An awakening of their own

How Baylor classmates Josh Gonzales and Matt Tolbert teamed up onstage — and in real life — for WaterTower’s ‘Spring Awakening’

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UP AGAINST THE WALL | Gonzales and Tolbert will share their first scene — and first onstage kiss — as the gay couple in WaterTower’s sexually frank musical ‘Spring Awakening.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Matt Tolbert may be just barely old enough to drink legally (he’ll turn 23 in October), but he’s already an experienced theater hand.

Four months ago, he was finishing up his last semester at Baylor University before a May graduation, but he’d already made his professional debut earlier this year, hanging upside down as a torture victim in WaterTower Theatre’s production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Soon after that, he co-established a theater company and produced a show for the Out of the

Loop Fringe Festival; as of last week, his day job is assistant to WTT’s producing artistic director, Terry Martin.

“I guess you could say I’m aggressive about my career,” Tolbert concedes, “though I say I’m just highly motivated.”

And one thing he was motivated about was getting cast in WaterTower’s upcoming production of Spring Awakening. Ever since Tolbert learned of the show, he’d wanted to be in it, so when WTT put it on their 2011-12 schedule, he knew he’d audition. But even more, he wanted to be in it with his partner Josh Gonzales.

The two met several years ago while both were studying at Baylor (Gonzales is still there, with plans to graduate next spring); for the past two years, they have been a couple. But while they have been in shows at the same time, they have never shared a scene. Spring Awakening seemed like a good chance for them to do a musical together.

“I was in love with the show and when I heard WaterTower was doing it, I jumped at the chance,” says Gonzales, 21. “[Matt and I] have been in five shows together before — this will be our sixth — but we very rarely interact onstage. This is our first time to get to act.”

The plan was for Tolbert to play Hanschen, the slightly predatory gay teen, and Gonzalez to play Ernst, the object of his lustful urges in the explicit, sexually charged musical about the yearning of 19th century youth (which oddly echoes the same feelings of youth in the 21st century). Still, getting cast was hardly a sure thing, even with Tolbert’s connections at the theater.

So this summer, Tolbert studied voice with Mark Mullino, who was about to start work as the music director on Spring Awakening. Tolbert planted seeds with Mullino that he and Gonzalez would be interested in doing the show.

Alas, it seemed destined not to happen.

“Matt went to the audition but I couldn’t go because I was in New York,” sighs Gonzales. Not only that, but once the call-back list was released, Tolbert was asked to re-audition… for the role of Ernst.

“I thought, ‘Darn! I missed my chance,’” says Gonzalez.

But, despite the downbeat message of Spring Awakening, true love was determined to find a way.

Martin, who is directing the show, decided to do a second round of call-backs. Gonzales thought maybe he could try out for Hanschen, “even though Matt would be a better Hanschen than me. Or I could just be in the ensemble — I would do anything,” he says.

Tolbert and Gonzales auditioned together; Martin asked them to sing one of the show’s signature songs, “The Bitch of Living,” with each other. They did it once. Audition over.

It wasn’t until the next day they were both cast as they’d hoped: Tolbert as Hanschen, Gonzales as Ernst. It’s a dynamic that has been fed by their own relationship.

“It was a lot easier to do once we started rehearsals,” Tolbert says. “We didn’t need to choreograph the kiss. But we like [recreating] the awkwardness of the seduction — even though Hanschen is the seducer, it’s his first time, too.”

Still, art does not imitate life — at least not in this instance.

“Ernst is a little confused throughout most of the show, because he’s not exactly sure what he wants, but ultimately he just wants someone to be intimate with,” Gonzales says. “The tragedy is that Hanschen just wants someone to have fun with.”

In real life, the couple is truly committed. Gonzales is still in school in Waco, meaning he has to commute several times a week to attend rehearsals. When he’s able, he stays in town with Tolbert. Well, sort of — they both stay at Tolbert’s parents’ house, though in separate rooms.

“It’s interesting because our families don’t know we’re gay — we just came out to our close friends this summer,” Tolbert explains.

That’s likely to change soon. Especially after opening night.

