TX legislative panel advances pro-LGBT bill for 1st time in 12 years

John Carona

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, voted in favor of the pro-LGBT bill.

Even in Texas, LGBT equality is inching forward.

For the first time in 12 years, a state legislative committee advanced a specifically pro-LGBT bill on Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice voted 4-1 to advance SB 1316 — which would provide legal protections for sexually active gay and lesbian teens.

Sen. John Carona, a Republican from Dallas who made news by waffling on LGBT issues last year, joined three Democrats in voting to advance the bill. The Democrats who voted for the bill were author John Whitmire of Houston, Juan Hinojosa of McAllen and Jose Rodriguez of El Paso. Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, voted against the advancing the bill. The other two Republican members of the criminal justice committee were absent from the hearing.

The committee heard testimony from the parents of gay teens before voting to advance the bill, which is backed by Equality Texas. No one testified against the bill, although the anti-gay group Texas Values issued statements to media outlets saying it amounts to “promoting sexual behavior.”

Under Texas law, sexual contact with minors under the age of 17 is a crime of indecency. But a “Romeo and Juliet” defense protects teen couples from prosecution as long as they are in a consensual relationship, both over 14 and within three years of age of each other. However,  the law specifically states that this protection is available only to couples of the opposite sex. SB 1316 would give same-sex teen couples the same protection as their heterosexual peers.

A House version of the bill, HB 2403, was also heard by a committee today but did not receive a vote. Despite clearing the Senate committee, the measure still faces long odds. It would need a two-thirds majority vote from the full Senate before it can be considered on the floor.

The last pro-LGBT bill to clear a Texas legislative committee was the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which includes protections based on “sexual preference” and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2001.

Four anti-bullying bills passed the Legislature and were signed by Perry in 2011, but none contained specific protections for LGBT youth.

 

—  John Wright

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez on getting hate mail after coming out as pansexual

Gonzalez.Mary

Texas state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, who is believed to be the nation’s first pansexual elected official, recently did an interview with El Paso Inc. in which she talked about, among other things, the reaction of other legislators and the public to sexual orientation and her  historic election. Here’s a snippet:

Q: The Texas Legislature is a profoundly conservative workplace. Without delving into your personal life, how have members reacted to your coming out so publicly and to your unusual sexual orientation?

I think in the beginning they were confused by me for a lot of different reasons. You look at me and you don’t expect me to have an agriculture background. You read about me and my ambiguous sexuality. I think in the beginning there was confusion.

But, I hit the ground running. I filed 29 bills, opened my office before any other freshman. I’ve been at the mike asking pointed questions. I think I’m serious and that as progressive as I am, I’m not polarized when it comes to politics. I can work with Republicans and get along with Republicans, and I can get things done.

I think the best way to combat any oppression is for people to meet someone who is that identity. So, they’ve met me; they understand me a little better and see me as a person. They don’t care anymore.

Q: What about the public reaction?

Right after all the media stuff happened, it did feel like bullying. I was getting hate emails and ugly, ugly messages sent to me. At that point, I thought, “This is why no one comes out in politics. This is why kids don’t come out in schools.” While I’m proud of all the barriers we’ve broken, it has not come without a lot of ugliness attached to it.

Read the full interview here.

—  John Wright

Possibly gay state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez charged with DWI after Austin crash

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Naomi Gonzalez

In the 2010 Democratic Primary, challenger Naomi Gonzalez was gay-baited by incumbent state Rep. Norma Chavez, who famously (and redundantly) called Gonzalez “a lesbian woman.”

Gonzalez went on to upset Chavez in the primary, but would neither confirm nor deny that she is in fact gay.

Naomi Gonzalez, not to be confused with her out and proud neighbor, El Paso state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, is now in her second term in the Texas House.

Last night, Naomi Gonzalez was charged with DWI following a crash near downtown Austin that injured three people. Gonzalez  was traveling at an estimated 50 mph when her BMW rear-ended a Fiat, which rolled forward and struck a woman on a bicycle, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

My question is, does this not seem like the type of reckless behavior that goes hand in hand with the self-torment of living in the closet?

It’s only speculation, of course, but here’s my point: The era when the LGBT community is willing to tolerate closeted or partially closeted elected officials — regardless of whether they are actively doing harm to the community — needs to come to an end. Because even if they aren’t harming us, they are undoubtedly harming themselves and the people around them.

If you can’t be open and honest about who you are, how can we trust you with the public’s business? And if you aren’t comfortable representing yourself as an LGBT person, how can you possibly represent me?

—  John Wright

Republican strategist encourages repeal of Texas’ sodomy law

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Dan Neil

Republican strategist Dan Neil told Fox News in Austin that it’s time to take §21.06, the homosexual conduct law, off the books in Texas. That provision of the Texas Penal Code was declared unconstitutional in 2003 in the Lawrence v. Texas case.

Last week, state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston filed a repeal bill in the Texas House. State Sen. Jose Rodriguez filed a companion bill in the Senate.

