At the start of this year’s legislative session, LGBT groups braced themselves for a bumpy ride. With an overwhelming Republican majority in the House and the Senate’s conservative edge, advocates knew prospects weren’t rosy. But despite a few heated battles, one of which nearly derailed a crucial state budget bill, LGBT groups claim the 82nd session was an overall victory, noting that advocates successfully avoided some of the most damaging proposals and wound up scoring one of their top priorities for the session: an anti-bullying measure with teeth.
“I thought we came out pretty well this session, especially with the passage of the anti-bullying bill,” said Dan Graney, president of the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus, the LGBT wing of the state’s Democratic Party. “Despite the ultra-conservative nature of this Legislature, we didn’t feel LGBT people were under the gun or as attacked as they have been in the past.”
Darrell Parsons, a San Antonian who sits on the National Board of Governors with Human Rights Campaign, says the LGBT community is not always aware of how fast things are changing for the better. “I see us making progress by leaps and bounds, not only legislatively with laws like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell being overturned,” Parsons said. Beyond DADT and New York’s fresh victory for marriage equality are fundamental attitude shifts.
Despite national stunts pandering to fringe elements that don’t reflect today’s America, popular attitudes about homosexuality are changing fast — even in Texas.
In a 2010 Equality Texas poll, 60 percent of responders said they felt that LGBT couples were seeking equal — not “special” — rights. And 63.1 percent supported civil unions for gay couples. A Texas Tribune/UT poll likewise found 63 percent in favor of either civil unions or full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Parsons points to other, more public forms of expressions of this change.
Take comedian Tracy Morgan, forced to return to Nashville to apologize for hateful comments he made about gays recently. Closer to home, former chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party Dan Ramos was widely lambasted by a wide array of political interest groups and politicians after he compared homosexuality to polio in an interview with the Current.
In short: “It’s not okay to be a gay-basher anymore,” said Parsons. “I know Texas is a red state, very red, but I’m hoping that one day marriage equality won’t be a red-state or a blue-state issue. … It may happen state by state, but eventually it’s going to sweep the nation. It’s just a matter of time.”
That is, it’s perhaps inevitable that marriage equality will find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly as a result of the district judge who recently overturned California’s Prop 8, intended to prevent gay marriage.
And while Texas’ 82nd Legislature was marked by many shades of wingnuttery, the worst of the bills targeting LGBT issues sank, while a handful of good ones rose.
Here’s our wrap-up.
Twice this year — once in the regular session and once in special session — state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, put so-called university gender and sexuality centers in his sights. In his first run, Christian filed an amendment requiring universities to spend equal state funds on “family and traditional values” centers and college LGBT resource centers. While the measure passed the House it was stripped from the Senate version of the bill.
Christian revived the issue this month, resulting in a long, heated, and bizarre floor debate as he sought to ban colleges from using any state money, or university facilities, for groups addressing “gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning, or other gender identity issues.”
He specifically targeted UT Austin’s Gender and Sexuality Center, which Christian said once hosted a gender performance workshop “that provided a lot of wigs and makeup”; and Texas A&M’s GLBT Resource Center, which sparked outrage among college conservatives by holding a “safe and fun sex” seminar. Democrats balked at Christian’s measure, some calling it “backward” and overreaching. As Christian described videos of a “naked rear-end” shown during A&M’s seminar, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, walked to the floor podium and shot out, “This is sickening.”
And Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, added, “If this amendment is passed, you’re going to be denying these students the right to socialize and discuss these issues in a safe environment, and that may not bother you, because you may say, ‘If they’re gay and somebody hurts them, so what?’”
Christian reluctantly withdrew the measure after it nearly imploded a crucial school-funding bill, the primary objective of for the special session. In pulling the proposal, Christian insisted he too has been the victim of discrimination, saying that on his high school basketball team he was kicked to the bench once the school integrated black students during his senior year. “I couldn’t play as good as they did, white boys can’t jump, so I received discrimination,” he said.
Sure the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy laws eight years ago, but we’ve had a hell of a time actually getting them scrubbed from the legal code. Revisited efforts in the 82nd Legislative session by Houston state Reps Garnet Coleman and Jessica Farrar made it to a committee hearing (a first) but that’s where the matter died. Their bills (HB 2156 and HB 604, respectively) would have finally removed Statute 21.06 regarding “deviant sex” from the books. In the big picture, it’s a small thing, perhaps. The language that today is merely annotated “declared unconstitutional by Lawrence v. Texas, 123 S.Ct. 2472” doesn’t carry legal weight and will be erased. Just like — again, one day — there will be legal gay marriage nationwide.