“Obviously there’s a little chemistry — how could there not be?” Gonzales admits. Tolbert agrees the friends and family they are not out to yet will probably figure it out. But until they do, it’s enough to combine work and romance.

“It’s great we can share [the kiss]. I trust him completely… and I don’t want him to kiss another guy. Our goal is never to have our understudies go on,” Gonzales says.
Ah, young love… .

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Anything was possible

From DIFFA to the stage, John Ahrens has witnessed the evolving art of HIV

YA GOTTA HAVE ‘HEART’ | Ahrens, above, was moved to tears by the revival of ‘The Normal Heart,’ which captured the panic of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; below left, designs from two decades of DIFFA auctions, which improved greatly from the days of ‘ugly fabrics.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

John Ahrens ended up in Dallas accidentally, but it’s an accident that may have saved his life. In the late 1960s, he was enrolled at Yale

University’s drama department, studying theater alongside classmates like Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Meryl Streep. It was a magical time.

“I lived in New York until the late 1970s,” he recalls. “Back then, in 1976 in New York, anything was possible — you had Paul [the gay character] onstage in A Chorus Line, it was post-Stonewall.” The Continental Baths had acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow before anyone knew who they were. “Later you had La Cage aux Folles with Georges singing ‘I Am What I Am.’”

In other words, it was a great time to be gay.

Or so it seemed. Ahrens moved to Dallas in 1978, putting him 1,300 miles away when the AIDS epidemic hit New York hard. Ahrens first realized how serious the situation was when he called a friend to inquire about a former roommate; the roommate had died.

All those emotions came flooding back to him last month, when he made a pilgrimage to New York specifically to see the revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. Ahrens caught a Sunday matinee; four hours later, it walked away with three Tony Awards including best revival of a play.

“It was amazing,” Ahrens says, choking up slightly. “It so accurately describes the panic everyone was living through, especially those still in the closet. It has gotten better” over the years.

That seems to be the consensus. The Normal Heart arrived in New York about the same time as another play about AIDS, As Is, but met with a very different reception. As Is made it to Broadway, where it was rewarded with three Tony Award nominations and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play. The Normal Heart remained off-Broadway, underground. And its angry political tone was eventually eclipsed by Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America.

But when’s the last time you heard someone talk about As Is? Meanwhile, Kramer’s play has earned cult status. (For years, Barbra Streisand tried to direct a film version.)

“The Normal Heart was so much of its time,”Ahrens opines, “but seeing it brought it all back. It captured the horrors of it all. The visualization of John Benjamin Hickey’s performance was so authentic — back then, you could look at someone and know they had HIV.”

It was a horrific time, but also one that spurred great achievement and sacrifice. “It changed a lot of people and made them get their shit together,” he says.

Ahrens, a respected costume designer, was present for the first auction of clothes from DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. He still remembers the first piece he designed: A red leather number with a hoop skirt meant to evoke Christian Lacroix…“worn by a 6-foot-tall redhead.” (He’s referring to Dallas supermodel Jan Strimple, a long-time supporter of DIFFA and an AIDS activist, one of Ahrens’ oldest friends.)

It probably wasn’t his best work — back then, it was hard to do your best work.

“We all got our fabric from the same fashion line, and that line was really ugly,” he says. “Some of us were getting our fabric the night before the show.”

Things have changed. The designs became more fabulous, the designers more high-profile, the fabrics of better quality. But what Ahrens remembers most are the people — in particular, the lesbian community.

“They were the soldiers,” he says frankly. “Lory Masters and her generation? Hell, they took on so much,” caring for the mostly gay men who suffered.

Back then, even being associated with AIDS took heroics; today, gay and straight, HIV-positive and –negative men and women readily lend their names and faces to campaigns such as Faces of Life, Dallas-based photographer Jorge Rivas’ campaign for AIDS awareness. The stigma has diminished — but it is not gone.

Ahrens didn’t see The Normal Heart when it first ran in New York more than 25 years ago, but seeing it in 2011 truly made him see how far things have come — and how far they still have to go.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Tyler Clementi’s parents say they don’t want harsh punishment for classmates

Tyler Clementi

Associated Press

NEWARK, New Jersey — The parents of a university student who killed himself after authorities said his intimate encounter with a man was captured by a webcam want his classmates’ invasion-of-privacy cases prosecuted, but they don’t want them to receive harsh punishment.

