law.”

A hearing is set for Jan. 6.

—  Anna Waugh

Houston homophobe wins election by pretending to be black

Wilson mailerHouston’s anti-gay crusader Dave Wilson was elected to the Houston Community College Board of Trustees recently by misleading voters in a black-majority district into thinking he was black. Wilson is white.

Wilson made a name for himself by sending out homophobic campaign literature targeting Mayor Annise Parker in her first election for that office four years ago. That mailer featured a picture of Parker at her swearing-in as city comptroller with her partner at her side. In 2011, he ran against Parker and lost. He also was responsible for an earlier anti-gay referendum that repealed health benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.

This time, Wilson won his election by campaigning as black, according to Houston CBS TV affiliate KHOU. His district is predominantly black.

The mailer links Wilson’s opponent to Parker. He lists “sodomy” among his issues.  Other issues on the mailer are “marriage between a man and a woman” and “that a man can use a woman’s bathroom”.  No other information on the mailer accompanies the “issues”.

His face did not appear on his campaign literature, nor in voter guides. The only faces in his ads are those he pulled from the Internet, Wilson told Houston reporters after the election.

 

He has an endorsement by Ron Wilson listed. The Ron Wilson voters know is a former state representative who is black. But that’s not the Ron Wilson who endorsed him.

The Ron Wilson on the campaign literature is Dave Wilson’s cousin from Iowa.

—  David Taffet

Parker’s opponent was for equality before he was against it

ben hall

Ben Hall

HOUSTON — While none of Mayor Annise Parker’s opponents expected much support from the LGBT community, her main opponent, Ben Hall, has been going out of his way to alienate any support he might have received. His strategy might be to solidify his support among those who dislike her for no other reason than she is lesbian. Parker has run always been honest with voters about her sexual orientation and has won eight previous citywide elections.

Out Smart magazine said Hall was for equality before he was against it.

Here’s what the Houston GLBT Political Caucus said about him on their Facebook page.

Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall, during an interview on KUHF today, came out fully against equality for the LGBT community. He stated his opposition to an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance, and vowed to deny members of the transgender community the ability to use restrooms in public buildings. This is a substantial departure from positions Hall took earlier this year in discussions with Caucus president Noel Freeman, when he offered his support for enacting an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance, and also with the Harris County Democratic Party on whose candidate questionnaire he also offered support for such an ordinance. Simply put, Ben Hall is a liar who will say anything to get elected.

Parker has hammered Hall on paying his taxes late. He has incurred more than $100,000 in penalties and interest.

Parker is running for her third and final term as mayor of Houston. The election is Nov. 5.

—  David Taffet

Mayor Annise Parker says it’s time for LGBT protections in Houston

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Mayor Annise Parker

When San Antonio passed its nondiscrimination ordinance, Houston became the only major city in Texas without such protections for its LGBT community.

In a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Annise Parker said it was time for the Bayou City to follow suit.

“It is something we should do,” she said. “And the majority of council members have publicly stated they are in support of a nondiscrimination ordinance. This is an issue that requires all of the council to be engaged and agree it’s time to move it forward.”

However, in Houston, the council is unable to pass an ordinance without a voter approval. Because of a charter amendment, an ordinance similar to the ones in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin or the one recently passed in San Antonio would have to face a voter referendum.

“We watched what happened in San Antonio and we’ll certainly talk to them about the process and then we’ll make our own decision,” Parker said.

But the process in Houston would be quite a bit different than in the other Texas cities where ordinances passed without going to voters for charter amendments.

Parker is up for re-election for a third and final term as mayor. Jessica Michan, a spokeswoman in the mayor’s office, said she did not expect any action on an ordinance until after the election.

—  David Taffet

Houston GLBT Political Caucus backs 4 out candidates in city elections

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Mayor Annise Parker

The Houston GLBT Political Caucus endorsed Mayor Annise Parker for re-election, as well as three other openly LGBT candidates in Nov. 5 city elections.

Unlike other cities in Texas that hold municipal elections in May, Houston holds its elections in November.

The Caucus met Saturday and voted to endorse Parker, Mike Laster, Jenifer Rene Pool and Zeph Capo.

Parker is running for her third and final term as mayor. Houston mayor and city council members are allowed three two-year terms.

Laster is running for his second term as city councilman. When elected in 2011, he was the first openly gay man to be elected to Houston’s Cty Council.

Pool is transgender and running for an at-large seat on the council. This is her second try for the position. Like Parker, she is a former president of the GLBT Political Caucus. If elected, she would become the first trans person elected in Texas.

Capo is openly gay and running for Houston Community College trustee.

“There are a couple of other LGBT candidates running whom we did not endorse,” Caucus President Noel Freeman said.

In an email to Dallas Voice, he noted two other races.

“[City Councilwoman] Ellen Cohen represents Montrose, and has always been an amazing advocate for the LGBT community. She is fantastic,” he said. “One person we would prefer to see out of office is [Councilwoman] Helena Brown. She has voted against every HOPWA contract that has been on the agenda, as well as homeless programs and a whole host of other things. She refuses to meet with me or other representatives of the LGBT community.”

