Now Paxton is suing to deny trans people proper health care

Ken-Paxton-mug

Ken Paxton

Less than two days after a federal judge in Fort Worth issued an injunction halting enforcement the Obama administration’s guidelines for school districts on transgender students and issues, in a lawsuit filed by 13 states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Paxton announced today (Tuesday, Aug. 23), that his has filed yet another lawsuit against the federal government, this time targeting proper health care for transgender people.

In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services implemented a new regulation intended to protect transgender people from discrimination in the provision of healthcare, The new regulation notes that the term “sex” in the Affordable Healthcare Act includes gender identity, when it comes to prohibiting discrimination.

According to the HHS website, the new regulations require that women have equal access to the health care they receive and the insurance they obtain, and make clear that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity. That means individuals cannot be denied health care or health coverage based on their sex, including their gender identity; that individuals must be treated consistent with their gender identity, including in access to facilities; that sex-specific health care cannot be denied or limited just because the person seeking such services identifies as belonging to another gender (For example, a provider may not deny an individual treatment for ovarian cancer, based on the individual’s identification as a transgender man, where the treatment is medically indicated), and that “explicit categorical exclusions in coverage for all health care services related to gender transition are facially discriminatory. Other exclusions for gender transition care will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Ken Paxton, however, sees things a bit differently. In a press release announcing his newest lawsuit against the Obama administration, he claims to be battling “against yet another Obama Administration regulatory overreach that is invading the coffers of Texas, as well as violating the medical judgment and conscience rights of doctors and health care professionals across the country.”

Paxton claims that when enacting the Affordable Health Care Act, Congress intended the term “sex” to denote a biological category.  And now, “The Obama Administration [is trying] to redefine the law so that the term ‘sex’ means ones’ ‘internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither or a combination of male and female.’ But the President does not have the power to rewrite the law.”

Paxton’s press release says the new rules could have significant impact on Texas and health care workers because it requires taxpayers to fund “all treatments designed to transition to a different sex,” and it “forces health care workers, including physicians, to provide controversial services.”

The press release continues, “Under the new rule, a physician that believes that certain treatments are not in a patient’s best medical interests may be in violation of federal law. And a physician that, for religious or conscientious reasons cannot perform a particular procedure, chooses to instead refer a patient to another health care provider may be determined to be in violation of this new rule.”

Directly quoting Paxton, the press release says, “This is the thirteenth lawsuit I have been forced to bring against the Obama Administration’s continued threats on constitutional rights of Texans. The federal government has no right to force Texans to pay for medical procedures designed to change a person’s sex. I am disappointed in the Obama Administration’s lack of consideration for medical professionals who believe that engaging in such procedures or treatment violates their Hippocratic Oath, their conscience or their personal religious beliefs, which are protected by the Constitution and federal law.”

Paxton made no mention, however, of his and other Republicans’ efforts to interfere with the doctor/patient relationship when it comes to abortion and other medical treatments/issues affecting women. He also made no mention of the fact that while he continues to waste taxpayer money by filing politically-motivated lawsuits against the federal government, specifically targeting LGBT people in many cases, he has been soliciting donations from individuals and corporations to pay his own legal bills associated with the state and federal securities fraud charges against him. That includes, by the way, a $100,000 donation from the CEO of a company that was under investigation by the AG’s Office.

Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, issued a statement today about Paxton’s latest lawsuit, noting that, “Yesterday Texas’ leaders patted themselves on the back for convincing a federal court that transgender schoolchildren should be excluded from the protections of Title IX. Today, the state filed another suit in the same court, this time challenging federal protections intended to shield transgender people from discrimination in healthcare services. We don’t know what else the state has in store, but the people of Texas will not stand idly by and let the state make transgender Texans into second-class citizens with no legal recourse when they face stigma and bias.

“Texas is better than this. This is not who we are,” Robertson said.

—  Tammye Nash

Paxton, anti-trans forces win 1st round, but fight continues

UPDATE: On Tuesday Ken Paxton announced he has filed yet another lawsuit against the federal government, this time challenging Health and Human Services regulations protecting transgender people from discrimination in their medical care. See our InstanTEA blog post here.

