The Texas legislature convenes this month, threatening renewed attacks on GLBT equality. The executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby outlines a battle plan.
By Randall Ellis
How is it possible to put up a fight when you don’t even realize you are at war?
I’m paraphrasing George W. Bush, in a speech he made during the 2004 presidential campaign. They were probably the only remarks he made with which I agreed. Bush was suggesting that John Kerry failed to realize the gravity of the situation in Iraq. I would apply those words to the LGBT community’s struggle for equality.
To put it bluntly, we are under attack by the religious right, and many people within our own community don’t realize it. We have a choice: We can stand up and fight for change, or we can continue to let narrow-minded and intolerant people make decisions for us.
Some political pundits say President Bush made a calculated decision early in his bid for reelection. He chose to use LGBT Americans as political pawns when he announced his support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The proposed Federal Marriage Amendment would perpetuate a second-class status for LGBT Americans, enshrining discrimination in the very document created to protect and preserve the rights of all Americans. President Bush’s Texas lackeys, Republicans John Cornyn and Tom DeLay, pushed this proposal through the Senate and the House of Representatives. Despite enormous hype, the measure fell well short of the votes needed to move the discriminatory proposal forward.
Even many conservative lawmakers who oppose marriage equality for LGBT Americans seemed to agree: Marriage is an issue that should be handled by the states. Indeed, in the wake of the FMA failure, the enemies of equality in this country realized they needed to make marriage equality a state issue. In the months leading up to the election, two states passed their own marriage amendments. Additionally, 11 states had the amendments on their ballots in November.
Then George Bush won reelection, and 11 states passed constitutional amendments defining marriage.
So the pundits say Bush’s win was due to the large turnout of evangelical Christians who adamantly oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples. They were up in arms over the decision in Massachusetts that legalized marriage for same-sex couples there. And of course there were the shocking images of loving same-sex couples committing themselves to each other in civil matrimony in San Francisco, New York, and Oregon. Everywhere they looked, the defenders of “traditional marriage” were bombarded with images of gays and lesbians having our relationships recognized and our families protected. It’s no wonder there was a backlash, right?
Whoa there, Nellie.
The truth about the election
Let’s look at this issue rationally before we start blaming the election results on LGBT Americans. Of the 11 states that had ballot amendments against same-sex marriage, eight of those states were already unalterably Republican. In the three battleground states, Kerry actually did better than Gore. All in all, only 2 percent of voters said gay rights was their most important issue. And Kerry, we need to remember, opposed same-sex marriage as well.
But, there is a lesson here for fair-minded Americans to take away from the November elections. If nothing else, November 2 must be a wake-up call to all of us that we are engaged in an historic fight for equality, fairness, and dignity. For the LGBT community, our number-one priority must be to support, nurture, and strengthen the capacity of our state and local grassroots organizations to win this fight. These are the organizations working to educate and mobilize voters. That’s what our enemies have been doing for 30 years across the nation and especially here in Texas. Gay America did not cost Kerry the election. The way progressive America has played this game that we call politics is the reason Kerry lost the election.
This was illustrated for us right here in Texas when the Democratic Party lost control of the state house in 2002. This was the direct result of being outplayed in the critical arena of grassroots organizing. And that loss set the stage for the disastrous political exercise known as the 78th session of the Texas legislature in 2003. Time and time again, women’s rights, health care for children, and LGBT rights were ignored and/or trampled upon (we won’t even mention redistricting). In November, the rest of the nation got a glimpse of what Texans are already beginning to realize: If we do not change how we play this game, we will continue to lose.
Back in business
With the 79th session of the legislature opening this month, the state marriage-amendment battle has now made its way to Texas. Representative Warren Chisum wasted no time in filing his own proposal to amend the state constitution. The Republican has filed House Joint Resolution 6 (HJR6), a short amendment that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman. As the federal amendment would do to the U.S. Constitution and LGBT American citizens, the addition of Chisum’s amendment to the Texas Constitution would create a second-class citizenship status for LGBT Texans.
Not wanting to be outdone by Chisum, Republican representative Robert Talton of Pasadena filed his own amendment, House Joint Resolution 19 (HJR 19). This amendment goes further. It would ban the recognition of same-sex marriage, civil unions, or “any legal status for unmarried persons which is identical or substantially similar to marital status.”
Bye-bye, common-law marriage. So long, living wills and powers of attorney. Hasta la vista, domestic partnerships. Talton just cannot tolerate anyone who does not fit into his vision of the world. What a scary place his world must be.
There will be other issues that we must deal with during the upcoming session. You know, the normal stuff—like attempts to ban LGBT adults from serving as foster or adoptive parents. The Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas and our allies have been able to defeat these attempts in the past, but there is every reason to believe that this session will be the toughest ever. In fact, there is even talk of removing gays and lesbians from the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act.
On the offensive
But LGRL will not be spending all of our time on defense this session. There will also be proactive legislation filed to advance the rights of our community and to make the Lone Star State a better place for all Texans.
