Vigils planned across Texas for murdered Houston lesbian couple

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Four vigils are scheduled throughout Texas on Wednesday night to remember the lives of a Houston lesbian couple killed earlier this month.

Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, both 24, were found in a trash bin near Port Bolivar on March 7. They’d been a couple for two years.

Cosby’s father, James Larry Cosby, was arrested for tampering with evidence in the case. He remains a suspect in the women’s’ deaths. Cosby’s mother told Houston media outlets over the weekend that her daughter’s father was upset she was gay, and she believed he killed them because of their sexual orientation.

Galveston detectives are still searching for a man who police believe was last seen with the women and information about the couple’s Kia Sorrento that was stolen. A $150 reward for information has been raised through a fund Dallas GetEQUAL TX activist C.d. Kirven started.

“We want to celebrate the way Britney and Crystal lived and not the way they died. They were a part of a community, an LGBT family that mourns their loss,” Kirven said about the vigils in a statement.

She said the Galveston vigil was canceled, and a Fort Wirth vigil  was added, along with vigils in Dallas, Austin and Corpus Christi.

Tiffani Bishop, co-state lead organizer for GetEQUAL TX said, “The tragic murders of Britney and Crystal are truly heartbreaking. To discover that Britney’s father is suspected of committing these crimes is difficult to wrap my head around. It is beyond time that our community begin an open and honest dialogue about violence against queer women of color.”

People attending vigils or who want to show support for the women’s memory are asked to wear yellow in the memory of Cosby and Jackson.

Other vigils are still being solidified, including one for Williamson County. GetEQUAL TX will update vigil information on its Facebook page.

Anyone with information about the case should call the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office tip line at 866-248-8477 or Galveston County Crime Stoppers 409-763-8477.

Locations of the Texas vigils are below.

—  Dallasvoice

Equality Texas calls on police, public to help solve lesbian couple’s death

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A sketch of the man who police believe was the last person to be seen with the women.

Statewide LGBT advocacy organization Equality Texas is calling on the Department of Justice and local police to solve the deaths of a lesbian couple found dead in Port Bolivar over the weekend.

Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, both 24, were found Friday morning near the trash bin of a convenience store. Police have since released a sketch of the man who was last seen with the women.

Police believe the women were killed somewhere else before being moved to the trash bin. They were in Galveston County last week celebrating Mardi Gras before family members lost contact with them. Autopsy reports this week revealed that Cosby died of blunt force trauma and Jackson was shot to death.

“Equality Texas is deeply saddened by this murder, and our hearts and prayers are with Ms. Cosby’s and Ms. Jackson’s family and friends during this difficult time,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a statement. “For many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community this is a stark reminder that nearly a third of Texas’ hate crimes are motivated by bias against sexual orientation.  A report issued last year by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 73.1 percent of all anti-LGBT homicide victims in 2012 were people of color.

“I have faith that the Galveston County Sheriff’s department is working hard to bring closure to this senseless tragedy and will work with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Department of Justice to fully investigate,” Smith added.

GetEQUAL TX activist Cd Kirven has set up a reward fund to encourage people to come forward with information. All money collected will go to Galveston County Crime Stoppers. Donations can be online here or checks and money orders can be mailed to Captain Cook with the Galveston County Crime Stoppers at 601 54th St. Galveston, TX 77551.

Investigators are seeking the public’s help in identifying the man in the sketch and locating the couple’s silver 2006 Kia Sorrento with paper tags. Anyone with information about the case should contact the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office tip line at 866-248-8477.

—  Dallasvoice

Bexar County Commissioners Court extends benefits to same-sex partners

Bexar County commissioners

The Bexar County Commissioners Court

The Bexar County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to extend health benefits to county employees’ same-sex spouses.

The “plus-one” plan allows an employee to add an additional adult to their health plans, Equality Texas announced. The plan is similar to ones passed by Austin Independent School District and offered by other municipalities and agencies like Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Bexar County is the fourth county in Texas to offer the benefits after Travis County, Dallas County and El Paso County.

