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Houston Activists Upset After Sheriff Ends LGBT Liaison Program

Houston Activists Upset After Sheriff Ends LGBT Liaison Program


Activists worry that new sheriff of Harris County, which includes Houston, will be less responsive than his predecessor to LGBT concerns.

LGBT residents of Harris County, Texas -- which includes the state's largest city, Houston -- are worried that the sheriff's office is becoming a little less friendly to them.

Ron Hickman, a Republican who was recently appointed sheriff after Democrat Adrian Garcia resigned to run for mayor of Houston, has ended the sheriff's department's LGBT liaison program, the Houston Press reports.

Ryan Sullivan, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, said the LGBT program was informal and unproductive, and that the department can easily absorb its duties. "The LGBT liaison program didn't have the capacity which you would expect by looking at the website. ...Those requests were kind of administered ad hoc," he told the Press. "Should a request come in, it would be processed around through the department until it could be fulfilled. We already have systems and structures in place through our community services division to take care of those things directly."

That description of the program is "technically true," the paper reports, but the program did take advantage of the expertise of several department employees who had gone through extensive training on LGBT issues. These included "jailers tasked with implementing Garcia's rather groundbreaking policy directive to classify and house inmates based on gender identity and expression rather than biological sex -- a policy that Hickman's office says will continue," the Press reports.

Despite the department's assurances, local activist Lou Weaver said he was worried that LGBT concerns would be ignored without a liaison program in place, and he and other advocates were also upset that Hickman had demoted Maj. Debra Schmidt, who had helped put in place antidiscrimination policies for LGBT employees and prisoners.

"It's important that we have a point of contact for people to feel safe going into the jail, contacting the jail if something happens, someone to air our concerns if we feel we're not being treated fairly," Weaver told the Press. "Unfortunately, it looks like the current sheriff does not take those concerns seriously."

Additionally, under Hickman, the sheriff's department leadership has become less racially diverse. Garcia's discretionary staff had included two Latinos, four African-Americans, an Asian-American, and three women; he replaced them all with white men, the Houston Chronicle notes.

Hickman also has no plans to march in Houston's LGBT Pride parade, set for June 27, although individual employees of the sheriff's department may participate. Garcia made news last year as the first Harris County sheriff to march in the parade. And before Hickman ended the LGBT liaison program, he was "incredulous" to learn the program's website bore a rainbow flag; a member of a Houston Republican club pointed it out and "wanted to know if any other 'bacon, lettuce, tomato' groups had special consideration," reports local blog Big Jolly Politics.

Hickman's appointment is on an interim basis until the November 2016 election. In the mayoral election, which will take place this year, Garcia is among the candidates seeking to succeed Annise Parker, who is being term-limited out of office. Parker is a lesbian, making Houston the largest U.S. city with a mayor who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

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