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

Girl Scout cookie boycott may backfire, if Twitter is any indication

The Huffington Post reports on an effort to boycott girl scout cookies in response to the organization’s trans affirming positions. Last fall, after a Colorado troop leader initially refused to allow Bobby Montoya to participate because she was identified as male at birth, Girl Scout leaders in that state with the support of the national organization quickly responded by re-enforcing their policy of allowing all girls to participate. “If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl,” said the GSC statement, “Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.”

That act of common decency inspired this video:

If the initial response on Twitter is any indication, however, the burgeoning boycott may backfire, begetting a bumper year for Tag-a-longs, Thinmints and Trefoils (those yummy shortbread cookies).

—  admin

Former GLBT Political Caucus President to lead Harris County Democratic Party

Former HCDP Chair Gerry Birnberg gives new chair Lane Lewis the keys to the party office

Former Houston GLBT Political Caucus president and longtime Democratic party activist Lane Lewis was elected to serve as the Harris County Democratic Party interim chair by the County Executive Committee on Tuesday, December 20. Lewis will serve the remainder of outgoing chairman Gerry Birnburg term, which expires in April. Birnburg announced earlier this year that he would step down after the November general elections.Lewis has also completed his filing as a candidate for HCDP chair on the April 2012 primary ballot.

Lewis previously served as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus in 1997. He has a long history of advocacy on LGBT issues.

“Words cannot express the profound sense of responsibility I feel right now,” said Lewis moments after his election as HCDP Chair.  “I am grateful so many fellow Democrats have entrusted me to lead during such a pivotal time. We have much work to do over the next several months to get our county and our candidates ready for the November 2012 election.  This enormous task will take the work of current elected officials, precinct chairs and activists working in unison.  My job will be to foster a new vision for our party and work to keep us all focused on our common goal.”

During Lewis’ acceptance speech, he spoke briefly about the direction and his vision for the party.

“A unified effort from every Democrat is the key to winning elections,” Lewis said.  “It’s plain and simple.  The middle class is under attack; the work we do in 2012 will be key to protecting the future and the promise that the American Dream provides.”

Lane Lewis was elected by an overwhelming majority.  He will begin operating the HCDP immediately.

—  admin

“Head Figure Head” more about journalism than about Gov. Rick Perry’s sex life

Head Figure Head, the new e-book from Glen Maxey, details the author’s arduous and frustrating six-month effort to investigate rumors of Gov. Rick Perry’s gay sex life. Maxey served as executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (now Equality Texas) during Perry’s tenure as a state representative, later serving for 12 years as a state representative, spanning Perry’s time as agricultural commissioner, lieutenant governor and governor. Of all the people who’ve attempted to look into the rumors of Perry’s trysts with men, Maxey is perhaps best positioned to get to the truth, and takes great pains to ensure we are aware of that fact.

The book is the narrative of Maxey’s research, assisted by a journalist from a national media outlet. Like almost every character in the book other than Maxey and Perry himself, “the Journalist” is referred to only as a pseudonym. Maxey and the Journalist begin their search for proof in June 2011 as rumors of Perry’s impending presidential bid are widely circulating. Immediately the pair find that almost every gay man in Austin has a friend who has a friend who claims to have slept with Perry. For the next three months they track those leads and come excruciatingly close to breaking the story.

—  admin

Houston ARCH seeks public submissions for new logo

Houston ARCH proposed logos

History relies on historians, whether the formal history of the academic or the informal history of grandpa’s stories, someone must tell the tale for the story to live on. The straight world has many formal institutions designed to maintain its story, from museums to archives to oral history projects the stories of straight people are well documented and preserved.

Queer history, on the other hand, is far more fragile. As a community we have a habit of separating ourselves by generations and the documents of our recent past, the fliers, t-shirts and pamphlets, are often seen as ephemeral trash, rather than important historical documents.