FW judge’s ruling on trans students guidelines could send 4th Circuit case to SCOTUS

 

Lisa Keen | Keen News Service
KeenNewsService@gmail.com

 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

Texas AG Ken Paxton

In a move that could increase attention on the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal judge on Sunday, Aug. 21, issued a temporary order blocking the Obama administration from taking any action against states that refuse to comply with its guidelines concerning treatment of transgender students in federally-funded schools.

The order, from Judge Reed O’Connor — a George W. Bush appointee — enables at least 23 states that have expressed opposition to the Obama administration guidelines issued in May to ignore those guidelines until the court can rule on the merits of lawsuits challenging them.

The guidelines, from the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice, state that discrimination against transgender students violates federal law against sex discrimination and that schools failing to comply with the laws could lose their federal funding.

A White House spokesman reiterated Monday, Aug. 22, the administration’s contention that the guidelines were “certainly not a mandate” and characterized the lawsuit as an election year attempt to “play politics” with issues involving transgender students.

“[O]ur goal has been from the beginning to provide for the safety and security and dignity of students all across the country,” said John Earnest, press secretary for President Obama.

Lambda Legal and four other national legal groups working on LGBT issues expressed disappointment in Judge O’Connor’s injunction. They said it is likely to confuse school districts trying to help transgender students and goes against “years of clear legal precedent nationwide establishing that transgender students have the right to go to school without being singled out for discrimination.”

The groups said the injunction would have “no effect on the ability of other courts or lawyers representing transgender people to continue to rely on the federal government’s interpretations of Title IX or on prior decisions that have reached similar conclusions about the scope of federal sex discrimination laws.”

Officials with Resource Center, the LGBT community center in Dallas, on Monday issued a statement saying O’Conner’s ruling “is not the final word on the Obama administration’s efforts to provide civil rights protections for transgender Americans.

The statement continued, “The stay will likely be quickly appealed, first to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s also important to remember this is just a stay, and not the final ruling of a trial. With other cases in the legal pipeline, the rights of transgender Americans may end up being asserted and confirmed in another, higher court.

“The legal guidance the administration provided — rooted in their interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Code, as well as decades of case law, are legally sound” Resource Center’s statement continued. “The judge did not address that in his stay. Rather, he issued his decision based on the arcane process of federal rule-making. The Center believes that justice will prevail and the guidelines will eventually be upheld, but that is cold comfort to transgender students nationwide at the beginning of their school year. Nor does it offer any optimism to transgender people in the workplace, even though the judge did not immediately address the state of Texas and other plaintiff’s efforts to put a halt to the Obama administration’s guidance in that area.”

 

Big enough conflict?

But the injunction could have an effect on whether the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue sooner rather than later.

Judge O’Connor’s decision in this preliminary matter contradicts a ruling of another federal court. And conflicts among federal courts make issues more likely to attract Supreme Court intervention.

The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex by federally-funded educational institutions, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

Judge O’Connor for the U.S. District Court of Northern Texas said “the plain meaning of the term sex” does not include gender identity. Noting that the Supreme Court had granted a stay against the Fourth Circuit decision, O’Connor said a decision from the Supreme Court “may obviate the issues in this lawsuit.”

Judge O’Connor’s decision makes clear he thinks states opposing the Obama administration guidelines have a strong case. He said, “the plain meaning of the term sex” in Title IX “meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.” The guidelines, therefore, are “contrary to law.”

In the preliminary ruling, O’Connor said the guidelines pose a sufficient level of threat to the statutes and constitutions of plaintiff states to demonstrate “a threat of irreparable harm” that warrants a temporary injunction.

Starting in 2010, Obama administration agencies began interpreting federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of “sex” to include “gender identity.” That meant laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex provided some protection for people whose gender identity is different from that stated on their birth certificate. In May, the departments of Education and Justice distributed a letter with “guidelines,” saying discrimination against such transgender students violates federal laws and that schools failing to comply with the laws could lose their federal funding.

The letter, said O’Connor, “provides not only must [states] permit individuals to use the [school restrooms and facilities] consistent with their gender identity,” but stipulates that alternative accommodations are unacceptable.

Thirteen states filed the lawsuit, Texas v. U.S., to argue that Congress intended “sex” to refer “only to one’s biological sex, as male or female.” Those states also include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Ten other states — Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming — filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court in Nebraska.

