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

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

Lesbian candidates seek return to city councils in Austin and San Antonio

Elena Guajardo

Two out lesbians are in runoffs for City Council seats in Texas. They are Elena Guajardo in San Antonio and Randi Shade in Austin.

Elena Guajardo

Elena Guajardo faces a runoff for the District 7 seat on the San Antonio City Council. When she was first elected in 2005, she was the first openly gay person to be elected to the council in the Alamo City.

San Antonio has the most restrictive term limits in the country. A council member or mayor can only serve two two-year terms.

In 2007, Guajardo was defeated, and this year she is one of five seeking the open seat.

When Guajardo was elected in 2005, San Antonio’s daily newspaper published the headline, “Lesbian wins council seat.” This time, the newspaper endorsed her.

Guajardo retired from Southwestern Bell after 30 years of service in 2000. She came out in 2004.

She said the first person she told was her bishop.

“There are two things I need to tell you,” she said to him. “First, I’m running for city council. Second, I’m gay.”

—  David Taffet

Tom Leppert is running for Senate, but Chris Heinbaugh will remain in the mayor’s office

In case you missed it, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert officially announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate today.

Not long after Leppert’s video announcement (above) was posted to his campaign website, we spoke with his openly gay chief of staff in the mayor’s office, Chris Heinbaugh.

Leppert, who announced his resignation Wednesday, will remain mayor until 11:59 p.m. today, at which point Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway will take over.

Heinbaugh declined to publicly comment on the Twitter message sent out by Leppert on Wednesday, in which he slammed President Barack Obama for ordering the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

Heinbaugh, who is no longer handling media calls for Leppert, advised Instant Tea to contact the mayor’s Senate campaign office about the tweet. We left a message with campaign spokeman Shawn McCoy but haven’t heard back.

Chris Heinbaugh
Chris Heinbaugh

Heinbaugh did tell us that he plans to remain in the mayor’s office to help Caraway, who will serve out the remainder of Leppert’s term — until a new mayor is elected in May and sworn in in June. In other words, Heinbaugh will not be going to work on Leppert’s campaign.

“I’m gonna be here for a while,” Heinbaugh said from City Hall. “I’m just going to continue on in the office and do whatever I can to help Mr. Caraway. If I can make it a good, stable, smooth transition, then great.”

Heinbaugh said he won’t serve as Caraway’s chief of staff, and it’s still unclear what exactly his role will be. However, he said both Caraway and City Manager Mary Suhm have expressed a desire for him to stay on.

“We’ve got a lot of things going, and they don’t just stop if the mayor walks our the door,” Heinbaugh said.

We asked Heinbaugh about the challenge of working for Caraway, whose recent missteps have prompted concerns from other council members about him serving as mayor — even temporarily.

“Mr. Caraway is a good guy,” Heinbaugh responded. “I’ve known him for a long, long time. Ever since I moved to Dallas, I’ve known him. His heart is in the right place, and he will work very hard for the next four months.

“Over and over again he’s said, ‘I’m not going to start some new initiative — dig up Main Street and stick a river down it,’” Heinbaugh said. “We’re just going to continue the things that are already moving forward. I’m here to help him do that as long as he wants me here.”

—  John Wright

Joel Burns begs teens contemplating suicide: Give yourself a chance to see life get better

Fort Worth City Councilmember Joel Burns, right, and his husband, J.D. Angle

I have known Joel Burns for almost 10 years — several years longer than he has been on the Fort Worth City Council.

My wife and I met Joel and his husband, J.D. Angle, through mutual friends back when Joel and J.D. still lived in their beautifully restored home in the same East Fort Worth neighborhood where my wife and I and our children lived. I saw them then as the perfect couple: happy, handsome, healthy men with a beautiful home and great jobs. I knew they had great things ahead of them.

Then they moved to another beautifully restored older home in an historic neighborhood just south of downtown Fort Worth, and Joel ran for City Council. I was so happy when he was elected, because I believed that not only would Joel be a good representative for his constituents in District 9, but that he would also be a good representative for the LGBT community.

I think the fact that no one even stepped up to oppose Joel when he ran for re-election in 2009 shows that his constituents, overall, believe he is doing a good job on the City Council. But last night — Tuesday, Oct. 12 — during the weekly Fort Worth City Council meeting, Joel proved without a doubt that he also represents his LGBT community, and he proved why it is so important to have openly LGBT elected officials at all levels of government.

At each council meeting, council members are given a few minutes each at the start of the meeting to make announcements and to recognize people from their districts who have done something outstanding. Last night, Joel took his time to talk about the recent suicides of several LGBT youth — and to tell his own very personal and very powerful story.

After recounting the stories of several young men who have taken their own lives in recent weeks after being subjected to anti-gay bullying and harassment, Joel told his fellow councilmembers and those in the council chambers that he was about to tell them something he had never told anyone before — not even his parents or his husband. And then, struggling through his own tears, he told them of the day when he was a 9th grader at Crowley High School and a group of older teens accosted him and “roughed him up.”

“They said that I was a faggot, and that I should die and go to hell where I belonged. That erupted the fear that I had kept pushed down, that what I was beginning to feel on the inside must somehow be showing on the outside. Ashamed, humiliated and confused, I went home. There must be something very wrong with me, I thought, something I could never let my family or anyone else know,” he recalled.

Joel broke down then, and acknowledged that he couldn’t actually bring himself to read aloud the next couple of sentences he had written that described his own near suicide attempt. “I, don’t want my mother and father to have to bear the pain of having to hear … hear me say the …” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

When he regained his composure enough to continue, Joel said: “So I will just say, and I will skip ahead, I have never told this story to anyone before tonight. Not my family, not my husband, not anyone. But the number of suicides in recent days have upset me so much, they have just torn at my heart. And even though there may be some political repercussions for telling my story, the story is not just for the adults who might choose or not choose to support me. The story is for the young people who might be holding that gun tonight. Or the rope. Or the pill bottle. You need to know that the story doesn’t end where I didn’t tell it on that unfortunate day. There is so, so, so much more.

“Yes, high school was difficult. Coming out was painful. But life got so much better for me. And I want to tell any teen that might see this: Give yourself a chance to see just how much better life will get. And it will get better. You will get out of the household that doesn’t accept you. You will get out of that high school, and you never have to deal with those jerks again if you don’t want to. You will find and you will make new friends who will understand you. And life will get so, so, so much better.”

Joel then talked about all the happy memories that fill his life now, from the first time he ever saw his future husband, to the day he asked J.D. to spend his life with him, to winning his first election to just a few days ago when he sat with his father after his father came out of surgery, and his father told him how happy he was to have Joel there with him.

He said: To those who are feeling very alone tonight, please know that I understand how you feel, that things will get easier. Please stick around to make those happy memories for yourself. It may not seem like it tonight, but they will. And the attitudes of society will change. Please, live long enough to be there to see it.”

Joel ended by encouraging anyone who needs help or resources to deal with the issue of LGBT teen suicide to contact TheTrevorProject.org or to call him directly at 817-392-8809. “And you can call me, and I will get you whatever resources you need,” he promised.

As Joel finished, his fellow councilmember and friend Kathleen Hicks led the rest of the council and those in the council chambers in a standing ovation for Joel and his courage. I think he deserves a standing ovation from all of us, as well. Because last night, Joel Burns did us all proud, and maybe — just maybe — he helped save someone’s life.

Watch video of Joel’s speech to the council below:

—  admin

Leppert to miss gay Pride parade

Mayor Tom Leppert appears in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade in 2007.

For the second time in four years, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert will miss Dallas’ gay Pride parade. Chris Heinbaugh, Leppert’s openly gay chief of staff, told Instant Tea that Leppert has a “longstanding personal commitment” on the day of the parade, Sept. 19.

Leppert, a political conservative, surprised some when he appeared in the parade his first year in office. He became only the second Dallas mayor ever to appear at gay Pride, after Laura Miller. Leppert missed the parade in 2008 due to a family matter, but attended the parade again last year.

Heinbaugh declined to elaborate on Leppert’s “personal commitment” this year. Heinbaugh said he believes all 14 of the other council members, with the exception of Vonciel Jones Hill, have said they plan to appear in the parade this year.

Last year, all but two council members, Hill and Carolyn Davis, were at Pride.

—  John Wright