Several institutions have been created to try to preserve that history, including the Botts Archive, the Gulf Coast Archive, and archives at the University of Houston, Rice University and the Transgender Foundation of America. These desperate efforts have joined together to form the Houston Area Rainbow Collective History (Houston ARCH), a coordinated effort to preserve and document LGBT History in Houston.

Of course, any great organization needs a great logo, and that’s where Houston ARCH is reaching out to the public for help. Through January 5 you can submit your design via e-mail to billyhoya@billyhoya.info. Designs must contain the name “Houston ARCH,” and may spell out the acronym, also designs should be be scalable, work both in color and black and white, and be suitable for print and online reproduction. Designers should take care that their submissions are not confusable with logo’s of similarly named organizations.

So far only two proposals have been submitted and loaded to the Houston ARCH website for comment. Final voting for the design will take place January 25 at the regular Houston ARCH meeting.

—  admin

Become a part of the Gender Book

The Gender BookThe Gender Book is an effort to try to bring together, in one resource, a discussion of the wide array of gender expressions and identities that fall under the transgender umbrella. It’s creators are holding a brainstorming session next Thursday evening, December 8, to get public input and allow the community at large to become a part of the project.

“We sort of just made the Gender Book out of a need that we felt,” says Mel Reiff Hill, one of the collaborators on the project, along with Boston Bostian and Jay Mays. Hill says that the creators of the Gender Book searched for resources to help them talk about gender, but were unable to find anything that met their needs. “I had a boyfriend who had to pay a therapist to attend training on gender so that he could get the care he needed,” says Hill “the resources just weren’t out there.”

“At the time we were all living in the same house and we had a writer and an artist and a fundraising person and an enteprenuer. All of us were under the transgender umbrella in one way or another and all of us had friends and lovers who are as well,” and thus the Gender Book was born.

Hill describes the brainstorming session as “an interactive community party.” “We’re the first to admit that we can’t represent everyone,” says Hill, recognizing the limitations of any author writing on such a diverse topic. “We’ll have surveys for people to fill out and snacks and coloring book versions for people to fill out”

The coloring book pages are the result of Hill’s process in illustrating the book. Hill first draws pages in pencil then outlines the drawings in pen and erases the pencil, finally scanning the drawing and coloring it by computer. “I presented a workshop with some high schoolers and I was showing one of them my binder of papers looking through it one of them saw the original pen drawings,” says Hill. “He was like ‘you should give these to high schoolers, they love coloring it’s very zen-like for them.’” Hill says that the coloring pages have proved a hit at subsequent workshops and a great way to open up conversations about gender.

The brainstorming session, coloring pages included, is next Thursday, December 8, at the Lawndale Art Center (4912 Main). Attendees are asked to RSVP through Facebook.

More information on the Gender Book is available through their website, TheGenderBook.com.

—  admin

Holiday heroes


A HELPING HAND  |  Members of Cathedral of Hope distribute more than 400 food bags to low-income families and individuals for Thanksgiving. Volunteers participating in the effort on Sunday, Nov. 20, included, from left, Rusty Baldridge, Marty Cramer, Mark Wright and Alex DaSilva. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice).

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Investigation clears gay Fort Worth teacher

Kristopher Franks set to return to work Friday after 4-day leave stemming from allegations of improper behavior

FWISD School board member Carlos Vasquez

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — Gay Western Hills High School teacher Kristopher Franks, put on paid administrative leave on Monday, Sept. 26, following allegations of improper behavior, has been cleared of all allegations and was set to return to work today (Friday, Sept. 30).

Franks is the teacher who  became the target of ire from the religious right after he sent a student in his German 1 class to the principal’s office for saying in class that as a Christian he believed “homosexuality is wrong.” The school’s assistance principal then suspended the student, setting off a controversy that made headlines around the country.

That student, freshman Dakota Ary, and his mother enlisted the assistance of Liberty Counsel attorney Matt Krause in fighting the suspension on the grounds that Franks and the school had violated Ary’s right to freedom of speech.

