You might think something as simple as giving away condoms would not create a controversy. Then again, Congress convened a panel last year to discuss the birth control provision of President Obama's Affordable Care Act that included no women, but it did have members of the clergy. In this instance, it isn't about trying to stop the distribution of birth control, it's about increasing it.
The whole controversy began when Jason Gallegos, Director of Pride Houston, sent an e-mail to the city asking for clarification on changes to city policy regarding distribution of items from floats in parades. The city responded with an almost testy letter from Stephen Williams, Director of the Health and Human Services Department for the city. That, in turn, sparked a terse response to Gallegos from Randall Ellis at Legacy Community Health Services, an organization that provides health services including contraceptives throughout the city.
This ultimately led to a story on About Magazine and a response from Pride Houston clarifying its policy.
In 2008, I walked in the Pride Parade with members of Planned Parenthood. They passed out contraceptives to adults and candy to kids. At the time, I remember, the general rule was to hand them to people rather than throwing them. Not that a wrapped condom could do much damage, but this ensures that they end up in the hands of people who actually want them and will use them. But the rules are a little stricter than that, apparently.
Pride Houston said as much in its statement:
As a point of clarity, to not allow throwing of contraceptives such as condoms or dental dams, has been a long standing guideline for the parade for over a decade; a guideline that has until now, not been a point of controversy.
We limit items distributed by Parade Contingents to items that are safe to throw from moving contingents and are of tangible or educational value to ensure they do not end up on the ground as refuse.
Pride Houston requires the distribution of contraceptives be tied to proper educational methods. Any organization wanting to distribute contraceptives during the parade or festival must include the contraceptive as part of a safer sex kit that includes educational messaging and or information about safer sex practices.
But the e-mail Pride sent to the city saying, "Recent changes in city ordinances have constituted a change in the 2013 Celebration Rules" includes not allowing throwing or distribution of contraceptives from the parade route. In the rule, that includes floats, vehicles or walkers. That sounds like conflicting rules and it also appears that, at least through the e-mail, Pride was trying to pin the reason for the changes on the city.
Williams was having none of that.
It is incorrect to suggest that a change in the city ordinance prohibits the distribution of condoms throughout the parade route. The ordinance does not address the distribution of merchandise from floats or along the parade route. The most recent changes to the parade ordinance, December 2011, mostly addressed fees and parade locations and distances.
If it is your intent to limit the distribution of safer sex paraphernalia at the festival and parade, please ascribe the requirement to Pride Houston, Inc. and not the City of Houston.
Ouch. No ascribing should be done here, fella. But he goes even further.
The Houston Department of Health and Human Services has participated in the Gay Pride Parade for over twenty years. The parade has always played an important role in our partnership with the gay community to reduce the impact of HIV and AIDS. If we are not allowed to pursue our primary mission of health education and disease prevention in the gay community, we may not find future participation feasible.
In other words, Pride better chickaty check itself before it wrecks itself. Ellis, too, was bothered by Pride's rule changes, but for him, at least, it was more personal.
As a gay man, I don't understand why Pride Houston would want to limit access to tools that can literally save a person's life.
In my mind, the distribution of condoms and safer sex kits is an act of pride. It sends a clear message that there is no shame in gay sex and that it can be openly discussed. Houstonians should be proud of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
To sum up, Pride Houston made some changes to its 2013 Parade guidelines and then sent those changes to health services organizations via e-mail. In that e-mail, it blamed the changes on a change in city policy, which didn't actually happen. In fact, a search of the city municipal code found no references to distribution of merchandise by parade participants. Certainly, parades do often set their own guidelines to protect parade-goers from getting injured, but this is not a city rule.
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Once the e-mail was sent, all hell broke loose.
The moral of this story is, in my mind, twofold:
1. Let people give out condoms at the Pride Parade. Both parade-goers and participants expect it and it falls in line with the promotion of safe sex within the gay community.
2. Don't blame it on the city if it didn't do anything wrong. Not only is our mayor openly gay, making the suggestion that one of her departments would try to thwart contraceptive distribution sound ridiculous, but as evidenced by the letter from Stephen Williams, the city will bitch-slap you if you try.