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

WATCH: Anti-gay protesters break out Prop 2 signs to fight DP benefits in San Antonio

Last week we posted this story from Sam Sanchez at QSanAntonio about how anti-gay forces are fighting San Antonio’s plan to offer domestic partner benefits to municipal workers. On Monday, a group called “Voices for Marriage” held a press conference outside City Hall to oppose the plan. And as you can see above, they broke out their six-year-old signs from the fight over Prop 2, Texas’ marriage amendment. KENS Channel 5 reports:

Extending benefits to city employees in same sex relationships would cost between $300,000 and $400,000 a year — a small fraction of the total $2.2 billion budget which would go into effect October 1.

The move would also put San Antonio in the same category as many other Texas cities and companies, including USAA and Rackspace that currently offer benefits to domestic partners.

However, a local group calling itself “Voices for Marriage” protested the proposed change on Monday outside city hall. The group, citing religious views and current state law, opposes any extension of benefits to domestic partnerships.

Pastor Gerald Ripley issued a “fact sheet” to those in attendance, listing 14 reasons why the group opposes the change. The document said, “We believe marriage is a legally binding relationship between one man and one woman” and “a vote for domestic partner benefits is a vote against upholding the institution of marriage”.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who backs the change, said the city needs to extend benefits to domestic partners in order to stay competitive with other cities and companies across the country that already offer similar benefits. The mayor dismissed oncerns by many protestors over the cost of benefits as “a smokescreen for their dislike of gays and lesbians.”

Watch video from the press conference below.

—  John Wright

Conservatives fight DP benefits proposal in San Antonio; LGBT community urged to get involved

Activists in San Antonio are asking people to fill out cards like this one in support of DP benefits.

Anti-gay speakers oppose plan at council budget meetings; city would be 5th in Texas to offer health insurance to same-sex partners

SAM SANCHEZ  |  QSanAntonio

LGBT activists are fanning out across the city in a campaign to rouse the community into helping support the push for domestic partnership benefits for city employees, including same-sex couples.

The initiative, which is included in the city budget, will have to be approved by the City Council, which means councilmembers have to be lobbied and contacted to show there is solid support.

Reports from district budget meetings being held across the city show that an organized effort to derail the initiative is being mounted by local conservatives — mostly for religious reasons.

At the District 7 budget meeting on Aug. 24, former City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo reports that there were five people who spoke against the benefits, including one man identified as the Rev. Flowers who said that a vote for DP benefits is a vote against marriage.

In District 9, which held its meeting on Aug. 25, the five people who spoke against DP benefits received applause, the five who spoke for it did not, according to reports.

At the meeting, District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan received a loud round of applause when she stated, “We need to make sure this does not promote abuse. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, but that is my opinion and others have their opinions. I believe in equality and nondiscrimination, but I do have questions about the benefits that are being offered.”

In conservative District 10, staffers for Councilman Carlton Soules are replying to emails he’s received on the issue by writing back, “At this time, he has not made a decision on supporting this proposal and will not be able to until he has seen the details and the financials of the proposal.”

In District 1, the budget meeting saw only two people speak against DP benefits and several who spoke in favor. In a reversal from District 9, those who spoke in favor of the initiative were applauded.

In a report sent to QSanAntonio by activist and blogger Randy Bear, he writes that perennial gadfly and self-professed homophobe Jack Finger said at the District 1 meeting that a vote for DP benefits was a vote for people “shacking up.”

“Attorney Bill Goodman and activist Gilbert Casillas both gave great responses,” writes Bear. “Bill told Finger, ‘Sorry Mr. Finger, but it’s not a shack, it’s a home’ followed by applause. Bill then gave a personal testimony about his late partner and how they worked to build a home. Gilbert reminded Finger that Texas supports common law marriages which are what Finger calls ‘shacking up.’ So if Finger disapproves he should take that up with Gov. Perry.’ More applause. ”

Activists say that the only way to insure that the passage of DP benefits is by members of the LGBT community contacting their individual City Council members.

One way they hope to do this is with postcards that ask the mayor and council members to vote yes on DP benefits. Activists hope to have the community fill out as many cards as possible so that they can be presented at the City Council meeting prior to the budget vote on Sept. 15.

Distribution of the cards will begin this weekend with activists hitting the Main Avenue strip where they hope to get people at the bars and clubs to take a moment to fill them out. (Sample card shown above.)

Sparky’s Pub will become a distribution point for picking up the cards or dropping them off.

