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

WATCH: Keller teen petitions City Council to outlaw anti-gay discrimination in restaurants

Isaiah Smith, left, collecting signatures in Keller. (From KDAF Channel 33)

After seeing an episode of the ABC reality show What Would You Do that was filmed at Norma’s Cafe in Farmers Branch last year, gay 16-year-old Isaiah Smith is trying to change a law in his own hometown, Keller.

In the ABC show, actors posed as a lesbian couple with children. The waitress acted shocked and said the children would be better off with a father. The point was to get a negative reaction from other customers.

According to a report by Dawn Tongish on KDAF last week, Smith has collected more than 400 signatures to encourage the Keller City Council to outlaw discrimination in restaurants in that city.

Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth are the only cities in Texas that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations.

In the report, Smith points out that gays and lesbians have no protection in Texas and, without a local ordinance, could be thrown out of a restaurant simply because of who they are.

—  David Taffet

‘This is a country western bar, not a gay bar’

Three women say they were kicked out of a bar in Victoria, Texas, because of their sexual orientation. The women claim an employee asked them to leave the Cactus Canyon on Aug. 24 and told them, “This is a country western bar, not a gay bar.” The Victoria Advocate reports:

“I got kicked out of Cactus for no reason,” Victoria resident Estefana Diaz said. “We were holding hands — that’s it.”

One of Cactus Canyon’s owners, Roger Gearheart, of Odessa, denied the women were asked to leave because of their sexual orientation.

“Those people weren’t kicked out because they’re gay. They acted inappropriately to each other,” Gearheart said. “We don’t discriminate.”

He also said he wanted to be clear his bar does not discriminate and the women could return as long as their behavior is appropriate.

Gearheart was not in the bar at the time, but stands behind his employee’s decision that the women’s behavior was not in good taste.

“No one wants to see that whether you’re gay or straight” he said.

When the women called police to file a complaint they were told the bar has the right to refuse service. There is no state or federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations. The women say they may boycott the Cactus Canyon.

—  John Wright

NATIONAL BRIEFS: Lesbian couple says Vt. resort barred them; 831 civil unions in Cook County

Lesbian couple says Vermont resort barred them

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Two New York women say a Vermont inn refused to host their wedding reception because of the owners’ anti-gay bias. The couple is now suing, alleging discrimination under the state’s public accommodations law.

Kate Baker and Ming Linsley say they were turned away by the Wildflower Inn, a 24-room inn in Lyndonville, when they told the inn the wedding would have two brides but no groom.

A woman who answered the telephone at the Wildflower Inn said the owners weren’t taking calls on the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Vermont chapter filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Caledonia Superior Court. It says the inn violated the state Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act, which bars public accommodations from denying services to people based on sexual orientation.

831 civil unions in Cook County in June

CHICAGO (AP) — Cook County couples rushed to use Illinois’ new civil union law.

The county clerk’s office says 831 civil licenses were issued in June. That was the first month couples could get them.

A civil union gives gay couples in Illinois many of the same rights and legal benefits as heterosexual couples. Unmarried heterosexual couples also are eligible.

Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office says more female couples — about 51.5 percent — applied for licenses compared to male partners, who made up about 43 percent of the licenses. About 5.5 percent of the couples who applied were heterosexual.

Most of the civil union licenses — about 65 percent — were granted to people who live in Chicago.

The office says licenses and other fees generated about $37,000 in revenue.

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Maryland Senate kills gender identity bill; anti-gay hate crime at UNC

Quinn Matney was attacked and severely burned in an anti-gay hate crime at the University of North Carolina.

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. For a third straight week, LGBT advocates plan to speak during the Dallas County Commissioners Court’s meeting today and call on commissioners to add transgender employees to the county’s nondiscrimination policy. Last month, commissioners voted to add sexual orientation but not gender identity to the policy. The Commissioners Court meets at 9 a.m. in the County Administration Building, 411 Elm St.

2. The Maryland Senate on Monday voted to kill a measure that would have protected transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment and credit — but not public accommodations. The vote marks the second major disappointment this year for LGBT advocates in Maryland, where the House thwarted a marriage equality bill last month.

3. A University of North Carolina freshman says he was attacked and severely burned in an anti-gay hate crime on the school’s campus last week. The UNC administration, which failed to notify students until a week after the attack occurred, now says it plans to report the incident as an anti-gay hate crime to the federal government.

