Gilbert, Staples square off for ag commissioner

Democratic challenger supports gay civil unions; Republican incumbent sponsored Texas’ gay marriage ban

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

Todd Staples, left, and Hank Gilbert
Todd Staples, left, and Hank Gilbert

Many LGBT people in Texas may not see the race for agriculture commissioner as a top priority. It’s not an office usually associated with having much impact on LGBT issues.

But there are clear differences this year between the two candidates when it comes to LGBT issues.

Todd Staples, the Republican incumbent, is a former state senator who co-sponsored the state’s ban on same-sex marriages when he was in the Legislature.And earlier this year, the agriculture commissioner joined with State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, to file a brief in the court case in which two gay men married in Massachusetts and had filed for divorce in Texas.

On the other hand, Hank Gilbert, the Democrat challenging Staples, has issued supportive statements on a wide range of LGBT issues, including full support for same-sex civil unions with all the rights and benefits marriage.

“Hank Gilbert has been a friend of our community for years,” said Dan Graney, president of the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus. “For somebody from Tyler, Texas, I am absolutely amazed at how open and supportive of our community he is.”

In a recent telephone interview, Gilbert himself said that he has never supported same-sex marriage, “but I would support it if it were put on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. I think it should be on the ballot.”

Gilbert also criticized Staples for “taking time away from the job he was hired by the people of this state to do [as agriculture commissioner] to file a brief on a case about two men who want to get divorced. That has nothing to do with his agency. He is just trying to get support from the right-wingers.”

Graney said that while the office of agriculture commissioner is “not particularly relevant to LGBT people … Hank could make a real difference in that office with his ability and willingness to hire people in his office who would be pro-equality. He is gone clearly on the record as being pro-equality himself.”

Gilbert confirmed that as ag commissioner, he would enact a nondiscrimination policy in hiring that would include LGBT people.

“Would I discriminate in hiring based on sexual orientation? Hell no! Two of my current staffers are openly gay,” Gilbert said. “I am going to hire people who are qualified and who I feel can do the job that I and the state require of them. I could care less what color or religion or political persuasion or sexual orientation you are.”

Gilbert did disagree with Graney, however, on the question of whether the agriculture commissioner’s office is important to LGBT people.

“This job is important to everyone in Texas. We are charged with making sure the food you put on your table is safe. [Staples] has been terrible at that. We have these constant outbreaks of e coli, and there was the incident in Plainview where that salmonella-tainted peanut butter got out and killed three people,” he said.

“This agency is also charged with making sure that all instruments in the state measure accurately — gas pumps, scales at the produce counter, scales at the pawn shop. This isn’t being done, either,” Gilbert added. “These are all important to consumers in Texas, no matter what your sexual orietation is, or your religion or your ethnic background.”

Neither Staples nor any spokesperson for his campaign returned calls seeking comment for this story.

Dallas County Republican Party Chair Jonathan Neerman and Log Cabin Republicans of Dallas President Rob Schlein also did not return calls seeking comment.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 01, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Trans couple in Texas case reminds us that marriage should be about love, not gender

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The Texas Tribune

Therese Bur and Sabrina Hill’s recent same-sex marriage in San Antonio was only possible due to an apparent loophole, and some in the LGBT community say their marriage is disingenuous and creates unnecessary confusion, but we disagree. For one thing, we’re thrilled that the marriage has stumped the hell out of right-wingers in Texas, including Attorney General Greg Abbott and State Rep. Warren Chisum. Above all, though, we see it as a touching love story and a compelling case for equal benefits for all couples, regardless of gender. The Texas Tribune has posted an in-depth piece about the Bur and Hill that’s well worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a snippet:

For Hill and Bur, getting married was about more than a public declaration of their lifelong commitment to each other or making a statement about equal rights. The two have been living for years in poverty. They live in the house they’ve been building in rural Hudspeth County, just east of El Paso. They can’t afford a hot water heater, and recently they’ve had trouble finding a way to pay Bur’s medical bills. If they were legally married, though, Hill could draw more monthly benefits from the Veterans Administration (she served in the Army), and Bur could get health insurance. After the El Paso clerk turned down their request for a marriage license, Bur says she was despondent, ready to give up. “I thought maybe we should just continue on in poverty,” she says. “It’s not fun, but we can do this.” Hill told her to have faith.

—  John Wright

Gay divorce update: Arguments Wednesday in Dallas case; AG's office to appeal Austin ruling

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Oral arguments are set for Wednesday afternoon in the Texas attorney general’s appeal of a gay divorce in Dallas, and attorney Pete Schulte said he’s expecting a media circus at the George Allen Courts Building. Schulte has stopped short of calling for an LGBT rally outside, but he does say he thinks the community should be prepared to respond in the event of anti-gay protesters. Also, TV cameras won’t be allowed inside the courtroom, so they’ll need something to film (hint, hint). The courthouse is at 600 Commerce St. in Dallas, and the oral arguments begin at 2 p.m. The courtroom is open to the public, but space is limited, so if you want to attend the actual proceedings you may want to arrive early. As if this case wasn’t already politically charged enough, Schulte reports that the 5th District Court of Appeals has granted 5 minutes during oral arguments to one of the two anti-gay state officials who recently filed a brief opposing the divorce, State Rep. Warren Chisum or Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. It’s unclear whether it will be Chisum or Staples making the arguments.

In other same-sex divorce news, Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has also decided to appeal a Travis County judge’s decision last month to grant a divorce to a lesbian couple. The district judge who granted the divorce had asked the AG’s office not to appeal the decision. The judge told the AG’s office that the Dallas case will decide the matter anyway and that continuing to fight the Austin case could have an adverse impact on a 4-year-old boy who was adopted by the couple. But apparently Abbott is less concerned about the welfare of the child than drumming up right-wing votes in November elections.

On Saturday in Austin, I got a chance to meet Angelique Naylor, one of the women who was granted the divorce in Travis County. Naylor, who participated in a panel during Equality Texas’ State of the State Policy Conference, told me that while the divorce case began as a way to legally end the couple’s relationship, it’s evolved into something more.

“Now I’m fired up and I want to do the right thing and make a stand,” Naylor said.

Naylor’s attorney, Jennifer Cochran, also participated in the panel on Saturday.

“He doesn’t like gay people for some reason,” Cochran said of Abbott.

—  John Wright