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Speaking Truth to Power

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The story of HERO
by Christina Gorczynski
Kristen Capps and Laila Khalili contributed to this story.

See also: Heroes of HERO and HERO Timeline

Strength in numbers: For weeks, citizens clad in red filled City Hall to testify in support of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Elected officials, community members, and faith leaders alike shared stories of love, pain, and bravery to reinforce their conviction that discrimination has no place in Houston. Photo by Mark Eggleston.
Strength in numbers: For weeks, citizens clad in red filled City Hall to testify in support of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Elected officials, community members, and faith leaders alike shared stories of love, pain, and bravery to reinforce their conviction that discrimination has no place in Houston. Photo by Mark Eggleston.

On May 28, 2014, with the help of countless nonprofits, faith leaders, businesses, neighbors, and friends, Houston finally passed the long-awaited equal rights ordinance, fondly and appropriately known by its acronym, HERO. The ordinance outlaws discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and includes 15 protected groups, of which only two were subject to opposition: sexual orientation and gender identity. Activist Christina Gorczynski describes the events leading up to the historic vote, including three days of emotional testimony, and warns the LGBT community that this civil rights struggle continues as a group of religious extremists begins their effort to overturn the new ordinance.

The morning of May 28, 2014, was dreary in downtown Houston. By 7 a.m., the long line that formed at the front security desk in the historic City Hall lobby spilled outside into the rainy plaza. Houstonians were gathering for the third and final City Council public session to speak on the matter of a citywide equal rights ordinance. Waiting in line to testify in support of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was the most diverse, determined group of activists our modern-day LGBT community has ever known: old, young, gay, straight, cis, trans, dark skinned, fair skinned, religious, nonreligious, parents, childless, married, single, differently abled, Texas natives, and immigrants. Also in line, though smaller in number, were those who were there to testify against the ordinance.

This was not the first time Houston had gone through the process to approve an equal-rights ordinance. In June of 1984, Council Member Anthony Hall proposed an ordinance to include sexual orientation in Houston’s nondiscrimination policies. The opposition’s response to City Council’s consideration of the ordinance was clear: the KKK and other extremists protested outside City Hall in the name of God. They physically and politically threatened elected officials who were LGBT allies. Undeterred, City Council passed the ordinance. Opponents immediately responded with a smear campaign and, capitalizing on public fear of the AIDS epidemic, spread false information and fueled increasing animosity. In the referendum that followed, voters repealed the nondiscrimination ordinance by a large margin.

Team HERO

The ensuing 30 years saw the election of an openly gay mayor and three council members, three favorable Supreme Court decisions, and the proliferation of marriage equality in many states. Then, in December 2013, a small group of individuals and organizations began to develop a grassroots movement. Facing the realization that Houston, the fourth most populous city in the nation, was being left in the dust by even the most conservative strongholds of Salt Lake City and Shreveport, Houston’s LGBT community, bolstered by a new generation of energetic leaders, decided to take another shot at equality. We committed to the passage of a comprehensive, inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.

By May 2014, we had a few things on our side that we did not have in the mid 1980s. Most importantly, we had the truth on our side: the truth that Houston voters had elected openly gay Annise Parker to citywide office nine times; the truth that, according to polling conducted by Equality Texas in February 2014, the majority of Houstonians supported a nondiscrimination ordinance; the truth that nondiscrimination policies were good for businesses and good for a city’s economy; the truth that every other major city in Texas and all other major U.S. cities already had similar ordinances to protect their LGBT residents from discrimination; the truth that, in spite of the support of the majority of our neighbors, our community still faced discrimination.

“At the end of your days, you will be able to look back and say that, once in your life, you gave  everything you had for justice.”  — Council Member Ellen Cohen quoting Jill Ruckelshaus, chair of the 1977 National Women’s Political  Caucus Convention
“At the end of your days, you will be able to look back and say that, once in your life, you gave everything you had for justice.”— Council Member Ellen Cohen quoting Jill Ruckelshaus, chair of the 1977 National Women’s Political Caucus Convention

What happened during the six months leading up to the final HERO vote on May 28 was an organic process led by Mayor Annise Parker and her administration. Council members Ellen Cohen and Mike Laster worked on developing the language of the ordinance with City Attorney David Feldman, and grassroots activists guided the process by providing feedback and demonstrating that the LGBT community and its straight allies were strongly united. Overall support in Houston was even stronger than Mayor Parker initially believed. And we had an army of spokespeople who came forward to speak truth to power.

Throughout the process, the opposition had protested, e-mailed, and telephoned, threatening to run against and defeat every City Council member who supported HERO. They lobbed threats on behalf of many communities: the business community, the African-American community, the Hispanic community, parents, children, women, teachers, sexual assault victims, and last but not least, the religious community. They attempted to divide Houston along ethnic and racial lines, claiming that the African-American community would not support HERO if sexual orientation and gender identity were included as protected classes.

