Google+ Back to mobile

Blogs

Ann Elder - Transgender Lobby Day
John Wright
Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

I was taking a break recently from my work lobbying for transgender Texans, enjoying a view of the Capitol dome from a spot near the rotunda, when I heard something that took me back to my childhood.

An elementary school teacher leading kids on a tour told them to form two lines. “Boys on the left, girls on the right,” she said. I watched as they followed instructions. I also listened for something else familiar. In a few moments, I heard it: the teacher telling one of them, “That’s not your line. Get in line with the boys.”

I hated gender-segregated lines as a child. As long as we were all together I could feel like I was a part of the group, but when they made us separate, and put me with the boys, I felt singled out. I didn’t belong.

It would be many years before I questioned why I gravitated toward girls during recess. I just knew I liked their games. They were imaginative, cooperative and focused on make-believe. One day we turned the monkey bars into a castle, and everyone was a princess or a lady, except me. The ladies of the castle decreed that I should be a knight and defend the castle from marauding boys. I didn’t want to be a knight, even a make-believe one. I wanted to be in the castle. I wanted to belong.

When I tell people that I’m transgender, they don’t understand that I’m talking about standing in the wrong line in elementary school or being inside the castle. They don’t understand how I grew up feeling betrayed by my own body and unfit for the role I was supposed to play in life.

The idea that everyone has a gender identity distinct from physiology and independent of sexual orientation is not new, but identity so frequently matches physiology that it’s hard for people to think of them separately. When children’s gender identities don’t match their physiology, they are transgender. Many think transgender is homosexual orientation taken to an extreme, but transgender is different. It describes who we are, not whom we are attracted to.

I was 7 or 8 the first time I put on women’s clothes. I locked the bathroom door and took my mom’s slip from the hamper. I took off my boy clothes and wore the slip like a dress. I was shocked when Caitlyn Jenner described her own version of that event from my life so accurately in her recent interview with Diane Sawyer. Like Jenner, I didn’t understand why I had done it. Like her, I had carefully marked the position of the slip in the pile of laundry, and I put it all back in exactly the same place.

I knew I could never—ever—tell anyone, because my parents might not love me if they found out. It was a terrible secret for a child to have to keep.

Then there was puberty. When my little sister had her first menses, my mom sat us down to have “the talk.” It was the first time I heard a woman talk about living in her own body. She was trying to instill pride in us for the roles we would play when we had families of our own, but I felt betrayed. I felt like there had been some momentous gender lottery before I was born and that I lost without even knowing it had happened.

The fact that I mostly dated girls and have been married to the same woman for 23 years really confuses people. Some think it must mean I’m not really transgender. I don’t quite know how to explain to them that the ways in which women see and interact with the world just make more sense to me than the ways men do, and that I’m more comfortable in my relationships with women.

I’ve changed a lot since I was 6 years old. People know me now as Claire. My driver’s license and passport identify me to the world as a woman. My body has changed, and I see a woman when I look in a mirror. The confusion and the hiding that was so much a part of my life is all behind me, but I still remember it. I’m an activist and an advocate for transgender rights because I wonder and worry about the future of that child, and so many like him, standing in the wrong line at the Capitol. I want to tell them it gets better.

El Chapo Shawshank Redemption meme
Playing on "Shawshank Redemption," this meme has Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto saying "El Chapo builds better than Grupo Higa," referring to a contractor at the center of a presidential corruption scandal.

 

Last week, I traveled to Durango, a state in northern Mexico that has for decades been a  stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful cartel. For several years the Zetas had been engaged in a bloody challenge to the Sinaloa Cartel, plaguing the state with gun battles, kidnapping and extortion. But in recent months, a tenuous peace has taken hold.

The locals don’t credit the Mexican government for the relative calm; they credit Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which has once again gained dominance in the region. Durango, which borders the state of Sinaloa, was where El Chapo purportedly hid out for years—protected by the people and the forbidding mountain range of the Sierra Madre. A much-loved and much-feared folk hero, El Chapo is considered by many I spoke with in Durango to be a lesser evil than the Zetas.

“Thanks to those who only traffic in drugs and leave the people alone, we have peace,” said one man who I met in Durango.

On Saturday night, Guzman performed his second miraculous prison escape (the first was in 2001). This time, Guzman escaped from the maximum-security Altiplano prison in Toluca. From a shower in the prison, Guzman dropped into a ventilated mile-long tunnel that contained a motorcycle adapted to run on rails, which Mexican officials say he may have rode to freedom. His escape ignited a wave of darkly satirical jokes on social media—humor being the favorite coping mechanism for Mexicans serially disappointed by their government’s cynicism and corruption.

