HOUSTON -- A roaring chorus of cheers erupted inside Houston City Hall Wednesday night as the mayor and city council passed a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance that ignited a passionate debate over the rights of gay and transgendered Houstonians.
The hotly contested vote on Mayor Annise Parker’s equal rights ordinance brought an overflowing crowd into the council chambers, where hundreds of citizens signed up to speak out. But the daylong debate apparently didn’t change any council members’ minds and certainly didn’t affect the widely expected outcome, as the mayor’s proposal passed by an 11- 6 margin.
“This is not the most important thing I have done or I will do as mayor,” said Parker, who was visibly moved after the ordinance was adopted. “But it is the most personally satisfying and most personally meaningful thing that I will do as mayor.”
Opponents vowed to continue fighting the ordinance at the ballot box, possibly petitioning for a referendum putting the issue before voters. Some of the mayor’s critics have also discussed launching a recall movement against her and some council members, but even they admit removing city elected officials from office would be very difficult.
“It’s not right,” said Steve Riggle, pastor at Grace Community Church, one of the ordinance’s leading opponents. “And we’re not participating in that process anymore. If they want, great, we’ll see them at the polls.”
The sweeping ordinance mirrors much of existing federal law outlawing discrimination based on a variety of factors, from race to religion to sex and marital status, imposing fines of up to $5,000. It applies to housing, private employers, businesses serving the public, private employers, the city government and city contractors. Religious institutions are exempt.
The mayor suggested the idea began with complaints from African-American men who said they were turned away from nightclubs based upon their race. But the debate has centered mainly on the rights of gay and transgendered people. The mayor herself acknowledged and essentially encouraged that perception with a pointed remark that “the debate is about me.”
“It feels great,” said Travis Sheive, a politically active gay man celebrating the ordinance’s passage at City Hall. “I mean, I feel like the city that I love and the city I worked so hard for has just stood up and told everyone that they’re going to protect me and that they’re going to treat me equally under the law.”
Opponents focused particular attention to provisions of the ordinance that essentially would’ve allowed transgendered men and women choose for themselves which restroom they would use. The mayor dropped specific language on that question, but critics said the ordinance was so broadly worded it basically kept the controversial provision intact.
“It’s coming down, because the Bible says it’s one man and one woman,” said Ray Martinez, an opponent watching the vote. “But yet, Houston is turning like Sodom and Gomorrah.”
More than 200 citizens spoke at the meeting before the ordinance passed, most of them favoring the proposal. Some told intensely personal stories of physical and sexual abuse.
“Twenty-three years ago, in gym class, I was drug into the girl’s shower and physically assaulted, not by imagined predators or pedophiles, but by my female classmates for the innocuous act of wearing boxer shorts,” said Amy Christenson, an ordinance supporter. “I remained silent then, but never again.”
Opponents argued the ordinance would expose women and children to sexual predators cross dressing to gain entry into ladies’ restrooms. Many of them cited religious objections to homosexuality.
“I ask you to vote ‘no’ on this ordinance, because you will make criminals of Christians like me,” said Maria Villanueva, an opponent of the ordinance who waved a Bible as she spoke to city council.
City council offices have been flooded with phone calls and emails during the debate, which was extended an extra two weeks because a couple of council members asked the mayor for more time to build support among ministers opposing the ordinance. One councilmember, Richard Nguyen, choked back tears as he told a story about how his 6 year-old helped him decide to vote for the ordinance.
“It has been an extremely heart-wrenching experience,” said Councilmember Ellen Cohen, one of the ordinance’s most outspoken supporters.
Cheers echoed through City Hall as Councilmember Jerry Davis, who came under particular pressure from ministers’ groups, proclaimed he wouldn’t be intimidated.
“I won’t be pressured by the threats,” Davis said. “That’s fine.”
One gay citizen who spoke at the meeting implored the council to ignore warnings about Houston “becoming San Francisco” and worry about Houston becoming Teheran.
“I would probably be locked up someplace and you would be stoned to death if we were in Teheran,” Parker said.
Opponents hope to collect enough signatures on petitions to put the matter on the ballot in November, the same month as elections not only for statewide offices like Texas governor and down ballot races for county offices like the race for Harris County district attorney. Republicans predicted it would help them out down ballot, but Parker herself predicted it would help Democrats.