When the opposition told us that the African-American community would never support us, we prepared to introduce them to the large and organized African-American groups within our LGBTQ community. Trans activists Monica Roberts and Dee Dee Watters signed up to speak at the public hearings and began to leverage relationships with African-American ally leaders from the NAACP and African-American Greek organizations to bring out a very diverse group of African-American HERO supporters.

“This was a true example of meaningful collaborations among many organizations for a common purpose: the elimination of discrimination in the city of Houston. As a group of African-American gay men, participation in this battle was not optional,” explained Kendrick T. Clack, national president of Delta Phi Upsilon Fraternity, Inc. Tamira “Augie” Augustine, president of Epsilon Xi Gamma, Inc, stated that her organization, along with Delta Phi Upsilon and Gamma Mu Phi, did a lot of “calling, e-mailing, and outreach to get the African-American community involved in this fight.”

“What the draft of this ordinance is designed to do is to be a comprehensive ordinance that protects as many people as possible.”— Council Member Mike Laster
“What the draft of this ordinance is designed to do is to be a comprehensive ordinance that protects as many people as possible.”— Council Member Mike Laster

Sensationalism was not in short supply among opponents, who claimed that including the LGBT community as a protected class would encourage violence against women and protect perpetrators, going so far as to literally call the ordinance a “Sexual Predator Protection Act.” Stating their belief that transgender individuals are inherently immoral, opponents engaged in reprehensible name-calling, labeling transgender individuals as child molesters, predators, and sex offenders. We reached out to the individuals and organizations who work closely with victims of sexual abuse and found willing partners in our effort to banish these claims with the truth.

When the opposition purported to represent all religious people and communities of faith, we brought out the faith leaders who lead fully inclusive communities of faith, as well as the faith leaders who are members of our LGBTQ community.

Breathing new life into our cause, a younger, more progressive generation helped fuel the grassroots movement, using Facebook and Twitter to send their friends the text of the ordinance, phone numbers and e-mails of City Council members, and information about coalition meetings. Several of the key participants in this effort were students at the University of Houston who had experience organizing on campus.

On May 28, we were prepared.

The Public Sessions

While our opponents bussed people to City Hall for a rally to demean and dehumanize our community, we filled the chambers with hard-working, civically engaged Houstonians who had sacrificed time from their jobs and families to testify to the need for equality for themselves and their neighbors. As if no time had passed, the same opposition leaders, who had prevailed 30 years before, proudly regurgitated the same ignorant rhetoric, standing outside City Hall, holding signs that read “Mayor Parker, stay out of our restrooms and businesses.” Meanwhile, inside Council chambers, HERO supporters debunked the opposition’s assertions and recounted painful episodes of discrimination. Following her testimony, Amelia Rose Miller, one of the many who shared their personal stories, stated emphatically, “Transgender women are not confused, not men in wigs and dresses, and not predators. Against my will and without my consent, I was surgically altered to male. I lived my life for 36 years as a male. I served in the military [as a male]…. I am a decorated veteran.”

One by one, members of the groups that opponents had claimed would benefit from the defeat of HERO stepped forward to deny those claims.

Greater Houston Partnership’s Bob Harvey explained that his organization’s mission is to make the Houston region the best place to live, work, and build a business. He, along with other business leaders, including Dr. Laura Murillo, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Alice Aanstoos of AT&T, spoke in favor of the ordinance. The business community clearly supported HERO because they know the truth—that a nondiscrimination ordinance will attract the best and brightest workers and companies to Houston.

NAACP leaders, representatives from African-American Greek organizations, African-American members of the LGBT community, and other African-American activists spoke in support of the ordinance.

Cassandra Thomas, chief compliance officer of the Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC) came prepared to speak truth to power. “If you really want to stop sexual assault, if you want to protect women and children, then stop the fear tactics and let’s talk about the truth,” she said. Thomas brought research and experience regarding sexual assault to the conversation, discounting the opposition’s claims that including the LGBT community as a protected class would encourage violence against women and protect perpetrators. With over 30 years’ experience advocating for victims of domestic and sexual violence, Thomas is a nationally recognized media spokesperson. “Have you ever counseled a child who was attacked by a man in a dress?” asked Council Member Ellen Cohen. “No,” Thomas replied.

Survivors of sexual assault courageously shared their experiences, stating that the perpetrators of violence against them were not members of the LGBT community, but close family members, trusted clergymen, and neighbors. Advocates of sexual violence prevention and victims’ rights, who have years of experience researching and seeing the real-life implications of violence, voiced their wholehearted support of HERO.

In response to the inflammatory message that HERO would be dangerous for women and children, our allies who are mothers came out to speak the truth. One mom, Sarah Schimmer, told City Council, “I want my children to grow up in a place that has an inclusive culture and truly values diversity and equality. HERO is a positive step in that direction. It is my hope that more heterosexual, cisgender people like me will speak up publicly in support of the LGBT friends, family, and colleagues they care about.” Another mother, Autumn Packard, explained, “I got involved because, well, it’s the right thing to do, [and] my youngest child is transgender. I felt that it’s important, as her mother, to stand up for her rights that she is [too young] to be aware of. I was raised that if you see something that isn’t right, stand up and speak out, even if you’re standing alone.”