“Chapo returns to prison because he forgot his jacket and escapes again!” is just one of hundreds of memes circulating. Here are some of the other highlights:

 

 

 

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who made much of Guzman’s capture in 2014, called the capo’s escape a “very unfortunate event.” Peña Nieto got the news while on a flight to Paris. “Mexican society is indignant and I am deeply concerned about the escape of one of the most wanted criminals in Mexico and the world,” he said. His interior minister, Miguel Osorio Chong, who was traveling to France with the president, immediately returned to Mexico to deal with the fiasco.

American officials are apoplectic over Chapo’s disappearing act. But to the majority of Mexicans buffeted by one corruption scandal after another in recent years it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. For many years, journalists, politicians and activists have pointed out that the Mexican government seems to favor the Sinaloa Cartel in the vicious war for territory fought among several different armed groups. This was the belief of many residents of the Juarez Valley and Ciudad Juarez, which I documented in 2012 in “The Deadliest Place in Mexico.” In 2010, NPR’s John Burnett and Marisa Peñaloza found strong evidence of the Mexican Army working with the Sinaloa Cartel  in Juarez.

Mexicans are clearly fed up with corruption and the collusion between organized crime and high levels of government. Many like film producer and journalist Epigemio Ibarra vented their frustration and anger over Twitter.

(Chapo’s escape is evidence of the corruption and ineptitude of Peña Nieto that runs the politics of extermination in Mexico. I propose #StayInFranceEPN)

But chances are if El Chapo makes it to the rugged mountain ranges of Durango, he will be untouchable as he once was for more than a decade. Already, the narcocorridos are memorializing his prison escape. The group Enigma Norteño rushed to release a boastful ballad just hours after Guzman’s escape Saturday:

“Today they’ll pray to their saint and others will think of running.”

DREAM Act Students Rally at Texas Capitol
John Savage
DREAM Act Students Rally at the Texas Capitol.

For nearly 150 years, the United States, under the 14th Amendment, has recognized people born here as citizens, regardless of whether their parents were citizens.

But Texas has other plans. In the last year, the state has refused to issue birth certificates to children who were born in Texas to undocumented parents. In May, four women filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services alleging constitutional discrimination and interference in the federal government’s authority over immigration.

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who is representing the women, said the deluge of birth certificate refusals began last winter. “I’ve never seen such a large number of women with this problem,” she says. “In the past someone might be turned away, but it was always resolved. This is something altogether new.”

According to the lawsuit, the women who requested birth certificates for their children in Cameron and Hidalgo counties were turned away because of insufficient proof of their identities. State law allows the use of a foreign ID if the mother lacks a Texas driver’s license or a U.S. passport.

But local officials, which issue birth certificates registered by the Texas Department of State Health Services Vital Statistics Unit, told the women they would no longer accept either the matricula consular, which is a photo ID issued by the Mexican Consulate to Mexican nationals living in the U.S., or a foreign passport without a current U.S. visa. Undocumented Central American women are also being turned away because they only have a passport without a U.S. visa. “They are locking out a huge chunk of the undocumented immigrant community,” says Harbury.

Harbury believes the rash of refusals is linked to the influx of Central American families who crossed the border last summer seeking asylum. “They are targeting the undocumented population, but immigration is a federal function and not the job of the Department of State Health Services,” says Harbury. Women are unable to enroll their children in school or daycare without a birth certificate, or to authorize their child to be treated in a medical emergency. “It causes all kinds of problems,” Harbury says. “How is a woman going to prove she’s the child’s parent without a birth certificate?”

Since filing the lawsuit in late May, Harbury says they’ve received dozens of calls from women who have been refused birth certificates for their children: “The phones have been ringing off the hook.” Recently, they filed an amended lawsuit with several more plaintiffs.

James Harrington, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, is also representing the undocumented families. The legal team is seeking a court order to reinstate the use of the matricula consular and foreign passports as valid proof of identity for undocumented mothers.

“Even in the darkest hours of Texas’ history of discrimination, officials never denied birth certificates to Hispanic children of immigrants,” said Harrington in a written statement. “Everyone born in the United States is entitled to the full rights of citizenship.”

Update: In a written statement Chris Van Deusen, press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services says: “DSHS accepts a variety of documents to verify a requestor’s identification … Texas does not accept the matricula consular as valid identification because the documents used to obtain the matricula are not verified by the issuing party. Several other states and some federal agencies also do not accept the matricula as a valid form of identification for the same reason.”

