A proposal to extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender Houston residents, which had been swiftly advancing to a City Council vote, stalled Wednesday as council members voted for a two-week delay to allow more public input on the increasingly divisive measure.
Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, said she had the votes to pass the ordinance Wednesday but hopes to pick up even more before the council’s May 28 meeting. The 12-5 vote in favor of delay reflected not an erosion of support, she said, but the council’s desire to address constituents’ questions.
“There were several council members who fully intend to vote for the item who asked for an opportunity, in the interest of complete transparency and openness on this issue, to have another round of conversations with their various constituent groups,” Parker said. “This has never been about getting something rushed through. It is about getting something right.”
Most opposition has come from clergy, from conservative megachurch leaders to black ministers. Opponents said they, too, plan to continue rallying votes; council offices have been deluged with calls and emails now numbering in the thousands.
The proposal, already delayed one week amid tearful cries of support and angry protestations, has been the subject of intense debate for nearly a month.
Houston political consultant Keir Murray said the delay is driven in part by some council members’ desire to address concerns from community leaders, particularly elderly black pastors, who may be uncomfortable with gay and transgender issues.
“They’ve got the votes,” Murray said. “The mayor and others are just trying to cut colleagues some slack, give them a little time and go back to constituencies and say, ‘We gave you more time to make your voices heard.’ ”
Similar to federal law
The measure would, as federal laws do, ban discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status. Parker’s proposal also would cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
The item would apply to businesses that serve the public, housing, city employment, city contracting and private employers. Religious institutions would be exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.
As drafted, the ordinance would have covered private firms employing 50 or more workers, but one of five amendments approved Wednesday dropped that threshold: After one year, firms with 25 or more employees would be covered; two years from passage, firms with 15 or more. The other approved amendments were technical.
Supporters and opponents of the measure gathered outside the chamber after the Wednesday vote in favor of delay.
“I wanted to walk out of here today feeling that I was equal in this city that I call home, and I wasn’t allowed to do that,” said transgender resident Lou Weaver, “but I have great faith that this will happen in two weeks.”
Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, said neither his megachurch brethren nor influential ministers of color were engaged in the drafting of the law, saying, “We’re willing to sit down at the table and talk.”
Process was not secret
Asked whether there were any protections for gay and transgender residents he could support, Riggle said only, “Let’s sit at the table and see.” But he added, “Gender identity is a term that is a problem.”
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen noted that scores of faith, nonprofit and community leaders have announced their backing for the proposal.
“The idea that somehow this was a secret process, particularly after how many countless hours of public hearings we’ve had over the last few weeks, is interesting,” Parker said.
Councilman Dwight Boykins pushed for the delay, saying he hopes to convene a meeting for pastors and business owners in his south Houston district: “Within the next two weeks, I think we will come to some conclusion where this city will heal this divisiveness in this city today.
“The people in this city, the ones that have questions about this ordinance, have questions that can be dealt with.”
Councilman Jerry Davis held a similar meeting in his north Houston district, and said many pastors left with a better understanding of the measure even if they remained opposed.
After the meeting Wednesday, Davis said that he has experienced discrimination at a bar on Washington Avenue.
“For those who say discrimination doesn’t exist, this ordinance isn’t necessary: Just because you haven’t personally experienced it doesn’t mean it does not exist,” Davis said. “I’m a little bit upset with some of the ministers because they’re overshadowing some of the parts; they’re not telling the entire story.
“In the next few weeks, I’m going to get on my soapbox and let the people really understand the entire ordinance.”
In other action Wednesday, the City Council:
& Set a public hearing for the fiscal year 2015 budget, June 3 at 1:30 p.m.
& Delayed for two weeks consideration of a tax break for a high-end residential and commercial development in Clear Lake.
& Delayed for two weeks a vote on the formation of a new historic district in the First Ward area.