Early in February of this year, a married lesbian couple in Houston did something that most of us postpone to the last moment: they attempted to file their taxes. Both Debbie Beach and Kim Bowman had utilized H&R Block’s tax services in the past, and fully trusted the agency. So the couple filled folders with statements, receipts, and returns, piled in the car, and drove to nearest H&R Block office. As it turned out, the closest office was on West 42nd Street, just a stone’s throw from their home in Oak Forest.
“When we entered the office, one of the tax assistants asked us if we were ready. We said yes, so he signaled to us to come to his desk,” remembered Beach. “I wouldn’t say he was rude, but I could tell he was out of sorts—maybe tired, I thought—so I offered to get him a cup of coffee. H&R Block always has coffee, and I said I would be happy to get him a cup if he wanted it. He said no, and we started our meeting.
“First, the assistant asked for our Social Security numbers and our marital status. Then he said, ‘Excuse me for a moment,’ and he disappeared. When he reappeared, H&R Block’s manager, Marisela Vasquez, was with him. She politely introduced herself and stated that she would be doing our taxes instead. The [original] assistant then stood nearby, watching,” Beach stated, the pitch of her voice rising.
The assistant remained in his standing position, observing everything Beach and Bowman said and did. His posture and demeanor appeared aggressive to the couple, and it concerned them both.
“When Ms. Vasquez told us that she would do our taxes, I asked her if the guy didn’t want to help us because we are a lesbian couple. Then I waited.
“When Ms. Vasquez finally spoke, she said, ‘Yes, it’s because you are gay.’ I was speechless,” Beach whispered.
Discrimination that Draws Blood
Kind, compassionate, and a fully out lesbian, Debbie Beach has experienced more than her share of discrimination and violence. As a young woman, she was attacked by a co-worker at her place of employment. Beach’s assailant, a woman, followed her into a parking lot at the end of a shift, then hit her repeatedly with a small hammer. Beach was treated at a hospital and released with 21 stitches in her head. Her assailant was unharmed.
When Beach took the woman to court for assault, the perpetrator claimed that Beach had “propositioned her for sex,” and that she was acting out of self-defense. No such proposition occurred, but Beach lost the case all the same.
Some years later, Beach was attending a holiday party in an apartment clubhouse that was being thrown by the apartment’s leasing agents. She resided in the complex, and was dancing with another woman at the party when a large man jumped her, struck her in the face, and tossed her to the floor.
The assailant was wearing cowboy boots and started kicking her. When all was said and done, Beach had a broken nose and several ribs.
“I guess my dancing with another woman triggered the guy,” Beach stated, shaking her head. “And we weren’t even slow dancing!”
A Neighborhood Steps Up
After Beach and Bowman fully realized what was going on that afternoon in the H&R Block office, Beach experienced mounting distress while Bowman remained calm.
“The manager, Ms. Vasquez, was very nice and helpful,” recalled Beach, “but the leering tax guy was really disturbing me; the entire event started to bring back memories of pain and discrimination in my past. I had to go to the car to calm down while Kim stayed inside. Then I honked the car horn and she came out. I was angry and frightened, and decided I just could not stay. Kim got in the car and we went home.”
Garden Oaks and Oak Forest, where the couple lives, has a reputation for being a supportive, accepting community. Houstonia magazine once illustrated that point by recounting the time an uninterrupted chain of 174 cars “paid it forward” at a Starbucks drive-thru window on West 43rd Street, each buying coffee for the car behind them. While the community is mostly made up of couples with children and aging seniors, a remarkable number of LGBTQ couples call it home.
Susan Sperry, a neighbor of Beach and Bowman’s, was appalled at the treatment the couple received at the tax office, and posted about it on the neighborhood’s Facebook page. The page quickly lit up with voices who agreed. Soon, a complaint phone-in brigade and boycott were organized against H&R Block as people sought justice for the lesbian couple.
“All I did was post what happened to my dear friends,” states neighbor Sperry. “It went viral because my local friends got as upset as I did. And while I also reached out to H&R Block on Facebook, it was Debbie and Kim who actually spoke to the gentleman. They are two of the kindest people I know, and for something like this to happen to them—well, it really got to me.”
“One neighbor even took it upon herself to stomp into the H&R Block office that same day and demand the tax guy’s dismissal. She was too late—he had quit on his own,” Beach stated.
Texas: On the Wrong Side of History
This is 2019, and Houston is the third- or fourth-largest city in the nation. Can a business survive these days by operating while practicing discrimination?
“Fortunately, H&R Block has a policy of no discrimination of any sort against anyone—and they handled this very well. First, their district manager called us and apologized, then they did our taxes pro-bono. Apparently, after we left that day, Ms. Vasquez took the assistant aside and told him that he could not discriminate and continue to work there, so he up and quit,” Beach said, smiling.
H&R Block’s official statement in its policy manual reads as follows: ”The company maintains a strict policy prohibiting discrimination, sexual harassment, and harassment because of the following legally protected characteristics: race, color, religion, creed, gender, pregnancy, age, national origin or ancestry, physical or mental disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, or any other consideration protected by federal, state, or local laws.”
A number of the neighborhood Facebook posters supporting the couple questioned the legality of such blatant and painful discrimination suffered by Beach and Bowman. “Can they do that? Isn’t this against the law?” one asked.
The answer, sadly, is yes, they can do it. It is not illegal in Texas.
As of this writing, 23 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and about 400 cities and counties have enacted bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In these forward-thinking communities and states, discrimination such as that suffered by Beach and Bowman is against the law. However, the City of Houston, and the State of Texas are not among them.
Gary M. Gritz, a certified public accountant in Houston, has operated his office for more than 20 years and has several clients from Houston’s LGBTQ community. “My LGBTQ clients are a joy, and I would be happy to have more,” he says.
Gritz observes that his clients pay tax bills that meet or exceed that of their straight counterparts, yet they are still living without the legal protections that other marginalized populations enjoy.
“For example,” Gritz continued, “in states where there is state-income tax, all married citizens are required to file as ‘Married: filing jointly,’ or ‘Married: filing separately.’ [Laws in the State of Texas still do not officially] recognize married LGBTQ couples, so how would couples be required to file here if a State income tax is introduced? The question would go to the Texas Supreme Court, and I think we know how that would go.”
Still, there are baby steps being taken in the right direction every day. In the case of Kim Bowman and Debbie Beach, Houston’s LGBTQ community inched a little closer to equality thanks to the couple’s affirming neighborhood, a humane corporate policy, and their personal courage.
“We are so deeply moved by the support of our friends and neighbors—most of whom are straight people! We are so grateful to H&R Block for the way they handled this. Everyone completely stood up to the discrimination. It was very upsetting initially—particularly to Debbie—but now it is a victory for all of us,” Bowman concluded.