MISSION ACCOMPLISHED | Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman said the LGBT lobbying organization stayed persistent and reached its major goal in this legislative session. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Although prospects were dim as session started, Equality Texas has achieved its top priority with passage of anti-bullying bill

JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
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When the 82nd Texas Legislature convened in January, things weren’t looking good for the LGBT community.

Republicans had seized a supermajority in the House in November elections, and Equality Texas, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, had eliminated half its staff — including its legislative lobbyist — due to budget constraints.

Five months later, when the legislative session ends this coming Monday, Equality Texas will have defied the odds and achieved its No. 1 priority — passage of meaningful anti-bullying legislation.

On top of that, the group has seen committee hearings on more than a dozen bills it supported, and appears to have staved off several anti-LGBT measures, including one targeting transgender marriage and another aimed at eliminating gay resource centers on college campuses.

“I would give this a very high mark as far as a legislative session for us,” said Dennis Coleman, who was named executive director of Equality Texas just months before the session began.

“I would give it an ‘A’ considering where we thought we were going. I don’t think that anybody thought that we would make any kind of progress based upon last year’s elections, and I would say I was a little skeptical as well.

“We stayed persistent,” Coleman added. “We found allies to work with all across the board. Equality Texas became the expert on a lot of the bills that were out there, especially around the bullying bills.”

For Equality Texas, the session was highlighted by final passage this week of HB 1942, the bipartisan anti-bullying bill by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, that now awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature. Passage of Patrick’s bill, a compromise measure that includes portions of several other anti-bullying bills, comes on the heels of the gay youth suicide crisis of last fall.

“It’s unfortunate that it took the suicide of children for people to really pay attention to what we knew about almost 15 years ago,” Coleman said. “For many people they think it just popped up, but this has been going on for at least three sessions.”

To help win passage of Patrick’s bill, Equality Texas enlisted people like Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, as well as the parents of bullying victims including Asher Brown, the gay 13-year-old from the Houston area who took his own life last year.

“It was a promise I made to Asher the day that he died before his little body left this house,” Amy Truong, Asher’s mother, said this week in an Equality Texas press release marking final passage of HB 1942. “I told him that I would never stop fighting until we did something to change this.”

Coleman downplayed criticism that Patrick’s bill doesn’t include enumerated protections for LGBT youth. “I think by making it as broad as you can, you include everyone without excluding anyone,” Coleman said. “To say that LGBT students are not covered is wrong.”

Coleman added that although he doesn’t believe the absence of LGBT protections weakens the bill, “I definitely think we would not have gotten the broad bipartisan support had we continued trying to fight for everything we thought should have been in there.”

As of Thursday, Equality Texas was patiently awaiting final passage of a second bill it supports, a youth suicide prevention measure from Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

But the group’s work won’t end with the session on Monday. Dennis Coleman said he believes a special session is likely, which could provide an opportunity for defeated anti-LGBT measures to re-emerge. He added that the group has a very short window for fundraising prior to the 2012 election cycle.

“I don’t know what kind of vacation I’m going to be taking anytime soon,” Coleman said as he traveled from Austin to Dallas for a fundraiser on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re tired, but we’re happy with the results.”