In a battle she characterized as “very personal” and “about me,” Annise Parker, the openly gay mayor of the fourth most populous city in the United States, won a victory last Thursday.
She convinced the Houston City Council to establish a law that would prohibit discrimination based on a range of characteristics – including sexual orientation and gender identity — in public and private employment, housing, and contracting.
Now, she may well have to take on two bigger fights: one to protect the law from a referendum campaign and another to protect her job from a recall effort.
In the heat of debate two weeks before the vote, Parker said the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) applies to “the range of protective groups” but added, “the debate is about me.”
“The debate is about two gay men at this table,” she continued, referring to the 17-member council’s two openly gay members, Robert Gallegos and Mike Laster. “It is very intensely personal.”
And that debate continued for more than eight hours on the final hearing, with more than 200 people making comments for and against. Most testified for the legislation but many waved Bibles and said the ordinance would “make criminals” of Christians.
The vows of recall and referendum were voiced even before the Council voted 11 to 6 on May 29 to approve the comprehensive law. And they have continued since passage, along with a placeholder webpage that urges citizens to check back for information about the petition drive.
A long-time anti-gay activist in Houston, Dave Wilson, is said to be orchestrating the recall and referendum effort. Wilson has been quoted by a number of media as saying Parker’s push for the non-discrimination ordinance was “pure payback” to the LGBT community. Parker is the city’s first openly gay mayor.
But most political pundits say they think it will be hard for Wilson and other opponents to gather 42,500 signatures in 30 days for a recall of the mayor.
And more importantly, the city charter requires any recall be based on “some ground of incompetency or unfitness for or misconduct or malfeasance in the office.”
“It’s not just a matter of gathering signatures,” said Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans this week. “Opponents also have to prove malfeasance or dereliction of duty. It’s not as simple as just not liking a specific vote. A more likely situation is a successful petition drive to require a vote on repealing the ordinance, which requires 17,269 signatures within 30 days of passage of the ordinance. Opponents have already started the petition process for that.”
If a recall or referendum or both make it onto the November ballot, the contest would likely become the most important political battle for the LGBT community this year. It would be seen as a test of the staying power of one of the country’s highest profile openly gay elected officials and providing a measure for how entrenched anti-gay sentiment is in the south.
“I guarantee this recall election will be as big as anything else in November, and it will draw all kinds of attention and money,” wrote progressive political blogger Charles Kuffner.
And Houston is an old, bloody battleground for gays. In 1985, city voters rejected an effort to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination by a margin of four to one, and the ballot measure didn’t even include the word “gay.” That covered only city employment.
In 2001, 52 percent of Houston voters amended the city charter to prohibit any “privilege” based on sexual orientation and to deny domestic partners of city employees the benefits provided to the spouses of married city employees.
But after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor last June that the federal government could not deny recognition to marriage licenses obtained by same-sex couples in states which treat them equally, Parker implemented a policy of providing equal benefits to city employees who had married their same-sex partners.
That immediately drew opposition from a small group of Republicans who filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the benefits from going into effect. A federal judge refused to stay Parker’s directive and the lawsuit is still pending.
Some opponents claimed Parker’s benefits violated the charter ban on “privilege” based on sexual orientation, but Parker said the benefits do not violate the charter because they are limited to couples who are legally married, and some same-sex couples obtain marriage licenses from other states. Parker and her longtime partner married in California two months later.
The possibility of a referendum on the new non-discrimination law strikes many as more likely. If that does become a battleground, it will almost certainly include focus on what opponents’ obsession with public bathrooms.
The original draft of HERO included language that explicitly protected the right of transgender individuals to have access to bathrooms that match their gender identity.
“At the request of HRC [Human Rights Campaign] and the Greater Houston Partnership [the local business council], that section was removed but the transgender community is still completely covered by the ordinance,” said Evans. “I would note that the language in the original draft was unique to Houston. The fact that no other city had taken this approach was part of the reason for the removal of that section. It brought Houston’s ordinance in line with others.”
The final language also got the stamp of approval from the local NAACP, but only after Parker agreed to remove a section specifically protecting transgender people’s access to bathrooms.
The section read: “It shall be unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to intentionally deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, or similar facility if that facility is consistent with and appropriate to that person’s expression of gender identity.”
Opponents conjured up images of men entering public restrooms and urinating next to six-year-old girls.
After removing the language, Parker posted a Twitter message saying, “”To my trans sisters/brothers: you’re still fully protected in Equal Rights Ordinance. We’re simply removing language that singled you out.-A”
But Dave Wilson told the Houston Chronicle he’s also trying to put a measure on the ballot to amend the city charter to explicitly bar a biological male from using a women’s restroom. The Chronicle says the earliest a charter amendment could appear on the ballot would be next May.
Meanwhile, the 30-day clock is ticking on the hopes Wilson and opponents of HERO have to force a recall vote or a referendum on the new law.
Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for HRC’s state and municipal advocacy, said HRC mobilized its members to support the new ordinance and is ready and willing to help defend the law if necessary.