By John Wright
During the June 15 vigil at Houston City Hall for the 49 people murdered at a gay Orlando nightclub three days before, Mayor Sylvester Turner pledged to “give meaning and value to every community.”
Less than a week later, Turner backed up his statement by announcing the formation of an LGBTQ Task Force—the first in the city’s history—to make recommendations to his office.
In a statement provided exclusively to OutSmart, Turner said the idea for the Task Force came from the LGBT community, and he envisions it functioning like the mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board, by “providing a conduit for communication.”
“It’s important to me to be able to hear from all groups because not only is Houston diverse, we are also inclusive,” Turner said. “As I stated at the Houston Stands With Orlando Vigil, as long as I am mayor, we are going to stand together.”
It wasn’t immediately clear who will serve on the Task Force, or how many members there will be. At a June 24 press conference in advance of Houston’s LGBT Pride celebration, Turner said he expected to announce the Task Force members sometime the following week.
“Now, more than ever before, we have to rededicate ourselves to the fight for equality and inclusion,” Turner said. “I believe government can lead the way.”
Transgender activist Lou Weaver, who was working with the mayor’s office to set up the Task Force, said he expected members to meet for the first time before the end of July.
The goal of the Task Force, Weaver said, is to “let the people running the city know what it’s like to be an LGBT person here in the City of Houston, and what some of the topics that come up on a daily basis are.”
Those topics, Weaver said, likely will include not only LGBT-specific issues, but also things like homelessness and immigration.
“It’s intersectional work,” he said, adding that the goal is for the Task Force to be as diverse as possible.
Creation of the Task Force marks Turner’s first major LGBT initiative since taking office in January—two months after voters overwhelmingly repealed the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance, making Houston the nation’s largest city without a nondiscrimination law.
Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an email concerning the Task Force that resurrecting HERO is “not something that’s being worked on right now,” adding that Turner is still focused primarily on the city’s pension woes.
Weaver said he believes it’s unlikely the Task Force will take up HERO, adding that he’s unsure what specific policy issues the panel might address. But he said it’s important for the LGBT community to be visible in the wake of the terror attack at Pulse Orlando, the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“We have to be able to utilize this momentum and recharge our movement,” Weaver said. “The Task Force will be a part of that.”
Houston will become the second major city in Texas with a standing LGBT Task Force. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings’ LGBT Task Force has pushed through several initiatives in recent years, leading to that city’s first-ever perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Municipal Equality Index, which rates cities according to LGBT inclusion.
Houston, meanwhile, received a score of 48 out of 100 on the 2015 MEI—the lowest score among the nation’s 10 largest cities.
In addition to lacking a nondiscrimination ordinance, Houston lost points on the MEI for not having LGBT liaisons in the police department or mayor’s office, and not offering transgender-inclusive healthcare to employees.
In January, when Turner told OutSmart his top priorities during his first six months in office would be pensions and potholes, he also pledged to address the MEI score.
Weaver said he believes Turner, whose office organized the City Hall vigil attended by 15 City Council members, is off to a good start with the LGBT community.
“I think he’s got a lot on his plate with flooding and other things, but he hasn’t forgotten us,” Weaver said. “Obviously, it’s going to be hard for anyone to follow in Annise Parker’s footsteps, but he’s doing it.”