District officials quickly reversed their decision, lifting the suspension.

But Steven Poole, deputy executive director for the United Educators Association of Texas, a teachers union, said Tuesday, Sept. 27, that the allegations leading to Franks being put on leave were unrelated to the incident with Ary.

Franks, who had not spoken to the press previously on the advice of his union representative, said Thursday afternoon that he had just met with Fort Worth Independent School District administrators, who told him the nearly weeklong investigation had determined that the allegations against him were unfounded. He did not elaborate on the substance of those allegations.

Franks also said administrators had given him the option of returning to teach at Western Hills High or transferring to another school in the district.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet what I’m going to do,” Franks told Dallas Voice by phone Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to go back to work tomorrow, and I will talk to my boss [the district’s world languages supervisor], and see what she says and decide what’s the best thing to ­do from there.”

FWISD Board of Trustees member Dr. Carlos Vasquez told Dallas Voice in a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 28, that any time allegations are made against a teacher, those allegations have to be investigated, and it is routine for the teacher in question to be placed on paid administrative leave.

Franks said Thursday that he was pleased with the outcome of the investigation, carried out by an independent investigator, and that interim FWISD Supt. Walter Dansby was “very nice” when they spoke.

“I think they did the right thing,” Franks said. “I can go back to work, which is great. But now I just have to figure out how to fix the damage this whole thing has done to my personal life.”

Franks said since the investigation is closed, he is no longer being represented by a union attorney. He has, instead, retained the services of attorney Stephen Gordon to “represent me on any aspects of this whole thing going forward.”

He also indicated that he and Gordon would be discussing what possible actions he might take against “those people who have lied and made false allegations against me.”

While Franks had previously declined to speak to the media, Daokta Ary, his mother and Krause as their attorney went immediately to the press, telling their side of the story in several TV interviews and saying Franks and the school had violated the student’s right to freedom of speech. The case quickly became a rallying point for the religious right.

Krause this week told Dallas Voice that he and his clients are satisfied with school officials’ decision to rescind the unexcused absences the suspension left on Ary’s record, but “we would still like for them [school officials] to completely vindicate him and say that he did nothing wrong. He should never have been written up for an infraction. He should never have been sent to the office, and he should never have been suspended.”

Ary said in  media interviews that he made the comment quietly to a classmate sitting next to him in response to a discussion going on in the class at the time.

Dakota Ary

But Franks told friends shortly after the incident that there was no discussion involving homosexuality at the time, and that Ary made the comment loudly while looking directly at Franks.

Franks also told friends that the comment was only the latest in an ongoing series of incidents in which Ary and a group of three of his friends have made anti-gay comments to and about him.

Franks told friends that the harassment by Ary and his friends began several weeks ago after Franks, who also teaches sociology, posted on the “World Wall” in his classroom a photo, taken from the German news magazine Stern, of two men kissing. The photo was ripped off the wall and torn in two at some point during Ary’s class, and Franks told friends he believes that Ary or one of his friends tore up the photo.

During a later sociology class students upset that the photo had been torn up replaced it with a hand-drawn picture, and another student then covered that picture with a page bearing a hand-written biblical scripture from Leviticus calling sex between two men an abomination.

Franks told friends that since that incident, Ary and his friends had continued to make derogatory and harassing comments.

Franks’ friends also said that the teacher, a Fulbright scholar, has been the target of anti-gay harassment for at least the last two years, including having hateful messages left in his classroom and, in one case, having his car vandalized.

FWISD teacher Martin Vann, spokesman for the group LGBTQ S.A.V.E.S. that was formed about a year ago to help protect students and teachers in the district from anti-gay discrimination and bullying, said that Franks told his version of the incident last week, before the current investigation was launched and Franks was required to sign a statement saying he would not discuss the incident with other teachers, administrators, parents or students. Vann said Franks denied getting angry and yelling at Ary, as Ary had said, and reiterated that Ary’s comments were not pertinent to any discussion in the class at the time.

