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

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

Some radical ideas about the DADT ruling

This week, a federal court judge issued an extreme ruling regarding “don’t ask don’t tell”: An injunction, forbidding the U.S. military from enforcing the policy worldwide. As part of the ruling, she gave the government up to 60 days to appeal. Attorneys for the Log Cabin Republicans, which brought the lawsuit, have counseled caution, discouraging servicemembers from coming out.

Now, it’s been a long while since I practiced law actively, but I have some ideas radical ideas about how those in the military should approach this ruling.

COME OUT NOW. I know the LCR doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but here’s the thing: It is, for now, the law. Just like years ago, when San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., declared they would recognize same-sex marriages and performed dozens of them, the act itself has repercussions. The courts had to decide the legality, but in the interim, who could say they were not legal?

Relatedly, everyone who got married in California after same-sex marriage was allowed but before Prop 8 was passed were deemed to be legally and forever married. Those unions were not negatively affected from legal recognition by Prop 8. I would argue that anyone who does come out in reliance on a federal ruling cannot later be discharged, anymore than someone who drives 30 mph can be given a ticket a year retroactively later when they change the speed to 25.

It also provides the Obama administration with political cover. Obama claims to want to discontinue DADT, but is relying, disgustingly, on some bullshit “study” before acting. (The details of that study offend me to the core, as it will evaluate such things as whether gay troops should be given “separate living facilities” or whether the other servicemembers will be “OK with it.” Since when did the military care what grunts think, or act like a democracy? What if a soldier is gay but doesn’t want to come out — should he be forced to so he can be segregated in the pink barracks? It’s really very easy: The ruling should be “gay troops are no different than any others; effectively immediately, they are treated identically.” So if they wouldn’t do something for single gays or gay couples they do for straight singles or couples, don’t do it.) But Obama does not have to appeal the ruling; he shouldn’t. Let the courts decide it for him. Continue on with the legislative agenda just in case, but don’t appeal the ruling.

HOLD OBAMA TO HIS PROMISES. I mean this in the most threatening way possible. If the Obama administration does appeal the ruling, I personally will do everything in my power to throw my support to someone else. If a black man who is president cannot stand up for minorities and keep the promises he made the gay community as a candidate, he does not deserve my financial support. Or my vote. This is a test, Brarack: If you fail it, do not expect to get extra credit from me.

I know there are many out there who’ll say, “you’d prefer a Republican over a Democrat in the White House?” No. But I know this: If my rights are trod by someone who doesn’t have the political will to respect me, I don’t care what political party he or she is a member of. Keep in mind: DADT and DOMA were signed by Clinton; the first sitting president to express any support for civil unions for gays was W. (Granted, W did it in the context of opposing marriage, but Clinton never came out in favor of it, and even counseled John Kerry in 2004 to come out against civil unions! “The gays will forgive you and it might help you win,” he supposedly said. Shameful.)

We are at the brink of huge changes in the law and recognition for gay rights at a level I could not have conceived when I was a college student. This is no time to back down. This is the time to fight. Bloody some noses. Shame people into acknowledging their own bigotry. Because I assure you, in 50 years, public high school students will look back on how the current culture treated gays with the same puzzled disgust that we look on Jim Crow laws. Orville Faubus and George Wallace were probably more popular in public opinion polls in their day than Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And how many streets have you seen named after Faubus and Wallace?

This is the time to create our heroes, our Rosa Parkses. Don’t shy away, guys. Don’t go to the back of the bus. Come out and say “In accordance with a federal order, I am saying I am gay. What are you gonna do about it?” Because right now, they can’t. And even if they can down the road, they will appear vindictive to discharge those with the courage to come out later.

Obama pledged change we can believe in. We’re ready for the change, Mr. President. Keep your word.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones