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

Remembering John Lawrence, the man behind Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence

John Lawrence and Tyrone Gardner

Metro Weekly reports that one-time Houstonian John Geddes Lawrence, the “Lawrence” in Lawrence v. Texas, passed away last month at the age of 68:

“In the facts underlying the Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested under Texas’s Homosexual Conduct Law after police entered Lawrence’s home on Sept. 17, 1998, and saw them “engaging in a sexual act.” The couple challenged the law as unconstitutional”

I was 22 and living in Dallas in 2003 when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lawrence declaring Texas’ law against “homosexual conduct” unconstitutional. A group of over 100 people gathered in the parking lot of the Resource Center of Dallas as Dennis Coleman, then with Lambda Legal, read excerpts of the decision. I remember the exuberant electricity in the air, the crowd bubbling with joy and the relief of centuries of official oppression finally coming to an end. Similar get-togethers took place across the state, as an entire community breathing a collective sigh of relief.

That relief has turn to frustration over the years. Although the Supreme Court decision rendered Penal Code Section 21.06 unconstitutional, the law remains on the books, and efforts to remove it have met with significant resistance. During a hearing this spring on finally removing the unconstitutional law, Rep. Jose Aliseda, R – Pleasanton, lamented that repeal of the law would entail removing portions of the Health Code requiring that HIV education efforts include information that “homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code.”

Before Lawrence several attempts were made to remove the law against “homosexual conduct.” The Texas legislature voted to remove it from the penal code as part of a complete rewrite of the code in 1971, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Preston Smith. In 1973 the Legislature again undertook a rewrite of the code, keeping “homosexual conduct” a crime but making it a class C misdemeanor. In 1981 a U.S. District Court ruled in Baker v. Wade that the law was unconstitutional, but as that case was winding its way through an unusually torturous appeals process the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that a similar law in Georgia was constitutional, making the questions in Baker moot. Similarly, in the 90′s there was hope that Texas v. Morales might finally prevail in defeating the “homosexual conduct” prohibition, but the Texas Supreme Court decided that since, in their opinion, the law was rarely enforced, there was no reason for them to rule in the matter.

Lawrence’s legacy lives on in a scholarship named after him and Garner administered by the Houston GLBT Community Center. The scholarship “recognizes outstanding leadership shown by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texas high school seniors and college
students by contributing to the cost of their continuing education. Selection is based upon character and need.” Tim Brookover, president of the community center, expressed sorrow at Lawrence’s passing “John was a hero, the community owes a great debt of gratitude to John and Tyrone for taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Brookover. “They could have easily allowed it to slip away, but they decided to stay and fight and that makes them heroes and role models.”

The application deadline for the John Lawrence/Tyrone Gardner Scholarship is March 2, 2012.

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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.

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

Jolanda Jones

Jolanda Jones

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

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

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

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LifeWalk steps off Sunday in Lee Park

Nobles says that park will not be fenced this year but is worried about added cost and barrier affecting next year’s event

KICKING UP THEIR HEELS | The LifeWalk organizing committee gets ready for Sunday.

 

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

New requirements by the city of Dallas could affect proceed totals from this year’s AIDS Arms LifeWalk, and at least one more new requirement is expected to be added to the list next year, according to LifeWalk organizers.

The 21st annual LifeWalk steps off from Lee Park on Oct. 2 at 1 p.m. for the 3.2-mile walk. Registration begins at 11:30 a.m. Last year’s event raised $401,000 and this year’s goal is $500,000.

Although thousands of people are expected for the event, Lee Park will remain unfenced this year, even though the city has said such gatherings will require fencing in the future.

Officials with the Dallas Tavern Guild, which stages the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade and the Festival in Lee Park each year as part of Dallas’ annual LGBT Pride celebration, decided to get ahead of the new requirement by fencing in Lee Park this year for the festival, although the city requirement had not yet gone into effect.

Tavern Guild officials also chose to charge a $5 admission fee to the festival this year to help offset expenses and raise extra funds that will be distributed to parade beneficiaries.

The admission fee raised the ire of some in the community, and attendance at the festival was down compared to last year. But Tavern Guild Executive Director Michael Doughman said the drop was not significant, and noted that the admission fee brought in about $25,000 that will be divided among beneficiaries.

But AIDS Arms Executive Director Raeline Nobles said new city requirements have already had an impact on LifeWalk, and she is worried that the new fencing requirements could affect next year’s walk.

“There were a lot more expenses from the city this year,” she said. “It really hits the bottom line.”

The cost of fencing next year will add an additional, unwelcome expense. But Nobles said she isn’t going to worry about that until after this weekend’s event. Right now, her main concern is getting people out to participate in this year’s fundraiser.

“Anyone can participate in LifeWalk,” Nobles said. “You can walk alone or bring friends or join a team. We even have poop-out vans: In case you can’t walk the entire three-mile route, someone will pick you up and bring you back to the park to have a good time.”

She also invited people to just come to the park and cheer.

“We need cheerleaders at the start and finish and at the water stations,” Nobles said. “We have pompoms for anyone who wants to cheer the walkers on.”