Tyler Clementi’s parents, Jane and Joseph Clementi, issued a statement Tuesday, six months after he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge that connects New Jersey and New York.

“The past six months have been the most difficult and painful of our lives,” they said. “We have done our best to deal with the grief and pain of the death of our son Tyler, in awful circumstances while dealing with the crush of media attention, the pending criminal investigations and, of course, our own unanswered questions.”

The Clementis have not granted any interviews, but have released a few statements to reporters. The latest one was sent first to The Star-Ledger of Newark.

Clementi’s roommate at Rutgers University, Dharun Ravi, and classmate Molly Wei are each charged with two counts of invasion of privacy. Authorities said that last September, they used a webcam to watch part of Clementi’s encounter with another man. Within days, Clementi killed himself.

Family attorney Paul Mainardi said the Clementis feel it’s important to establish it was not “a college prank.”

Gay rights and anti-bullying groups seized on the suicide and made it a symbol of the movement to take bullying, particularly of young gay people, seriously.

The charges against Ravi and Wei do not link the alleged spying to Clementi’s suicide.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office has weighed additional bias intimidation charges, but no decision on those more serious charges has been announced. Mainardi said he believes the investigation is substantially complete.

Lawyers for the students, both of whom have since withdrawn from Rutgers, have said their clients are not guilty of any crimes. The lawyers did not immediately return calls on Tuesday.

The fallout from the case has been immense. The Point, a scholarship-granting group based in Los Angeles, has announced a scholarship in Clementi’s memory.

The Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra and the Bergen Youth Orchestra, where Clementi, a violinist, had been a member, have had performances in his memory and named concertmaster chairs after him.

His parents say they are also starting a foundation that would raise public awareness of bullying, assist vulnerable young people and encourage research and awareness of the effects of electronic media.

Rutgers has decided to allow men and women to be roommates in parts of certain dorms — largely as a way to make gay, lesbian and transgender students more comfortable.

And celebrities from President Barack Obama to entertainer Ellen DeGeneres have campaigned publicly against bullying.

—  John Wright

Coleman introduces ‘Asher’s Law’

Asher Brown, left, and Rep. Garnet Coleman

Today as LGBT citizens from around the state converged on Austin to lobby lawmakers on LGBT issues, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston, introduced “Asher’s Law,” a bill that would “help protect our children before they are terrorized and traumatized both physically and mentally,” according to a press release from Coleman’s office.

Before this session of the Texas Legislature even began, Coleman had prefiled HB 1386. Asher’s Law — HB 2343 — is identical to that earlier legislation except that Coleman renamed it in honor of Asher Brown, a gay 13-year-old from Houston who committed suicide last year after enduring relentless bullying from his classmates and peers.

Coleman said that he renamed the legislation with the permission of Asher’s parents, Amy and David Truong. Coleman said, “The Truongs are acting with grace and courage. They are allowing a tremendous personal tragedy be a catalyst for change in state statute. We should honor them.”

Coleman said that Asher’s Law, if passed, would direct the Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency to implement a program to recognize students at risk of emtoional trauma or committing suicide, intervene effectively and refer students to mental health services if necessary. The bill would require school districts to report incidents of harassment and bullying to the TEA annually and to train district employees on preventing bullying and harassment. It also addresses harassment and discrimination by school district employees toward students and other employees.

In addition, Asher’s Law gives school districts the option of transferring a bully, instead of current practice which is to transfer the student being bullied.

Coleman has filed similar bills in every legislative session since 2003. Prior to that year, he supported similar bills filed in each session by then state Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, a Dallas Democrat.

—  admin

Mich. school’s policy change presents opportunity to revisit transgender homecoming issue in Dallas

Andy Moreno

Remember Andy Moreno, the transgender girl who was denied a chance to run for homecoming queen at North Dallas High School?

Well, not surprisingly, it turns out that North Dallas isn’t the only school in the country that’s had to deal with this issue. But unlike NDHS or DISD, schools in other districts appear to be learning from their mistakes and drafting policies to avoid a repeat of the problem. For example, the NBC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., reported Monday that students at Mona Shores High School will henceforth select a gender-neutral homecoming court:

The change comes about five months after a transgender student wasn’t allowed to run for homecoming king at Mona Shores.

