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Yes to HERO!: Rights And Protections For A Broad Range Of Houstonians

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By Lane Lewis

It seems like we keep having the same fight, over and over again. Year after year, we make progress . . . and then someone tries to take it away.

That is why the Democratic Party urges you to vote Yes on Prop 1, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

Houston has played an important role in our country’s march toward LGBT equality. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus is the oldest LGBT political organization in the South; Houston became the largest city in the country to elect an LGBT mayor, Annise Parker; and you helped elect me, the first LGBT Democratic Party chair for Harris County—the third-largest county in the United States.

Back in the late 1990s, during my community-organizing days, I met a clerk named Mark who was working for Justice of the Peace Mike Parrott. Since I was focused at the time on getting rid of Texas Penal Code 21.06 (which made LGBT sex illegal and thus made marriage and employment equality impossible to achieve), Mark sent me a police report from John Lawrence and Tyron Garner’s arrest regarding their alleged violation of Texas’ “Sodomy Law.”

I instantly realized that this was the case I was looking for and that it could lead to the elimination of 21.06. But first, I had to convince defendants Lawrence and Garner not to plead their case out, and that being part of history was the right decision.

I felt strongly that this was our community’s case more than it belonged to me or the defendants. I called Annise Parker, Sue Lovell, and Ray Hill to get their opinions. I then called Mitchell Katine, who was a well-liked attorney, and had spent years donating his legal services within the LGBT community. He worked for a successful, progressive law firm that I knew would have the funds to get this landmark civil-rights case off the ground. That case went on to the U.S. Supreme Court as Lawrence v. Texas, which is arguably the most prominent legal victory in LGBT history, and it paved the way for marriage equality.

Helping to strike down the nation’s anti-sodomy laws was just one piece of the journey that Houstonians have been a part of in this long fight for equality. And now we have yet another battle to fight at the polls on November 3.

Despite Houston’s prominent role in the march toward LGBT equality, we still have no local ordinance that protects LGBT folks from discrimination—unlike about 200 other cities across the country.

Around this time last year—in these very pages—I told you that the 2014 election was the most important one in our lifetimes. At the time it was a true statement, but as we know, the stakes keep rising.

Last year we talked about how the election of representatives like Wendy Davis and judges like Steve Kirkland were important to the things we do every day. This year’s city election is even more important, because the results will impact our day-to-day lives—flooding, road repair, safety, and our local economy.

Unfortunately, my friend of 24 years, Mayor Annise Parker, is not on the ballot this time. However, all of us, including candidates from mayor to City Council, will be asked to weigh in on something Annise and I both think is extremely important: the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

We call it HERO for short, and it affords rights and protections to a broad range of Houstonians regardless of race, age, gender, pregnancy, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or military status. It ensures that everyone has the opportunity to earn a living, take care of their families, find housing, and be served by businesses and government without fear of discrimination.

Predictably, some Houstonians are organizing against equality. There are even candidates running for office who are working against our equal rights ordinance. The Victory Fund, a national LGBT advocacy group, calls those people the “Houston Hate Slate.” It reminds me of Houston’s 1985 “Straight Slate” campaign. I thought we were past those politics, but clearly we are not.

Last year, the Harris County Democratic Party (which I proudly serve as chair) voted unanimously to support HERO. It was a proud day for our organization, and we hoped we would set an example for elected officials across the city. Over the next few weeks before the November 3 election, I will be reminding people that Democrats support equality. HERO should be a high priority this November, because losing this issue will be a setback for LGBT equality, as well as for all Houstonians. Defeating HERO would be a victory for the peddlers of rumor and innuendo. If Prop 1 fails on November 3, it will make Houston less friendly to business and cause us to lose conventions and major sporting events. It will hurt our reputation and, ultimately, our economy.

In this day and age, it is unthinkable to vote against equality. The Democratic Party suggests you support candidates who support equal rights, and be sure to vote Yes on Prop 1.

That is why I believe this is the most important election . . . but we can talk about that again in 2016.

Lane Lewis is the Harris County Democratic Party Chair, a past president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and a candidate for Houston City Council At-Large Position 1.

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