Representative Jessica Farrar of Houston has filed legislation, House Bill 143, which would prohibit discrimination in employment. The Democrat has long championed the rights of all Texans, and we can expect her to continue to push for a greater awareness on this issue. Every Texan who wants a job should be able to have a job. Sexual orientation and gender identity or expression have no bearing on one’s ability to be productive and effective on the job.
Representative Eddie Rodriguez will file similar legislation on behalf of Texas state employees. The Austin Democrat is another champion of social justice and will no doubt continue to work hard for the LGBT community of Texas.
Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston has also fought hard for the LGBT community of Texas, particularly working to increase the funding for HIV/AIDS services and prevention. This session, the Democrat plans to introduce legislation that would protect LGBT youth and employees in public schools and universities. Although several schools in the Houston area have recently passed policies that protect LGBT youth, our state has a long way to go. We must make sure that every child has access to an education and that harassment and bullying do not prevent our state’s youth from obtaining that education. We should truly be a state where no child, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children, should be left behind.
Senator Leticia Van de Putte is once again planning to work hard for the transgender community. We can expect to see legislation from the San Antonio Democrat’s office that will facilitate the reassignment of one’s gender on a Texas driver’s license. On that note, the LGRL board of directors this year formalized a policy that has been in practice since I began work with the organization in 2002. LGRL will only support legislation that is inclusive of the transgender community. Our community must work together to stand up to our foes.
Our proactive legislation will be pushed hard, and the lawmakers working on our behalf will remain dedicated to the advancement of equality and social justice. LGRL will continue to educate Texans on these issues and work to build alliances and partnerships with other minority groups to advance the agenda of true equality.
With all this said, the Texas marriage amendments pose the greatest threat the LGBT community in this state has faced, and defeating it will require the collective work of lawmakers, LGBT Texans, and every ally that we can bring to the table to stop it. This is a battle that we can win, but we all must be involved.
What to do now
First, we must fight to keep these amendments bottled up at the legislature. The passage of these amendments is not a slam dunk. We, as a community, can block these measures. An amendment to the Texas constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote of each chamber, which is a much higher standard than required to pass an ordinary bill. If you have never been involved in state politics, now is the time. Lawmakers must hear from you and understand that we are watching what they do. They should not assume we will continue to vote for them. Just as our rights are imperiled, their jobs can be in jeopardy. The LGBT community can no longer afford to give lawmakers a pass on the issue of marriage. They need to realize that amending the Constitution to create a second-class status for LGBT Texans will not be tolerated.
Let me lay out a few things that we can all do to become involved.
This is the year that we must all become citizen lobbyists. Visiting with your legislators and their staffs does not require a trip to Austin. They all maintain district offices that you can visit and let your views be known. This is the most powerful tool our community can use in politics. Legislators must understand that we are real people with real families and real concerns. By putting a human face to the issue, legislators will begin to understand. I encourage each of you to visit the LGRL District Lobbying Project web page at www.lgrl.org/dlp for information that will walk you through a lobby visit and give you simple tips to remember and use.
Second, you can join our voter identification project, Equality Knocks. This ambitious program is an effort to identify fair-minded voters who will support the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texans at the voting booth. We need voters who will stand with us when it comes to supporting:
• Safe schools for LGBT youth
• Employment non-discrimination protections
• Civil marriage equality for same-sex couples
The most critical work we do is walking door-to-door talking to registered voters, educating them and asking them for their support on these issues. In 2004, we identified more than12,000 fair-minded voters in key swing districts across the state. In 2005, we will have to reach many more people if we are to influence the legislature and a possible campaign to defeat an amendment at the polls. The bottom line is this: The more people we speak with, the stronger our community becomes in influencing statewide, county, and local elections.
Even if the marriage amendments were to pass the legislature, we can fight a smart campaign that will allow us to make sure our allies are reelected and new lawmakers representing our community’s values are elected. This is exactly how our opponents have built such a strong base, and it is how we must play the game if we are to take back Texas.
Third, mark your calendars for March 13 and 14. On March 13, thousands of LGBT Texans and allies will descend upon Austin as participants in the LGRL March for Our Families. The march begins at the intersection of South Congress and Riverside and will proceed to the south steps of the capitol building. Thousands of Texans will march in solidarity as we prepare for the most important battle the Texas LGBT community has ever faced. The following day, LGRL will host a lobby day at the capitol. Hundreds of Texans will visit lawmakers to stress the importance of equality and justice for all. This promises to be an emotional and inspirational weekend. Make your plans now to be a part of this historic march.
Last, but not least, support the work of LGRL, Texas’s only statewide LGBT organization fighting for the community at the state level. Log on to www.lgrl.org for membership details and information on our efforts. We cannot wage this battle without your support.
So, right now, today, I call upon you to become involved. We are up against the fight of our lives, and it will take every member of our community, as well as every current and potential ally, to advance our agenda of equality in 2005. I look forward to the opportunities this struggle provides us to speak out loud and strong and to spread a message of fairness, equality, dignity, and tolerance for every Texan.
Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, wrote about community allies in the Texas legislature for our June 2003 issue.