Correction: The story originally stated that vital statistics offices in Cameron and Hidalgo counties are run by employees of the Texas Department of State Health Services. The offices are run by city and county officials. The Observer regrets the error.

 

 

Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner dares the Republican leadership to accept his amendment to House Bill 2--allocating state money to upgrade abortion facilities to surgical center standards--promising he'll vote for the bill if they do.
Patrick Michels
Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner dares the Republican leadership to accept his amendment to House Bill 2—allocating state money to upgrade abortion facilities to surgical center standards—promising he'll vote for the bill if they do.

In response to questions about anti-gay votes a decade ago, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) said he’s evolved on LGBT issues and now supports full equality.

Turner, a leading progressive candidate for Houston mayor, voted in favor of a ban on gay foster parents in 2005. He also voted in favor of a statutory ban on same-sex marriage in 2003. He was present but did not vote on the resolution that placed the 2005 anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot.

“I think many Americans, if not most Americans, have evolved over the last 10 years on LGBT issues, and I include myself in that group, along with President Barack Obama, along with Hillary Clinton and so many others,” Turner said. “People evolve, and I think that’s what we want people to do.”

Turner said he now fully supports both the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, and same-sex marriage.

He pointed to a bill he authored in this year’s session calling for a study on homeless youth, up to 40 percent of whom are believed to be LGBT. He also said he was active in helping to defeat anti-LGBT proposals, and he earned a grade of “A+” from Equality Texas for the 84th Legislature.

However, Turner received a “D” from Equality Texas in 2013, after voting against a proposal to gather statistics on bullying incidents based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He also missed a vote on a pro-LGBT youth suicide prevention bill. He voted in favor of a similar anti-bullying amendment this year.

“What I would hope is that people would assess my track record over my entire political career and look at where, for example, I am today, and what I’ve brought to the table today in terms of my advocacy on LGBT issues,” Turner said.

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), another candidate for mayor and a longtime LGBT ally, said he believes Turner’s record on gay rights shows a lack of consistency.

“I think many of us evolved on the issue of marriage equality,” said Bell, a one-time board member for Equality Texas. “There are certain issues that weren’t marriage equality that were just basically trying to address outright discrimination, and that’s a course of a different color.”

As a member of the 108th Congress from 2003 until 2005, Bell voted against a federal anti-gay marriage amendment, and received a perfect score of 100 from the Human Rights Campaign.

Maverick Welsh, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, said it’s critical that the city replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker—the first out mayor of a major US city—with someone who’s supportive of the community. Among other things, the city is still defending the Equal Rights Ordinance in court.

Thanks to a spike in activism due to the battle over the ordinance, Welsh said the caucus’ membership has grown from 67 to upward of 350 in the last few years, in addition to a mailing list of 40,000 households. The caucus has started screening candidates and will vote on its endorsements Aug. 8.

“This fight isn’t over just because we have marriage or just because HERO passed,” Welsh said. “The other side is obsessed with these issues and is never going to go away.”

Other mayoral candidates expected to receive significant LGBT support include former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and Councilman Steve Costello.

Battleground Texas
Jen Reel
High-profile organizing group Battleground Texas is having difficulty retaining its staff after last year’s crushing electoral defeats.

 

It’s mid-summer, after the legislative session and before the proper start of next year’s election cycle, which means the state’s political organizations are in full churn. Politicos of all stripes are leaving politics for policy or vice versa, getting fired and promoted, and maybe leaving the game—or the state—altogether. That’s a normal part of life in politics, where jobs are often short-term and so is loyalty.

The same holds true at the high-profile organizing group Battleground Texas, where political director Cliff Walker will be stepping down next week. It’s the latest of a number of departures by Battleground senior staff since last year’s crushing electoral defeats. Walker, who had been with the organization since the beginning in 2013, was the highest-profile Texan in the group. As the relationship between Battleground and other parts of the Democratic coalition suffered during last year’s election due to mutual distrust, it fell to Walker, respected by other Texas Dems, to try to repair things.

But since November, a lot of Battleground’s founding notables have been looking for other work. A number of Obama campaign veterans have left for greener pastures in other states, including former Campaigns Director Ramsey Reid, former Communications Director Erica Sackin, and former Field Director Victoria Zyp. Former Digital Director Christina Oliver left the organization for a job at an Austin consulting firm owned by Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn’s former campaign manager. The departure of Walker means that a large part of the original Battleground brain trust is now gone.

