A conservative radio host walks into a gay bar…

Michael Berry

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Conservative talk radio host and former city council member Michael Berry has been implicated in a hit and run accident outside of T.C.’s show bar last month. Berry has not been charged with a crime. In Texas leaving the scene of an accident is a misdemeanor.

KPRC reports that a bouncer for the gay bar witnessed a hit and run collision on Jan. 31st. The bouncer, Tuderia Bennett, wrote down the license plate of the vehicle and later identified Berry, the owner of the vehicle, as the man he had seen driving. Since then video of Berry inside the bar has been released.

And then the blogosphere exploded…

Houston Chronicle Newswatch blog: Michael Berry accused of ramming vehicle at gay club

Perez Hilton: Um, Oops? Conservative Radio Host Accused Of Hit-And-Run After Visiting Gay Bar

Texas Observer: Homophobic Radio Host Busted at Gay Bar

Towleroad: Conservative Talk Radio Host Michael Berry Was Definitely At That Gay Bar In Houston …

The site gayhomophobe.com even added Berry to their listing of famous homophobes later caught up in gay sex scandals.

The only issue with all this schadenfreude is that, as far as I can tell, Michael Berry isn’t particularly homophobic. The radio host has criticized other right-wing personalities for their homophobia. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time listening to old episodes of Berry’s show over the last few days (a painful experience) and I’ve yet to find anything hateful towards the LGBT community (please correct me if I’ve missed something).

Controversial black-face drag character Shirley Q. Liquor is a regular guest on Berry’s program which would seem to indicate that Berry at least has no issue with drag  queens (nor, would it seem, does Berry have any issues with astoundingly racially insensitive performances that rely on the most vulgar of African-American stereotypes).

I’m not saying that Michael Berry’s good guy (he once advocating bombing a proposed mosque in lower Manhattan), but I have to question why the media in general, and the LGBT media in particular, have been so quick to paint him as a homophobe caught with his pants down.

Perhaps after decades of Sen. Larry “wide stance” Craig and Rev. George “luggage lifter” Reker it’s an easy narrative to latch on to. But it’s concerning that this story has become about Michael Berry being the sort of person who (allegedly) visits gay bars instead of being about Michael Berry being the sort of jerk who (allegedly) hits a parked car and then drives off.

A conservative radio host walks into a gay bar, walks out, gets into his car, hits another car, and drives off… and what we find shocking isn’t the crime, but that he was in a gay bar.

What a joke.

—  admin

AIDS housing funding survives challenge in Houston city council

Helena Brown

The city funding for four Houston nonprofits providing housing to at-risk populations living with HIV/AIDS survived a challenge from city council member Helena Brown last Wednesday. Under consideration by the council were ordinances to dispense almost $2.5 million in federal funds managed by the city to the SRO Housing Corporation, Bering Omega Community Services, Catholic Charities and SEARCH Homeless services.

Brown initially used a parliamentary procedure known as a “tag” to delay the funding for the Houston SRO Housing Corporation and Bering Omega. Any council member may tag an item under consideration, delaying the vote on the item for one week. Brown explained that she objected to government funding of charitable entities:

“I spoke last week on this very issue on grant funds and the idea that we are, you know, fighting with other entities and other governments for grant funds that really isn’t there. The federal government is in a worse condition than the city of Houston and to continue to try to milk the system where there’s no milk, is just, I mean, we’re fighting with our brothers, as I said last week, to get credit for who is going to push a friend over the cliff… We need to continue to look at the private sector and the business sector. Because even, I attended this event where this wonderful speaker was talking about the generosity of Americans and 80% of donations to nonprofits come from private individuals, not even corporations, and we need to continue to rely on that right now because the government right now, we’re broke – we need to face that reality.”

Other council members spoke passionately of the need for continued funding, arguing that by assisting people living with HIV/AIDS in achieving independence, particularly those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness,  the programs added to the tax based and help insure long-term stability.

