Houston City Council hosts emotional debate over equal rights

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on May 7, 2014 at 11:01 PM

HOUSTON -- A long list of speakers had signed up for Tuesday’s Houston City Council meeting. More than 100 people wanted to give the mayor and council a piece of their mind, from state lawmakers to church leaders to common citizens, all speaking out about Houston’s proposed equal rights ordinance.

The brief speeches from a podium were often emotional. Several speakers talked about how their religious convictions led them to oppose the idea, while others choked back sobs as they recalled harrowing incidents of discrimination in the nation’s most diverse city. A couple of young people even came out as gay in front of the city council.

Amid the parade of speakers, one transgendered woman told a striking story that she hoped would convince council members to vote for the proposed ordinance.

“As a child I was told to use a male restroom,” said Nikki Araguz Loyd. “As a result, I was raped in a public restroom in our city and infected with HIV at 13.”

The woman may have looked familiar to viewers watching on the city’s municipal television channel. She’s fought a long and public battle to obtain financial benefits as the widow of Capt. Thomas Araguz, a volunteer firefighter who died battling a blaze in 2010. She has since remarried and now live in the Montrose area, the traditional heart of Houston’s gay and transgender community.

The debate over Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed equal rights ordinance has brought standing room only crowds to Houston City Council chambers for two consecutive weeks. The emotional debate is largely symbolic, since both sides generally agree a majority of council members will vote for the proposal.

The sweeping ordinance would ban discrimination based on a wide variety of factors, from sex to race to age to marital status. It would apply to private businesses, housing, city employment and city contractors, but not to churches and other religious institutions. Also exempted would be businesses with fewer than 50 workers. Violators could face fines of up to $5,000.

Opponents dominated the committee meeting at which the city attorney outlined the proposed ordinance and laid out much of the administration’s argument for it. And many of the critics focused on one idea: Transgendered people deciding for themselves whether they should use restrooms for men or women.

That argument caught the attention of Nikki Araguz Loyd for a very personal reason.

“The bathroom issue is the thing that most bothered me,” she said. “To sit in that room and to hear people say that transgendered people are predators who want to dress up specifically to go into a restroom was one of the most absurd and disgusting displays of ignorance that our city should be embarrassed by.”

Araguz Loyd has never been shy about telling her story, but her story of sexual assault caught the attention of council members listening to the debate. She later told KHOU 11 News that the incident happened in 1988, when she was a 13 year-old boy, at the Foley’s Department Store in downtown Houston.

Her mother worked at the store, she said, so she usually went there after school and waited to ride home with her mother after work. On the last day before the Christmas break of 1988, she said, she was attacked in a store bathroom.

“This man followed me in there and took the opportunity,” she said. “He threw me up against the sink and assaulted me. I bled for two weeks. And I was afraid.”

So afraid she didn’t tell anybody about the incident, she said, until after she discovered she was HIV-positive. Five years after the attack, she said, she hadn’t had sex with anyone else but she accompanied a friend to a test at the Montrose Clinic.

“If I had been able to use the female restroom, I would not be sitting before you with HIV,” she said. “I would not have been raped as a child. My story would be very different.”

City council delayed a vote on the ordinance until next week. The Parker Administration is confident it has the votes to pass the proposal.

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