Political organizations like Battleground experience a high rate of turnover naturally. And for years, there’s been something of a conveyor belt taking talented Democratic political staffers away from Texas, or out of politics altogether—options that offer more rewarding work, and usually, bigger paychecks. Former Texas Democratic Party chief Will Hailer, who party leaders expected to stay for longer than one election cycle, jumped ship shortly after last year’s election for a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.

So Battleground’s staffing issues aren’t unique—a statement from the group called them “really normal transitions,” and pointed to the continuity of Executive Director Jenn Brown’s leadership—but they could pose a greater threat to the organization than progressive groups with deeper roots in Texas. One of the talking points when the group launched concerned Battleground’s ability to attract top talent from across the nation and fuse it with in-state know-how, helped along by a dedicated source of donor money. But it will most likely be harder for Battleground to recruit top talent now.

Political Director of Battleground Texas
Courtesy of tribtalk.org
In the latest of a number of departures by senior staff, political director Cliff Walker has announced that he will be stepping down next week.

In 2013, Battleground had sex appeal. If you were a member of Barack Obama’s blue-wave revolutionary vanguard, “flipping” Texas was an appealing and seductive goal. Now the conventional wisdom about the state’s imminent purple-fication has flipped. (Probably too far in the other direction.) But if you’re talented and you have options, the group might no longer be a first choice. And Battleground faces problems recruiting Texas talent, in part because significant mistrust still exists between other members of the Democratic coalition and Battleground.

Jeff Rotkoff, who represents one of Battleground’s largest backers, Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn, praised Walker’s work and career and predicted he would “continue to be an important member of [the] community in whatever comes next for him.”

He told the Observer that staff turnover at Battleground is evidence the group is here to stay. “The fact is that the program works, and that neither the movement nor the model is defined by any one individual staffer. It is a good thing for Texas progressives that we are building lasting institutions—like Battleground and others—which are not defined by individual operatives, but rather by their missions and their programs.”

On or shortly after July 15, fundraising reports from Battleground and other groups in the Democratic coalition will become available, which will give us more of an idea about how they’re situated as we head toward 2016. Money aside, the coalition will have to mend fences and build a cohesive strategy to take advantage of the potential gains offered by a presidential election year.

Brown is currently developing what a statement from the group called a new “strategic plan for the organization.” In it, she’ll need to come up with fixes for a host of unresolved issues regarding Battleground’s place in the Democratic coalition. In particular, some Texas Democrats worried that Battleground would turn into an adjunct of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, to the detriment of efforts in local and legislative races. That has echoes of one of the major conflicts of the 2014 cycle—some candidates felt that Battleground’s focus on a divisive top-ticket candidate, Wendy Davis, hurt down-ballot efforts.

In the end, staff changes are less important than finding a way for the organization to work effectively with the party and candidates. We’ll soon find out if Battleground is in a position to restore some of its former luster.

Ghetto classroom award
Youtube
A 14-year-old Sulphur Springs Middle School student came home one day with this baffling award announcing him as the winner of “The ‘huh?’ Award” in the “8th Annual Ghetto Classroom Awards.”

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

BRENHAM // For the safety of residents in Brenham (pop.15,716), “defensive shooting” and CHL instructor John Deans penned a timely guide to “Protecting yourself during mob violence” in the pages of the Brenham Banner-Press. “You need to have your situational awareness in high gear,” Deans advises. “You must assume that the police cannot save you during those war-like events. Your survival skills will be all that is protecting yourself and your family.” Deans recommends keeping abreast of national news and being aware of “highly charged court decisions” and “questionable shootings” that could prompt local reactions. Shooting or running over rioters with your car should be considered “a last resort in many ways,” employed only after one of them breaks your window. “With Ferguson and Baltimore demonstrating how the War on Cops is raging, officers are under siege in many urban areas,” Deans wrote. “I would include the massive shooting in Waco last month at Twin Peaks, but let us just see what the real story is there since things in Waco are smelling a bit fishy again.”

FORNEY // Administrators put Forney High School on lockdown on May 28 in response to news that up to 40 students, some dressed in costumes and brandishing foam swim noodles, were causing a disruption. District officials declined to confirm social media reports that the noodles were part of a massive live-action role-playing, or LARPing, match that had been planned in the school cafeteria as a senior prank, according to inForney.com. “The students involved in the incident were brought to the front office and could face disciplinary action,” the site reported.