“If it’s unconstitutional, they should take the measures and time to get it off the books,” Neil said. “It makes fiscal sense to get it off the books so that there is not another situation as in El Paso where there’s a lawsuit and the city pays out for something that it shouldn’t pay out for just because a legislator didn’t take the time to get it off the books.”

Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith told Fox, “It’s there for no other reason than to denigrate and demean lesbian and gay Texans.”

The El Paso case referred to a couple kicked out of a restaurant for kissing and threatened by a police officer who said he would arrest them under the statute. Kissing was never included as illegal conduct under the law.

The question is whether Neil’s support will translate into Republican votes needed for the measure to pass.

Watch the video below.

—  David Taffet

Racist, anti-gay bill would allow college student groups to decide membership

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State Rep. Matt Krause

Conservative freshman state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has filed a bill that discriminates against people based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

HB 360 would deny state funding to colleges and universities, including private institutions, that require a “student organization, including a religious student organization, to allow any student enrolled at the institution to participate in the organization, regardless of the student’s beliefs or status, including race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

The bill states that colleges requiring a religious organization to accept any member regardless of “status or beliefs” violates the First Amendment, “including the rights of free exercise of religion and of freedom of association.”

When asked what the bill’s purpose was, Elliott Griffin, Krause’s chief of staff, said the bill was currently being redrafted to be more narrow. He said he would discuss it more after the language was final.

Krause is perhaps best known in the LGBT community as the Liberty Counsel attorney who defended Fort Worth student Dakota Ary after he was suspended for making anti-gay remarks in class.

Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said the legislation could possibly apply to a faith-based organization at a private university that wants to limit membership to straight white men. He said the bill is so offensive it likely won’t go anywhere.

“It’s pretty much offensive across the board,” Smith said. “I think that piece of legislation is dead on arrival. It’s an equal opportunity offender.”

This week’s Equality Texas’ legislative update focuses on the other anti-gay bill filed this session by Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. His bill would penalize school districts who offer domestic partner benefits to its employees.

Watch the video below.

—  Anna Waugh

Anti-bill would cut funding for TX school districts that offer DP benefits

Springer.Drew

Rep. Drew Springer posted the above flier on his Facebook promoting his bill to cut funding for school districts that offer benefits to domestic partners.

 

A Republican state representative from Cooke County wants to cut funding for school districts in Texas that offer benefits to the domestic partners of employees.

Last year, the Pflugerville school district became the first in the state to offer DP benefits, extending them to both gay and straight domestic partners.

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, on Wednesday filed House Bill 1568, which would reduce a school district’s healthcare funding by 7.5 percent if they offer DP benefits to anyone other than an employee or a dependent of an employee.

“Our tax-dollars are for educating kids, not for enacting policies that attempt to get the state to recognize homosexual relationships,” Springer said in a release. “To think Pflugerville has sued the state for more funding, while at the same time bankrolling a lifestyle most Texans do not agree with is quite disturbing to me.”

Jonathan Saenz, president of the anti-gay group Texas Values, said: “This bill is a clear message to every Texas school district, if they mess with the Texas Constitution, it will cost them, dearly.”

Springer’s release says those who have questions about the bill should call him at 512-463-0526 or email him at Drew.Springer@house.state.tx.us for more information. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Read Springer’s full press release below.

—  John Wright

State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa files bill to legalize civil unions in Texas

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Sen. Chuy Hinojosa

State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has filed a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas if the state’s 2005 constitutional amendment prohibiting both same-sex marriage and civil unions is first repealed.

Hinojosa’s SB 480 would take effect in 2014, but only if the 2005 amendment is overturned under resolutions filed last week by Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, and Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. To pass, those resolutions would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to be placed on the ballot, then support from a majority of voters in November.

Hinojosa’s bill would repeal a portion of Texas’ 2003 Defense of Marriage Act (not to be confused with the federal version), which is part of the Family Code and states that Texas and its political subdivisions are prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions from here or elsewhere. The 2003 DOMA was passed in response to the legalization of civil unions in places like Vermont, as well as a Beaumont couple’s attempt to obtain a divorce from their civil union in Texas.

According to a press release from Equality Texas (the bill text was not yet available on the Legislature’s site), Hinojosa’s bill would remove the prohibition on civil unions and provide for the establishment of civil unions for same-gender couples, granting them “the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under the law as are granted to spouses in a marriage.”

Executive Director Chuck Smith said while Equality Texas supports marriage equality, civil unions would be a step in the right direction.

“We believe that every Texas family should be able to take care of those they love. Today’s action by Senator Hinojosa is a landmark first step in the process of dismantling Texas’ discriminatory ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ and charting us on a path toward full equality,” Smith said. “Equality Texas supports full equality and the freedom to marry. Our work for equal recognition of all Texas families will not be complete until the discriminatory Texas Marriage Amendment is repealed from the State Constitution and DOMA is fully repealed from the State Family Code, thus allowing committed same-gender couples the freedom to marry. Until then, this legislation would provide committed couples with some of the important protections they need in order to take care of their families.”

Read Equality Texas’ full press release below.

