Texas Civil Rights Project protects the right of all individuals to be who they are
by Megan Smith
Imagine being outed to your friends and family without your permission. For the queer community, it’s a nightmare that can set stomachs twisting at the mere thought of it. Well, that’s exactly what happened to a Kilgore High School student who was outed by adults she trusted.
In March 2009, the then-16-year-old Skye Wyatt was cornered, harassed, and threatened with dismissal from the softball team by her two coaches unless she admitted to a sexual relationship with another girl. After denying the accusations several times, Wyatt finally admitted to the relationship. After denying the accusations several times, Wyatt finally admitted to the relationship. The coaches then outed Wyattto her mother and kicked her off the team. As a result, she suffered severe emotional and mental distress and was alienated and harassed by other students at school.
A federal court case grew out of the incident, with lawyers arguing that the coaches violated Leslie’s constitutional right to privacy by revealing her sexual orientation without her permission.
In a monumental victory for the LGBTQ community, the federal court affirmed the constitutional right to keep one’s sexual orientation private—a first in this region of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Although Kilgore ISD and the coaches have since appealed the decision, lawyers continue to defend Leslie’s case and protect this newly affirmed constitutional privacy right.
So who is the legal face behind this landmark case? It’s the Texas Civil Rights Project, an organization that’s bringing high energy and justice to Houston’s civil rights scene this summer. Presenting free, direct legal representation, community education, public awareness campaigns, and advocacy to those who have historically been underrepresented in the justice system, the Texas Civil Rights Project is a beacon of hope for those who need it most.
Founded in 1990 by current director Jim Harrington, TCRP seeks to promote racial, social, and economic justice through community education and litigation. TCRP projects address a variety of human-rights issues including disability rights, rural economic justice issues, racial discrimination, free speech protection, criminal justice issues, and LGBTQ discrimination. With successful offices in Austin, El Paso, Alamo, and Odessa, Houston marks the largest city to have a TCRP presence. “Houston has a great need for the Texas Civil Rights Project,” Harrington says. “The city has the financial health for the project to be self-sustaining.”
With its team of hardworking pro-bono lawyers, TCRP has a long history of defending the rights of LGBTQ people. The Project settled a lawsuit against El Paso police and Chico’s Tacos (stemming from an incident in which two men were thrown out of a restaurant for kissing at their table), succeeded in a suit against an Austin landlord who evicted a lesbian couple because of their sexuality, and even filed an amicus curiae brief in Lawrence v. Texas. A long-time partner with The Hollyfield Foundation, the Project has also made great advances in securing the rights of HIV-positive individuals.
The Project isn’t stopping there when it comes to protecting the queer community. TCRP’s Safe Schools Program is a free, curriculum-based seminar series for middle- and high-school students, focusing on preventing student harassment and discrimination. Although the program focuses mainly on the LGBTQ population, protection for all students is emphasized to create safer learning environments. Safe Schools includes young LGBTQ guest speakers who share their personal stories with students, a discussion of students’ rights, ways to eliminate homophobic language in schools, and more.
Harrington hopes to approach Houston schools on an individual level, allowing the Safe Schools program to reach as many students as possible. “In Houston, our Safe Schools program is a high priority,” Harrington says. “We hope to work with any school that is receptive to the program.” Safe Schools volunteers have previously presented at local PFLAG groups, numerous high schools, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Anti-Defamation League’s Summer Institute.
Facing an overwhelmingly large amount of human rights cases each year, the Project hopes to form strong partnerships in Houston to assist with litigation. With support from organizations like the Houston Pro Bono Network and the Houston Bar Association, TCRP can prevent overlap in cases so that individuals are served more efficiently. “We’ve been talking to other law firms in the city, hoping to partner with them,” Harrington says. “We’re really looking to forge those kinds of ties here in Houston.” The Project is currently looking for more pro-bono attorneys to join the cause.
For more information about TCRP and the pro-bono attorney program, or to report civil rights violations, visit texascivilrightsproject.org or contact:
Amin Alehashem, attorney
Texas Civil Rights Project, Houston Office
2500 East T.C. Jester, Ste. 285
Houston, TX 77008