SULPHUR SPRINGS // A 14-year-old Sulphur Springs Middle School student came home at the school year’s end toting a handsome certificate bordered in metallic gold, announcing him as the winner of “The ‘huh?’ Award” in the “8th Annual Ghetto Classroom Awards.” The African-American child’s grandmother, Debra Jose, related her reaction to Dallas’ CBS 11: “Tears just started falling out of my eyes. I was like, ‘What did they just do to him again? … I just lay in bed and thought about it all night long.” Teachers Stephanie Garner and Tim Couch have since apologized for issuing the baffling awards, which include the forged signature of their principal—a detail that one teacher said “is what makes this award ghetto.” The Sulphur Springs News-Telegram reported that the family was finally able to forgive the teachers after meeting with them, school officials and their pastor. Morning Chapel Baptist Church Pastor Harold Nash told the paper the teachers’ case was compelling. “For the Jews, the ghetto was where the Jews lived. The teachers stressed that if the Jews could overcome such incredible oppression, students can do anything if they wanted to,” Nash explained. “It was supposed to be a positive message.”

LAMESA // The Honorable Judge Carter Tinsley Schildknecht—who ran unopposed for re-election last year for a term ending in 2018—was ordered by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to take four hours of “additional education” after she referred to District Attorney Michael Munk as a “New York Jew.” The public condemnation follows Schildknecht’s earlier attempts to smooth things over by simply explaining to Munk, “When I tell people why you are different and have different thoughts, I explain because you are from New York and because you are Jewish.” Schildknecht has also explained that “I may be too blunt, but I am not biased or prejudiced against New Yorkers or Jews.” It’s a courtesy she may not extend to other religions. The disciplinary action, reported by The Texas Tribune, notes her comments to another lawyer about his beard: “You look like a Muslim, and I wouldn’t hire you with it.”

LAMESA // Startled awake by some loud noise one night in mid-May, high school principal Chris Riggins and his wife were surprised to find a bull joining them in their bedroom. “First reaction is, ‘No, really?’ And then I’m like, ‘Yeah, it really happened,’” Riggins told KCBD-TV. Riggins suspects that the bull—which spent 20 minutes in his bathroom before showing itself back out of the house—had wandered in from a neighboring pasture. Frightening as the experience was, Riggins counts the unannounced visit from this gentle giant as just another part of country life, and said the bull’s touch was surprisingly light: “Poked a little hole in the wall. The doors weren’t even tore up real bad,” he said.”

DEL RIO // As part of its ongoing goodwill mission, the U.S. Border Patrol staged a Holocaust-themed art contest for Del Rio and Comstock middle school students. Part of the Congressionally approved, weeklong Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, the contest prompted students in South Texas to imagine a life circumscribed by fences and checkpoints, under a police force that kills with impunity. “All the students did an outstanding job with their art exhibits,” Del Rio Sector Chief Rodolfo Karisch said in a statement. “In the end it was about a learning experience and awareness of a time in history that should never be forgotten so that it may never be repeated.”

 

border patrol van
A U.S. Border Patrol truck at a checkpoint near Tucson, Arizona.

The unions that represent Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents aren’t shy when it comes to speaking out against the Obama administration’s immigration policies. But in a new report, “Blurring Borders: Collusion between Anti-Immigrant Groups and Immigration Enforcement Agents,” the Chicago nonprofit Center for New Community finds that some union leaders are working in tandem with anti-immigrant groups to undermine immigration policies and promote anti-immigrant views.

The most prominent example, according to Anu Joshi, campaign manager for the center, was a series of tense protests last summer in Murrieta, California, that made national headlines. Anti-immigrant protestors holding signs that read “Stop the invasion of illegals” and “deport illegals” blocked government buses filled with undocumented women and children as they tried to enter a Border Patrol processing center.

The protest organizers had received information about bus routes and schedules from Border Patrol official Ron Zermeno, a fact that came to light from reports in right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and National Review.

“Murrieta was an ugly example of this collusion with anti-immigrant groups,” Joshi said.

According to the center’s report, Zermeno, who is health and safety director for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 in San Diego, was also “privately coordinating and assisting far-right, anti-government activists in organizing a nine-day ‘Border Convoy’ along the U.S.-Mexico border” from Murrieta to McAllen to protest the influx of Central American refugees arriving at the border.

ICE agents have also flouted the law, according to the center’s report. In June 2012, President Obama issued an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides some undocumented students with legal status in the country. A few days later, 10 agents, led by Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council 118, filed a lawsuit arguing that the policy was unconstitutional and an executive overreach.