After Attorney General Greg Abbott’s opinion last year that DP benefits violate the state’s constitutional marriage amendment, municipalities and agencies have refereed to DP benefits as “plus one” plans, even though the opinion isn’t legally binding. And El Paso County changed its benefits plan last year to remove domestic partner language.

But a Houston lawsuit challenging same-sex spousal benefits is contesting offering benefits to same-sex couples with the state’s marriage amendment. The suit was filed after Mayor Annise Parker announced that spousal benefits would be extended to all legally married city employees in same-sex marriages.

To sign Equality Texas’ thank you letter to the Bexar County commissioners, go here.

—  Dallasvoice

PHOTOS: Creating Change 2014 in Houston

Nona Hendryx performs Sunday at Creating Change in Houston. (Anna Waugh/Dallas Voice)

Nona Hendryx performs Sunday at Creating Change in Houston. (Anna Waugh/Dallas Voice)

 HOUSTON — Thousands of LGBT advocates departed from Houston Sunday as the 26th annual National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change came to a close.

The annual five-day conference set records for the amount of attendees and workshops in its first year in Houston. And the inspiration of the weekend was all around during the conference, from Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s welcome to trans actress Laverne Cox’s keynote speech and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey’s State of the Movement address. (If you missed any of the speeches, you can watch them here.)

And, like any celebration in the LGBT community, it ended with a bang as bisexual singer Nona Hendryx rocked out on stage on Sunday after brunch.

More photos below.

—  Dallasvoice

Task Force’s Rea Carey says to keep momentum going to create more change

Rea Carey, executiove director of the Natinla Gay and Lesbian Task Force, speaks about the future of the LGBT movement at  the Creating Change conference in Houston. (Jessica Borges/Dallas Voice)

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, speaks about the future of the LGBT movement at the Creating Change conference in Houston. (Jessica Borges/Dallas Voice)

HOUSTON — Rea Carey expects the momentum from 2013 to carry over and encourage more change and success for the LGBT community this year in areas like immigration reform, healthcare coverage and nondiscrimination legislation.

Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called on the 4,000 people at the National Conference for LGBT Equality: Creating Change to reflect on the advances last year and fight for more in the coming months during her State of the Movement speech on Friday.

“2013 showed us and this country that the wins of 2012 weren’t a fluke,” Carey said. “The momentum is in favor of progressive change. We are here to stay, our progress will continue and we will not allow this country to turn back.”

—  Dallasvoice

Laverne Cox: Love for trans community will end injustices she, others face

Trans actress Laverne Cox addresses the crowd at Creating Change Thursday evening in Houston. (Jessica Borges/Dallas Voice)

Trans actress Laverne Cox addresses the crowd at Creating Change 2014 Thursday evening in Houston. (Jessica Borges/Dallas Voice) 

HOUSTON — Transgender actress and advocate Laverne Cox has learned to love herself and is pleased to see the rest of the country learning to love trans people.

Cox gave the keynote address Thursday evening at this year’s national Creating Change conference at the Hilton Americas–Houston.

She walked onstage to a standing ovation and loud cheers from the 4,000 people in the audience. But she admitted to them  she was “not used to receiving this kind of love.”

“I have to say that a black transgender woman from a working-class background raised by a single mother getting all this love tonight; this feels like the change I need to see more of in the country,” Cox said.

—  Dallasvoice

Annise Parker touches on importance of elections, unity at Creating Change

Houston Mayor Annise Parker addresses the Creating Change conference in Houston Thursday night. Jessica Borges/Dallas Voice)

Houston Mayor Annise Parker addresses the crowd at the national Creating Change conference in Houston Thursday night. (Jessica Borges/Dallas Voice)

HOUSTON — Mayor Annise Parker was cheered to the stage by thousands of people when she was introduced Thursday evening as Mrs. Annise Parker at The National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change.

Parker married her longtime partner earlier this month in California. She welcomed the applause during her welcome address at the conference, now in its 26th year, which is in Houston for the first time.

“You’re acting as if you’ve never seen a lesbian before,” Parker said. “And, yes, this what a lesbian mayor looks like.”