Besides the bars and clubs, activists are asking anyone who’s attending an event or meeting, gay or straight, to take cards with them so that friends and family can fill them out.

Anyone needing 50 or more cards can contact Elena Guajardo at 210-681-6798 to arrange for a pickup.

Guajardo is also seeking donations to help defray the cost of printing the cards. She said anyone who’d like to contribute can send a check to: DP Benefits, Stonewall Democrats, P.O. Box 12814, San Antonio, Texas, 78212. Checks should be made out to the Stonewall Democrats with “DP benefits” in the memo line.

Guajardo says that if individuals cannot get hold of a card they should contact their City Council representative by phone or email and ask them to support domestic partnership benefits for city employees.

“This is an opportunity our community is being given by City Manager Sculley,” says Guajardo. “It would be a shame if we did not do everything possible to make this initiative a reality.”

Click here for contact information for the San Antonio mayor and City Council.

San Antonio would become the fifth city in Texas to offer DP benefits to city employees, joining Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth. The El Paso City Council’s decision to begin offering DP benefits in 2009 has led to a protracted fight over the issue in that city.

—  Sam Sanchez

Gary Fitzsimmons on DP benefits: ‘I don’t believe our community should expect anything less’

District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons

In today’s print edition we have a story about Parkland hospital’s decision to begin offering domestic partner benefits — and Dallas County’s decision not to. In the story we quoted openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who criticized the Commissioners Court for failing to adequately study the cost of DP benefits before opting not to offer them due to the budget shortfall. Below is the full text of an email Fitzsimmons sent me about the issue:

It is certainly gratifying that the Parkland Board of Managers has included DP benefits to cover LGBT employees. They join the most progressive public and private institutions in Dallas County in providing such benefits.

I asked former County Judge Jim Foster, a gay man, to direct Dallas County HR and the Budget Office to begin studying this issue and analyzing costs for such an initiative back in 2007.  I was hoping that this information would be available to the new members of the court who took office in January 2011.  Unfortunately, Mr. Foster failed to do so.

I visited with the new members of the court in January of this year and made the same request. It is therefore disappointing to me to find out that the court has not yet directed county staff to study this issue in a systematic way.  The figures provided by the Dallas County public liaison were prepared “off-the-cuff” in response to an inquiry from the Dallas Voice.  This is totally unacceptable.

This issued, because it does involve the potential expenditure of funds, should be studied and analyzed. County staff should prepare a report based on a review of the financial impact encumbered by other jurisdictions and private corporations that provide DP benefits.

I understand that there might not be a majority vote at this moment among members of the court; however, we will never get one as long as the court is not provided sufficient information to make an informed decision.

Amending the Dallas County civil service statute to include protection for LGBT employees is great and admirable. But of course it is largely symbolic and it has little potential financial impact. Supporting an initiative that would have a financial impact in order to bring equality to the Dallas County workplace is where the rubber meets the road. I don’t believe our community should expect anything less.

—  John Wright

Dallas County unlikely to add DP benefits

County Judge Clay Jenkins

Faced with a $35 million budget shortfall, Dallas County is unlikely to begin offering benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees as part of its 2012 budget, a county spokeswoman said last week.

County Judge Clay Jenkins, who chairs the Commissioners Court, has said he supports offering domestic partner benefits. The Commissioners Court, which has a Democratic majority for the first time in decades, voted earlier this year to add LGBT employees to the county’s nondiscrimination policy.

But Dallas County spokeswoman Maria Arita said last week it costs the county an additional $3,552 for every spouse added to an employee’s health insurance. And according to the Dallas Morning News, the county is already proposing to cut $5.6 million in employee health care costs in 2012.

“It really does come down to dollars and cents,” Arita told Instant Tea. “He [Jenkins] likes equality in the workplace in every way for every employee. There’s just no equivocating about that, plain and simple, and if it were possible to offer all benefits to all employees … then he would do that.”

Jenkins is scheduled to discuss the issue further in an interview with Instant Tea on Wednesday.

The city of Dallas has offered DP benefits since 2004, and Fort Worth added them last year.

—  John Wright

Pastor threatens recall drive if DP benefits restored in El Paso; council to vote today

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

The pastor behind a ballot initiative to repeal domestic partner benefits in El Paso is threatening to launch recall petitions against city councilmembers who vote in favor of an ordinance to restore them.