In granting the injunction, Judge O’Connor said the Obama administration’s guidelines are “clearly designed to target” plaintiff states with “legal consequences” if the states fail to follow the guidelines.

The Obama administration’s guidelines and actions, said O’Connor, “indicate that [states] jeopardize their federal education funding by choosing not to comply” with the guidelines. Thus, he said, those guidelines are both “legislative and substantive” and that the public should have been given an opportunity to comment on those guidelines.

“The information before the Court,” said O’Connor, “demonstrates [the Obama administration agencies] have ‘drawn a line in the sand’ in that they have concluded [states] must abide by the guidelines, without exception, or they are in breach of their Title IX obligations.”

“Permitting the definition of sex to be defined [as the Obama administration has stated] would allow [the administration] to ‘create de facto new regulation’ by agency action without complying with the proper procedures.”

At issue are two federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which covers employment, and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which covers educational institutions.

A brief filed by five pro-LGBT legal groups argued that federal appeals courts governing many of the states opposing the Obama guidelines have already ruled that sex discrimination includes discrimination against transgender people.

The groups include Lambda Legal, the ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (formerly known as GLAD), and the Transgender Law Center.

Jon Davidson, national legal director for Lambda Legal, said he does not believe O’Connor’s ruling will increase the probability that the Supreme Court will accept the Fourth Circuit case. He said “a large number of issues” in the Texas v. U.S. case “go beyond what is at issue in the [Fourth Circuit] appeal, such as whether the states, state and local agencies, and state officials that brought the suit were sufficiently harmed” by the guidelines.

“Granting review in [the Fourth Circuit case, Gloucester v. Grimm] wouldn’t resolve all those issues,” said Davidson, “so I don’t think the preliminary injunction in Texas v. U.S. puts pressure on the Supreme Court to hear the Gloucester case.”

Shannon Minter, NCLR’s national legal director, said he thinks O’Connor’s injunction will likely be stayed, noting that, in discussing the “plain meaning” of “sex” in federal law, O’Connor “completely disregards” Price Waterhouse. In that 1989 decision, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of “sex” include discrimination against an employee based on expectations for an employee’s appearance and behavior based on their biological sex. (Notably, Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented.)

“This is a political case brought to make a political point,” said Minter. “The states don’t have any actual injury. They are just expressing their disagreement with the department’s view of the law, but that abstract disagreement is not a valid basis for a federal lawsuit. This is political posturing at the expense of a small group of vulnerable children.”

The Texas Tribune noted that Judge O’Connor issued a temporary injunction in March of last year to block enforcement of an Obama administration interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act that required states to provide to same-sex married couples the same benefits it provides to opposite-sex married couples. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton withdrew that lawsuit after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June of last year that state bans on marriage licenses for same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

© 2016 by Keen News Service

 

 

—  Tammye Nash

Ken Paxton files injunction against federal guidances protecting trans students

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

Texas AG Ken Paxton

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton today (Wednesday, July 6) announced that Texas is leading a 13-state coalition asking for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of “Obama’s bathroom rules.”

“Obama’s bathroom rules” refer to a list of guidances issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to help school districts avoid discriminating against transgender students. Paxton and other right-wingnuts — including Chief Protector of the Bathrooms Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — insist that those guidelines, along with Fort Worth Independent School District’s comprehensive policy for interacting and protecting transgender students, put women and children in danger by allowing men to use the same public restrooms and locker rooms as long as the men/boys are willing to declare that they feel like a woman/girl that day.

Federal officials have noted that school districts that insist on discriminating against transgender people risk losing federal money because such discrimination violates Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. Federal officials and federal courts have already determined that “sex” in this case means gender and includes anti-trans discrimination.

Paxton said, in his press release, “The nation’s schools, and every place of employment, are now in the crosshairs of the Obama administration, which maintains it will punish those who do not comply with its orders. Schools are facing the potential loss of funding for simply exercising the authority to implement the policies that best protect their students. Every employer is now being threatened for not bowing to anyone that identifies as the opposite sex.”

The press release then goes on to explain that the Obama administration is “attempting to rewrite Congress’ use of the term ‘sex’ in multiple federal lawsuits to now include ‘gender identity.’ If successful this radical change simultaneously opens up all intimate areas within schools and workplaces to members of both sexes.”

Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, issued this statement in response to Paxton’s motion for an injunction:

“Equality Texas condemns Attorney General Ken Paxton’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of 1.4 million Americans who are transgender, and his choice today to target the most vulnerable segment of that population — transgender kids.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton has already wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, discriminated against his fellow Texans with taxpayer money, and deprived thousands of Texans of their dignity and respect in a losing effort opposing the freedom to marry. Now, the attorney general has determined to waste millions more in an obviously futile attempt to prevent our transgender citizens, and in particular transgender kids, from being afforded the most basic dignity to use the bathroom, despite the fact that the Fourth Circuit and various government agencies have made the law clear.

“His actions undermine federal protections for gay and transgender children. In particular, this injunction seeks to punish transgender students protected by Title IX and the U.S. Department of Education to harm Texans who have done nothing wrong.

“The actions being initiated today by Paxton will ultimately fail, just as they did with marriage equality. Attorney General Ken Paxton shows an obsession with discriminating against the LGBT community. Statements already made by Paxton demonstrated a shameful animus towards the transgender community, which will ultimately lead the Supreme Court to declare all laws unconstitutional which relegate members of the LGBT community to a second class status. The U.S. Constitution will never uphold blatant discrimination against our citizens.”

Following is a list of the 13 states filing for the injunction. The number in parenthesis following each state’s name denotes where, as of 2015, that state ranked, nationally, in terms of the quality of their educational systems:

Texas (31st); Alabama (39th), Arizona (48th), Georgia (35th), Kentucky (10th), Louisiana (43rd), Maine (20th), Mississippi (45th), Oklahoma (34th), Tennessee (28th), Utah (16th), West Virginia (46th) and Wisconsin (4th).

(These numbers are the School System Quality Ranking of each, according to a study conducted by WalletHub and based on “13 key metrics that range from student-teacher ratios to standardized-test scores to dropout rates.”)

And by the way, Ken Paxton is the same one facing has been charged with two first-degree and one third-degree felony counts of violating state securities laws, and similar state charges, too.

—  Tammye Nash

Texas Stonewall Dems issue statement on Orlando

Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus President Eli Olivarez issued the following statement:

“As our LGBTQ community and our allies celebrated Pride Month, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida was the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Too many souls were lost to hate, and too many are now injured. Our country is in mourning.

“Our nation will have to deal with this horrific tragedy of terrorism, hate crimes and mass shootings. Discrimination and hatred against LGBTQ community is clearly something we’ve lived with for decades, and even in these days of progress in equality for the LGBTQ community, we once again witness the brutality of bigotry.

“We must ask ourselves once again, who are we as a nation and what do we stand for? The answer is simple; we stand for freedom, equality, justice and liberty for all. The vigils across Texas and the Democrats who stood with the LGBTQ community show us that we will always come together and march forward. That is who we are, and that is what we do.

“Our hearts go out to the Orlando LGBTQ community, the lives lost, and their families. ”

—  Tammye Nash

‘Obama’s a gay prostitute’ candidate loses primary

mary_lou_portrait

Mary Lou Bruner

Former schoolteacher and current lunatic Mary Lou Bruner, 69, lost her race for the Republican nomination for Texas State Board of Education.

Bruner made national news when she claimed President Barack Obama was a gay prostitute in college to pay for his drug habit. She also said dinosaurs and humans lived together until Noah took two baby dinosaurs on the ark who were too young to reproduce. Of course, they couldn’t mature because there wasn’t enough vegetation left on earth. Hmmm … how did the elephants survive? She claimed climate change is a hoax created by Karl Marx. (Hasn’t he been dead since 1883?) And Democrats killed Kennedy because the communists in the party didn’t want a conservative president.

She lost the election to Keven Ellis, president of the Lufkin ISD board. Ellis was endorsed by, well, every newspaper in the district. Bruner’s most visible endorsement came from Cathie Adams, founder of the Texas Eagle Forum. On her website, several endorsements are marked, “Withdrawn.”

In the November election, Ellis faces Democrat Amanda Rudolph, a professor at Stephen F. Austin University.