The endorsements were made by 150 members of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Parker and 25 other candidates attended the meeting.

The Houston GLBT was founded in 1975 and is the oldest GLBT civil rights organization in the South. The oldest organization in Dallas, Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, was founded about two years later.

—  David Taffet

Houston PD says gay sex sting netted 7 arrests, won’t discuss officers’ attire

Memorial

Houston police say they regularly conduct gay sex stings in parts of Memorial Park, and the one conducted last Thursday was no exception.

HPD spokesman John Cannon said undercover officers engaged in conversation with men in the park and some of the men enticed the officers with conversation and by getting their attention from a vehicle or outside in the park.

The sting led to seven arrests, not more than 20 as gay activist Ray Hill alleged after talking to one of the arrested men. The men were arrested between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for indecent exposure, a Class-B misdemeanor, after they “voluntarily exposed themselves,” Cannon said.

As for the account that officers were wearing Speedos, Pride-related T-shirts, including one with a chrome penis on it, Cannon declined to comment on the attire because police don’t discuss operational tactics.

—  Anna Waugh

Houston’s Jenifer Pool vies to become 1st transgender elected official in Texas

Jenifer Pool

Jenifer Pool

Jenifer Pool is making a second bid for Houston City Council this November. If elected, Pool would make history as the first transgender official elected in Texas. She is seeking an at-large seat.

“We’re in much better shape this time,” she said.

Last election, Pool had 10 opponents, including two who were LGBT, and did not make it into the runoff. She said this time only six others are running with no one else from the LGBT community.

“We’re more organized,” she said. “We have more volunteers, more money at the first reporting period, more support in the African-American community.”

In this election, Pool said she’s better known and has the endorsement of many of her opponents in the last race.

The LGBT community is supporting her candidacy in greater numbers than last time, she said.

“The community isn’t looking for anyone else to support,” she said.

Pool is a self-employed consultant in construction management and permitting and, like Mayor Annise Parker, is a former president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Pool also hosts Queer Voices, an LGBT program on KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica station. Because of FCC rules, once her name officially is placed on the ballot in August, she will be off the air until after the election.

One of her opponents in the race is Al Edwards, a former member of the Legislature, best remembered for authoring the bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. But Edwards also championed the anti-marriage amendment in 2005.

Also running for re-election in Houston are Mayor Annise Parker, who is lesbian, and Mike Laster, who’s gay and holds a district rather than at-large seat.

Houston municipal elections are held in November. Mayor and city council members may run for three two-year terms. This year, Election Day is Nov. 5. The runoff is on Dec. 3.

—  David Taffet

Out TX officials praise Supreme Court rulings, look ahead

Parker.Annise

Annise Parker

Local and state officials and agencies applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings Wednesday in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing a pathway for marriage equality to return to California.

In two 5-4 decisions, Section 3 of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional and the federal government will have to recognize legally married same-sex couples. But Section 2 that addresses states recognizing same-sex marriages, was not up for consideration and the high court dismissed the Proposition 8 case on standing. So while many officials in Texas were pleased with the DOMA ruling, their attention turned to how to create marriage equality in Texas.

“The desire to legally affirm and protect loving relationships and families is fundamental and one that the American people increasingly understand and support,” lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement. “The Court’s decision strikes down an inequality that has prevented legally married same-sex couples from enjoying the same rights as other married couples. Today we take a huge step forward, but this fight is not over. It is my hope that the decision leads to greater acceptance and tolerance — and ultimately to full equality.”

Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who’s openly gay, said he was glad the ruling found that gay couples deserve the same federal protections.

“It is the concept of equal protection that ensures all Americans regardless of background may enjoy the freedom and dignity afforded to them by the constitution and not just a privileged few who happen to be members of a particular racial or ethnic group, religious denomination, gender or sexual orientation,” Fitzsimmons said.

—  Anna Waugh

Houston Mayor Annise Parker to kick off re-election campaign Thursday

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Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker kicks off her third and final run for mayor on Thursday.

In 2009, Parker became the first openly LGBT person elected mayor of a top 10 U.S. city. Houston limits its mayor and council members to three two-year terms.

The campaign kickoff will be at the Four Seasons Hotel, 1300 Lamar St., Houston at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Last weekend, Parker was in Austin addressing Stonewall Democrats at its annual Texas conference. She told Dallas Voice her opponent, lawyer Benjamin Hall III, has indicated he’ll spend as much of $3 million of his own money on the race.

“I fully expect to be re-elected, but I’m going to have to work for it,” Parker said.

Since Parker took office, Houston has earned the title America’s Coolest City to live (Forbes 2012) and others, including:

• Leading the nation in job creation (Houston Chronicle 2013)
• Best city in America to advance a career (Monster.com 2013)
• Number one city where a paycheck stretches the furthest (Forbes 2012)
• Best city in America for personal safety (Mercer Human Resources)
• Leads America in women-owned business revenue (American Express Open 2012)
• Leads America in diversity (Rice Kinder Institute 2012)

To attend the campaign kickoff, RSVP here.

—  David Taffet