Who can and can’t marry in Texas? Some GOP lawmakers came to Austin this year shocked to find that, despite the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, a law they passed in 2009 actually validated transgender unions. Representative Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Senator Tommy Williams of Houston drafted proposals in the 82nd Lege that sought to end the practice, introducing bills that would have prohibited county clerks from granting marriage licenses when given a court order recognizing sex-change operations. While the attempts to invalidate transgender marriages were beaten back amid adamant protests from LGBT groups, transgender unions remain anything but certain in Texas.
The 2009 law stands in apparent contrast with a 1999 Texas appeals court ruling that says, for marriage purposes at least, you can’t change your gender — an opinion handed down by former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, then-Chief Justice of the state’s Fourth Court of Appeals.
The El Paso County Clerk’s office last year noted the confusion after Sabrina Hill, a transgender woman born with both male and female genitalia but identified as male on her birth certificate, sought to marry another woman. When the El Paso County Attorney’s office asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to issue an opinion on the matter, he declined and instead deferred to the case of Nikki Araguz, a transgender Wharton County woman. A state district judge last month invalidated her marriage, citing the 1999 appeals court ruling that prevents Araguz from receiving death benefits from her firefighter husband who died battling a blaze last year. “This is the kind of thing that’s rough, that’s scary for the whole trans community,” Lauryn Farris, a local transgender woman, said of the Araguz case. While the proposal to change the 2009 law infuriated LGBT advocates, “Invalidating [Araguz’s marriage] was also like a devastating blow of hatred to us,” she said.
Araguz has said she’ll appeal the judge’s ruling, and a spokesman for the AG’s office said it won’t touch the issue of transgender unions while there’s ongoing litigation.
Aaron Laughner, a local transgender man, married his wife Zabrina a year and a half ago in Iowa, and said uncertainty in the law hangs over the heads of transgender couples statewide. “I’m afraid this is going to result in huge custody battles in the future,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re going to end up with families that are torn apart, kids that are taken away from parents who raised them, and more battles over pension benefits.”
Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff said that when faced with transgender couples, he relies on the 1999 appeals court ruling. “Hardberger declared that you are what you are by the Creator,” he said, “I follow that.”
Last summer, members of Equality Texas were lambasting the Texas Republican Party for including “divisive and bigoted” tenets in their party’s platform, which included working to remove those living with HIV/AIDS (as well as learning disabilities and behavioral disorders) from definitions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But this summer, Equality Texas is celebrating passage of both anti-bullying legislation and a new suicide-prevention law. “One would think this would be a no-brainer,” Equality spokesperson Chuck Smith told the Current last week. “Unfortunately the reality of that is that it was much more difficult than it should have been.”
Also unfortunate was the amount of distancing the group had to do to move the bill. Smith said Equality was kept busy countering insinuations by radical conservative groups that the bill would be advancing the “homosexual agenda.” “The good news is that, one, that’s not true. And we were able to help people understand that’s not true,” Smith said.
Perry has kept his distance, too. Even though HB 1942 contains no specific protections for LGBT youth, his press office failed to even include the bill in a press release about legislation he signed off on Friday, June 17.
The law requires school districts to adopt anti-bulling policies that must take into account electronic harassment. The suicide prevention law instructs the state health department to create suicide prevention resources for Texas schools. Both bills were propelled along by the moving testimony of the parents of a Houston-area boy who shot himself in the head after enduring months of bullying at school.
Now comes Stage Two: watching to see that it is implemented fairly. “We will keep looking to see that the law is enforced equally. If it turns out a teacher or school administrator looks the other way, then in our opinion they should be fired,” Smith said. “If legislation needs to be more explicit in dealing with orientation or gender identity, it’s going to take electing some different people.”
Perry’s prayer team
With the close of the special session, Stonewall’s Graney said many LGBT organizations have turned their attention to Perry’s August 6 prayer gathering in Houston, sponsored by the American Family Association, an organization deemed an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In one statement that has particularly roused LGBT groups, AFA public policy analyst Bryan Fischer decried gays serving in the military in his AFA blog, saying, “Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine, and six million dead Jews.” Fischer also says gays should be banned from holding any type of public office, and regularly admonishes companies that participate in gay pride festivals or parades. “Teaming up with groups like the American Family Association, which basically attributes the Holocaust to homosexuals, is an insult to us,” Graney said, “especially because [gays and lesbians] were exterminated in the concentration camps as well.”
See you in Houston, Stonewallers? •