Vann said Franks told him that another student had asked him what the German word for “Christian” was, and how, if he moved to Germany, he could find an English translation of the Bible. That’s when, Franks told Vann, Ary looked directly at him and said loudly that as a Christian, he believes homosexuality is wrong.

It was not, Franks told Vann, a simple statement of belief or opinion but rather an intentional effort to insult and harass the teacher that Ary perceived to be gay.

Krause this week again said that Ary did not direct his remark in class that day at Franks, and that Ary had nothing to do with tearing down the photo of the men kissing.

The attorney also said that Ary told him he did not know to whom Franks was referring when he talked about Ary’s “three friends.”

The Franks case comes in the wake of months of scandal over allegations by teachers that administrators routinely allowed some teachers and administrators to harass and bully students and other teachers, and that teachers who complained often faced retaliation.

Vasquez, who is openly gay, said Wednesday that he believed the Franks investigation would be fair, that he would watch the situation closely “to make sure all the proper procedures are followed,” and that he believed Dansby would handle the situation fairly.

“Considering all the problems we’ve had, I know he [Dansby] will be watching this closely,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez said it is the school district’s responsibility to make sure there is “no harassment in our schools, whether it’s from the teacher to the student, or student to student or even student to teacher. I know that happens, sometimes, too.

“There should be no harassment whatsoever in our schools,” Vasquez , himself a former teacher, said.

Fort Worth ISD has been credited with having one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in the state, having adopted individual policies within the last year to include prohibitions against harassment and bullying, including that based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, for both teachers and students.

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

—  Michael Stephens

Dallas gets $1.28M HUD grant for HIV/AIDS

Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have announced the allocation of nearly $9 million in grants to projects in seven states that provide permanent and transitional housing and support services to people with HIV/AIDS.

Of that total, $1,287,500 will be allocated to the city of Dallas’ Housing and Community Services Department, the only city or agency in Texas to receive one of the seven HUD grants. The money will be used to provide transitional housing support to 60 ex-offenders over the next three years. According to the HUD press release, the Housing and Community Services Department will be working with the city’s Project Reconnect and the Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act in providing the housing and services.

And the city has committed to “creating an Integrated HIV/AIDS Housing Plan through a comprehensive community planning effort that involves 20 local partners operating in the eight county Dallas Metropolitan Statistical Area,” according to HUD. No word yet on whether those partners will include AIDS Services of Dallas, which is located in Oak Cliff and provides housing for as many as 225 men, women and children impacted by HIV/AIDS through 125 units in four complexes.

The largest of the grants, $1,375,000, is going to the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV. The city of Portland, Ore., gets the second-largest total with $1,365,900. River Region Human Services Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., is getting $1,353,743, and the Corporation for AIDS Research Education and Services Inc. in Albany and Rochester, N.Y., gets $1,344,375.

Dallas is next on the list, followed by Justice Resource Institute Inc. in Boston, which gets $1,223,377. Rounding out the recipient list is the Frannie Peabody Center, a statewide organization in Maine, that is receiving $930,909.

The seven recipients were chosen “through a national HOPWA competition to identify special projects of national significance that will help advance understanding and improve the delivery of housing and care for persons with HIV,” according to HUD.

—  admin

Master of HIS domain

Ben Starr, the recently out Dallas cheftestant on Fox’s ‘MasterChef,’ camps it up on Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition series

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

…………………….

MASTERCHEF
Airs Tuesdays on Fox (Ch. 4) at 8 p.m.

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When Lewisville-based travel writer Ben Starr auditioned for Fox’s MasterChef, he doubted they’d be interested in his style of home cooking. But not only did he make the cut, he’s been one of the more memorable cheftestants — just this week, he had the judge’s favorite dish.

The series is only halfway through, but for Starr, it’s already made a huge difference in his life: It forced him to come out to his parents just last month. We talked to him about the experience and his favorite meals.

…………………….