The council is slated to vote on the ordinance this morning that would restore benefits taken away under a ballot initiative approved by voters in November. Mayor John Cook introduced the ordinance last week after a federal judge upheld the ballot initiative.

The El Paso Times reports that today’s vote on the ordinance is expected to be close. Pastor Tom Brown, who spearheaded the ballot initiative, is threatening recall elections against Cook and any council member who votes in favor of the ordinance. From the EPT:

The initiative was intended by its authors just to end benefits for 19 unmarried partners of employees. But it also cost more than 100 others — including members of the City Council — benefits because of the way it was worded.

Brown said the mayor is now trying to override the will of the voters.

“We’re doing it because the mayor is trying to overturn the democratic process,” Brown said on Monday. “This is the first ordinance the people of El Paso have ever passed. If (what Cook is trying to do) works, it will be the end of direct democracy in El Paso.”

Cook said he proposed the ordinance as a matter of principle, not because it’s popular.

“I’m not going to change my position because of threats,” the mayor said.

City Rep. Susie Byrd, who supports Cook’s ordinance, was even more blunt.

“I don’t think public policy should be shaped by bullies or bigots,” she said.

—  John Wright

HHS announces plan to improve LGBT health

Move comes following release of study detailing ‘research gaps and opportunities’ related to LGBTs and healthcare

LISA KEEN  |  Keen News Service
lisakeen@mac.com

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday, April 1, that it is making new recommendations for future action to “improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

The announcement came on the heels of a federally sponsored report by the Institute of Medicine that identified “research gaps and opportunities” related to LGBT health. That report was released March 31.

It also came on the same day HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a new policy “explicitly requiring HHS employees to serve all individuals who are eligible for the department’s programs without regard to any non-merit factor, including race, national origin, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability (physical or mental), age, status as a parent, or genetic information.”

A lengthy press statement released by HHS on April 1 mostly reiterated actions HHS and the Obama administration taken have taken previously to improve the health and equal rights for LGBT people. For instance, it noted President Obama had called for new guidelines to require hospitals receiving federal funds to allow LGBT patients to designate who could visit them in the hospital.

But among the new actions announced, the press statement said that later this year, HHS’s website devoted to the new health reform law, the Affordable Care Act (HealthCare.gov) would provide “additional information of specific relevance to LGBT populations.”

“In particular,” noted the HHS statement, “the website will allow LGBT consumers to identity health insurance policies available to them that include coverage of domestic partners.”

The announcement said HHS would also work to increase:

• the “number of federally funded health and demographic surveys that collect and report sexual orientation and gender identity data;”

• “evaluate ways its programs can ensure equal treatment of LGBT families,” through such programs as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and others; and

• “encourage new and existing health profession training programs…to include LGBT cultural competency curricula.”

The IOM report released March 31 was commission by the National Institutes of Health, an agency of HHS. The report recommended that NIH conduct more research to “advance knowledge and understanding of LGBT health” and that HHS surveys collect data “on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

It also recommended “Data on sexual orientation and gender identity should be collected in electronic health records.

“Collecting these detailed patient-level data,” noted the IOM report, “with adequate privacy and security protection as is needed for all data collected in electronic health records, could assist in identifying and addressing LGBT health disparities.”

Local counselor Candy Marcum said she is not surprised by the findings in the study. According to the report, lesbian and bisexual women use preventive health services less frequently than heterosexual women.

Marcum said that when she first went to a gynecologist, the medical questionnaire asked how much sex she was having followed by what method of birth control she used. She said a major concern of the doctor is pregnancy.

“But that would involve having sex with a man and that just doesn’t sound right to me,” she said.

So to get proper care from her doctor, Marcum said, she had to come out. She said that doctors and caregivers are the most compassionate people but coming out to anyone can be scary.

Breast cancer and ovarian cancer occur more frequently among lesbians than straight women, the report said.

“You have the right for good health care,” Marcum said. But to make sure a physician looks for those things, it’s important for the doctor to know the patient’s sexual orientation.

She said the doctor has to have the proper context.

Marcum said another finding, that lesbians suffer from obesity more than women in general, is also not surprising. “Women are more accepting of the person they love,” she said.

Marcum said that the medical system is broken and that fewer people are accessing the system. But she said she is gratified that HHS was addressing the issues of the LGBT community.

The full IOM report can be read at iom.edu/Reports/2011/The-Health-of-Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-and-Transgender-People.aspx.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

Dallas Voice Staff Writer David Taffet contributed to this report.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2011.