The agents were represented by attorney Kris Kobach, legal counsel for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Kobach helped craft Arizona’s controversial anti-immigrant SB 1070 legislation, which required police to check citizenship status.) The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the agents’ case in April.

“They should be carrying out public policy set by elected officials,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not their job to decide what is the law and what isn’t.”

But Shawn Moran, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, said the union has every right to be involved in the political process.

“They have a right not to like it,” Moran said of the critics. “But not to identify us as members of a hate group or as racists.” Moran said his union represents at least 17,000 Border Patrol agents and that it isn’t in collusion with anti-immigrant groups.

“I can’t speak to what an individual local has done,” he said. “But our interactions with those groups have been nothing but professional. There’s no behind-the-scenes manipulation. We’re very transparent about what we want and how we go about getting it.”

Texas Marriage Amendment
AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Ralph Barrera
From left to right, Cindy Asmussen, Jan Jones and Mary Smith hold signs at a Defense of the Texas Marriage Amendment rally outside the state Capitol on March 23. The event was headlined by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

 

Anti-LGBT activists are livid about the 84th Texas Legislature’s failure to pass discriminatory bills. A day after lawmakers gaveled out, 14 leaders from anti-gay groups delivered a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott demanding that he call a special session to pass a bill aimed at undermining an expected U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality.

“This issue is not about equality. It is about redefining marriage, which would lead to individuals, families, churches, schools and businesses being forced to accept, affirm and celebrate those who practice homosexuality,” wrote Dr. Steve Hotze, president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, in a post on his website announcing the letter.

“As Attorney General, Governor Abbott fought to protect Texas’ sovereignty from being usurped by the federal government and the federal judiciary,” he continued. “We are convinced that he will continue to fight to protect Texans from having the federal courts illegitimately impose homosexual marriage on Texas.”

Abbott’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment, but the governor has indicated that he doesn’t intend to call a special session.

The letter to Abbott capped weeks of finger-pointing by anti-gay activists after it became clear that none of the more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals introduced in this year’s session would pass. In May, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz lashed out at the Texas Association of Business over the group’s opposition to anti-LGBT legislation.

“The business lobby, the Texas Association of Business, has decided now they’re going to put all their investment in the homosexual agenda, and that’s one of the things they did,” Saenz said. “It was a big surprise to a lot of lawmakers. … The Texas Association of Business has clearly turned their back on the values of Texas.”

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, blamed state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) for the demise of an anti-gay marriage bill in the session’s final days.

Rep. Cecil Bell
John Wright
Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) speaks during a press conference hosted by the Coalition of African-American Pastors at the Capitol on Wednesday morning.

“It is an astounding and appalling reality that in one of the most Republican-dominated state governments in the U.S., with a strong majority in both House and Senate, that the Texas Legislature did nothing meaningful to protect religious freedom, traditional marriage or oppose the radical agenda of the sexual perversity/gender confusion,” Welch wrote. “The good news is that the only way for evil to triumph is for us to be silent, and we have proven that pastors all over Texas are no longer willing to be passive as the enemy of our souls and his pawns influencing media, entertainment, education and politics assault God’s moral law and created order.”

Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, said same-sex marriage will put people out of business if they refuse to serve gay couples—even though Texas has no LGBT-inclusive, statewide nondiscrimination law. Adams also said same-sex marriage is “taking decadence to a new low level,” because not even the “decaying” Roman Empire sanctioned it.

Adams said of state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-gay marriage bills, that “his head was handed to him on a silver platter” by other Republicans who killed the legislation. And she said that because the Legislature failed to pass an anti-gay marriage bill, the state will “bow and scrape before 1 percent of the U.S. population that is homosexual.”

“I am supporting the call for our governor to call a special session now, or forever hold our peace,” Adams said. “We must stand up for marriage. We must push back on this tyranny from the bench.”

Gay Marriage
Courtesy Russ Towers
Openly gay Lamar County Clerk Russ Towers, left, poses with the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Paris on June 26, 2015.

 

While some Texas county clerks are still refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, one openly gay official in conservative Lamar County says he was honored to do so.

Russ Towers was appointed Lamar County clerk on April 1 after his predecessor retired. He previously served as the county’s appointed elections administrator for seven years. Towers, 39, is believed to be the only openly gay county clerk in the state and the first out official in Lamar County, 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, Towers said he’s issued four marriage licenses to same-sex couples, including three on the first day.

