The 80th state legislative session adjourned last month. For a change, the politicians didn’t beat up on GLBT Texans.
By Tim Brookover
Photos by Christopher Bown
For the GLBT community, the significant news from the recently concluded Texas legislative session was that “nothing happened bad,” as state representative Garnet Coleman shared during a report at the June 6 Houston GLBT Political Caucus meeting. His remark was welcomed by enthusiastic applause, accompanied by relieved laughter from a crowd of activists, many of whom have for years been on the front lines in Austin, striving to turn back legislation hostile to the interests of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texans. “For the first time in a very long time in our community, we weren’t always playing defense,” caucus president Jenifer Pool said when she introduced Coleman, the longtime community supporter and honorary grand marshal of the 2007 GLBT Pride Parade last month.
As Coleman wrote in a post-session e-mail message to constituents, “Fortunately, not a single anti-GLBT amendment made it to the floor this session. Last session the House passed an amendment banning gays and lesbians from being foster parents in Texas. Despite ample opportunities to do so, no amendment like that hit the floor this session…. Fourteen pro-GLBT issues were filed during this 80th legislative session, compared to just one anti-GLBT bill….
“Changing hearts and minds isn’t inevitable; it’s happened because the GLBT community has worked so hard to educate people about ending discrimination and bigotry in our state. I believe that hard work translated this session into the inaction on legislation that would diminish the rights of GLBT Texans. In particular, Equality Texas, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and Randall Ellis at Legacy Community Health Services have done excellent political and advocacy work to advance GLBT issues this session.”
“Minds are changing,” Coleman reiterated at the June 6 political caucus meeting, joined by two other state representatives (who, like Coleman, had been endorsed in their races by the caucus), Hubert Vo and freshman legislator Ellen Cohen. “I can tell there’s a change in attitude, but that change came through hard work.” He advised the caucus crowd to remain vigilant about protecting GLBT rights. “So keep doing what you’re doing. Be nice and mean. Don’t just be nice.”
Cohen, who defeated Republican incumbent Martha Wong for the District 134 seat in 2006, thanked the caucus for its endorsement—and beyond that, the help from GLBT voters and organizations, including the Houston Equal Rights Alliance, in assuring her win. “The only reason I’m here is because you are there,” Cohen said. “Don’t think for a minute that you don’t have clout.”
The View from Austin
Considering the dominance of social issues, such as marriage and divorce counseling, Bible classes, limiting reproductive rights, religious expression in schools, and immigration, we were ecstatic that we were able to keep anti-LGBT issues off the table,” stated Paul Scott, executive director of the Austin-based Equality Texas GLBT rights organization after the 80th legislative session concluded in June.
“The most positive outcome, however, is our ability to have productive hearings, testimony, and conversations with legislators about the real issues facing LGBT Texans, including employment, insurance, bullying, hate crimes, and families.”
The issue perhaps of greatest concern to GLBT Texans was a threatened ban on gay and lesbian parents. In a post-session wrap-up, Equality Texas’ Scott reported:
“The opening salvo against lesbian and gay Texans began with Representative Warren Chisum’s statement that he would like to see a preference for heterosexual foster parents over gay and lesbian foster parents. Equality Texas staff members Paul Scott and Randall Terrell, Atticus Circle founder and Equality Texas board member Anne Wynne, LGBT lobbyist Bettie Naylor, and Texas Freedom Network board member the Reverend Larry Bethune met with Warren Chisum to confront his flip-flop on his statement in 2005 that he was no longer going to beat up on the gay and lesbian community. We let him know that we would aggressively advocate against any limitation or ban on gay and lesbian foster parenting as a misguided and ill-informed effort to discriminate against parents, and that his efforts would hurt children in Texas.
“We worked closely with various other political organizations, family organizations, foster care groups, and several House members to educate legislators on the desperate need for more foster parents in Texas. We also worked closely with Representative Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs) and his staff. Rep. Rose voted for the ban in 2005, but changed his position after numerous meetings with his constituents. This session, Rep. Rose chaired the House Committee on Human Services and worked with us to make sure we were aware of any attempts to restrict the pool of foster parents.
“Of particular note, we also worked with conservative and moderate Republicans who voted against the ban in 2005. With assistance from Texans Care For Children, a foster-care reform coalition, we were able to detail the overburdened state of the foster care system and the need for qualified foster parents. This work enabled us to bring conservatives and moderates over to our side of the issue.”
The following bills of GLBT interest received committee hearings during the legislative session, according to Equality Texas:
• HB 247 (Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas), Insurance Nondiscrimination: GLBT Texans presented testimony on the deleterious effects of discrimination in health, home, and all forms of insurance. Transgender Texans testified about the difficulties of obtaining insurance for general health issues. Final status: The bill was left pending in committee.
• HB 900 (Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio), Statewide Nondiscrimination in Employment, Housing, and Public Accommodations : GLBT Texans presented testimony on the positive outcomes of comprehensive nondiscrimination policies. Citizens from across the state also testified about their personal stories of discrimination in the workplace and housing. Final status: The bill was left pending in committee.
• HB 2612 (Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth), Hate Crimes Study : Equality Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League testified in support of a study on the effectiveness of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act passed in 2001. Since 2001, 1,500 hate crimes have been reported and only nine have been prosecuted. Final status: Voted favorably out of Criminal Procedure Subcommittee, but left pending before the full Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.
• HB 833 (Harold Dutton, D-Houston), Corrine’s Law, Bullying and Harassment in Schools : Though this bill was not GLBT-specific, Equality Texas and other GLBT-rights groups supported this legislation broadening protection of students from bullying and harassment and creating a state model policy. Final status: Left pending on the legislature’s calendar after passage of midnight deadline on May 10.
For more information on the Texas legislative session and the GLBT community, check out www.equalitytexas.org.
The single anti-GLBT piece of legislation presented as a bill this session was HB 1017, authored by Republican representative Bill Zedler of Arlington. His bill was aimed at banning gay-straight alliances in Texas high schools. “Fortunately, HB 1017 never even received a hearing from the Public Education committee,” representative Garnet Coleman said.