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In Houston, Haters Gonna Hate (And Get Fined)

by Published on
Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Greater Houston Partnership / Richard Carson
Houston mayor Annise Parker at the State of the City Address

Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed civil rights ordinance wasn’t a day old before a religious group said it evoked “fear” that Christians would be punished for “practicing our historical beliefs.”

Ah, history. Have you ever gotten it wrong?

Parker announced the new ordinance yesterday in her annual State of the City address. Though still being drafted, it would codify an existing executive order prohibiting discrimination by city government and its contractors but also cover housing and public accommodations. That means retail stores, restaurants, bars, and any service provider with a brick-and-mortar location could be cited for discrimination based on age, sex, race, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender expression. The Office of the Inspector General and a new seven-member Human Rights Commission would investigate complaints and try mediation first, though failing that the offender could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined.

The fuss, of course, is over including gay and transgender Houstonians among the protected. The Texas Pastor Council, a far-right group that has called Parker a “sodomite,” issued an open letter to the mayor today calling the “San-Antonio Style [sic]” ordinance a “Bad Fit for Houston.” It’s referring to the LGBT non-discrimination ordinance San Antonio passed in September after much hullabaloo. The letter says that the ordinance “assaults not only the values but the basic First Amendment rights of city citizens, business owners and churches to live, speak about and practice their faith.” It also spells Jim Crow “Jim Crowe.”

San Antonio had to pass an LGBT-specific ordinance because—like every other major city in the United States—it already had other civil rights protections. Houston, a majority-minority city and one of the most diverse in the nation, has none. Parker states her goal is not just to create local recourse for discrimination but to take a stand as a city. “[T]he Houston I know doesn’t turn its back on inequality,” she said.

In a press conference following the speech, Mayor Parker said the ordinance is not a primary focus of her final term in office and that she hopes the City Council will pass the measure quickly and “get on down the road.” But her administration must have known it would meet resistance. The whole State of the City Address, which was hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s most powerful business group, was structured to psychologically prime its audience for acceptance. The opening invocation by a Catholic priest mentioned diversity, differences and those needing “special protection,” and included Mayor Parker’s lesbian partner in its blessings. As the large, be-suited crowd enjoyed their chicken and haricot verts, three huge screens behind the stage alternated triptychs of Mayor Parker doing mayor things—plus one image of her wedding day—with affirmations like “Houston is tolerant” and “Houston is inclusive.” The sayings were pretty pointed. “Houston is open-minded. Houston is unbiased. Houston does not discriminate.”

When she spoke, Parker saved announcing the ordinance for last. The audience laughed at her jokes and interrupted repeatedly with applause as she detailed the city’s successes—a hot economy, infrastructure investment and lowered crime—but they responded tepidly to the speech’s capstone. That may have been because business owners are concerned about frivolous complaints or because the bathroom lines were going to be really long.

Parker plans to present a draft of the ordinance April 30th and place it on the City Council agenda for May 7th. She says most council members have expressed support for LGBT protections so she expects quick passage, but backers are concerned that groups like the Texas Pastor Council will successfully petition to add a referendum on it to the November ballot. Even if they do, they may have a hard road. Houston narrowly but consistently leans Democratic. Back in 2001, voters amended the city charter to ban city spousal benefits for anyone except “legal spouses,” but Parker recently defied that successfully.

“It’s long past time that we ensure equal protection for all of our residents,” Parker said in a statement yesterday. She’s betting the city that elected her three times agrees.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • Humberto Martinez

    Live and let live. All businesses have to do is obey the laws of the land in conducting their business. I am sure businesses in Houston may still refuse service to anyone; so long as those denied services are not denied on the basis of one or more of the established factors.

    • George6112

      Or if you want to discriminate against someone don’t admit why…just say it was an “oops.” If you get selected for jury duty and get a discrimination case you don’t have to vote guilty either.

  • Bob Martin

    Dang that Mayor. Infringeing on my rights as a Christian to beat the brains out of people I couldn’t hope to understand! Who’s gonna stand up for my rights as as a good Texas bigot and keep Big Guvment out of my road texting and trying to get the president shot like a preacher helping the striking unionist garbagemen? This place is going to the Universalist coexisters and I for one am skeered! (rated S+ for sarcasm and nudity)

  • Guest

    Fvckin qveers.

  • Ann Walton Sieber

    Good story, yay Annise. One of Annise’s first actions after being
    elected the first time was to have civil rights protections for city
    employees extend to cover LGBT and transgender employees. If memory
    serves, it wasn’t a hugely controversial move.

    Small item: Aren’t
    Annise Parker and Kathy Hubbard married now? So while Kathy is
    technically Annise’s partner, the usual convention is to refer to
    spouses as husband or wife (in this case, of course, wife and wife).

  • 1bimbo

    lord parkers thinks she’s running a fiefdom over there in houston, we already have federal civil rights act, and here comes the state religious freedom law next session