Registration for LifeWalk is $40 for people and $10 for dogs participating in LifeBark. People get a T-shirt and dogs get a bandana to show their support for people with HIV.

AIDS Arms is the primary beneficiary of LifeWalk, but other organizations also receive funds from the event, including AIDS Services of Dallas, Legal Hospice of Texas, Turtle Creek Chorale, The Women’s Chorus, Bryan’s House, Resource Center Dallas and the Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Fund.

Money raised goes toward programming rather than capital costs. The chorale uses funds for their HIV fund, including giving tickets to performances through the year to people with AIDS.

Nobles praised that effort, saying that socializing is an important holistic element in treating HIV.

The Women’s Chorus will present a program at AIDS Arms in March on National HIV Women’s Day. Those expenses, Nobles said, should be covered by the group’s LifeWalk proceeds.

Nobles said it would be tempting for AIDS Arms to use the money to finish paying off the agency’s new Trinity Health and Wellness Center in Oak Cliff. She said that the new facility cost more than $2 million, and AIDS Arms needs to raise just $35,000 more to pay off the facility.

Trinity Health and Wellness Center opened in September and will have its formal grand opening in two weeks.

But despite the temptation, AIDS Arms will instead use proceeds from LifeWalk to support programs for clients at Trinity as well as at AIDS Arms’ older clinic, Peabody Health Center in South Dallas.

AIDS Arms also uses the money to administer HIV tests to more than 3,500 people a year and for case management for more than 3,400 people.

LifeWalk began in 1990 as a fundraiser for Oak Lawn Community Services. When that agency closed, management of the event moved to AIDS Arms.

LifeWalk Co-chair Marvin Green noted that his Green Team will mark its 20th year of participation in LifeWalk. He said he put the team together for the first time in the second year of LifeWalk because he had already lost 20 friends to AIDS.

That first year, three team members raised $75. This year, the 32-member Green Team has collected about $22,000.

Co-chair Fred Harris said that there were quite a few new teams this year.

“We’re reaching out to new communities,” Harris said. “There’s new energy. We’re branching outside Oak Lawn.”

He said teams are using creative new ways to raise money and AIDS Arms has actively brought in new sponsors such as Chipotle.

“Stoli is coming with a first-ever LifeWalk drink,” Nobles said. Returning sponsor Caven Enterprises will serve beer and Ben E. Keith donated iced tea.

Harris said planning has gone well, and that “LifeWalk is a well-oiled machine.”

Harris said he has seen more use of social media this year than ever, reaching out to people outside the Metroplex.

“This year Facebook has become a very powerful tool,” he said, not just for fundraising but also for recruiting walkers.

Last year, about 3,500 people walked, and this year, “Registration is ahead of where we were this time last year,” Harris said.

Waterpalooza, another AIDS Arms event, was moved to Pride weekend this year, just two weeks prior to LifeWalk. Harris said they took advantage of that event to sign up teams and walkers and generate excitement for this weekend’s walk.

Among the new teams, Harris said, are the DFW Sisters.

“Their efforts have been tireless,” he said. “They raise the bar.”

Nobles said that WFAA Channel 8 morning anchor Ron Corning will serve as M.C. in Lee Park. Although he’s appeared at several events since arriving in Dallas, this is the first big public event the openly gay television host has emceed.

LifeWalk received the Human Rights Campaign family-friendly designation, and Nobles said there will be bounce houses, clowns and face-painting for children.

Harris said the event is pet-friendly as well, “because pets are our family.”

There will be games and puppy pools for dogs as well as doggie adoptions, Nobles said.

She said the day would be a lot of fun but asked people to participate because the need is greater than ever.

“With the growth in the number of newly-infected people in Dallas County who need help in this economy, we’re seeing people who never would ask but must,” she said.

Next year, Nobles said, she would like to see LifeWalk return to Oak Lawn, but new city regulations for events may change those plans. Among the events changing plans this year because of the city involved Lone Star Ride.

Last year, Lone Star Riders participated in LifeWalk on bike. This year, city regulations banned bikes from walks so LSR riders who participate will have to walk.

Green was thinking about bigger plans for future LifeWalks. Other cities that raise more money stage longer walks. He said he’d love to use the new Downtown Deck Park that should be completed next year and dreamed of seeing LifeWalkers crossing the new suspension bridge that should be open in March 2012.

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

—  Michael Stephens

Judge to rule this week in Nikki Araguz case

Nikki Araguz

Transgender widow vows appeal if she loses case

JUAN A. LOZANO  |  Associated Press

WHARTON, Texas — The transgender widow of a Texas firefighter will likely learn next week whether his family’s request to nullify their marriage and strip her of any death benefits will be granted, a judge said Friday.

State District Judge Randy Clapp made the announcement after hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed by the family of firefighter Thomas Araguz III, who was killed while battling a blaze last year. The suit argues that his widow shouldn’t get any benefits because she was born a man and Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

The widow, Nikki Araguz, said she had done everything medically and legally possible to show that she is female and was legally married under Texas law. She believes that she’s entitled to widow’s benefits.

