Gus Kenworthy
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Texas Supreme Court Throws Out Houston's LGBT Protections

Texas Supreme Court Throws Out Houston's LGBT Protections
The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that city leaders must either repeal its controversial equal rights ordinance, enacted in May 2014, or place it on the November ballot, reports the Houston Chronicle
 
"We agree with the Relators that the City Secretary certified their petition and thereby invoked the City Council's ministerial duty to reconsider and repeal the ordinance or submit it to popular vote," said the Texas Supreme Court, in what is called a per curiam opinion. "The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored." 
 
The Houston equal right ordinance, known as HERO, bans discrimination in areas like employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but also adheres with federal laws that prohibit discrimination because of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.
 
With the ruling, the Houston City Council has 30 days to act: either put equal rights to a vote, or strike down the law. 
 
Texas's high court sided with City Secretary Anna Russell who earlier said enough signatures were gathered to force a repeal measure on HERO be placed on an upcoming ballot. The city's out mayor, Annise Parker, disagreed with Russell and said many of the signatures were invalid.
 
Opponents of LGBT equality are cheering the high court decision. The Houston Chronicle reports that one of the plaintiffs, former Harris County Republican Party chief Jared Woodfill, called the ruling "a huge victory for the people of the city of Houston" and demanded Parker apologize to the public. "This is all about the mayor and her personal agenda," Woodfill said.
 
Parker instead vowed to look at legal options, but is also preparing to put HERO to a vote. Houston twice voted down LGBT protections (in 1985 and 2001).

Friday's ruling comes almost two weeks after a report by Mitch Kellaway in The Advocate, that an anti-LGBT activist filed a lawsuit against Houston for not heeding more than 22,000 petition signatures he gathered calling for a provision to be added in the city's charter to keep "men who perceive themselves as women" from entering women's restrooms.

Dave Wilson, 68, has been a longtime vocal opponent of what he calls LGBT people's"assault on family values," and has before unsuccesfully petitioned the city to bar same-sex couples from receiving work benefits from their spouses, according to his website.

According to the Houston ChronicleWilson's current lawsuit demands that Houston city secretary Anna Russell recount the supposed 22,000 petition signatures he delivered in boxes to Houston City Hall on Thursday. The petition called for a public vote on Wilson's proposed amendment to the city charter, which would officially define gender as "an individual's innate identification as either male or female, which is assigned at birth."

"[The amendment] will prohibit men from going into women's bathrooms and vice versa in all sex-oriented facilities — like swimming pools, locker rooms — that the city has," Wilson explained to Houston TV station KHOU.

Further, Wilson's petition called for his definition of gender to apply to all businesses, in response to Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, which passed a city council vote in May of last year. The ordinance, known locally as HERO, prohibits all public and private employers, housing, city employees, and city contractors from discriminating against citizens for their gender identity or sexual orientation, among other protected categories. Religious institutions are still exempt from HERO's provisions, noted the Chronicle.

According to the legal team of Parker, Wilson has repeatedly been informed that his proposed charter change is too similar to a repeal petition that was already unsuccessfuly lodged in courts against the HERO in April, and therefore will not be formally addressed.

Moreover, Houston's law holds that petitions to repeal an ordinance must be submitted within 30 days of the law going into effect. Wilson still submitted his petition last week, despite the fact that HERO has been in effect for nearly three months, since April. 

"It doesn't matter how many times he submits petitions, he will always be too late," mayoral spokesperson Janice Evans pointed out to the Chronicle Friday.

Nonetheless, Wilson — who plans to represent himself in his scheduled court hearing today — remains resolute that his lawsuit will force change in Houston's nondiscrimination code. "I'm going to win because I don't give up," he told the newspaper. "The mayor simply does not want the people to have the right to vote."

Wilson's petition echoes language used in a spate of anti-trans bathroom bills that have emerged over the past year, including Texas's HB 1748, introduced by Republican representative Debbie Riddle in February. The proposed law would make anyone over the age of 13 who is attempting to use public facilities of "a gender that is not the same gender as the individual's gender" — as determined by a citizen's chromosomes — subject to up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

HB 1748 was last introduced in the Texas legislature's State Affairs committee, but did not advance out of that committee before the end of the session on June 1. A similar bill, HB 2801, targeting trans students' use of school bathrooms proposed by Texas Representative Gilbert Peña in March, also died in committee in April.

All of these proposed laws ignore the fact that trans people — and especially trans women — are at higher risk of facing harassment or violence in public bathrooms than nontrans individuals, while a staggering 59 percent of trans students report being barred from using the school facilities that correspond with their gender identity, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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