“We don’t live in a perfect a world,” said freshman council member Mike Laster (the first out gay man to serve on the Houston City Council). “These organizations do their very best to raise money to care for the people among us, but they still need to reach out to entities that have that kind of capital, and by the grace of God this city and this government as an entity has some of that capitol, and I’m very proud that we’re able to provide those kind of services to some of my community members.”

Council member Wanda Adams, who serves as chair of the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, also spoke in favor of continuing funding. Council member Ellen Cohen, whose district contains both SRO Housing and Bering Omega, spoke of how her life had personally been touched by AIDS:

“One of the first young men to pass away in New York City was a cousin of mine of something [then] called a very rare form on pneumonia… which we now realize was not. So I understand the need for these kinds of services. On a personal note I worked with Bering and I know all the fine work that they do, I’m addressing all the items but I’m particularly addressing [the Bering Omega funding] and feel it’s absolutely critical that we provide the kind of funding items, and that we are, in fact, our brother’s and our sister’s keepers.

After Laster asked Mayor Annise Parker the procedure for overriding a tag Brown removed her tag, but raised a new concern about HIV/AIDS housing, saying that her office had requested a list of the owners of apartment units where those receiving rental assistance lived. City Attorney David Feldman explained to Brown that federal law prohibits making public information that could be used to identify people receiving assistance through the housing program. Feldman said that, in his legal opinion, revealing the names of the owners of the apartments would violate federal law. Brown said that she was concerned that their might be a “conflict of interest” with apartment owners that needed to be investigated, claiming that as the reason for her tag.

Brown eventually removed her tag, rather than have it overturned. All four ordinances providing funding passed with only Brown voting “nay.”

—  admin

Measure would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Houston

Charter amendment could also allow DP benefits for city workers

DANIEL WILLIAMS  |  Contributing Writer

HOUSTON — Long-brewing plans to place a city-wide non-discrimination policy before Houston voters became public this week.

Since December a coalition of organizations and leaders have been working to draft a city charter amendment that would make it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment or public accommodations on the basis of  “age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or physical characteristic.”

The amendment would also remove anti-LGBT language added to the Houston city charter in 1985 and 2001 — which could allow the City Council to vote to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who famously became the only out LGBT person elected mayor of a major American city in 2009, has declined to comment on the proposed charter amendment until the language is finalized. She told the Houston Chronicle: “I believe it’s important for the city of Houston to send a signal to the world that we welcome everybody and that we treat everybody equally, and depending on the elements of what was actually in it, I might or might not support it,”

According to Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman, the prospect of Houston voters approving the non-discrimination amendment has ramifications for efforts to pass similar measures in the state Legislature.

“Nondiscrimination in Houston builds a better case for us when we go for nondiscrimination in Austin,” said Coleman. “To be able to tell representatives that they represent areas that already support these efforts is very helpful.”

The cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all already have similar nondiscrimination ordinances and offer DP benefits to employees.

But Houston’s form of governance makes this effort unique. While the City Council is empowered to pass city ordinances covering issues of discrimination, they can be overturned by popular vote if those opposing the ordinance collect 20,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

That was the case in 1985 after Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire pushed through the council the city’s first protections for gay and lesbian Houstonians (no protections were provided for the bisexual or transgender communities).

A coalition of right-wing voters led by Louie Welch, then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, was able to place the issue on a city-wide ballot, claiming the policy “promoted the homosexual lifestyle.” The group also recruited a “straight slate” of candidates to run against City Council members who had favored the protections, with Welch running against Whitmire.

The public vote on nondiscrimination was held in June 1985 and Welch’s forces prevailed, but the city’s temperament had changed by the time of the City Council and mayoral races in November. A comment of Welch’s that the solution to the AIDS crisis was to “shoot the queers” was aired on local TV and few in Houston wished to be associated with him after that. The “straight slate” failed to capture a single City Council seat and Whitmire remained mayor, but the defeat of the city’s nondiscrimination policy remained.

By 1998 Houston had changed: Annise Parker was serving as the city’s first out lesbian city council member and Houston boasted the state’s first out gay judge, John Paul Barnich. Mayor Lee Brown, sensing the change, issued an executive order protecting LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. But the city had not changed that much. Councilman Rob Todd led efforts to fight the order in court, arguing that since voters rejected city-wide protections from discrimination in 1985, it was inappropriate for the mayor to institute them without voter approval. The city spent the next three years defending the policy in court, finally emerging victorious.

