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

COVER STORY: Butch Voices

Q-Roc Ragsdale, from left, Eva Rivera, Michelle Paris and Theresa Strong.

‘Masculine of center’ women say that, all labels aside, it’s about being comfortable and confident in being yourself — whoever you are

TAMMYE NASH  | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

At 53, Theresa Strong is used to being called “sir.” She’s accustomed to the double-takes when she uses a public restroom. She’s used to the stares. None of it bothers her.

“I’m very comfortable with who I am. I have been a tomboy all my life,” Strong says.

In “the old days,” Strong would have been called a “butch.” Although some people still use that term, today it’s more common to hear “stud,” instead. At least, in some places.

The terminology varies from region to region, from culture to culture, even from race to race, says Q-Roc Ragsdale, a Dallas lesbian who, like Strong, is considered a “stud.”

Ragsdale, who works with the group that stages the national Butch Voices conference, says that here in North Texas terms like “aggressive,” “dominant,” “boi,” “tomboy” and “macha” are common, depending on where you live and your cultural background. And then there are the “degrees” of butch: “hard stud,” “soft stud,” and so on.

But whatever label you use, Radsdale says, its about a “masculine of center” identity that is a natural state for some women but that, at the same time, can put them at odds with the society around them.

“It’s not male; it’s masculine. There’s a difference,” Ragsdale says. “A lot of people don’t understand the difference between sex and gender. Gender is so fluid. It’s a spectrum. … There are woman-identified butches, trans-identified butches. Some use male pronouns and some use female pronouns. Some are just butch in presentation. Some don’t like gender roles, and some live gender roles.

“You can’t make assumptions. You can’t generalize. Our community is so diverse, just like any other community,” Ragsdale says.

Challenges

But one thing most masculine of center women share, she adds, is a sense of living outside the mainstream. And that can often leave them facing many disadvantages.
Butch Voices aims to help correct those disadvantages with its three-pronged mission focusing on physical and mental health, social and economic justice and community building.

As a masculine of center woman, “there are just so many different social norms that you challenge,” Ragsdale says. “You challenge gender norms. You challenge the mainstream notion of lesbians.” And those challenges can sometimes make life difficult.

When that happens, Ragsdale says, it can affect a person’s mental health. “Butch women often have to go through a double coming out. They have to come out as lesbians, then they have to come out again as butch women. Depending on where you live, geographically, that can be hard, and it can affect a person’s mental health,” she says.

Lesbians in general often don’t have the same access to health care, and it can be even more pronounced for butch women.

“It’s very uncomfortable sitting in that waiting room with a lot of women, and then they call your name and all the other women are looking at you, wondering why ‘that dude’ is there,” Ragsdale says. “And it’s hard for a lot of butch women to have the kind of conversations they need to have with a doctor.”

She cites, as an example, trying to explain to a doctor why she wouldn’t agree to taking birth control pills, which can be used to control menstruation as well as to avoid pregnancy.

“I had a girlfriend who went on birth control once, and it made her breasts bigger. [As a stud], I don’t want my breasts to be bigger. It’s hard to explain that to a doctor who is not understanding me and my relationship with my body,” Ragsdale says.

It’s even more conflicting for women in the category that used to be referred to as “stone butch.” A lot of butches, Ragsdale says, “don’t want anybody at all ‘down there,’ whether it be a partner or otherwise.”

Women who don’t fit traditional gender stereotypes also often find themselves unemployed or under-employed, especially when they are unwilling to compromise on their identity or gender presentation, Ragsdale says.

“I have a mentor in her early 50s who has always been butch, and even she has advised me that ‘you need to femme it up’ to get a job or keep a job. Personally, I am against that. I won’t do it. But I know a lot of people who do it, a lot of teachers especially,” Ragsdale says.

And then there’s that third prong of the Butch Voices mission: building community.

“We are working to create an environment where everyone can be themselves and still get the kind of health care and work they want and need,” Ragsdale explains. “A lot of that work is about awareness. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the butch identity; it’s plagued with so many stereotypes. That’s why I always encourage people to have the courage to ask questions.

“A lot of people are deterred from asking questions because they don’t understand us. But if they’d take the time to get to know us on a personal level, it would make a big difference,” she adds. “And that’s not just in the mainstream community. I think there are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about butches in the lesbian community, too. We have to start at home, in our own community. To the lesbians who don’t get it, who don’t understand us, well, I say just know that we are still women, still lesbians, still part of your community.”

Even among the masculine of center community itself, Ragsdale acknowledges, there are differences. “Every butch, every stud is different,” she says. “Sometimes people get caught up in labels. It’s like the word ‘dyke.’ Some people have reclaimed ‘dyke.’ Others hate the word. What I say to them is, at what point do we stop worrying about the semantics and just get things done? We have to celebrate all our identities and work for all the community and not spend time debating the labels.”

Taking responsibility

But while masculine of center women face any number of challenges, that more masculine identity and presentation also “comes along with some male privilege,” Ragsdale says. And with that bit of male privilege comes responsibility.

“If you are a butch, or a stud, and you get that bit of male power and privilege, then you have a responsibility to use that power and privilege in the right way and not abuse it — not in your personal life, and not in the world,” she says.

And in the same vein, butch women need to pool that male power and privilege to work for positive change for the community as a whole.