While conference organizers had hoped to hold the event in Houston when Parker was mayor — she’s now in her third and final term — Parker said she wanted to be a part of the experience that happens when thousands of LGBT activists and advocates converge for the national gathering.

“It was important for me to be here tonight because one, you’re my family,” she said. “Two, it is important for the rest of the United States and the rest of the state of Texas to experience what we do here at Creating Change, and I wanted to be a part of that.

“And I get to home to my new wife,” she added.

Parker, who said she lit up City Hall in rainbow colors for the conference, touched on her citywide elections and how LGBT people can create change by electing the right people to any office.

“I’m here to tell you elections matter,” she said. “And when you put someone in the state house or in the city council chamber or in the mayor’s office, you can make a difference in the lives of people that you will never meet and never see, but you know that you are transforming people’s lives. And those mayors might do something like penning the most comprehensive nondiscrimination ordinance in the United States as their third executive act.”

Parker has said this term she plans to have the council pass a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to those in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

She also said people could elect a mayor who supports marriage equality. Parker is a co-chair of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, and she encouraged attendees to go by Freedom to Marry’s booth and email their mayors to support marriage equality.

And with such a diverse representation of the LGBT community, Parker ended by encouraging the community’s strength to focus on common goals instead of divisive factors.

“The most important thing that we can do here today, this evening and at this conference, is to look around at who’s here with us, look at the strength we have as a community, recognize that the differences that divide us are so much less than the things that unite us,” she said. “Our strength is powerful.”

—  Dallasvoice

Houston Mayor Annise Parker marries longtime partner

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Houston first lady Kathy Hubbard, left, and Mayor Annise Parker

Annise Parker married her life partner of 23 years, Kathy Hubbard, on Thursday in Palm Springs, Calif., The Houston Chronicle reported.

The ceremony, held at sunset at a private home, was attended by a small group of family and friends of the couple, including Parker’s mother and Hubbard’s sister, according to a statement from Parker’s office.

“This is a very happy day for us,” said Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. “We have had to wait a very long time to formalize our commitment to each other. Kathy has been by my side for more than two decades, helping to raise a family, nurture my political career and all of the other ups and down and life events that come with a committed relationship.”

Late Thursday she tweeted: “I am privileged to now be the wife of the woman I have loved for more than 2 decades. I couldn’t be happier. We said our vows today.-A”

The Rev. Paul Fromberg administered the vows. He is a friend of the couple and partner of Parker’s longtime political consultant Grant Martin, formerly of Houston. Fromberg and Martin now live in San Francisco.

Former state District Judge Steve Kirkland and Mark Parthie, who are longtime friends and business partners of Parker and Hubbard, served as witnesses.

Thursday was the couple’s 23rd anniversary.

“It’s wonderful,” said City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen. “They’ve demonstrated a commitment to each other over all these years. How marvelous it is that they can look forward to a long life together as a married couple. I’m very happy for them.”

Parker had previously  said that she would not get married until the union was legal in Texas, including as recently as June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Speaking in November, however, it was clear the mayor had reflected on the impact of the verdict.

“At some point I fully intend to marry her,” Parker said. “I will say that when the Supreme Court ruling came down, the first person to call me was my youngest daughter, who said, ‘Does this mean you’re going to go out and marry mommy now?’ And I said, ‘Well it doesn’t exactly mean that because it doesn’t change everything.’ But, you know, I also am conscious of the messages I send to my own kids.”

When Parker first took office in 2009, she pledged to put the city before social advocacy. Conservatives have accused her of reneging on that pledge, particularly in 2012 when she joined 78 mayors in 2012 in calling for equal marriage rights for gay couples.

And in late November, Parker, relying on a legal opinion from City Attorney David Feldman and recent court rulings, announced the city would begin offering health and life insurance benefits to the spouses of all legally married city employees, gay or straight, in alleged violation of a 2001 city charter amendment.

At the time, Parker said the decision would not affect her because she and Hubbard were not legally wed, adding that Hubbard pays about $700 a month for health insurance. In Thursday’s statement about her marriage, however, Parker clarified that Hubbard has other insurance options available and will not claim city benefits.