—  David Taffet

Arlington full of hate, Abodo survey says

Screen shot 2016-05-23 at 3.02.20 PM

The housing web site Abodo recently conducted a survey, as part of its “Best Places to Live” study, on what are the most and least hateful states/cities based ” language Americans use when tweeting about different races, ethnicities, genders, religions, and sexual orientations.”

Guess which state placed third on the most hateful list. Yep, it was Texas, with 929 per 100,000 tweets including derogatory — aka hateful — language. Louisiana was in first place, with 1,155 per 100,000 tweets with derogatory language. Nevada barely beat out Texas for the No. 2 spot with 929 per 100,000 tweets including hateful language. Rounding out the top 10 were, in order of hatefulness, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, California, Michigan, Georgia and Rhode Island.

(Rhode Island? Really?)

The survey also breaks down the hate, by state and by city, based on which particular slurs are used — anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-woman, anti-gay/lesbian and anti-transgender. The study also includes information on which states generated the most tweets with language that was derogatory toward the cognitively disabled and/or derogatory toward those who are overweight.

There are six charts included in the study that compare derogatory tweets on specific subjects by city — two on anti-woman tweets, one including “bitch” as a keyword, and one without — and at least one Texas city makes the top 10 on all six lists. And, here’s the interesting part, Arlington, Texas makes the top 10 on every list but the anti-trans list.

Let’s go subject by subject (each number is derogatory tweets per 100,000).

First of all, lets talk LGBT topics.

Screen shot 2016-05-23 at 3.02.47 PM

Anti-gay/lesbian: Suprisingly enough, Buffalo, N.Y. claims the No. 1 spot on this list with 168 tweets per 100,000. And good ol’ Arlington is right up there at No. 2 with 161. The only other Texas city to make this list is Corpus Christi at No. 10 with 122. I admit, I was surprised to see that five California cities were on this list, including Riverside, Fontana, Bakersfield, Modesto and Oxnard. Round out the top 10 are Lincoln at No. 5 and New Orleans at No. 10.

Screen shot 2016-05-23 at 3.03.43 PM

Anti-transgender: This one, quite frankly, really surprised me. The No. 1 city for anti-transgender tweets is Las Vegas, with 99 per 100,000. It also surprised me that not one Texas city — not even Arlington — is in the top 10. Instead, Florida and California cities dominate.  Following Las Vegas, from No. 2 through No. 10, are Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pittsburgh and — believe it or not — San Francisco.

San Francisco registered 15 anti-transgender tweets per 100,000. Maybe that doesn’t sound like many, but it was No. 10 on the list. San Francisco registered more anti-transgender tweets than any city in Texas!

Moving on.

Anti-black:Baltimore leads with 82. Arlington is No. 5 with 56, and Garland, Texas isNo. 9 with 51. Others in the top 10 are, Atlanta, New Orleans, Newark,Norfolk, Lincoln, Buffalo and Madison (Wisconsin).

Anti-Hispanic: Bakersfield, Calif., was No. 1, with 24. Garland is No. 6 on this list, with 14, and Arlington is right behind at No. 7, with 13.  San Antonio makes the list in the No. 10 spot. Six of the 10 are California cities — Chula Vista, Modesto, Fontana, Riverside and Morena Valley (Nos. 1-5 and No. 7). Rounding out the top 10 is Miami at No. 9.

Anti-woman, including “bitch”: New Orleans is No. 1, with 3,696. Houston is No. 4 with 2,353, and Arlington is No. 6 with 2,252. Also in the top 10 are Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, Detroit and Norfolk.

Anti-woman, excluding “bitch”: Atlanta takes the top spot here, with 1,580, and Arlington — the only Texas city on this particular list — is No. 3 with 1,253. Also in the top 10 are Newark, New Orleans, Boston, Orlando, Miami, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Oakland.

To read the entire study, go here.

—  Tammye Nash

‘Deport Hate’ bike ride, picnic planned for Tyler’s Bergfeld Park on Sunday

LGBT people and their allies in and around Tyler will gather Sunday, May 22, in Tyler’s Bergfeld Park for the “Deport Hate: Bike or Hike Pride Ride.”

The gathering is being staged to “show some love” to a bicyclist who rides regularly through the city’s Azalea District, near the park, wearing a shirt that says “Deport LGBT.”