“I had done a lot of consulting with other larger counties and my county attorney as well, and I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger, do the right thing,” Towers told the Observer.

“For me, it was very surreal, because it was something that I never thought that I would see in my lifetime, but to be on the other side of the counter, to be the one issuing, made it especially special for me. It was probably one of the proudest moments and days that I’ve ever had professionally.”

Towers, a Republican, criticized his counterparts in other counties who are resisting the ruling, as well as Attorney General Ken Paxton for encouraging them to do so.

“It makes me sad,” he said. “We’re all clerks, and we all take the same oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, the laws of the United States and of the state, and that doesn’t apply to do just some people or the lifestyles with which you agree.”

Russ Towers
Courtesy of Russ Towers
Russ Towers is believed to be the only openly gay county clerk in the state and the first out official in Lamar County.

In the wake of the high court’s ruling, Paxton issued an opinion suggesting that county clerks could refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples, although they might be sued. Paxton also said attorneys likely would be willing to represent those clerks free of charge.

“What they didn’t tell those clerks is that your bond may not cover you, and can also be personally liable for official oppression,” Towers said.

Towers said one of three employees who issue marriage licenses in his office requested that she not be required to do so for same-sex couples due to religious objections. However, he said if she’s the only one available, she’ll be required to.

“The customer is the first priority, and no one’s right is going to be denied because she’s the only one in the room,” he said.

Towers, a Paris native whose father was a Major League Baseball player, said he came out when he moved to Dallas in 1997, but returned to Lamar County 10 years later to be near family. He said his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue when he was appointed elections administrator or clerk by the Lamar County Commissioners Court.

“I’m pretty sure there have been whispers behind my back, but one thing life has given me is very thick skin, and I’m not offended or my feelings don’t get hurt very easily,” he said.

Towers faces re-election in 2016 but isn’t overly concerned about a Republican primary challenger using his sexual orientation against him.

“It’s a small worry, but I’m not going to put too much worry into it, because I’m not about to go changing who I am or altering who I am or try to hide who I am in order to just win an election,” he said.

“I am out, and nothing will ever change that. I suppose that could make some people uncomfortable, but I think most people who are active voters can recognize the changes that I made as an elections administrator to improve their voting experience, and maybe that will be enough to sway them to trust me in the job that I do as county clerk.”

Saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt, Jeffrey Holliman escaped into the wild in rural Nacogdoches County, living out a childhood dream.
Nacogdoches County Sheriff’s Department
Saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt, Jeffrey Holliman escaped into the wild in rural Nacogdoches County, living out a childhood dream.

 

By the time Jeffrey Holliman was finally captured in August 2013 at his remote campsite in the dense woods of Nacogdoches County, he’d been living out there for nearly a year, traveling by night, raiding empty homes and abandoned trailers for money, guns and provisions, making only limited contact with the people who’d once been his neighbors in the town of Melrose.

The Observer recounted Holliman’s time in the woods and the town’s struggle to identify its tormentor in our February 2014 issue. Holliman, Nacogdoches County Sheriff Jason Bridges, and folks in town pieced together much of the story, but questions lingered about the circumstances that brought Holliman’s time in the woods to an end.

Holliman said he’d considered fleeing the state, but ultimately decided—for reasons he wouldn’t reveal—that he was ready to give up the hermit life and answer to the law. Bridges said Holliman had been found at his camp, but was so dehydrated and sick from drinking tainted pond water that he couldn’t have put up much of a fight regardless. Bridges didn’t witness the capture, and the two men who made the arrest, Nacogdoches County Precinct 4 Constable David Stone and a deputy, wouldn’t discuss it until after Holliman’s criminal case had concluded.

On Monday, Stone emailed to say that he was ready to tell the story.

Constable David Stone
co.nacogdoches.tx.us
Nacogodches Constable David Stone

In the months that Holliman was living in the woods, the run of burglaries in Melrose had become a source of embarrassment for local law enforcement. Bridges had repeatedly sent deputies to interview victims and watch the county roads at night, to no avail. Stone, who lives in Melrose and knew Holliman from town, would venture into the woods on horseback or four-wheeler, patrolling through the night in shifts along with his deputies Justin Murray and Shawn Murray (no relation). “We never quit,” Stone says. “We looked every day.”

Shawn Murray accompanied Stone on the night of Aug. 2 to check out a trail a property owner had discovered on his land. They’d arranged to meet the landowner at 11, but at 10:30 Stone got a call from Murray, who’d gone out early. “You could hear the excitement in his voice,” Stone recalls. “He said, ‘I think I found his tent.’”