Oakleigh Reed is registered at the school as a girl, but plans to undergo a sex change upon turning 18. Reed identifies as a boy, and students and teachers at Mona Shores recognize Oak that way, as well.

Reed was disqualified from running for homecoming king in September. Since last fall, school officials have been trying to figure out a way to avoid a similar situation from happening again.

The solution?

The juniors and seniors will vote on a gender-neutral prom court this spring. The policy will stand for future homecoming events, as well. There will be two juniors and two seniors on the courts; the sex of the students won’t be considered.

“I’m so glad that the rules have been changed,” Reed said in a news release from the ACLU. “All I wanted was a chance for all students to participate and be heard. Now, my classmates and I can just focus on having a great time at our school dance.”

We’ve contacted Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District, to find out whether there have been any further discussions about this issue since the Andy Moreno controversy in October. We’ve also left a message with Dinnah Escanilla, the principal at North Dallas High School who told Moreno she couldn’t run for queen because she was born a boy — a decision that the district stood behind.

We’ll let you know what we find out.


—  John Wright

Hope for the future: Another youngster speaks up for LGBT equality

Malcolm and his letter

Back in November, 2009, then 10-year-old Will Phillips of West Fork, Ark., made headlines around the country when he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance with the rest of his classmates because the pledge includes the phrase “with liberty and justice for all,” and Will knew that LGBT Americans aren’t really guaranteed that liberty and justice.

Now, a 7-year-old named Malcolm is speaking out for LGBT equality, and putting his money where his mouth is.

Recently, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center received an envelope containing a $70 donation and a hand-written note that read: “I am sending you this money because I don’t think it’s fair that gay people are not treated equally.” It was signed, “Malcolm.”

There was another note with the donation, this one from Malcolm’s mom. She explained that in an effort to help Malcolm learn the importance of helping improve the world around him, he had been given $140 to donate to the charity of his choice. And when Malcolm heard a story on the radio about LGBT people being mistreated, he got so upset that he decided he would donate his money to LGBT causes.

Malcolm chose to split his his $140, giving half to the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the other half to the Human Rights Campaign.

We all know that nonprofits of all stripes always need money. But they — and all of us, in fact — also always need hope. Malcolm gave the Gay and Lesbian Center and the HRC both. And he gave hope to all of us.

—  admin

Lesbian students enter to cheers at Minn. school

CHRIS WILLIAMS | Associated Press

CHAMPLIN, Minn. — Two lesbian high school students who fought for the right to walk together as part of a royalty court made their entrances Monday, Jan. 31 to the cheers of hundreds of classmates.

Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree Shelton wore matching black suits with pink ties and held hands as they entered the Snow Days Pep Fest at Champlin Park High School in Minneapolis’ northwest suburbs.

The reaction came as a relief to the couple and school administrators. The district has been stung by criticism of its policies toward homosexuality and the alleged bullying of a gay student who killed himself.

“It felt amazing,” said Shelton, adding that she was too nervous to notice dozens rise to give her a standing ovation as she walked in with Lindstrom. “I think we were too focused on getting to the stage.”

If there were any boos, they were drowned about by supporters. “I feel so much better,” Lindstrom said while surrounded by friends after the rally.

Sarah’s mother, Shannon Lindstrom, camera in hand, joined the other mothers of children in the royalty court after the rally.

“They had a lot of courage,” she said Shelton and her daughter. “Look how far we’ve come.”

Students voted onto the royalty court traditionally enter the assembly in boy-girl pairs. After Lindstrom and Shelton, both 18, were elected, school officials last week announced a change in procedure: court members would walk in individually or accompanied by a parent or favorite teacher.

School officials said they merely wanted to prevent the two from being teased. But on Friday, two human rights groups sued on their behalf.

On Saturday, in federally mediated talks, school officials relented. The two sides agreed that members of the royalty court would be escorted by anyone meaningful to them, regardless of gender or age.

“This is a new chapter for the district,” said Sam Wolfe, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and local assistance from the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre and Benson.

