Texas LGBT Advocates Look Beyond Gay Marriage

Texas Competes Managing Director Jessica Shortall speaks during the pro-LGBT business coalition's launch in April. Newly launched Texas Wins is trying to capitalize on the momentum from sister organization Texas Competes and the Legislature to pass local nondiscrimination ordinances across the state.
Courtesy of John Wright
Texas Competes Managing Director Jessica Shortall speaks during the pro-LGBT business coalition's launch in April. Newly launched Texas Wins is trying to capitalize on the momentum from sister organization Texas Competes and the Legislature to pass local nondiscrimination ordinances across the state.

When Republican lawmakers introduced more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, they may have unwittingly helped launch the next phase of the state’s gay-rights movement.

With all of the proposals defeated and the community galvanized, LGBT advocates are hoping to harness momentum from the session—and they’re looking beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s imminent ruling on same-sex marriage. The newly launched Texas Wins campaign—a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort—aims to increase the number of LGBT Texans protected by local nondiscrimination ordinances.

“We want to take the momentum for LGBT equality coming out of the session, build on it, and one way to do so is through these local ordinances, to where in a session down the road we look at a statewide bill,” Texas Wins spokesman Kevin Nix said. “We’ve really turned a page here in the state, and the playing field is sort of wide open now to make some real progress. … I think sometimes politicians can overplay their hands, and they probably did.”

Nix said one of the campaign’s biggest challenges will be educating people that anti-LGBT discrimination is perfectly legal in Texas outside cities that have banned it—Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Plano and San Antonio—which account for less than a third of the state’s population.

“So many people don’t even realize it’s legal to fire or evict gay and transgender people,” he said. “A lot of folks think it’s protected in law, and it’s not. That problem would persist no matter what the marriage decision is from the Supreme Court.”

Texas Wins commissioned a poll in April that showed nearly 63 percent of Texas voters support a law protecting LGBT people against employment discrimination. The campaign has also received endorsements from celebrities, including Mark Cuban and Willie Nelson. In July, Texas Wins will tour eight to 10 cities across the state, from Amarillo to McAllen, to begin laying groundwork for nondiscrimination ordinances.

“In some cities in Texas, yes, it’s going to be a tough start, but you have to start somewhere, and we’re going to open that conversation in these various places where this conversation hasn’t been had that often, if at all,” Nix said.

One of the keys to passing nondiscrimination ordinances will be convincing elected officials they provide a competitive advantage for cities economically. Texas Competes, a sister organization of Texas Wins, has gathered signatures from more than 200 employers, including 16 from the Fortune 500, in support of LGBT inclusion. Texas Wins is funded by a combination of individual and institutional donors—including the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the Human Rights Campaign—while Texas Competes is funded solely by Equality Texas.

Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, said Texas was the first state in which the business community proactively spoke out en masse against anti-LGBT legislation before it reached the governor’s desk—protecting the state’s brand rather than having to repair it.

However, Shortall said she fears a loss of momentum in coming months due to a collective sigh of relief after the session, combined with a likely win on same-sex marriage at the high court.

“There could be kind of a drop the mic, spike the football thing,” Shortall said. “As we see in movement after movement, when you get a really big win, sometimes the wind goes out of the sails.”

Shortall is also looking ahead to the 2017 session, when she expects more anti-LGBT, religious freedom legislation similar to a bill that passed in Indiana in March.

Cathie Adams, president of the anti-LGBT Texas Eagle Forum, said she doesn’t believe Texas Competes represents the views of the majority of Texas businesses. Adams fears local nondiscrimination ordinances will be used to put people out of business when they refuse to serve same-sex couples. And she said even though the LGBT community has achieved “tolerance,” it continues to “push the envelope.”

“It’s like an appetite that cannot, and will not, and refuses to be satiated,” Adams said. “Enough already, I would say. They’re just not content with just saying enough.”

Social conservative groups like the Eagle Forum, Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council have bitterly—but unsuccessfully—fought passage of nondiscrimination ordinances in Houston, Plano and San Antonio in recent years.

“As the ordinances come up, I think the people have a right to speak out,” Adams said. “They will speak their own minds and they will speak their own hearts, and we will see how much success they have at these.”

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Published at 11:25 am CST
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