“We have got to get our whole community more involved [in the battle for LGBT equality],” Ragsdale says. “If you go to a meeting or event for one of the more mainstream LGBT groups — like Lambda Legal or Human Rights Campaign — you’d be really hard pressed to find any butches or studs. Maybe that’s because the mainstream LGBT community looks down on us. But maybe it’s because we don’t try to be involved.

“We have to focus on mobilizing our base. We can’t sit around and cry about how we aren’t being included if we aren’t even bothering to show up in the first place,” Ragsdale says.

It’s personal

Ragsdale, like Strong, can trace her stud roots back to her childhood. She remembers her mother giving her a Barbie doll, when what she really wanted was the Ninja Turtles and the G.I. Joes her brother got. Still, she played with the Barbies, wanting to fit into the role her parents and society had mapped out for little girls.

Eventually though, Ragsdale came to terms first with her sexual orientation and later with her more masculine identity as a stud. It’s all about, she says, finding that comfort level that allows you to be who you are.

Eva Rivera and Michelle Paris both describe themselves as “soft butches.” While they may lean toward the more masculine end of the gender spectrum, that doesn’t mean they always ignore the more feminine accoutrement, like makeup or jewelry.

“I guess a soft stud is kind of a mixture of femme and stud,” Rivera says. “I am tomboyish. I always have been. I came out at 19, and the way I dressed then was sporty — you know, tennis shoes and baggy jeans. I never wore a dress, and I have always been attracted to feminine women.”

Being a stud is partly about the way a woman dresses and her mannerisms, Rivera says. “You take on a role. But we’re not all the same. Being a butch or a stud, being hard or soft or whatever — it’s just what makes you comfortable,” she adds.

Paris agrees: “I am a soft butch. That’s just the way I am. Underlying that is who I date. I like feminine women. And in a relationship, I am the more dominant one. But I don’t have to make a big deal of it.

“I am the same with everyone — family, friends, people I know, people I don’t know. I am the same; I am myself,” Paris continues. “When you see those women who are always trying to prove what studs they are, that’s because they have low self esteem. They make it more of an issue because they are trying to prove something, to themselves or to other people. Me, I don’t care. I am who I am.”

And that, says Strong, is at the core of the issue: Self-esteem and confidence and a sense of self that doesn’t rely on labels or clothes or mannerisms.

“You have to be comfortable with yourself. You have to be confident in yourself,” Strong says. “We [as masculine of center] women are so diverse. Everything that women are and do, we are and we do. My best friend is a stud, but she has a son, so she’s playing all the roles.

“The fact is, I dress the way I dress because it’s comfortable for me. You like who you like, and I like very feminine women. I am courting a woman right now and she is totally femme,” Strong adds. “This is who I am. I am not playing a role. This is just natural for me. We may be butch or studs or whatever word you want to use, but at the end of the day, we take off our clothes, and we’re still women. A lot of people forget that.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Houston legislators Coleman, Farrar announce plan to re-introduce Dignity for All Students Act

State Reps. Garnet Coleman of Houston, left, and Mark Strama of Austin

State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Jessica Farrar, both Houston Democrats, on Friday released a joint statement announcing their intention to once again file the Dignity for All Students Act when the 2011 Texas Legislature comes into session, saying that “recent news reports have highlighted the necessity for such legislation.”

The news reports the statement references revolve around the recent suicides of teens who had been bullied and harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, including 13-year-old Asher Brown of Houston, who shot himself to death on Thursday, Sept. 23.

The Dignity for All Students Act would prohibit discrimination and harassment in public schools on the basis of ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin.  It would also prohibit discrimination based on association with a person, and protects both the parents of students and whistleblowers who may report incidents of discrimination or harassment.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, said that Coleman has been filing the Dignity for All Students Act since 2003, but the bill itself has been filed in Texas legislative sessions since 1997 when then-State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt of Dallas introduced the measure.

Smith said the Dignity for All Students Act introduced in the 2009 legislative session, authored by Coleman and co-authored by El Paso Democratic State Rep. Marissa Marquez, was sent to the Public Education Committee but did not get a hearing that session.

Another measure, the Safe Schools for All Youth Act introduced in 2009 by Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, is also likely to be refiled in 2011, Smith said. The 2009 version of Strama’s bill, which expanded and clarified the definition of bullying to include cyber-bullying and bullying that occurs off-campus, did pass out of the Public Education Committee and the Calendar Committee and was “in line for floor debate when everything died in the House in the stall that occurred in an effort to avoid dealing with voter ID bills,” he said.

Strama’s bill, Smith said, “uses language that teachers and administrators can relate to. It would create a definition of what bullying is and what cyber-bullying is, what to do when bullying or cyber-bullying occurs and strategies to reduce incidents of bullying and cyber-bullying. It adds those definitions into existing laws about what triggers some sort of disciplinary action.”

He said that the 2011 version of Strama’s bill — which had four joint authors and 13 co-authors — will include even more than was included in the 2009 version. He also said that Coleman and Farrar’s Dignity for All Students Act and Strama’s Safe Schools for All Students Act aren’t redundant.

“The two bills would both be part of the Texas Education Code, but they would be in different parts of the Texas Education Code. Coleman’s bill would be in Chapter 11, and Strama’s bill would be in Chapter 37. They don’t overlap,” Smith said.

He added that these two might not be the only two bills bullying and harassment in public schools to be filed in the 2011 legislative session.

“There is certainly the possibility that there will be additional bills filed,” And if there could be anything good to come out of recent events, maybe it’s that it could help us reach the tipping point where something will actually get done this year.”

The 82nd Texas Legislature convenes in January.

—  admin