Young women in evening gowns and young men in dark suits walked through a makeshift arch and to the stage during the Monday afternoon pep rally complete with cheerleaders, dance teams and the school band. So did two young women in suits, and the crowd cheered for each one.

“They did great,” said Principal Mike George. “I’m proud of our students.”

Several of the students in the crowd didn’t understand what all the fuss over the lesbian couple.

“Some people are against it, but they don’t care if they walk down a stupid runway,” said Maggie Hesaliman, 14.

Melissa Biellefe, 16, said, “We’re a pretty respectful school. Our rule is just let people be who they are.”

Champlin Park is part of the Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota’s largest, which has been in the spotlight in the past year for its handling of issues involving gay and lesbian students.

It has been in the crossfire for its policy of “neutrality” in classroom discussions of homosexuality. It was reached in 2009 as a way to balance the demands of liberal and conservative families, but neither side has been completely happy with it.

The issues flared again last year after a gay student, Justin Aaberg, killed himself. His mother has said she heard too late from Justin’s friends that he had been harassed.

Aaberg was one of six students who committed suicide in the district since the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, and advocacy groups have linked some of the other deaths to the bullying of gay students.

However, the district said last month its own investigation did not find evidence that bullying contributed to the students’ deaths.

—  John Wright

Wash. teen files lawsuit accusing district of failing to protect him from bullying

Malicious MySpace page listed sexual orientation as ‘unsure’

GENE JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

SEATTLE  — A 19-year-old graduate of Aberdeen High School sued the school district Tuesday, Dec. 7, blaming officials for failing to keep him from being bullied by classmates who smashed an egg on his head, taunted him over his race and perceived sexual orientation, and set up a malicious MySpace page in his name.

Sometimes shaking as he recalled the torment during a news conference, Russell Dickerson III said the harassment made it hard to focus on school and was so traumatic that even now the memory sometimes keeps him from leaving his house. His father, Russell Dickerson Jr., said the family complained to school officials repeatedly, to no avail.

“It was like a prison sentence,” the teen said. “I found myself dreading school.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed the lawsuit on Dickerson’s behalf in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. It alleges civil rights violations, violations of state anti-discrimination law and negligence, and seeks compensation for emotional harm and lost opportunities.

Aberdeen Superintendent Thomas A. Opstad said the district denies letting any student be harassed without prompt corrective action.

“During Russell’s time as a student, the district worked diligently and collaboratively with the Dickerson family to investigate and address Russell’s complaints about his treatment,” he said. “Where misconduct was substantiated, students who engaged in harassment were appropriately disciplined.”

He noted that Dickerson is a now a member of the district’s staff and provides tutoring to elementary students, which Opstad said shows the former student feels comfortable in the district.

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said Dickerson’s comfort in tutoring elementary students “in no way speaks to the harassment that he endured for six years in junior high and high school.”

Dickerson and the ACLU said they hoped the lawsuit would help amplify the attention school bullying has garnered lately. In Washington, where officials say that nearly 15,000 students were suspended for bullying in the 2008-09 school year, a new law requires every public school to have a policy for dealing with bullying.

And in response to recent suicides by bullied gay young people, Seattle author and columnist Dan Savage launched a popular national campaign inspiring many people — including President Barack Obama — to record video messages assuring teens, “It gets better.”

Dickerson said the harassment began in junior high in 2003. By the next year, he and his family had complained repeatedly about bullying, and his frustrated parents took it up with the school board during a meeting that fall, according to a 2004 article in The Daily World newspaper of Aberdeen.

Nevertheless, the family said, the harassment continued. Dickerson’s father, a prison guard, is black and his mother is white, and Dickerson said his peers subjected him to racial slurs and derogatory comments about his physical appearance and perceived sexual orientation. They sometimes groped his chest and threw things at him, the lawsuit claims.

The ACLU became involved in the case in 2007, after students created a fake MySpace page in Dickerson’s name. The web page featured an unflattering picture of Dickerson which had been taken without his knowledge at school, and listed his sexual orientation as “not sure,” The Daily World reported.