—  John Wright

DP benefits becomes an election issue in El Paso, as anti-gay candidates pack ballot for council

Minister Manny Hinojosa, a candidate for El Paso City Council, is a leading opponent of DP benefits: “I’ve got God and the Holy Spirit on my side and if you ever get on your knees and pray you’ll find out,” Hinojosa said at City Council in November.

Anti-gay candidates are lining up to run for City Council in El Paso in the wake of the controversy over the council’s decision to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of city workers. ABC-7 reports that at least one candidate affiliated with a movement to rescind DP benefits has filed to run in every City Council race. After the City Council approved DP benefits, voters passed a ballot measure to rescind them in November. Groups representing city workers sued in federal court to block the ballot measure from being implemented, and a judge is expected to rule in the case in April. Watch video of the story here.

—  John Wright

News flash: Jim Foster is gay!

County Judge Jim Foster auditioned for an endorsement from Stonewall Democrats’ of Dallas this year, but he didn’t receive it.

Openly gay Dallas County Judge Jim Foster left office over the weekend, “as quietly as he entered it,” according to The Dallas Morning News. But what really surprised us about The DMN’s compulsory farewell was that it didn’t once mention the fact that Foster is openly gay.

Which is kind of amazing, really, given that Foster was the first openly gay county judge in the state — and given that his limited political background before taking office had been largely in the LGBT community, with groups like Stonewall Democrats. Foster also owns a business that provides security for the major gay bars on Cedar Springs.

So, to some degree, this was an oversight by The DMN, but it was also probably a reflection of the fact that Foster hasn’t been very open about his sexual orientation during his four years in office. We’re told that as recently as this year, many people in county government didn’t even realize Foster is gay. He never sought an endorsement form the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, and not even Stonewall Democrats backed him in this year’s Democratic Primary.

Of course, Stonewall’s decision not to endorse Foster was partly due to the fact that in four years, he didn’t do much on behalf of LGBT equality. Foster never formally proposed adding benefits for the domestic partners of gay and lesbian county employees. He never even formally proposed adding sexual orientation and/or gender identity to the county’s employment nondiscrimination policy. Foster will tell you this was because he didn’t have the votes, but as an openly gay elected official who’d been endorsed by Stonewall in 2006, he could have at least tried.

Also this weekend, the two new members of the Commissioners Court, Clay Jenkins and Dr. Elba Garcia, were sworn in. With a Democratic majority for the first time in decades, we’d say it’s high time for the Commissioners Court to do what Foster failed to and bring the county into the 21st century on gay rights.

—  John Wright

Now that he’s screwed 200 out of health benefits, El Paso bigot Tom Brown wants to be left alone

Pastor Tom Brown

Pastor Tom Brown robbed hundreds of people of health insurance when he spearheaded a ballot measure that overturned domestic partner benefits for El Paso city employees. But now Brown wants the LGBT community and its supporters to just forget about it and stop protesting outside his Word of Life Church. KFOX Channel 8 reports:

After the council passed the ordinance, Pastor Tom Brown quickly gained enough signatures to send the decision of whether or not domestic partners should get health care benefits to the voters and the majority sided with him.

“Let’s all move on,” said Brown.

The group of protesters Tuesday, mostly composed of radio talk show hosts, said that is not going to happen.

“Don’t you think it’s a little late; the election’s over with,” said Brown.

The group said it’s never too late and this is just the beginning of what they call “Love” rallies.

“To me that’s not love when you mock other peoples’ lives,” said Brown.

The pastor said he hopes the protesters pick a better and more respectful location next time.

“This is a place where people have their particular views, and they shouldn’t be put to ridicule because a particular church doesn’t correspond to the public view,” said Brown.

Even The Wall Street Journal has taken notice of the DP benefits controversy in El Paso. The WSJ story posted Monday says the ballot initiative could eventually threaten health benefits for up to 6,000 people,, including retirees, because it was so vaguely worded. You see, Brown’s group couldn’t find an attorney to work on the initiative, so they just wrote it themselves. Now, the city’s labor unions are preparing a lawsuit, and the City Council is looking at ways to overturn the initiative:

The pastor, Tom Brown, is threatening to fight officials if they attempt to reinstate the benefits for gay partners. He has proposed another ballot initiative which would strip the city council of its power to amend or rescind voter-approved measures.

“I’m feeling a call from God to get more involved in our government,” Mr. Brown said in an interview.


—  John Wright