The joy of that 2001 victory would be shortlived, however. That year Houston’s voters approved another amendment to the city charter, this time prohibiting the city from providing domestic partner benefits for city employees. In a narrow defeat, just over 51 percent of voters decided that the city should not offer competitive benefits.

The current proposed non-discrimination amendment would remove the language added in 1985 and 2001. While it would provide non-discrimination protections it would not require the city to offer benefits of any kind to the spouses of LGBT city employees, leaving that question back in the hands of the City Council.

The organizers of the current effort are confident that this year is the year for victory.

Noel Freeman, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which is spearheading the effort, explains that the previous votes occurred in “non-presidential years,”when voter turnout in general is low, and conservative voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate.

Additionally, polling by Equality Texas in 2010 showed that 80 percent of Houstonians support employment protections for gay and lesbian people.

In order to place the non-discrimination amendment on the November ballot the coalition supporting it will need to collect 20,000 signatures of registered Houston voters and submit them to the city clerk. Freeman says that the final charter amendment language is still under consideration and that once it is finalized the group will begin collecting signatures.

Even former Councilman Todd, who once fought the city’s policy of non-discrimination for LGBT employees, supports the current effort.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Community rallies to support GLBT Community Center President

Tim Brookover

Last fall Tim Brookover, a long-time Houston LGBT activist and current president of the Houston GLBT Community Center, made public that he was undergoing treatment for cancer. Throughout his treatment Brookover has remained the vibrant advocate for LGBT people that Houston has always known him to be (he even started a cancer support group at the center). Brookover recently ended his employment in the office of Houston City Council member Sue Lovell and applied for disability.

While his application is pending the people of his long-time church home have decided to help. Bethel United Church of Christ (1107 Shepherd) will host a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for Brookover’s expenses this Sunday, Feb. 12, at noon. Ticket’s are $10 and include beverages and speghetti. RSVP via facebook.

—  admin

Councilmember Adams to challenge Rep. Alma Allen for Texas House

Rep. Dr. Alma Allen

Houston City Councilmember Wanda Adams plans to challenge State Representative Dr. Alma Allen, D-Houston, for the Democratic Party nomination in house district 131, according to a recent post on Adams’ blog. The race will pit two candidates with very different records on LGBT issues.

Rep. Dr. Alma Allen

Allen has served in the House since 2005. She is a former school principle who, during the last legislative session, co-authored HB 224, legislation that would have required public schools to report incidences of bullying to the state using an enumerated list of that included sexual orientation (but not gender identity or expression). HB 224 did not pass. During the special session last summer Allen voted for a budget amendment that included a similar reporting requirement (which also did not pass). She was one of 44 house members who opposed attempts by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, to ban LGBT resource centers from college campuses. Although Allen is not the most outspoken ally of the LGBT community in the Texas House, she has a strong voting record on LGBT issues.

Councilmember Wanda Adams

Adams was recently sworn in for her third city council term. Until redistricting this year Adams’ District C included much of Montrose. She regularly attends LGBT events (she actually cut the ribbon at the dedication ceremony for the Transgender Center) and has a reputation for being open-minded and willing to speak to people. However two events in the last year have some in the LGBT community questioning the depth of her commitment to the community.

In June the Houston City Council considered cutting funding for Marjoe House, a residential HIV/AIDS treatment facility. Adams spoke in the council meeting of the importance of continuing funding, which was opposed by Council Member Jarvis Johnson. When the time came for the vote, however, Adams left the council chambers and was recorded as “absent” (the council voted to continue funding, 10 to 2). Community leaders who had lobbied Adams for her support were disappointed that she missed the vote. “We had been given every indication that she would be in support of renewing funding,” says Robert Shipman, president of the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. “It was extremely disappointing that she left the room when it was time to put that support into effect.”