—  John Wright

In 9 years, 53 complaints of anti-gay discrimination in Dallas, but 0 prosecutions

A total of 53 complaints have been filed under a nine-year-old Dallas ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the city has never taken one of the complaints to court.

The city released statistics on the complaints to Dallas Voice this week in response to a request under the Texas Public information Act.

A city ordinance passed in 2002 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. The definition of sexual orientation includes gender identity. Each violation of the ordinance is punishable by a maximum $500 fine.

The statistics from the city show that 49 of the 53 complaints have been closed, while four are pending.

In 32 of the 49 closed cases, or almost two-thirds, the City Attorney’s Office determined that there was no cause to prosecute. Here is a breakdown of the other dispositions:

• Five of the complaints were dismissed because they were non-jurisdictional, meaning they occurred outside the city or involved an entity that is exempt from the ordinance.

• Five of the cases were resolved by “conciliation,” or mediation.

• Four of the complaints were withdrawn, after the city says they were resolved to the parties’ mutual satisfaction.

• In three of the cases, the complainant was uncooperative.

Two city councilmembers, Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano, have said they’re reviewing the city’s handling of complaints under the ordinance. Hunt and Medrano launched their investigation in response to a letter from Resource Center Dallas questioning why no complaint has ever been prosecuted.

RCD’s letter, in turn, was prompted by Dallas Voice reports about a discrimination complaint against the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, which refuses to sell family memberships to same-sex couples.

The complaint against the Fitness Center is still pending, as is one filed against the Dallas Morning News for refusing to publish same-sex wedding announcements.

—  John Wright

Anti-gay bills dead or stalled in Iowa

Newt Gingrich

It appears that Republican efforts to force a referendum to appeal that state’s same-sex marriage equality law are dead, at least for the time being — as are a couple of other anti-gay measures.

The Des Moines Register reports that one of two resolutions being considered that would have put same-sex marriage to a referendum vote has died, and the second has stalled. A resolution that had been passed by the Republican-controlled House is effectively dead after Democrats in the Senate chose not to advance it.

A bill that would have allowed businesses to deny services or public accommodations to same-sex couples based on religious beliefs has failed, as has a second measure that would have prohibited country recorders from giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples until a referendum could be held on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of a unanimous ruling in 2009 that overturned the gay marriage ban in Iowa were ousted in recall election efforts last November. A small group of Iowa House Republicans is calling for the other four justices to be impeached. They have not yet filed any articles of impeachment, the Register reports, but that could happen at any time.

In related news, other sources — including TPMMuckraker.com — are reporting that Republican former Congressman Newt Gingrich, himself a veritable bastion of traditional marriage values, helped get the justice recall effort jump-started last year in Iowa by rounding up about $200,000 to help Iowa For Freedom campaign for the recall.

Gingrich, by the way, is on his third marriage. He left his first wife for his mistress when his first wife was hospitalized and fighting for her life against cancer. Then he married the mistress, only to cheat on her with another women to whom he is now married. Gingrich is also contemplating a run for the White House in 2012; he launched a website to “test the waters” Thursday.

—  admin

Gay couple complains about city’s handling of discrimination complaint against Morning News

Thomas-Mark-Reed-and-Dante-Karl-Walkup
Mark Reed-Walkup, left, and Dante Walkup

A few weeks ago we reported that two Dallas council members are reviewing the city’s handling of complaints filed under an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

We’re still awaiting the results of that review, as well as the city’s response to an open records request filed by Dallas Voice for statistics related to complaints filed under the ordinance.

In the meantime, a gay couple who recently filed a complaint under the ordinance is complaining about the city’s handling of the matter. Mark Reed-Walkup and Dante Walkup filed a complaint against The Dallas Morning News, which refuses to publish same-sex marriage announcements in its Weddings section. The couple claims the DMN policy is a violation of the ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.

In a letter to Beverly Davis, director of the city’s Fair Housing Office, the Walkups said it’s been more than 60 days since they filed their complaint, and they haven’t heard anything from the city. The Fair Housing Office is charged with investigating complaints under the ordinance. Below is a copy of the couple’s e-mail, which they forwarded to Dallas Voice as well as City Councilwomen Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano:

Hi Beverly,

It has been over 60 days since we formally filed a complaint against the DMN for discrimination based on our sexual orientation. As you recall, my husband and I had a legal wedding on 12/10/2010 and tried to submit our paid wedding announcement to the Dallas Morning News and we were denied equal access to this public accommodation. Our ad was refused and money refunded based on the Texas ban on SSM.

