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

SMU marks World AIDS Day with film screening

Dec. 1 isn’t just World AIDS Day — it’s also the 22nd annual Day With(out) Art, a movement launched in 1989 by the group Visual AIDS to mark the effect of the AIDS crisis on the arts community. In observance of the day, SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts will be among more than 50 colleges, museums and arts groups holding a free screening of the film Untitled.

Untitled, from Jim Hodges, Encke King and Carlos Marques da Cruz,  is an hour-long,  non-linear documentary featuring montages of archival footage recalling the period of activism in the early days of the AIDS crisis. The screening will take place in the Greer Carson Screening Room (room 3527) of the Owen Arts Building on SMU’s campus, 6101 Bishop Ave. at 5:30 p.m.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

We Were Here, AIDS documentary at 14 Pews

We Were HereWe Were Here, the award winning documentary of the early days of the AIDS crisis, premiers at 14 Pews theater (800 Aurora) Saturday, November 20, at 4:30 pm. The film, from director David Weissman, will be proceeded by a panel discussion on the state of the AIDS crisis today.

I came out in 1998, right at the tail end of the worst days of the AIDS crisis. I remember, with vivid clarity, the days of the walking wounded: when every other gay man I met would tell how their doctor said they should have died five years ago, when the community told time by recalling if an event took place before or after a certain person’s funeral.

Fortunately those days are largely behind us, but as new HIV infections continue to rise and we struggle to maintain funding for medications that are keeping people alive (at a cost of thousands of dollars a month), it’s important that we never forget the early days of the pandemic. For people of my generation and younger the mysterious “Gay Plague” that threatened our community in the early eighties can seem more like a fairy tale monster than the horrifying crisis it was, and is.

We Were Here tells the real life stories of five people who survived. Their mundane and profound recollections highlight, not only their personal experiences, but the broad political and social upheavals unleashed by the crisis. From their different vantage points as caregivers, activists, researchers, as friends and lovers of the afflicted, and as people with AIDS themselves, the interviewees share stories which are not only intensely personal, but which also illuminate the much larger themes of that era: the political and sexual complexities, and the terrible emotional toll. The film highlights the role of women – particularly lesbians – in caring for and fighting for their gay brothers.

Tickets for We Were Here are $10 and can be purchased at 14pews.org.

After the jump watch the trailer for We Were Here.

—  admin

GUEST POST: Addressing the AIDS Crisis in the Latino Community

The following is a guest post by Paul Kawata, Executive Director of the National Minority AIDS Council:

Today is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day and an important opportunity for those of us on the front lines of the struggle against HIV/AIDS to consider the needs of this underserved and growing population.

Despite making up just 15 percent of America’s population, they account for 18 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS.  The rate of infection among Latino men and women is three and four times higher, respectively, than their white counterparts.

But this disturbing trend is even more acute within the gay Latino community.  More than half (55 percent) of all Latinos diagnosed with HIV are men who have sex with men (MSM).  And of all new HIV infections among MSM, 19 percent are Latino.

Infection rates are particularly high among gay Latino youth.  43 percent of all newly infected Latino MSM are between the ages of 13 and 29.  Perhaps even more startling, a recent study of 21 major American cities found that among gay Latino youth infected with HIV, 6 out of 10 were unaware of their status.

Addressing the specific needs of this community is not only a moral imperative, it’s critical for the health of our nation.  As of 2008, more than one in five children in the U.S. under the age of 18 were Latino.  This ratio is even greater (one in four) for children under five.  Our nation’s population growth is being driven by the Latino community, and this trend will only continue.

The convergence of risk factors within the Latino community poses a serious public health concern, but also offers hope.  With more than one-third of the population under the age of 18, comprehensive and culturally appropriate sex education programs could have a significant impact on HIV prevention efforts.

What’s more, because children of immigrants often serve as translators and cultural liaisons for adults in their homes, these programs could assist in the dissemination of information to adult populations as well.

Educating young Latinos about the indiscriminate nature of HIV/AIDS may also assist in removing the stigma associated with the disease, particularly for gay Latinos.  But this cannot be done without engaging in a public dialogue about both this disease and its impact on our Latino brothers and sisters.

On this National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, I hope you’ll join me in that dialogue.


Human Rights Campaign | HRC Back Story

—  John Wright

BREAKING: Hostage Crisis At Discovery Channel Offices In DC

An armed man also thought to be carrying explosives is holding hostages at the Washington DC offices of the Discovery Channel. The man has apparently been previously arrested at the Discovery offices. His “manifesto” of demands has already been published online. An excerpt:

Programs must be developed to find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that. Find solutions to stopping it. Call for people in the world to develop solutions to stop it completely and permanently. Find solutions FOR these countries so they stop sending their breeding populations to the US and the world to seek jobs and therefore breed more unwanted pollution babies. FIND SOLUTIONS FOR THEM TO STOP THEIR HUMAN GROWTH AND THE EXPORTATION OF THAT DISGUSTING FILTH! (The first world is feeding the population growth of the Third World and those human families are going to where the food is! They must stop procreating new humans looking for nonexistant jobs!)

The manifesto also calls for shows about finding the solution to global warming, unemployment, and lots more crazy. All the major TV networks are live on the situation.

Joe. My. God.

—  John Wright