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

Marriage bill clears Washington Senate

House vote expected as early as next week, but referendum looms

WAVES OF JOY | Openly gay Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, from left, and his partner Michael Shiosaka wave at spectators in the upper gallery after the Senate voted for a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage Wednesday evening, Feb. 1 in Olympia, Wash. (Associated Press)

LISA KEEN  |  Keen News Service

Washington State is well-poised to become the seventh state — and the second-largest — where same-sex marriage is legal.

The Washington State bill for marriage equality cleared a crucial hurdle Wednesday night, Feb. 1, passing the state Senate on a vote of 28-21 after senators first shot down an attempt to put the issue on the ballot in November — even though a public vote is still likely through a referendum. Four Republicans in the Senate voted in favor of the marriage equality bill, while three Democrats voted against it.

The bill now goes to the full House, where headcounts gives it a clear margin for victory. Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of groups working for passage of the legislation, said the vote in the House could come as early as next week.

“The overwhelming support we’re seeing from businesses, labor, faith communities and people all across the state is a testament to the momentum of this movement and sensibilities of Washingtonians,” Lacey All, chair of Washington United for Marriage, said in a statement shortly after Wednesday’s vote. “Volunteers from every part of the state have contributed thousands of hours of their time to make today possible, and we thank them for their commitment to this issue.”

The Senate dealt quickly Wednesday night with 11 amendments, most dealing with proposed religious exemptions. It adopted seven of the amendments but, on a 26-23 vote, rejected an attempt to put the issue before voters in November.

Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Olympia, who proposed the referendum, announced before the debate that he would vote in favor of the marriage equality bill. But during debate, he warned his colleagues that groups opposed to same-sex marriage are already preparing to gather signatures to force a referendum on the measure this November. Such opponents will likely have until early June to collect more than 120,000 signatures.

Sen. Edward Murray, an openly gay Democrat  from Seattle and a 15-year veteran of the Legislature, sponsored the bill. It calls for “ending discrimination in marriage based on gender and sexual orientation to ensure that all persons in this state may enjoy the freedom to marry on equal terms, while also respecting the religious freedom of clergy and religious institutions to determine for whom to perform marriage ceremonies and to determine which marriages to recognize for religious purposes.”

CHEERS AND TEARS | Members of the gallery look down and applaud as the Senate passes the bill. (Associated Press)

Murray said on the floor prior to the vote that those who voted against the bill, “are not, nor should they be accused of bigotry.”

“Those of us who support this legislation are not, and we should not be accused of, undermining family life or religious freedom,” Murray  added. “Marriage is how society says you are a family.”

Murray said he and his partner of more than 20 years — Michael Shiosaki — plan to marry and added that “regardless of how you vote on this bill, an invitation will be in the mail” to their wedding.

The religious protection language in the bill stipulates that “no official of a religious denomination or non-profit institution … may be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or by the Washington state Constitution.” It also enables religious institutions to bar use of their facilities to same-sex couples for marriage ceremonies.

Many of the amendments approved Wednesday night sought to add to the religious exemptions. One particularly ominous amendment sought to add that no state or local government can “base a decision” to do business with “any religious organization” based on the organization’s refusal to accommodate same-sex marriage ceremonies. That amendment failed.

The Senate also rejected, by 27-22, an attempt to enable individual judges, justices and commissioners to refuse to solemnize a same-sex ceremony due to their personal religious beliefs. And it rejected an amendment seeking to allow individuals and businesses — including wedding planners, photographers and florists — to refuse to provide services and accommodations for same-sex ceremonies.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat and longtime supporter of rights for same-sex couples but not always a strong supporter of marriage equality, announced Jan. 4 that she would support the bill. Local news media reported that the governor was in the Senate for the debate and she issued a statement immediately after the vote.

“Tonight the Washington State Senate stood up for what is right and told all families in our state that they are equal and that the state cannot be in the business of discrimination,” said Gregoire. “I believe that this decision should be made by our state Legislature, and I’m proud our elected leaders recognized that responsibility.”

Gregoire thanked Murray for his leadership on the bill.

Murray has been a key mover behind much of Washington State’s legislation to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people. He led the successful effort in 2006 to pass a statewide non-discrimination law to protect LGBT people and, in 2007, led the fight for passage of a domestic partnership law. In 2009, he sought passage of the state’s “Everything but Marriage” bill.

Lambda Legal National Marriage Project Director Camilla Taylor issued a statement saying same-sex couples in Washington State are now “one step closer to enjoying the freedom to marry, thanks to the impressive efforts of Washington United for Marriage, and the bravery of supporters of equality in the State Senate.”

Washington State, which has 6.8 million residents, would become the second-largest state behind New York where same-sex marriage is legal.

If the bill is signed by Gregoire and opponents are unable to gather the necessary signatures for a referendum, same-sex couples could wed as early as June. However, if the opposition does force a referendum, marriages would have to wait until after the November election.

© 2012 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Dueling marriage rallies staged in Des Moines

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa — Groups on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate have staged rallies in Des Moines.

The National Organization for Marriage is on a tour of 19 states to show support for traditional marriage. The group rallied at the state capitol Sunday, Aug. 1.

One Iowa, an organization supporting same-sex marriage, staged a counter event just down the road.

The National Organization for Marriage is hoping to garner support for a public vote on whether states should sanction gay and lesbian marriages. About 75 people attended the event at the capitol.

One Iowa’s event drew roughly 250 people to a downtown park.

—  John Wright

Aspiring queer journalist Daniel Villarreal of Dallas vies to become America’s next Gay Travel Guru

Aspiring Dallas homo-journo Daniel Villarreal is competing for his dream job as GayTravel.com‘s Gay Travel Guru, and he needs your help by July 30. We’re going to overlook the fact that Villarreal writes for Queerty.com and focus on the fact that he’s a native Texan with a lot of experience who probably deserves this opportunity. Villarreal is among 60 contestants who’ve advanced to Round 2 of the competition, and the field will be narrowed to eight next month based on this public vote. It looks like Villarreal is currently at No. 3 with 755 points, so he’s definitely viable. Above is a video about Grapevine Bar that Villarreal produced for the competition (you can watch one about Lower Greenville by going here), and below is the flier he’s been circulating in the gayborhood, which includes instructions for voting. Here’s the note Villarreal sent us on Monday:

My name is Daniel Villarreal and I’m an aspiring queer journalist and regular contributor to the LGBT blog Queerty.com. I’d like you to vote for me so I can become GayTravel.com’s travel reporter. Your support would go a long way towards helping me highlight the diversity of national LGBT culture and assisting in my continued aims of being a serious queer journalist.

A) I’m mega-qualified: I have 17 years experience in print journalism, an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, a handful of web-based comedy sketches, a vast growing social network, a love of people, and extensive travel experience around the US, Japan, India, and Europe. All of these enable me to deliver travel coverage that’s fun, insightful, and entertaining.

B) I’ll represent everyone: In my work with Queerty.com, I have always tried to give a voice to under-represented parts of the LGBT community including local activists, artists, women, trans folk, people of color, the elderly, the poor, and HIV-positive people. As a travel writer, I would give coverage not only to popular LGBT destinations but to worthwhile local venues and events welcoming of our entire community.

C) I’m a good long-term investment: This vote isn’t just about the travel job. Working with GayTravel.com would also provide me the exposure and training I need to continue developing into an asset to the national LGBT community as a serious queer reporter.

—  John Wright