We reached out to you 30 days ago to seek a status on our case and you told us to “be patient” and we have been. After 60 days, we must say that the lack of any follow-up to our case has been an extreme disappointment. We are a customer of the City of Dallas and your department has not done anything to reach out to us to advise us of any updates about our case.

We expect better service from the people we pay to enforce our laws and there should be no excuse to the lack of follow-up on our discrimination complaint. Please advise when we can expect an update from your department.

Mark & Dante Walkup

—  John Wright

Dallas Morning News bills gay couple $1,034 for wedding announcement it refused to publish

Thomas-Mark-Reed-and-Dante-Karl-Walkup
Mark Reed-Walkup, left, and Dante Walkup

After filing a discrimination complaint against The Dallas Morning News for refusing to publish their marriage announcement under “Weddings,” a local gay couple reports that they received a $1,034 bill in the mail for the unpublished ad.

Mark Reed-Walkup, who filed the discrimination complaint against The DMN after marrying his partner Dante Walkup in Washington, D.C., says he wrote the following to James Moroney III, publisher and CEO of the newspaper:

“Does the DMN always send out invoices to ‘customers’ who placed an ad online but it was never published due to the paper’s discriminatory policies? We just received an invoice today for our December ad that you banned from your paper because our wedding wasn’t ‘really’ a wedding in your eyes. Unbelievable.”

Reed-Walkup says Moroney responded as follows:

“Not a good practice. I’ll take up with sales. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.”

Reed-Walkup also notes that more than 8,000 people have signed a petition launched by Change.org calling on The DMN to publish same-sex marriage announcements under Weddings. He’s hoping to get the petition up to 10,000 signatures.

As for the complaint filed against The DMN, the director of the Fair Housing Office told Instant Tea recently that the city was still in the process of reviewing it. The Fair Housing Office investigates discrimination complaints filed under a 2002 ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. Reed-Walkup maintains that Wedding announcements are a public accommodation.

—  John Wright

Resource Center Dallas calls for investigation of city’s handling of gay discrimination complaints

Resource Center Dallas is calling on the city to investigate whether the intent of its ordinance prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination is being honored.

In a letter today to three city council members, Resource Center’s Rafael McDonnell points to Dallas Voice reports saying that in the nine years since the ordinance was passed, more than 40 complaints have been filed, but none has ever been prosecuted.

McDonnell’s letter to Councilwomen Angela Hunt, Delia Jasso and Pauline Medrano was triggered by reports on this blog last week about anti-gay discrimination by the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, which has repeatedly refused to sell family memberships to same-sex couples.

The city ordinance, passed in 2002, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. Gender identity is included in the definition of sexual orientation under the ordinance. Each violation of the ordinance is punishable by a maximum $500 fine.

A Dallas Voice investigation in 2008 concluded that at the time, 33 complaints had been filed under the ordinance. In 22 of those cases, the City Attorney’s Office determined that there was no cause to prosecute.

Of the other 11 cases, three were successfully resolved through mediation; three people withdrew their complaints after signing statements indicating that defendants had taken actions necessary to address their concerns; five complaints were found to be nonjurisdictional, meaning the incidents occurred outside city limits or defendants were exempt from the ordinance; and in one case the party filing the complaint couldn’t be located.

Here’s the full text of McDonnell’s letter:

Dear Councilmembers Jasso, Medrano and Hunt,

As you three know, Dallas is one of a handful of cities in Texas that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy. Resource Center Dallas is proud to be in a city offering such protections. We assume that you, like us, are disturbed by last week’s stories on the Dallas Voice’s blog.

The Voice reported that a gay couple who recently moved to Dallas sought to join Baylor’s Tom Landry Center under the family membership program. The couple was advised that Baylor only offers family members to people who are married as defined by Texas law. There is no same-gender alternative, which, to us, is monetized discrimination.

The Voice’s blog also reported that since the ordinance became law in 2002, more than 40 complaints have been filed. Yet, shockingly, the City has not prosecuted one of those complaints. Is this correct? Are complaints being resolved through mediation, settlements, or are the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people filing these grievances walking away empty-handed?

We write to ask for your help. We would like for you to call for an investigation of whether or not the intention of the ordinance is being honored. As we know you will agree, enacting an ordinance is only the first step in addressing discriminatory practices. The critical second step is its enforcement. From the Voice’s reporting, it sounds like the ordinance we all worked so hard to put in place may not be as effective as we thought.

Sincerely,

Rafael McDonnell
Strategic Communications and Programs Manager, Resource Center Dallas

—  John Wright