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The afternoon gathering at the community center in the old Depelchin Faith Home two weekends ago was a political first for Houston. There sat Mayor Lee P. Brown with his new gay community liaison, health care consultant Janine Brunjes, and at-large City Councilwoman Annise Parker. They had come to sell a political strategy to an audience of more than 40 leaders from the city's gay, lesbian and transgendered community.
An inevitable referendum looms if City Council passes an ordinance extending same-sex insurance coverage to the partners of city employees. So the Brown administration and key gay leaders decided on a switch-and-fight maneuver, shelving the insurance measure and replacing it with a broad antidiscrimination policy to be introduced at council in a month or so.
The purpose of the Saturday confab on Albany Street was to secure the support of a wide range of gay opinion-makers before announcing the move two days later. Brown came to demonstrate that he was not backing out of his commitments for both domestic-partner and antidiscrimination action, and would do what the gay leadership decided was appropriate.
That the meeting took place at all is a sign of how much has changed in Houston politics since the ill-fated 1985 referendum on an ordinance banning discrimination against gays in city employment. Religious conservatives turned that campaign into a family-values jihad against alleged preferential treatment for gays. They won a landslide vote that repealed the ordinance.
The defeat drove a wedge between then-mayor Kathy Whitmire and supporters in the gay community. She sought political cover from the storm at the expense of her longtime political allies. It sparked the creation of the Straight Slate, a group of conservatives who unsuccessfully challenged several incumbent councilmembers, and it set back the political aspirations of gays. Twelve years would pass before the election of Parker as Houston's first openly gay city official.
Recent referenda and polls around the country indicate that public support for antidiscrimination measures runs 20 to 30 percentage points ahead of that for domestic-partner benefits. If a repeat of 1985 was to be averted, the landscape for the coming battle had to be shifted, and quickly.
After Councilwoman Parker introduced Brunjes at the meeting and provided a quick history of the issues, Sue Lovell rose to argue for the new strategy. Lovell is a former president of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus who campaigned against the 1985 referendum. If the domestic-partner ordinance went into effect without accompanying antidiscrimination statutes, Lovell explained to the audience, employees who revealed they were gay in applying for insurance coverage would be open to reprisals from intolerant supervisors. The logical first step for protection, argued Lovell, should be a firm city policy against job discrimination based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
Sloan Weisen, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, points out that in 39 states, including Texas, "It's perfectly legal to be fired from one's job solely on the basis of one's sexual orientation. That lack of basic equal rights is still very real."
The two-hour meeting ended with all present voting to shelve the domestic-partners legislation until an antidiscrimination ordinance could be submitted to City Council.
Grant Martin, a Houston-based political consultant for the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, specializes in assisting gay forces on local referenda and initiatives around the country. At the meeting, he stressed the importance of framing a referendum in terms that could be embraced by the general public.
Limiting a vote to domestic-partner benefits invites the opposition to paint it as approval of gay marriage, Martin explained later. "Gay marriage is sort of a scary thing for most people right now, and what [opponents] try to do is prey on that fear and to bootstrap that into an issue around domestic-partner benefits, even though it has nothing to do with gay marriage. The only reason it exists is because gay marriage is illegal."
But when the election focuses on job discrimination, public attitudes change sharply. Martin points to a 1999 poll for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation that found that 77 percent of Americans agreed that it should be illegal to fire people from their jobs just because of their sexual orientation. Among religious groups the support was almost as strong, with 70 percent of fundamentalist Christians, 73 percent of evangelical Christians, 80 percent of mainline Protestants and 78 percent of Catholics endorsing that view. The same attitudes crossed party lines, with support from 73 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents.
By contrast, the same poll reflected a much narrower margin on the question of insurance protection for partners of gays and lesbians. Only 56 percent of Americans agreed, with 39 percent against.
"It's going to depend on who controls the message as to what question voters think they are answering at the polls," Martin concluded. "It all depends on how the question is asked."
City Attorney Anthony Hall has a unique historical perspective on the situation. As a councilman in 1984, he introduced the ordinance to protect gay employment rights that triggered the referendum. In 2001, he is in charge of crafting a new antidiscrimination ordinance that likely will launch another referendum. In hindsight, he notes one major blunder made in the first round.
"We amended two things: civil service rules and affirmative action programs," recalls Hall. "That was in my view prostituted by opponents as affirmative action for gays and lesbians, when it in fact was a nondiscrimination provision and provided no affirmative action goals or anything."
This time Hall is determined to keep affirmative action walled off from the debate.
"I will be overseeing the writing of this ordinance, and that mistake will be corrected," vows Hall. "It will be written in such a way that it is clear these are job-protection provisions."
It remains to be seen whether an antidiscrimination ordinance will draw the same level of opposition as same-sex benefits. Conservative Republican consultant Allen Blakemore, who represents westside religious activist Dr. Steven Hotze, compliments the strategy worked out by the mayor and the gay community.
"It's a skillful severing," says Blakemore, "to get off of benefits and preferences and onto discrimination." According to Blakemore, most conservatives are taking a wait-and-see approach to the promised antidiscrimination ordinance.
Other reaction was less amicable. Dave Wilson, who has made unsuccessful races for mayor and council, immediately announced that his political action committee, Houstonians for Family Values, has launched a petition campaign to rewrite the city charter. It would ban domestic-partner benefits and "privileges in promotion, hiring or contracting to a person or group on the basis of sexual preference."
The credibility of Wilson's committee was not exactly enhanced when one member, Grace Baptist Church minister Aubrey Vaughan, offhandedly offered his final solution to the controversy to reporters outside City Hall.
As a KHOU-TV camera focused on him, Vaughan asked, "What should be done with the sodomites?"
"Well, I think they ought to have 'em an island. They got plenty of money -- they ought to buy them an island and every sodomite ought to go out there to that island and just stay there," opined the reverend, indicating he's been watching way too many Survivor episodes.
"And maybe we can drop a little food to them if they don't know how to grow their own food," he continued. "And in about two years they'd all die out with AIDS, I believe. That's what we ought to do with them."
If it comes down to a contest for the votes of rational Houstonians, opponents like Vaughan may provide the most persuasive argument available that city employees -- gays included -- need all the antidiscrimination protection they can get.
In a preview of the sort of internal fights that may be provoked by the mayor's race, members of the Young Democrats of Harris County are already flinging barbs over Councilman Chris Bell's challenge to Lee Brown.
In an e-mail, Jill Garrison urged members to attend Bell's recent candidacy announcement and to volunteer for his campaign. Garrison happens to work for the Kaleidoscope Group, which is employed by the Bell campaign. She signed off using her title as the Young Democrats' communications vice president.
That drew a riposte from Cruz Giovanni Garibay, the state youth chair of the Young Tejano Democrats. He criticized Garrison for leaving the impression that the Young Democrats were supporting Bell. Garibay went on to attack comments made by Bell's campaign team in the Houston Press ("First Out of the Gate," by Tim Fleck, February 8).
"Personally, I find the manner in which the Bell campaign conducts itself to be completely unprofessional, and the personal insults the Bell consultants lob at the mayor are juvenile at best."
Garibay concluded with an admonition to Garrison to stop "associating the good name" of the YDs with Bell's minions.
With Brown and Bell fighting over the same inside-the-Loop constituency, you can expect a steady stream of these organizational catfights between now and November.