Councilmember Wanda Adams

Adams support for a Catholic youth homeless services provider has also led to questions about her dedication to her LGBT constituents. The provider, Covenant House (located in the heart of Montrose) had been accused by leaders in the transgender community of denying services to transgender and intersex youth unless they were willing to live in the gender they were assigned at birth. As a private religious organization, argued the agency’s director, Rhonda Robinson, Covenant House was under no obligation to provide services without discrimination. Things changed when Council Member Jolanda Jones threatened to cut the funding Covenant House received through the city unless they enacted a non-discrimination policy that was inclusive of gender identity and expression. While the threat worked and Covenant House is now working with local organizations like the Transgender Foundation of America to change their policies and practices, Adams continued to defend the organization. “Covenant House has long history of doing great work and making sure that our homeless youth are protected without any… type of prejudices,” she told the council, refuting allegations that the agency discriminated in it’s services.

“I was extremely disappointed at Council Member Adams’ defense of Covenant House,” said Cristan Williams, executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America. “TFA and others worked for over a decade to bring them to the table to discuss their very well documented discrimination. For the person who cut the ribbon at the opening of Houston’s Transgender Center to turn around and defend discrimination against trans-identified children made me feel ill. It was like being stabbed in the back.”

—  admin

Early voting in runoff election off to slow start

For those who missed it, there is an election happening in Houston right now. Four City Council races wound up in run-offs after the November 8 municipal elections and Houstonians have until December 10 to decide the fate of these crucial races.  So far fewer than 2,000 people have voted. Without a “big ticket” item like the mayor’s race at the top of the ballot turnout in the runoff is expected to be very low. The upshot of which is that every ballot cast carries more weight than ever.

Two of the races are at-large seats, so every citizen of Houston gets to vote on this races:

  • In At-large position 2 former State Representative Kristi Thibaut faces Andrew C. Burks Jr. Pastor of Bailey Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • In At-large position 5 incumbent council member Jolanda Jones faces Jack Christie, former State Board of Education member .

Two of the races are for district seats, so only people who live in those districts get to vote on these races:

  • In District A incumbent council member Brenda Stardig faces republican activist Helena Brown.
  • In District B local restauranteur and education advocate Jerry Davis faces Alvin Byrd, current staffer for council member Jarvis Johnson.

Early voting continues through December 6th, election day is November 8. Voters may cast their ballot at any early voting location. Visit harrisvotes.org to find your election day polling location (it may be different than your November polling place) and to view a sample ballot.

—  admin

Council member Jones to be first cisgender reader at Houston Day of Remembrance

Jolanda Jones

Jolanda Jones

Houston City Council member Jolanda Jones is scheduled to be the first cisgender reader in the history of Houston’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. Lou Weaver, president of the Transgender Foundation of America, one the events sponsors, says that Jones was originally approached to be a speaker at the event because of her advocacy for trans children, but that she requested to read instead.

“I begged to read, I begged them,” corrects Jones, “they asked me if I wanted to speak and I begged them to read instead because it’s profound and it touches you. I think it’s better to read because it’s important.”
Jones said she was particularly moved at last year’s Day of Remembrance by the story of 17 month old Roy A. Jones who was beaten to death by his babysitter for “acting like a girl.” “I was so touched when they read about the baby that was killed,” said Jones, “the readers tell the story.”

Jones led efforts this year to encourage local homeless youth provider Covenant House to adopt a nondiscrimination policy that covers both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. She used her position on City Council to threaten to cut Covenant House’s funding unless they addressed accusations of discrimination. That threat persuaded the organization to overhaul their policies and begin regular meetings with community leaders to discuss their progress in serving LGBT youth.
The Houston Transgender Day of Remembrance is Saturday, November 19, from 7-9:30 pm at Farish Hall on the University of Houston Campus.

—  admin

Anti-gay El Paso pastor faces IRS complaint for using tax-exempt church to fight DP benefits

Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church was the driving force behind a ballot measure to repeal DP benefits in El Paso.