“I believe the judge is going to rule in my favor,” Araguz said after the court hearing.

The lawsuit seeks control over death benefits and assets totaling more than $600,000, which the firefighter’s family wants to go to his two sons from a previous marriage. Voiding the marriage would prevent Nikki Araguz from receiving any insurance or death benefits or property the couple had together.

Thomas Araguz died while fighting a fire at an egg farm near Wharton, about 60 miles southwest of Houston, in July 2010. He was 30.

His mother, Simona Longoria, filed a lawsuit asking that her son’s marriage be voided. She and her family have said he learned of his wife’s gender history just prior to his death, and after he found out, he moved out of their home and planned to end the marriage.

But Nikki Araguz, 35, has insisted that her husband was aware she was born a man and that he fully supported her through the surgical process to become a woman. She underwent surgery two months after they were married in 2008.

Longoria’s attorney, Chad Ellis, argued that Texas law — specifically a 1999 appeals court ruling that stated chromosomes, not genitals, determine gender — supports his client’s efforts to void the marriage.

The ruling upheld a lower court’s decision that threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a San Antonio woman, Christie Lee Cavazos Littleton, after her husband’s death. The court said that although Littleton had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man, based on her original birth certificate, and therefore her marriage and wrongful death claim were invalid.

Ellis presented medical and school records that he said showed Nikki Araguz was born without female reproductive organs and that she presented herself as a male while growing up and going to school. He also said her birth certificate at the time of her marriage indicated she was a man.

“By law, two males cannot be married in this state,” Ellis told the judge.

Nikki Araguz, who was born in California, did not change her birth certificate to reflect she had become a female until after her husband’s death, said Edward Burwell, one of the attorneys for Thomas Araguz’s ex-wife, Heather Delgado, the mother of his two children.

But one of Nikki Araguz’s attorneys, Darrell Steidley, said that when his client got her marriage license, she presented the necessary legal documents to show she was a female. He also noted changes made in 2009 to the Texas Family Code that allowed people to present numerous alternatives to a birth certificate as the proof of identity needed to get a marriage license. That was an example, he argued, of the state trying to move away from the 1999 appeals court ruling.

The changes in 2009 allowed transgendered people to use proof of their sex change to get a marriage license. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit county and district clerks from using a court order recognizing a sex change as documentation to get married.

After the hearing, the firefighter’s family and attorneys for his ex-wife criticized plans by Nikki Araguz to star in a reality television dating show and implied she was only interested in money and fame that the case would bring her.

“That is absurd,” Nikki Araguz said in response. “I’m after my civil equality and the rights that I deserve as the wife of a fallen firefighter.”

If the judge rules against the firefighter’s family in their motion for a summary judgment, the case would then proceed to trial. Araguz said if the judge rules against her, she would appeal, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

—  John Wright

Check out this butt sex travel reference guide

Following up on the magazine’s insightful story about efforts to remove Texas’ “homosexual conduct” law from the books, Mother Jones put together this handy-dandy map that can easily be printed out and used as a reference source as you travel around the country.

It turns out that a total of 14 states still have sodomy statutes on the books, despite the fact that these laws can’t be enforced because they were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas:

Since Lawrence, efforts to formally repeal laws in Montana, Kansas, Utah, Louisiana, North Carolina, and, most notably, Texas have all faced resistance before fizzling out in their respective state legislatures. Conservatives in those states know they can’t enforce the laws, but by keeping them in the code, they can send a message that homosexuality is officially condemned by the government.

As you can see, most of the 14 states with statutes still on the books — 10 to be exact — ban sodomy regardless of whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual. In other words, before Lawrence, butt sex was illegal in these states for mom and dad, too!

Texas, meanwhile, is one of only four states where sodomy is illegal — or was illegal — only for gay people. The others are Oklahoma, Kansas and Montana. Which is strange because if there’s any place where cornholeing should be legal, if not encouraged, it’s Kansas.

—  John Wright

Former Coast Guard Member Leads Repeal Efforts in Illinois

The following comes from HRC Field Organizer and military veteran Lee Reinhart:

Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks I decided to rejoin our military.  Ready to serve again,  I decided to serve by joining the Coast Guard.  This decision was cut short just three months into my enlistment. After a visit to a gay bar (with both gay and straight shipmates), I quickly found myself on the road to discharge.

During the investigation, Navy JAG lawyers told me the investigation was flawed, that my command had insufficient proof and that I could stay in if I denied I was gay. After years of being out to my family and having served openly in the Navy 1995-1999, I was not willing to lie.

Now, instead of serving my country in uniform, I’m proudly working to help America live up to her promise of liberty and justice for ALL.  I’m working with the Human Rights Campaign in Illinois to help repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I love our country and hope to return to service one day soon.

I am calling on all Illinois voters to call  Senator-elect Mark Kirk’s office and ask for his immediate support in repealing the ban.  His office number is 202.225.4835.  Call today!

Calling isn’t the only thing that we have planned for the coming weeks in Illinois; if you want to help out, we are always looking for volunteers. Contact me at 773.680.0620 to find out how.


Human Rights Campaign | HRC Back Story

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