LGBT Non-Discrimination Ordinance Passes In Long-Awaited Council Vote

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After months of protesting, activism and one highly publicized scandal, San Antonio city council voted 8-3 to pass an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance– marking a historic moment for a city that’s stagnated in ensuring the LGBT community be afforded equal rights.

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A chamber divided. Supporters of the NDO wore red shirts while those who opposed donned blue. Photo by Mary Tuma

The ordinance grants gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents the same (read: “same,” not “special” as several opponents claim) protections as their heterosexual counterparts when it comes to job hiring, firing, public accommodations, housing and city employment and contracts as well as board and commission appointments by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the city’s anti-discrimination code. San Antonio is the only major city in Texas that doesn’t include protections for their LGBT residents in the municipal rulebook. Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth and El Paso enacted policies and so have more than 180 cities across the nation. The Current has been covering its evolution since the onset; you can read up about the NDO’s progress in this week’s issue.

The hard-fought battle came to a close today, when the majority of council expectedly voted to enact the ordinance, catalyzing immediate standing applause from the crowd of LGBT community and its supporters, who have spent years hoping to bring the city up to speed with gay rights.

“It’s hard to truly describe how I feel,” said Community Alliance for a United San Antonio (CAUSA) co-chair Dan Graney after the vote. “I’m ecstatic. It’s been a long, tough struggle but in the end, I’m happy that truth, justice, and equality prevailed.”

“Now, it’s time to heal the divisions and come together.”

‘Yes’ votes from Mayor Castro, Ray Lopez, Cris Medina, Rey Saldana, newcomers Ron Nirenberg and Shirley Gonzales and of course, sponsor Diego Bernal were fairly predictable. Extending rights to the LGBT community is the “right thing to do,” said Lopez. Her advocacy for the NDO was a major reason she got elected, said Gonzales, who was endorsed by the Stonewall Democrats. It’s hard to believe free speech would be limited considering the widespread mainstream and religious support from groups like the SA Chamber of Commerce, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and the San Antonio Spurs, argued Castro. "I believe this ordinance will help ensure that everybody in this city is treated equally," he said. Chan unsurprisingly criticized the ordinance, calling it "reverse discrimination" and requested to table the NDO—a motion that eventually failed.

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LGBT advocates celebrated the passage of the city's non-discrimination ordinance shortly after the council vote. Photo by Mary Tuma

Less predictable came Rebecca Viagran’s support for the ordinance. Undecided on how she would vote in the months leading up to the final council meeting, the newly-elected District 3 council member finally showed her hand, saying the NDO doesn’t take away any rights but instead, adds protections to those, “marginalized and vulnerable.” The second ambiguous vote cleared up today came from District 2's Ivy Taylor, who said she was unable to pledge her support because it would force residents to choose between, “law and faith.” In a seeming contradiction, Taylor defended the rights of all citizens, saying no one should face discrimination yet in the end, couldn’t condone a measure she saw would compromise her own values. “I know people will call me ignorant and call me a bigot,” after this, said Taylor, "but in my heart I know I am not."

With shouts of “Vote No!” intermittently emanating from anti-NDO protestors outside, the council decision followed a brief presentation on NDO background by city attorney Michael Bernard and roughly three hours of public testimony from about 120 citizens, many who were unable to speak during Wednesday’s Citizens to be Heard session. Last night’s debate stretched past midnight and was fraught with incoherent arguments from the opposition and conservative misinformation, as Current editor Callie Enlow reported.

The misinformation campaign spilled over during today’s testimony. For instance, despite the fact religious exemptions exist in the ordinance, those opposed erroneously claimed down to the last minute that the NDO would “criminalize” Christian values and religious beliefs. They also falsely suggested the ordinance violates the Texas Constitution, a claim Bernard has refuted. They un-ironically reminded council of God’s judgment, “hatred must stop because it doesn’t please the Lord,” said one testifier. Others offered undiluted disgust—the LGBT lifestyle is “filthy” sin said another testifier.

But perhaps most notably, those opposed to the ordinance strove to disengage the struggle to ensure LGBT rights with the civil rights movement. One testifier even presented a slide show of persecuted African-Americans during the early 1960s in an attempt to distinguish between “real discrimination” and the hurdles the LGBT community faces, minimizing the gay rights struggle for justice.

Pastor Charles Flowers—an African-American religious leader who has made the same argument, even invoking Martin Luther King Jr. at times—has most visibly and vocally led the fight against the NDO. Today, Flowers offered a threat to council members supportive of the ordinance. If you vote yes, he told council, his religious right cadre will do everything they can to make sure those council members are unseated. A handful of other anti-NDO speakers made the same threats, pointing to the recent effort to recall ordinance author Bernal and promising a similar fate for Mayor Castro.

For a speech that detailed his personal history with those in the LGBT community that have aided him throughout his career; his upbringing that instilled in him an imperative to represent the vulnerable; his disapproval with the idea the process wasn’t transparent (there wasn’t a lack of process, rather a “lack of professionalism,” he said) and his genuine effort to allay the fears of the religious residents by editing ordinance language, Bernal—who has faced heat from both sides of the debate for either being too lax or too stringent—prompted a standing ovation, cheers and shouts of “Hero.”

Christian conservative groups, such as the Liberty Institute, have vowed they would file a federal lawsuit if the ordinance passes and there will surely be vocal critics from the religious right in the days to come, meaning the fight may not be over. But for now, the local LGBT community, who congregated outside chambers– embracing one another and shedding tears of happiness– are focused, as they should be, on celebrating the significant win.

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