—  John Wright

WATCH: Why is Texas’ ‘homosexual conduct’ law still on the books?

I went on WFAA-TV’s Inside Texas Politics this week to talk about Texas’ “homosexual conduct” law, which remains on the books despite being declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court 10 years ago. Watch my commentary at the 8:30 mark in the video below.

—  John Wright

Texas media outlets highlight problem of anti-LGBT workplace discrimination

Trans woman Lisa Scheps tells her story of anti-LGBT job discrimination to Austin’s Fox 7. Watch the full report below.

For the first time I can recall, non-LGBT media outlets in Texas are reporting on the fact that it’s perfectly legal for employers here — and in about 30 other states for that matter — to fire someone just for being LGBT. Which is critically important because, as Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith tells Austin’s Fox 7, 80 percent of the public wrongly believes that LGBT people are already protected against employment discrimination. Again, just to be clear, we’re not. Except in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth — which have city ordinances — you can legally be fired in Texas just for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Coincidentally, Fox 7′s story highlighting transgender woman Lisa Scheps’ story of workplace discrimination aired on the same day that Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, filed SB 237, which would ban anti-LGBT employment discrimination statewide. Equality Texas’ Daniel Williams says it’s the first time a version of the bill has been filed in the Senate, where one Republican at least, Dallas Sen. John Carona, told Dallas Voice recently that he would vote for it. The House version was again filed this year by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who’s also interviewed in the Fox 7 story. Even the Dallas Observer posted something about Van de Putte’s bill. The Observer says the bill’s chances of passage in the Republican-dominated Legislature are “almost zilch,” and that’s probably true, but just getting the media to report on it is progress.

Watch Fox 7′s report below.

—  John Wright

El Paso Rep. Mary Gonzalez sworn in as Texas’ only openly LGBT legislator

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, is sworn in at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday. (Andrea Grimes/Dallas Voice)

ANDREA GRIMES  |  Contributing Writer

Out of the 150 voices swearing to do their democratic best in the Texas House of Representatives at the state Capitol this morning, only one belonged to an out pansexual: El Paso’s history-making 29-year-old educator Mary Gonzalez.

Today, she became the first openly LGBT female to serve in the Texas Legislature, the first known pansexual elected official in the nation and the first woman to serve District 75. Oh, and she’s also the youngest member of the 83rd Legislature.

Safe to say, there are some eyes on Mary Gonzalez.

“Today was a really wonderful experience,” Gonzalez told Dallas Voice this afternoon after the House’s first session of the year. She brought a number of friends and family members to her first day of work, including her father — “my Republican father!” noted Gonzalez, laughing — and her girlfriend.

Gonzalez effectively won her seat in May 2011 when she won the Democratic Primary in El Paso’s District 75, where there was no Republican challenger. Gonzalez was the first LGBT candidate elected to the Legislature since Glen Maxey, D-Austin, left office in 2002. During her campaign for the seat, Gonzalez’s challengers kept bringing the conversation back to her sexuality. It’s a topic she doesn’t shy away from, but she also tells the Dallas Voice that it is not, and shouldn’t be, the sole definer of her political career.

Now that Gonzalez and her staff are busy moving into her sparsely decorated office in the Capitol, she’s ready to get to work — especially since it’ll give folks something to talk to her about besides her sexual orientation.

“One of the reasons identity has been so central to my public persona is because there’s nothing else,” said Gonzalez. “I haven’t been able to take votes yet, I haven’t been able to give, hopefully, amazing speeches yet. So I hope to fill the void of information out there.”

As the youngest member of the House, she’s also part of a new generation of politicians who focus on intersectionality, recognizing that race, gender, class and other identifiers can’t necessarily be separated from each other.

“It is a little bit suffocating to only be known as this queer, lesbian, pansexual representative,” said Gonzalez. “While that’s important to me, it does create an invisibility to other parts of me. I don’t want it to overshadow the work I want to do to serve my district.”

Gonzalez calls intersectionality the “lens” through which she “views the world,” and embraces the different aspects of who she is: Latina, working class, pansexual. Through that “lens,” Gonzalez says she’ll look at three major issues during the session: agriculture, the border and education.

First up is a dairy farm bill that could help shore up Gonzalez’s economically struggling district. She remembers her first time walking into the agriculture council meeting, “all dolled up” and surrounded by older white male legislators: “They’re like ‘Who are you?’ I grew up on a dairy farm!’”

She’ll also be working on issues surrounding a new international bridge in El Paso, tackling how to “manage growth and development” in a way that doesn’t create more colonias, border settlements with little-to-no infrastructure or access to sanitation and water.

In the long term, Gonzalez will focus on creating a state work-study program, confident that it would be “huge” if she can show “how work study programs help students graduate.” And as for LGBTQ issues, she’s working on those, too, hoping to co-author bills with Dallas Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia.

Whatever happens over the next 139 days, Gonzalez certainly doesn’t intend to cut herself, or her staff, any slack: “I want it to be the most progressive, most inclusive, most welcoming office to everybody who comes in.”

—  John Wright