“This isn’t a gay pride rally, though the themes are to show LGBT faces and our allies,” organizer Hannah Morris wrote on the Facebook page announcing the event. “This is pride in our city, in our relationships with each other, in how we handle ugliness. And in Tyler, Texas, we come together and show support for one another to handle ugliness. Because we are proud citizens of this beautiful city.”

Bergfeld Park

Bergfeld Park, located near the center of town, is the park from which 23-year-old Nicholas West was abducted in 1993 before being driven to a gravel pit in Noonday and brutally murdered. His death made national headlines and helped spark efforts to pass an LGBT-inclusive hate crimes bill in Texas.

Jenell Volmer, who grew up in Tyler and was friends with Nicholas West, now lives in Austin. But she said she will be returning to her hometown for the rally on Sunday.

Nicholas West

Murder victim Nicholas West

“I came out on the front page of the Tyler paper after being interviewed at the Stop the Hate Rally we held after Nick was killed. I became an activist for a short period but my career took off and I gladly moved away from Tyler. … I still struggle with the emotions from that time and it continues to impact me to this day,” Volmer told Dallas Voice in an email, explaining why she will be returning to Tyler to attend the rally.

In a post on Facebook, Volmer noted that she was bullied and harassed and even assaulted in high school because she was gay. She said another classmate was “chased down by a car and shot in the head,” because he was gay. And while those events and Nicholas West’s murder happened more than 20 years ago, the cyclist’s jersey and the January 2015 murder of trans woman Ty Underwood in Tyler prove the hate still exists.

“I plan to show up in Tyler this Sunday on Harvey Milk’s birthday to join this event to peacefully show East Texas that families and every day people oppose this message of exclusion and hate,” Volmer wrote. “Please join me in Tyler.”

The event begins at 11 a.m. at the park, at 1510 S. College St. in Tyler. Participants who are willing and able will participate in a hike or bike excursion along a route through the Azalea District that’s less than a mile long and chosen with those who are differently-abled in mind. After the bike/hike, participants return to the park to continue with their picnic.

Organizers have asked that those who attend keep in mind that this a peaceful gathering, intended to not be confrontational but rather show the diverse face of the LGBT community to the Tyler community at large. They have asked that those attending be mindful of not littering (no confetti please) and that if they encounter the “Deport LGBT” cyclist, not to engage him in any way.

They also encourage participants to wear “their fanciest handmade ‘DEPORT HATE’ shirts.”

—  Tammye Nash

Rehabilitated?

James Laster says he wants to make amends to those he hurt

prison

 

DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer

“It took 45 seconds to throw away eight years of my life,” 36-year-old James Laster said, speaking through a glass partition in the visitor’s building at the Ramsey Unit prison in Rosharon. Laster is serving an eight-year sentence at the Texas prison unit south of Houston after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the 2011 gay-bashing attack on Burke Burnett in Reno, Texas, just outside Paris.

Laster said he keeps himself busy in jail. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and does 300-400 pushups. After breakfast, he works as a teacher’s aide in cabinetmakers class.
“I’m good at it,” he said.

LasterHe said he enjoys showing others who’ve never touched a skill saw or a drill how to use them to build furniture. He called his job therapeutic.

Later in the day Laster said he works on his associate’s degree. He’s taking four classes this semester — government, history, geology and English. After dinner he spends time out in the rec yard, reads, does homework and writes. He has a TV in his cell, but said he rarely has time to watch it.

Laster was charged with three counts of aggravated assault after the October 2011 attack. He pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his hands and feet).

Burnett said everyone at the party they were attending that night was drunk. He said that when a fight broke out, several people — including Laster — attacked him, leaving him with cuts on his face, neck and arms from a broken bottle, contusions and burns resulting from when he was thrown or fell on a burning 55-barrel drum used to heat the barn.

Laster takes exception to some of the claims, saying Burnett wasn’t thrown onto a bonfire, as some news outlets reported, but fell on the burning drum, and that at least some of what police called stab wounds were from Burnett falling on his own broken beer bottle.

But Laster willingly takes responsibility for his part in the attack on Burnett, acknowledging that as he hit and kicked Burnett, he also called him “faggot,” which led to hate crime charges being leveled.

