Days after Houston celebrated its annual Pride festival and parade, Harris County showed its support for the queer community by enacting a policy to protect its LGBTQ workers.
In a 3-2 vote during a meeting on June 25, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved revisions to explicitly add sexual orientation and gender-identity protections in its nondiscrimination policy. The court’s new Democratic majority—county judge Lina Hidalgo, along with commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia—voted in favor of the pro-equality measure.
Ellis, a longtime LGBTQ ally, first proposed adding LGBTQ protections for Harris County employees.
“It’s fitting that we [did] this during Pride Month,” said Ellis. “We have come a long way from the Stonewall Uprising of 50 years ago, but we still have work to do to ensure full equality for LGBTQ people. [Adding this policy language] is an integral step toward equal protection for members of the LGBTQ community. ”
Six people testified at the commissioners’ meeting, and most were in favor of the addition of LGBTQ protections. Five members from Houston’s queer community, including activists, an attorney, and a former Harris County employee, urged the Commissioners Court to pass the measure.
“I would like to think that Harris County is one of the most progressive and inclusive counties in America, and our internal policies should reflect that,” Mike Webb, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, told the court. “I want to encourage our amazing commissioners to vote not just with the commissioner who brought this motion to the table, but with the [many County employees] who would feel more comfortable being out.”
There is no national law that protects LGBTQ employees, and Texas is one of 30 states that lacks workplace protections for queer workers. Attorney Fran Watson, who spoke in support of Ellis’ measure, believed that an update to Harris County’s nondiscrimination policy was essential for the 23 municipalities that lie within the county.
“This revision is a necessary step to ensure that all employees working for the third-largest county in the country are protected,” Watson said. “Additionally, it shows that Harris County is committed to creating a work atmosphere in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity, by promoting equal opportunities and prohibiting unlawful discriminatory practices.”
The only opponent of the LGBTQ employee protections was Houston Area Pastor Council founder and president Dave Welch, who led the effort to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in 2015.
“These lifestyle-driven agendas—sexual orientation and gender identity—have no established definition in the law, so they’re undefinable,” Welsh said, later stating that the new nondiscrimination policy would be used against those who do not support the LGBTQ community based on their religious beliefs.
Welch also noted that there were no documented reports of LGBTQ discrimination in Harris County, and that protections were unnecessary. But Candice Webber, a former employee of Harris County, recalled LGBTQ discrimination happening at work, and said that a new policy would allow queer folks to finally come forward with their stories.
“[There were] countless times when my directors and coworkers spoke anti-trans rhetoric, and treated trans women differently. I constantly had to go to battle for my community,” Webber said. “It came to the point where I started to look like I was the problem—the one who was always stirring up trouble. The reality of it is, LGBTQIA people don’t have to stir up trouble. Trouble comes to us in the form of hate, bigotry, and discrimination.”
Both Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Raddack voted no on the nondiscrimination policy’s revisions. Cagle countered Ellis’ proposal with a separate resolution that would remove all language from the policy that identified specific protected groups, and instead replace it with a policy that prohibited harassment of all employees.
Ellis said that all legal policies need specificity in order to prove crimes. Hidalgo sent Cagle’s proposal to the Harris County legal department so that attorneys could weigh in on the pros and cons of removing specific language from the policies.
After the 3-2 vote, Ellis’ proposed measure became effective immediately, adding sexual orientation and gender identity into the Harris County nondiscrimination policy.
“Not sure why we needed to have a debate about this,” Hidalgo tweeted to OutSmart. “Remember it, write it down, take a picture: we will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Harris County!”
Watch footage from the June 25 Commissioners Court meeting here: facebook.com/HCJudgeHidalgo/videos/884788738532039/
This article appears in the July 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.