Above: 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.