The city has been sued over the benefits decision by two plaintiffs represented by Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. He was less congratulatory about the union.

“Why does she wait to get married in another state after the election? Why does she give same-sex benefits to couples married in other states after the election?” Woodfill said. “This is a mayor who is bringing California and New York values to Texas, and these are values Texans don’t subscribe to. Texans have defined their position on marriage in the form of a constitutional amendment.”

Nationally, Parker often is seen as the gay mayor of Houston. She has worked to ensure she is seen as the mayor who happens to be gay, repeatedly saying, “The best thing I can do for my community is to be a great mayor of Houston.”

Parker and Hubbard met in 1990 when Hubbard, a tax consultant, stopped by Parker’s Montrose bookstore, Inklings, looking for clients. They have two daughters and a son, and their goddaughter lives with them.

—  Steve Ramos

Lambda Legal files lawsuit against city of Houston over spousal benefits

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Ken Upton

Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston to ensure spouses of legally married same-sex couples will receive health benefits.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of three city employees after a challenge to the coverage forced them to withdraw and cancel the coverage.

Parker announced last month that the benefits would be extended in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. But last week, state District Judge Lisa Millard signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city of Houston from offering benefits to same-sex couples after the Harris County GOP chairman filed a lawsuit.

“City employees who are married to same-sex spouses are doing the same work as coworkers who are married to different-sex spouses—at the end of the day this case is about equal pay for equal work,” Ken Upton, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal’s South Central office in Dallas, said in a statement. “These employees, some who have worked for the City for many years, acted in good faith when notified the City was extending health coverage benefits to their legal spouses.”

Noel Freeman, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and a president of Houston GLBT Political Caucus, is an administrative coordinator with the City of Houston Public Works & Engineering Office who has worked for the city for nine years. He and his husband, Brad, have been together for more than 11 years and were married in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

“The notice from the City was like a punch in the stomach. Brad and I were so excited when we learned we could enroll him on my plan that we signed him up within an hour of finding out,” Freeman said. “And now, just a month later, they tell us they’re going to have to take it away, that once again I will be paid less than my married heterosexual colleagues for the same work. How is this fair?”

The other plaintiffs in the suit are Yadira Estrada, a Houston police officer who married her partner of seven and a half years, Jennifer Flores, in Maine in June, and Ron Reeser, a systems administrator who married his husband, Vince Olivier, in Canada in 2008 after they had been together for three years.

Upton said the city’s refusal to implement the health benefits change and offer the benefits to same-sex spouses after they signed up for coverage is unfair.

“By refusing to recognize the legal marriage of same-sex couples for the purpose of providing employment benefits, the City deprives some Houston families of a critical safety net and financial security,” Upton said. “By stripping legally married gay and lesbian city employees of spousal benefits, including health insurance coverage, the City not only inflicts severe hardship, but sends a signal that their families are less worthy than those of their coworkers. This the Constitution does not allow.”

—  Dallasvoice

Houston begins offering partner benefits, but out mayor doesn’t qualify

Mayor-Annise-Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that the city of Houston will begin offering benefits to all legally married spouses of city employees. Those in civil unions and domestic partnerships will not qualify.

Janice Evans, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Parker’s partner Kathy Hubbard doesn’t qualify. The couple has been together for 23 years and have raised three children, but they haven’t legally married in a marriage-equality state.

An announcement may come soon, though.

“They’re always talking about it,” Evans said.

The decision to offer benefits is based on a city legal department interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that declared parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Houston didn’t offer benefits previously because of a city charter amendment that prohibits offering partner benefits.

However, the amendment specifically allows benefits for “legal spouses.”

Evans said since the Supreme Court decision, the city has been watching how it’s been implemented elsewhere.

“We started seeing things change across the country,” she said.

She said the city is simply following actions already taken by a number of federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, which announced in August that all legally married same-sex couples will be recognized as married for federal tax purposes, even if those couples reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.

“Based on the right to equal protection under the law, it is unconstitutional for the city to continue to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of our employees who are legally married,” Parker said in a statement. “This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do.”

—  David Taffet