In a landmark meeting over the weekend, Mayor Lee Brown and Houston gay leaders have agreed to substitute an ordinance extending insurance coverage for same-sex domestic partners of city employees for broader antidiscrimination legislation to be introduced at City Council in the coming months.
The decision sets the stage for a referendum expected later this summer with Brown committed to defending the ordinance from conservative challengers.
Councilwoman Annise Parker confirmed that she and the mayor will release statements later this afternoon outlining the agreement. Parker had strongly supported the domestic partners ordinance but now says the broader antidiscrimination ordinance is a necessary first step to protect gays before they in effect identify their sexual orientation by applying for benefits.
Brown had asked for the meeting Saturday to outline the new approach, and some 40 leaders from gay community groups voted unanimously to endorse it.
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"The consensus we reached," says Parker, "is that we really want domestic partner benefits, but we already have councilmembers threatening to audit the insurance bills turned in by gay domestic partners. The community told the mayor it is more important to have job protections and to defer the domestic partnership discussion until those job protections are in place."
The move also is a strategic one, says a source. Elections around the country indicate that referendums on nondiscrimination tend to attract far more public support than proposals for domestic partner insurance coverage.
A similar ordinance to ban job discrimination against gays in city employment was overturned in the mid-'80s by a referendum pushed by religious conservatives. Parker says that if a referendum is called this time around, the results will be different.
"We're confident this is the right thing for the city, and we're confident we'll win if it goes to a referendum," she says.