One student, Brandon Peterman, pleaded guilty to a harassment charge and was sentenced to seven days in jail for writing a racial slur on the Web page and saying, “i’ll hang you so fast if you tell onme (sic) ever again.”

Peterman told the newspaper, “I’m really sorry he had to see it. I just wish I could take it back and it was just an immature thing to do for all of us.”

Then-Superintendent Martin Kay said at the time that he called Dickerson’s family to apologize.

Opstad said Aberdeen took several steps to promote acceptance in schools, including providing guides on the topic to parents and students, discussing bullying at parent-teacher conferences, and training all staff and students to reduce harassment.

But the ACLU said Tuesday that even after that the district failed to take meaningful steps to create a safe learning environment.

Dickerson, who is enrolled in an online college program and hopes to work in information technology, encouraged other bullied youngsters to persevere. Getting an education is too important not to, he said.

“If you give that up, you’re just quitting on yourself,” he said.

—  John Wright

Nearly 6 months after gay Dallas woman Lisa Stone vanished, some national media attention

Dec. 5 will mark six months since the disappearance of Lisa Stone, a 52-year-old gay woman from northeast Dallas. But Stone’s friends remain optimistic that the case will soon be solved, and their hopes have been buoyed this week by some national media attention.

America’s Most Wanted posted a story about Stone’s disappearance on its website Monday, and her friends plan to meet with producers from CBS’ 48 Hours on Wednesday.

“We have worked for five months to get this kind of national exposure,” said Tina Wiley, one of Stone’s friends who’s been leading the effort to find her. “We need this to get answers.”

Wiley said Stone’s friends are also hearing rumors that arrests in the case may be imminent. A Dallas police investigator who’s handling the case couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Wiley said nothing is planned to mark the six-month anniversary of Stone’s disappearance. However, the group known as the Sisters of ’77 — Stone’s friends who graduated from Mesquite High School in 1977 — plans another reunion on Dec. 11. It was during the first-ever reunion of the Sisters of ’77 in May 2009, WIley said, when Stone came out to many of her former classmates.

“It was a huge deal to her, so I think it’s going to be a really emotional party,” Wiley said. “She was real hesitant at first about going even. She was so worried about what everyone would think, but she was very pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t an issue to anybody.”

—  John Wright

Anti-bullying bill leaves out trans protections

Rep. Mark Strama, who’s considered an LGBT ally, may not realize how big a mistake he’s making by omitting gender identity/expression from his bullying bill.

Later today the Dallas ISD’s board of trustees will vote on a bullying policy that, if approved, would make the district the first in the state to specifically outlaw bullying based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

Obviously one of the keys here is gender identity/expression, which covers not only students who are transgender, but also students who are perceived by classmates as not meeting gender stereotypes. Clearly, this is a major factor behind bullying — students who are made fun of, for example, for being “sissies” or “tomboys.”

So why, then, would a state representative who is considered an LGBT ally file an anti-bullying bill that includes sexual orientation but NOT gender identity/expression?

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, last week filed HB 224, this session’s version of the comprehensive anti-bullying legislation that Strama authored in 2009. But for some reason, and we still aren’t exactly sure why, Strama has left out gender identity/expression this time. The 2009 version of Strama’s bill, HB 1323, which almost made it to the House floor, included both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. However, this year’s version includes only sexual orientation.

We contacted Strama’s office on Wednesday, but we still haven’t heard back. Earlier today we spoke with Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, who assured us he’s well aware of the omission. Smith said “gender identity/expression” was in every version of Strama’s bill  that Equality Texas reviewed, but suddenly disappeared from the version that was filed.

Smith said he was in the office this afternoon despite the fact that he’s supposed to be on vacation — for a meeting aimed at getting a trans-inclusive version of Strama’s bill filed in the Senate. Smith said Strama’s bill can’t be amended until it goes to committee, which might not be until March, and Strama isn’t willing to pull the bill and re-file a trans-inclusive version.

“We’re aware of it, we’re disappointed in it and we’re trying to fix it by having a Senate version of the bill that would be what we want it to be,” Smith said. “Our policy is that we don’t support bills that don’t include both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. We’ve been working on this since HB 224 got filed on Nov. 9 and we realized that it wasn’t in there anymore.”

—  John Wright