Another attacker, Micky Joe Smith, who was 25 at the time, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Charges were dropped against a third man, Daniel Martin, after Laster told police Martin had already left the party when the fight broke out. Burnett said he remembers more than two people attacking him, but no one else was charged.

Laster wrote to Dallas Voice in January. In his letter, he said he wanted to make amends to the LGBT community. We get letters from inmates all the time, but there was something introspective and interesting about Laster’s missing. Not only was his contact with us timely, coming as it did within months of a rash of attacks on gay men in

Oak Lawn last fall, he also seemed to be taking responsibility for his actions. So I arranged a visit with him through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The prison wasn’t easy to find. Google maps sent me to the wrong place — or more accurately, the map stops about four miles short of the prison’s location. But I was able to find someone who gave me accurate directions.

Laster was a little rattled as he came into the meeting room and sat behind a partition of glass and metal mesh. A guard had gotten him out of his class and brought him to the warden’s office before escorting him to our meeting. He said he’s trying to stay out of trouble, so a trip to the warden’s office can be quite upsetting.

As a result, we were both a little anxious as we began to chat and started by just introducing ourselves to each other.

“I love to write,” he told me. “If I’m frustrated, I can get a pen and paper out. Sometimes I write five pages.”

In part, he said, his writing is what got him to Ramsey Unit. He began taking classes before being moved to the South Texas location. Ramsey Unit is the only prison in the Texas penal system that not only allows a student to get an associate’s degree, but lets them advance their education to earn bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees.

Several hundred inmates at the unit are taking classes, Laster said. After he’s released, he’ll be responsible for reimbursing the state for his tuition.

Laster insists he’s not the same person he was when he entered prison. Burnett, reading Laster’s first letter, agreed, saying he didn’t recognize him from before, either.

“For the first two years, they punished me,” Laster said about his current sentence. “Now, I choose to try to do something productive and become a better person.”

He was first incarcerated in a prison near Palestine, where he described the treatment of gays and child molesters and said, “You see how they’re treated. You see the mentality. It begins to mold you.” Then, he said, he decided he was going to act like the kind of person he wanted to be treated as, and his behavior paid off.

Burke

James Laster, above, sits behind a glass partition during the interview for this article. Burke Burnett, here, seen just after he was attacked.

Laster said he’s thankful to be at Ramsey, where fighting isn’t tolerated. He said prisoners who are repeatedly caught in fights find themselves on a bus for another unit.

How did he get here?
When Laster was 15, his mother died. He had no relationship with his father, at the time, and no place to go. Child Protective Services had no options for him.

So some friends took him in and that’s when he got involved in dealing drugs. Within a few months, Laster was arrested for possession with intent to distribute and put into the juvenile detention system, where he was housed with violent prisoners.

“There should be some alternative for non-violent crimes,” Laster said of his first incarceration. “The state surrounded me with violence. All they did was prepare me for this” future of crime and violence.

But Laster is quick to stress that he isn’t trying to dodge responsibility for his actions. “That’s not an excuse, but an explanation,” he said of his assessment of juvenile detention.

When he was released from Texas Youth Commission, Laster lived first in a group home in Marshall and then with his sister, who’s less than a year older than he is. He described his work record outside of prison as spotty, and noted that he spent time in jail more than once, and when he was out, he often supported himself by selling drugs.

In his mid-twenties, Laster had a son, gaining full custody when the child was 18 months old. Laster raised his son himself — right up until the time his son was 7 and Laster was arrested for the attack on Burnett.

His son is still a source of great pride for Laster, whose eyes twinkle as he talks about his boy. “I taught him how to read and write,” he said. “He plays the trombone. He’s in National Honor Society and he’s extremely smart.”

Laster described what he called the best memory of his life — sitting with his son on the sofa, eating cookies and watching Sponge Bob Squarepants — before remorsefully acknowledging that he threw that away. “I chose this [violence and a prison sentence] over my son,” he said.

Laster gets to talk to his son on the phone from prison, but not often enough, he said. Prisoners can only call approved numbers, which must be land lines or cell phones that are billed monthly. His ex has a cell she pays monthly, so that number can’t be on his approved list. That means he only gets to talk with his son when the boy visits Laster’s aunt.