An anti-gay El Paso pastor is accused of illegally using his tax-emempt church to advocate political causes. The Rev. Tom Brown of Word of Life Church, who spearheaded last year’s ballot initiative rescinding domestic partner benefits for city employees, has now launched a petition to  recall council members who voted to restore DP benefits this June. The El Paso Times reports that Brown announced the recall petitions to his congregation last month and has written in support of them on his Tom Brown Ministries website, prompting a complaint to the IRS from Americans United for Separateion of Chruch and State:

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said his group files such complaints against about “eight or 10″ tax-exempt groups nationwide each election cycle.

His group has received several complaints about Brown’s activities from El Paso residents.

“This seems so over-the-top, so brazen an attempt to involve himself in a partisan political campaign,” Lynn said, explaining his group’s reason for filing the complaint.

When Brown’s wife ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in May on an anti-DP benefits platform, she announced her campaign from the pulpit of the church and asked people to meet her in the vestibule if they wanted to volunteer. But it’s unclear if anyone filed a complaint about that incident. Brown denies all of the allegations and says the IRS complaint amounts to “harassment and persecution of anti-religious people against people of faith.”

In related news, the El Paso City Council voted Tuesday to hold a charter election in November 2012. One council member has proposed an anti-discrimination charter amendment that would prohibit the city from denying DP benefits to gay and lesbian employees.

The council, which initially approved DP benefits in 2009, voted to reinstate them last month after a federal judge upheld the ballot initiative rescinding them.

—  John Wright

FW Mayor Mike Moncrief presents ‘Believing in Youth Award’ to gay Councilman Joel Burns

Joel Burns, right, and husband JD Angle

Last night, I posted a brief blog about Joel Burns being recognized for his anti-bullying efforts by Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, but I didn’t have many details. Now, here are some details for you.

Moncrief presented Burns with the 8th annual “Believing in Youth Award” Thursday night during the Believing in Youth Award Dinner, an event that benefited Santa Fe Youth Services. According to a press release from Moncrief’s office, the award “honors those who take personal responsibility for being a role model and building resiliency in our young people through formal and informal, intentional and unintentional efforts.”

Santa Fe Youth Services is a nonprofit agency that has provided services to youth and families in Tarrant County for more than 10 years.

Burns was chosen as the recipient in recognition of his efforts to combat bullying that gained national attention last October when he delivered an impromptu “It Gets Better” message to LGBT youth during a City Council meeting. Burns, in an emotional address that left many in the council chambers in tears, spoke of his own experience as a gay teen bullied by classmates and how he even contemplated suicide at one point, and how his life has gotten exponentially better in the years since.

A video of his speech went viral on YouTube and within days, the gay Fort Worth council member had been invited to speak on numerous TV shows, including The Today Show and Ellen. In December he went to Austin for a press conference announcing the introduction of anti-bullying bills in the Texas Legislature, and he returned to Austin in March for LGBT Lobby Day to call once again for the legislation to be passed.

Also in March, Burns was invited to attend an anti-bullying summit presented by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Last month, Burns received a GLAAD Media Award for his efforts.

—  admin

Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund formally endorses Parker in Houston, Hightower in Arlington

Annise Parker at Dallas Pride

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Arlington City Council challenger Chris Hightower were among eight openly LGBT candidates who received formal endorsements from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund today.

Parker was elected to a two-year term in 2009, making Houston the largest U.S. city with an openly LGBT mayor. Hightower is vying to become the first openly gay council member in Arlington’s history.

The Victory Fund has now endorsed 14 candidates in 2011, including three in Texas. Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns was the first candidate to receive the group’s backing this year.

From GayPolitics.com:

“We are proud to support Mayor Parker. Her success in Houston is proof of the remarkable talent and leadership LGBT Americans have to offer their communities as public servants,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Victory Fund.

Parker welcomed the Victory Fund’s backing.

“I am grateful for the early and strong support of the Victory Fund. The Victory Fund is more than just a force for LGBT equality – it educates and equips qualified candidates to excel in public service for the benefit of all whom they represent. I will use the Victory Fund’s support to run a campaign that reaches out to every Houstonian and asks each one to join us in protecting and enhancing what is best about the city we share,” said Parker.

—  John Wright