You’ve been struggling since you wowed the judges at your audition. The audition kinda set me up to expect that I would do well in the competition, but we spun pretty quickly into an emphasis on gourmet cuisine, which is not my thing at all. My street tacos were a little bit spiffy, and I am extremely well traveled, but I tend to eat peasant food even when I travel. I was seeing all these people around me making restaurant quality cuisine and trying to compete on their level. Nice to make a good ol’ catfish in a skillet.

What was the hardest challenge for you? The biggest challenge has definitely been psychological. I’m competitive by nature and I want to feel like I’m competition, but I was surrounded by chefs that were a little more connected to the Food Network that I am. They’d use words like umami [a Japanese word for a savory flavor] and I had to go look it up. There was a common lexicon among the contestants about what these famous chefs I’ve never heard of are doing in their restaurants. I felt like an idiot stumbling around in the dark. That started to leak into my cooking and I began to question, “Is this sophisticated enough? Is this even sophisticated?” The episode this week was a turning point. I felt like for the first time I’m back in my own element.

You certainly have made an impression with your outfits. I don’t wear those hats at home, though I do wear an apron, just for practicality. But [the show] has started this storytelling legacy — people expect me to wear them when they come over. My mom made me the pumpkin hat and apron. Actually, she made me five or six pairs to wear. That’s why you always see a different one on me each episode. I was going through them.

Was wearing them part of a conscious effort to stand during the auditions? I am fairly myself, though I had to set myself apart that wasn’t just about food. I needed to be someone [the judges] remember when they go home at night. That’s why I talked about my rural upbringing, because I thought it would generate a memory.

Had you watched the show before? Did you know what to expect? I don’t watch much TV, but this is not my first time being on TV, which is ironic because I abhor reality television —it brings out the worst in our culture. But I did Rachael Ray’s So You Think You Can Cook in 2007. The audience there was much more caring and nurturing than the machine on MasterChef, but I was a little bit prepared for the frank judgment.

I did not watch the first season of MasterChef, but my friend Karen Rutherford said, “I’ll never speak to you again if you don’t audition [for season 2].” So I watched them all on Hulu. I just sweated my way through them. I knew how intense and stressful it is to cook on TV, and saw how brutal Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay were with the contestants. I thought: Screw this. Then a few weeks passed and the terror faded [and I went through the lengthy audition process]. It was a lot of work — the most difficult full-time job I’ve ever had that doesn’t pay.

What’s your favorite kind of cuisine? While my DNA wants to say Mexican food — I had it in the womb six times a week — I am most intrigued by Thai food. It is so complex, yet so much of it is cooked on the street in a tiny little cart. From the richest to the poorest, everybody eats on the street.

How about a favorite meal? One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in Egypt on New Year’s Eve in 2001. I spent it on Mount Sinai and hiked eight miles back down to the car for the drive back to our resort. [The driver] fell asleep at the wheel and we plummeted into a canyon. Eventually a camel train of Bedouins came by the bottom of this canyon. They took us onto the camels and rode four or five miles to their camp. All the women came out, killed a goat and started cooking while the men tried to pull our car out of the canyon.

It was a humble meal — just a goat stew and some flat bread — but the flavors were really intense and felt they came right out of the desert. I could not even communicate with these people who live in abject poverty, but still they were willing to kill one of their last goats and throw a big feast for us because it’s in their nature to be hospitable. I realized it was important to me to use food to nurture people in my life — I could never be a chef and be in the back. I need to be with the people. My partner is one of the main reasons I cook — we’ve been together eight years and I want to marry him one day.

Did you plan to be “the gay guy” on the show? When I was on [Rachael Ray] it was not addressed and I didn’t talk about it openly. At that point my family didn’t know I was gay — in fact, I didn’t come out to my parents until about five weeks ago. They were totally shell-shocked — they didn’t have a clue.

Maybe mom should have guessed since she made you all those hats. Ha! Maybe.

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

—  Michael Stephens