They drove out to the property, and Stone and Murray followed a well-worn trail until a fainter one, no more discernable than a deer trail, branched off. Stone guesses they followed that one three-quarters of a mile, though in the dense forest it felt like much farther. At last, Stone says, they reached an orange tent. Stone and Murray yelled to announce their presence, told Holliman to come out with his hands up, and heard nothing. Murray found the tent zipper and, bracing himself for confrontation, opened the door to find… another zipper. “That really got your heart going,” Stone says. “You hate not knowing the unknown.”

He undid the inner zipper as well, and found only weapons and supplies, he says. There was no sign of Holliman. It was a big break in the case, Stone figured, but also another night of fruitless searching for the man. Then Murray whispered that he’d found another trail, and led the way down the path, which forced the men into a narrow tunnel cut through the underbrush. At the far end, Stone could see a camouflage cargo net. Ducking through the thicket, Stone told Murray to watch out for traps. Then, from up ahead, came a noise—maybe a cough, Stone recalls—and the two flipped on their flashlights, sprinted forward and split up to get around the net, Murray to the right and Stone to the left.

On the other side, Stone faced another tent, this one with its door open but its mosquito mesh still zipped. Shining his light through the scrim, Stone found himself face-to-face with Holliman, who held a knife in one hand, with a pistol on the plastic tub beside him.

“You could see his knuckles get white, he was grippin’ that knife real tight,” Stone says. “The look in his eyes, he was thinking, ‘Do I want to die here tonight or do I want to try it?’”

Stone says he and Murray yelled at Holliman to drop the knife. After a long moment, Murray broke the standstill by starting to cut through a side of the tent. Holliman heard the noise and turned, Stone says, and Murray tackled him. At that point, Holliman’s dehydration seemed to take hold and his strength gave out and the teo men carried Holliman out of the woods.

Holliman, who hasn’t been free since that night, was indicted on 13 burglary charges, plus seven more for being a felon in possession of guns and a silencer. His trial began this month in Nacogdoches, but on Monday Holliman cut it short, accepting a plea deal and a 25-year prison sentence.

In the run-up to the trial, Holliman’s lawyer, John Boundy, got to see the wealth of evidence that investigators had amassed: 43 discs containing documents, photos and video, with interviews of burglary victims and conversations with Holliman. Boundy recalled one three-and-a-half-hour video in which Holliman explained the “metaphysical spirituality” he developed during his time alone, and the alter ego named Seth who guided his journey—likely inspired by the new-age author Jane Roberts’ Seth Material, some volumes of which were found in Holliman’s camp.

Key to the defense Boundy had planned was a series of photographs of Holliman on the floor in a trailer he was accused of robbing. Each photo features a different assortment of guns and outdoor gear, but Holliman, who is apparently asleep in the photos, never moves. “The camera angle, the distance from the camera to the subject and the location of the property around him—all of those change,” Boundy says. “The only thing that’s the same is that he’s comatose or unconscious in that unnatural position.” Boundy’s conclusion: Somebody else took the photos.

His defense cast Holliman as a forest-dwelling protector of the town, up against people far more dangerous than himself, one of whom had invited Holliman into the trailer. Boundy says a recent raid on a hidden marijuana farm in the county, and other illicit growers still on the loose, figured into the questions he addressed to witnesses.

“My theory was, yeah, maybe my guy was a ghost in the woods, but there’s other ghosts worse than him,” Boundy says.

Selling that story posed challenges. Boundy compares it to the scene from The Terminator in which Kyle Reese struggles to convince Los Angeles cops of his mission from the future. “The story he tells is so perfect because there’s not a shred of physical evidence because of the nature of the story.”

Holliman was in the midst of his trial on Monday when he accepted a plea deal. He pleaded guilty to a single burglary charge and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Boundy says Holliman could be eligible for early release after five years.

Among all the evidence gathered on Holliman during months of investigation, there’s still no sign of the money and jewelry that disappeared from homes in Melrose two years ago. If it’s hidden or buried, Constable Stone figures it’ll stay that way for a long time.

But what haunts Stone about the case is the empty tent he and Murray found the night they captured Holliman. Looking back, he realizes how exposed he and Murray had been, how easily, in the dark, on Holliman’s turf, the tables could’ve turned. “He could’ve very, very easily come out of the tunnel on us,” Stone says. “The whole time he was behind us, and we didn’t know.”