Activists are preparing a petition to put a referendum on Houston’s November ballot, calling for a ban on discrimination against gays and permission for the city to grant health insurance benefits to the unmarried partners of city employees.
If organizers collect the 20,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot, the measure again would take the temperature of Houstonians who have voted against both proposals in separate measures in the past 27 years and could make Houston the focus of national attention as the latest political battleground over gay rights.
“Discrimination exists everywhere. It’s really hard to determine how big the problem is,” said Noel Freeman, president of the Houston GLBT Caucus, who said he expects to submit petition language to the city secretary as early as the end of the month. A local law is necessary, Freeman said, because gays and lesbians who want to press claims of discrimination currently must undertake costly litigation in state or federal courts.
Houston voters rejected two initiatives in 1985 that would have banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in city employment. In 1998, Mayor Lee Brown issued an order banning discrimination against gay city employees. It survived a three-year legal challenge from Councilman Rob Todd.
Todd supports Freeman’s referendum.
“I believe that everyone has a right to be loved,” said Todd, a Republican. “And everyone has a right to gainful employment and to be able to support their loved ones, and if those aren’t bipartisan values, then I don’t know what is.”
The former councilman explained that his objection to Brown’s order was parliamentary – that such a change should come from the voters or Council, “not some wave of the wand by the executive branch.” Todd said he believes this referendum has a chance of passing where others have failed because of a new generation of voters, an influx of newcomers and changed attitudes among long-time Houstonians.
I got a similar response from former Council Member Todd when I asked him about it after the city of San Antonio extended domestic partnership benefits to city employees. I too believe that a referendum like this – we don’t have the exact wording yet – should have a better chance of passing than previous ones had. The 2001 charter amendment that denied domestic partner benefits in Houston received 51.52% of the vote, not an overwhelming mandate. It won’t be an easy fight, and a lot will depend on how the issue is framed and who lines up with whom, but it’s a fight worth having and a fight that needs to be won. I’m looking forward to it.