Laster recalled one instance when his son once asked him, “Why are you in there?”

“I told him I was at a party,” Laster said. “I told him I made a very foolish decision and I assaulted someone. I hurt this guy.”

“How hard did you hurt him?” his son asked.

“Pretty bad,” he said, adding that he apologized to his son for not being there for him.

Laster said his son was always a good kid he never had to spank, which means his son has “never seen the violent side of me.” That makes him happy, Laster said, because his violent side scares even him.

“One of the worst feelings in the world is not being in control,” he said. “I don’t like that I’m subject to hurt someone.”

He said that violent side only comes out when he’s drunk or high and he wishes there was counseling available. Since there isn’t, he has taken a course in prison called Christians Against Substance Abuse. But every time they were about to talk about an issue, like anger, the subject changed to the Bible, and since, Laster said, he’s not particularly religious, those classes didn’t help him very much

But classes did encourage him to read some self-help books that were helpful.

“I was mad at myself, at everyone else, at the system,” Laster said of what he has learned about himself. “My go-to feeling was, ‘I don’t care.’”

He described the night of the attack as one that began badly and quickly got worse. Already drunk, he got a ride to the party rather than drive himself. At one point he left and says now he wishes he hadn’t returned.

What’s next?

Laster had his first parole hearing last year. He described it as 10 minutes with people who wouldn’t be voting on whether to grant him parole.

He said they asked him: “Why did you stab this person so many times?” Laster disputed that characterization, telling them that he was in prison for assault with his hands and feet. But, he noted, the parole board sees all the charges as well as his full criminal history, which includes earlier drug charges and two DWIs.

Laster insists he’s planning to remain sober. That’s why, when he’s released, he doesn’t want to return to Paris where he’d be surrounded by people who are still doing drugs.

“My sobriety is very important to me,” he said several times during our visit.

In prison, among other skills, Laster said he has learned welding and hopes to find a job in that field when he is released. He also hopes to make amends to his son for not being there for him during the years he was locked up.

If he serves his entire sentence, Laster will remain in prison until Nov. 2, 2019.

Final words
Before I left Dallas, I asked Burnett if he had a message for Laster. He said nothing in particular he wanted me to relay, but told me I could tell Laster anything I thought was appropriate.

So I told Laster that after the sentencing, Burnett took a year to recover physically and emotionally, but now he’s living near Dallas, has done a lot of good in the community helping other attack victims and has a very happy life.

During the two hours we spoke, Laster repeated that he took full responsibility for his actions, and stressed that he didn’t want anything I wrote to sound like he was making excuses.

So, just before I left the prison, I asked Laster if he had a message for Burnett. Tears came to his eyes, and he thought for a moment.

“I apologize,” he said.

He tried to find additional words, then shook his head.

“Tell him I apologize.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2016.

—  David Taffet

Perry suspends presidential campaign

Rick-Perry

Former governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry.

Jesus has told Rick Perry to suspend his campaign for president, and Rick is listening, according to NPR.

Speaking at the Eagle Forum conference today in Missouri, the former governor of Texas said: “When I gave my life to Christ, I said, ‘Your ways are greater than my ways. Your will superior to mine.’ Today I submit that His will remains a mystery, but some things have become clear. That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the presidency of the United States.”

I wish Jesus would have spoken up earlier and talked to Rick about not running for governor. Ever. Anyway.

Perry has had trouble getting any traction since Day 1 in this, his second presidential campaign. He is at or near the bottom of a very crowded field of candidates — Donald Trump, frighteningly enough, leads the pack — and he was forced to stop paying staffers last month.

—  Tammye Nash

Get your tickets for Gay Day at Six Flags

Six FlagsDallas Pride Weekend is just around the corner, which means you’ve gotta budget your time and wallet for how to spend the festivities. Well, here’s a shout-out to one of the best deals out there: Dallas Voice’s Gay Day at Six Flags. For years, we’ve sponsored this annual out-and-proud celebration, that gets you into the park for only $36.50 (plus tax) and includes parking. That saves you more than 50 bucks.  Don’t wait too long, though — you have to buy your tickets online beforehand — they won’t be available at the gate. Click here for the link, and enjoy rides, food and more. This has been a great year to be gay, let your rainbow colors fly.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones