Annise Parker | Discrimination | Houston | News

'Very Personal' LGBT Non-Discrimination Battle in Houston Could Get Even More Personal

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BY LISA KEEN

In a battle she characterized as “very personal” and “about me,” Annise Parker, the openly gay mayor of the fourth most populous city in the United States, won a victory last Thursday. She convinced the Houston City Council to establish a law that would prohibit discrimination based on a range of characteristics –including sexual orientation and gender identity—in public and private employment, housing, and contracting.

Now, she may well have to take on two bigger fights: one to protect the law from a referendum campaign and another to protect her job from a recall effort.

In the heat of debate two weeks before the vote, Parker said the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) applies to “the range of protective groups” but added, “the debate is about me.”

“The debate is about two gay men at this table,” she continued, referring to the 17-member council’s two openly gay members, Robert Gallegos and Mike Laster. “It is very intensely personal.”

And that debate continued for more than eight hours on the final hearing, with more than 200 people making comments for and against. Most testified for the legislation but many waved Bibles and said the ordinance would “make criminals” of Christians. The vows of recall and referendum were voiced even before the Council voted 11 to 6 on May 29 to approve the comprehensive law. And they have continued since passage, along with a placeholder webpage that urges citizens to check back for information about the petition drive.

WilsonA long-time anti-gay activist in Houston, Dave Wilson, is said to be orchestrating the recall and referendum effort.  Wilson has been quoted by a number of media as saying Parker's push for the non-discrimination ordinance was "pure payback" to the LGBT community. Parker is the city’s first openly gay mayor.

But most political pundits say they think it will be hard for Wilson and other opponents to gather 42,500 signatures in 30 days for a recall of the mayor. And more importantly, the city charter requires any recall be based on "some ground of incompetency or unfitness for or misconduct or malfeasance in the office."

“It’s not just a matter of gathering signatures,” said Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans this week.

“Opponents also have to prove malfeasance or dereliction of duty. It’s not as simple as just not liking a specific vote. A more likely situation is a successful petition drive to require a vote on repealing the ordinance, which requires 17,269 signatures within 30 days of passage of the ordinance.  Opponents have already started the petition process for that.”

If a recall or referendum or both make it onto the November ballot, the contest would likely become the most important political battle for the LGBT community this year. It would be seen as a test of the staying power of one of the country’s highest profile openly gay elected officials and providing a measure for how entrenched anti-gay sentiment is in the south.

Recall“I guarantee this recall election will be as big as anything else in November, and it will draw all kinds of attention and money,” wrote progressive political blogger Charles Kuffner.

And Houston is an old, bloody battleground for gays. In 1985, city voters rejected an effort to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination by a margin of four to one, and the ballot measure didn’t even include the word “gay.” That covered only city employment.

In 2001, 52 percent of Houston voters amended the city charter to prohibit any “privilege” based on sexual orientation and to deny domestic partners of city employees the benefits provided to the spouses of married city employees.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor last June that the federal government could not deny recognition to marriage licenses obtained by same-sex couples in states which treat them equally, Parker implemented a policy of providing equal benefits to city employees who had married their same-sex partners. That immediately drew opposition from a small group of Republicans who filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the benefits from going into effect. A federal judge refused to stay Parker’s directive and the lawsuit is still pending.

Some opponents claimed Parker’s benefits violated the charter ban on “privilege” based on sexual orientation, but Parker said the benefits do not violate the charter because they are limited to couples who are legally married, and some same-sex couples obtain marriage licenses from other states. Parker and her longtime partner married in California two months later.

The possibility of a referendum on the new non-discrimination law  strikes many as more likely. If that does become a battleground, it will almost certainly include focus on what opponents’ obsession with public bathrooms.

The original draft of HERO included language that explicitly protected the right of transgender individuals to have access to bathrooms that match their gender identity.

“At the request of HRC [Human Rights Campaign] and the Greater Houston Partnership [the local business council], that section was removed but the transgender community is still completely covered by the ordinance,” said Evans. “I would note that the language in the original draft was unique to Houston. The fact that no other city had taken this approach was part of the reason for the removal of that section.  It brought Houston’s ordinance in line with others.”

The final language also got the stamp of approval from the local NAACP, but only after Parker agreed to remove a section specifically protecting transgender people’s access to bathrooms.

The section read: “It shall be unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to intentionally deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, or similar facility if that facility is consistent with and appropriate to that person’s expression of gender identity.”

Opponents conjured up images of men entering public restrooms and urinating next to six-year-old girls.

After removing the language, Parker posted a Twitter message saying, “"To my trans sisters/brothers: you're still fully protected in Equal Rights Ordinance. We're simply removing language that singled you out.-A"

But Dave Wilson told the Houston Chronicle he’s also trying to put a measure on the ballot to amend the city charter to explicitly bar a biological male from using a women’s restroom. The Chronicle says the earliest a charter amendment could appear on the ballot would be next May.

Meanwhile, the 30-day clock is ticking on the hopes Wilson and opponents of HERO have to force a recall vote or a referendum on the new law.

Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for HRC’s state and municipal advocacy, said HRC mobilized its members to support the new ordinance and is ready and willing to help defend the law if necessary.

© copyright 2014 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. I don't believe that this situation would have become a big as an issue if, the mayor would have been a straight woman. Over and over again, since the beginning of the lgbtq community has been looking for equal rights has there been someone using the tired, old lies to drive fear. When someone that is close minded and hide behind said beliefs, they tend to make things more personal.

    Like in this situation, trying to removing a mayor from office because she is a member of the lgbtq community. I hope that one day someone that is in a public figure would be seen as a person that is trying to make a difference for the common good for their citizens that they represent. Whether that is for someone that is a member of lgbtq or not. When will someone's sexuality or gender not come into play? Perhaps one day.

    Posted by: t.rhea | Jun 4, 2014 10:50:08 AM


  2. As if most legislation and administrative laws passed in the name of Christianity (makes me ashamed to be a Christian) aren't "pure payback" for the right wing heterosexist community.

    Posted by: Victoria Pynchon | Jun 4, 2014 10:58:50 AM


  3. For those not familiar with Houston, Parker took office in the middle of a budget crisis for the city. As someone who has had many jobs both in the city government and in the private sector, she knew exactly where to cut. She got the city back on track without gutting programs that hurt the poor or put the city's infrastructure at risk. The city has never looked better, in fact. She's been a success as mayor something even her detractors can't deny. The only real criticism of her seems to be that she's a lesbian and that seems to rub most people the wrong way (even people who are mildly homophobic don't like that as a criticism of someone who is doing a good job).

    Posted by: Houndentenor | Jun 4, 2014 11:14:42 AM


  4. For those not familiar with Houston, Parker took office in the middle of a budget crisis for the city. As someone who has had many jobs both in the city government and in the private sector, she knew exactly where to cut. She got the city back on track without gutting programs that hurt the poor or put the city's infrastructure at risk. The city has never looked better, in fact. She's been a success as mayor something even her detractors can't deny. The only real criticism of her seems to be that she's a lesbian and that seems to rub most people the wrong way (even people who are mildly homophobic don't like that as a criticism of someone who is doing a good job).

    Posted by: Houndentenor | Jun 4, 2014 11:14:42 AM


  5. Maybe someone should tell those Bible-waving bigots that being supportive of teh LGBTs isn't grounds for recalling an elected official.

    Posted by: Peter | Jun 4, 2014 11:17:00 AM


  6. I'm from Houston, and this is not as serious as people in other areas of the country might assume. Yes, the Christians are noisy, but Houston is the most diverse city in America. (Even over New York - check the stats.) Most people within the city limits are either content or thrilled with our liberal leadership. Only the suburbs are outraged by the ordinance; they don't even figure into this equation.

    Posted by: Sergio | Jun 4, 2014 11:29:40 AM


  7. I'm never going to god awful Houston, and that lesbian looks like a living headache

    Posted by: Troy | Jun 4, 2014 12:13:41 PM


  8. If they get enough signatures it will certainly be repealed. Texans are the biggest bigots in the world. They hate everybody who is not a right wing Christian male.

    Posted by: Merv | Jun 4, 2014 12:15:31 PM


  9. Hey LISA KEEN --
    I don't know where you're getting your source material, but you're factually wrong on a few points...

    The ordinance was passed on WEDNESDAY and signed into law that night (not Thursday).

    The trans-specific bathroom language was not removed at the behest of the Greater Houston Partnership or HRC -- all the LGBT groups participating in this effort called for that language to be removed because it was BAD language and would have let business owners act like gender police with impunity.

    Dave Wilson is driving the recall effort -- not the repeal referendum. A recall of the mayor will take more than 17K signatures and if they get them (big if) then it goes before City Council to approve or reject. A charter amendment can't go before the voters this year because we just had an election that amended the city charter -- and you can't have changes in back-to-back years.

    The repeal petition effort is being led by the Houston Area Pastors Council -- and will likely get it to the ballot since it only takes 16,950 certified registered voters... but it's highly unlikely that it will pass in the fall.

    Posted by: Mike in Houston | Jun 4, 2014 12:29:29 PM


  10. Troy, you can stay away. We don't want god awful people like you ruining what we have ;-).

    Merv, the PEOPLE in Houston elected an openly gay person. Saying that Texans are the "biggest bigots in the world" is in itself a bigoted statement. Houston is incredibly diverse. Texas is BIG... while much of the state is rural and has southern roots, you can find a plethora of diverse opinions in the bigger cities.

    The backlash is from the more suburban areas. Unfortunately, Houston has quite the sprawl. In my day to day interactions with my straight coworkers and friends, there is no frustration over this ordinance. I wouldn't even be surprised if the haters got enough signatures to put the ordinance up for a vote. And even if they do, I'm confident enough that the ordinance would pass by popular vote.

    Posted by: Evan C | Jun 4, 2014 12:32:18 PM


  11. They are just desperate. They, like NOM, are just wasting their energy knowing they are going to fail.-

    Posted by: simon | Jun 4, 2014 12:40:38 PM


  12. @EVAN C -That's the problem the big time bigoted sprawl

    Posted by: Troy | Jun 4, 2014 12:40:57 PM


  13. A "privilege based on sexual orientation" would be providing benefits to heterosexual married couples. She should order that to stop immediately.

    Posted by: footwork61 | Jun 4, 2014 12:43:00 PM


  14. Troy, those who live beyond the beltway and happen to fall into Houston city boundaries really do not have much of a say when it comes to city issues. Like I said earlier, this city elected an openly gay mayor who is not ashamed of her orientation or her history regarding her work for gay rights. Despite your judgmental remark regarding to her giving you a headache, the city of Houston loves her. She is in her THIRD term and has done a lot of wonderful things for the city, despite how god awful you think Houston is.

    The haters and the bigots do not have a foothold in this city. If you think otherwise, I think it is safe to say you don't really know Houston.

    Posted by: Evan C | Jun 4, 2014 1:04:55 PM


  15. I love this mayor and have heard FANTASTIC things about her.

    Posted by: VOV5 | Jun 4, 2014 1:25:23 PM


  16. This is why I vote for qualified LGBT candidates. It matters to vote for people who have our best interest because they are likely to understand our oppression and work to change it. Thank you Mayor Parker!

    Posted by: Jordan | Jun 4, 2014 1:26:30 PM


  17. Don't talk to Troy and Merv, folks. They're too busy suckling on each other's breasts to make informed, substantive contributions to the conversation.

    Posted by: Sergio | Jun 4, 2014 2:04:23 PM


  18. I agree with Sergio, even though I'm a liberal gay New Yorker!

    Posted by: Gay Guy | Jun 4, 2014 9:50:05 PM


  19. Evan: " Saying that Texans are the "biggest bigots in the world" is in itself a bigoted statement."

    Pffff. No, it's an observation. It's wrong only because there are worse states than Texas. Not many, mind you.

    Posted by: BobN | Jun 4, 2014 10:01:10 PM


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