Young people, and those who work with them, were well represented. Fifteen-year-old Oliver Buck, a transgender student at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, spoke in support of HERO because he wants to feel safe and equal in Houston. In addition to student leaders, the University of Houston was represented by Lorraine Schroeder, director of the LGBT Resource Center; Dr. Beverly McPhail, director of the Women’s Resource Center; and professors Maria Gonzalez and Rachel Afi Quinn—all of whom urged City Council to pass HERO. They cited the University of Houston’s own campus-wide, comprehensive nondiscrimination policy that was adopted in 2012 and asked City Council to institute a similar policy for all of Houston to protect their students from the discrimination that they face off-campus.

Houston Independent School District (HISD) Board trustees Juliet Stipeche and Anna Eastman arrived at City Hall armed with their truth—the truth that on August 11, 2011, the Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the district’s Employment Non-Discrimination Policy. In their testimony, they stated that if HERO was harmful to children, they would fight it. Instead, they spoke the truth that perpetuating ignorance and fear is dangerous. The truth is that HISD is a safer, healthier educational and work environment since the passage of their nondiscrimination policy. They implored City Council to extend the same policy to the entire city of Houston.

The Religious Community and HERO

The overwhelming majority of speakers who opposed HERO cited their personal religious beliefs as the sole reason for City Council to vote against the ordinance. Hoping that their right to religious freedom would always imply the right to interfere with other people’s rights to housing and gainful employment, the religious opposition proposed that they had the right to deprive public services and housing, and to sever employment, if an individual is not heterosexual or does not conform to gender norms.

Speaking in opposition to including the three LGBT-protected classes in HERO, Pastor Becky Riggle of Grace Community Church said, “I’m saying [business owners] have the right, if they want to, to be able to refuse service if it goes against their religious beliefs.” That elicited a query from Council Member Cohen: “If I’m asking for service and my faith is something that troubles them, they have a right to refuse me service? So you’re saying yes, they do have a right to refuse me service, as someone of the Jewish faith?” Riggle responded, “Yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about today.”

Among members of the Houston faith community, City Council received more public testimonies in favor of the ordinance than against it. More than 70 different faith leaders and organizations spoke in support of HERO, highlighting that the opposition does not speak for all Houston Christians—nor do they speak for Houston’s Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh communities, who had members speak in support of HERO.

For each threat and spurious claim, supporters rebutted with facts, sharing their lived experiences and disputing the opposition’s outdated, anachronistic claims. Of the 376 who registered to give testimony during the three public sessions, 309 were in favor of the ordinance, 65 were against, and 2 did not state a position—revealing the truth that Houston wants to be free from discrimination. And on May 28, the truth won out.

Next Actions: Where Do We Go from Here?

To fight a repeal, we must remain organized and armed with the truth. The fact is, this ordinance is broad and strong, and covers every single person in the city of Houston. The opposition is falsely claiming that this ordinance is only about transgender people in bathrooms and gay couples ordering wedding cakes. HERO protects all Houstonians from discrimination, including the opposition. They are fighting against their own best interests, which is their prerogative. Our job is to know the facts, spread the truth, and, in the event of a city-wide voter referendum, get out the vote in November to defeat a repeal effort.

The opposition has been collecting signatures to repeal the ordinance, spearheading a campaign of fear along the way. As we all know, ignorance often begets irrational fear. It is still a critical time to continue engaging our communities and educating them about this ordinance.

If indeed this ordinance ends up on the November ballot, we will need people to do more than show up at City Hall or make phone calls. We will need our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues to update their voter registrations, make sure they have the proper identification to vote, and get out to the polls. Of equal importance is for Houstonians to know what they are voting for. The grassroots-managed website houequality.com is a fantastic resource to learn more about HERO, read the final draft, and watch testimonies from the May 2014 public sessions.

Much has changed since the 1980s, including widespread political and social acceptance of the LGBT community. Houston’s vibrant LGBT community is an important segment of one of the most diverse and populous cities in the nation. During the advocacy process, we discovered how truly diverse, organized, and supportive our community is.

Several policy and advocacy organizations have been operating in Texas for many decades, forging partnerships and coalitions throughout the state in favor of more progressive and inclusive policies. These connections, in conjunction with social media, have allowed for a strong network to flourish within our city and provide the necessary infrastructure to quickly and efficiently address community needs. During the next five months, we must continue the momentum. We must build upon relationships established during the HERO movement, and we need you to be a part of it. With the threat of a referendum looming over our heads, we must protect our hard-won victory.

Christina Canales Gorczynski is a community leader and CEO of First Person, a business consulting firm for socially responsible organizations. 

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Christina Gorzynski

Christina Canales Gorczynski is a community leader and CEO of First Person, a business consulting firm for socially responsible organizations.

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