Friday, October 29, 2010

GLBT Caucus Volunteer Attacked at Polling Site

The GLBT Political Caucus (of Houston) has released a statement that one of their volunteers was attacked by a volunteer for the Fernando Herrera campaign.

"Francisco Valle is well known by poll workers at West Gray for holding signs and waving to voters as they turn in to the parking lot.This afternoon he was doing just that when a volunteer from the Fernando Herrera campaign confronted him, just because he didn't like his Bill White sign.But Francisco refused to stop waving his sign and that's when things got out of hand. The man grabbed Francisco and began trying to yank the sign from his hands.Luckily the police arrived and Francisco was unhurt..."
Herrera is running against Rep. Jessica Farrar - one of the greatest allies to the queer community in the Texas House. This incident underscores the importance of voting for pro-equality candidates in the Texas Legislature. The violent thugs who are supporting candidates like Herrera will only grow emboldened if their candidates are elected.

Today is the last day of early voting in Texas. If you have not done so already - please vote.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Houston School Board Candidate Attacks GLBT Caucus - Fakes HRC Endorsement

Houston ISD School Board Candidate Peter Schwethelm has found the solution to ending school bullying... magicians. The outsider candidate - who has also suggested that getting Whole Foods to give away free vegetables is the solution to nutritious school lunches - is seeking to assure the queer community that he has a magician diligently working on a, yet un-articulated, program to end the torturous conditions that queer children endure.

Schwethelm just can't understand why Houston's GLBT Political Caucus won't support his candidacy and its, yet to be conceived, magician powered bullying solution. So Schwethelm has decided to camp out at the early voting location nearest the historic 'gayborhood' of Montrose and pass out literature attacking the Caucus. (high quality version available HERE)


The criticism of the GLBT Caucus is a fair one, and one I've made myself. The Caucus is perceived by many to be little more than a tool for the Democratic Party. It invites all candidates to screen - but rarely - if ever - endorses non Democrats even in nonpartisan races like school board. One would think, however, that it might behoove Schwethelm to know the name of the organization he was criticizing before sending his flier of to the printers. (I suppose it's possible that "The GLBT" refers to some other organization - perhaps one the magician told him about).

Just for a second though look past the 'creative' syntax - the criticisms of partisan politics followed by the touting of an endorsement from a partisan organization - the lack of understanding of what "legislation" is and that school board members do not introduce it - the confusion about the meaning of the phrase "detailed plan" - the vague ideas about youtube and reinventing facebook and magicians - look down at the lower left hand corner of the flier.

See that? That's the logo for the Human Rights Campaign - correction: that's the TRADEMARKED logo for the Human Rights Campaign (the nation's largest lobby organization fighting for the rights of LGB (and when it suits them - T) people) which has neither endorsed, nor it seems ever heard of Schwethelm before this flier was distributed. Indeed HRC has issued a "cease and desist" order threatening legal action if Schwethelm continues to imply a connection between his campaign and HRC.

I kind of feel sorry for the guy, clearly he cares about this issue, but his bizarre way of attempting to discuss it regulates him the same class as the "rent is too damn high" guy or that porn star who keeps running for Governor in California - candidates so laughable in their ineptitude that they can never be taken seriously.

There are some good candidates running for School Board (Juliet Kathy Stipeche, who received the GLBT Political Caucus endorsement among them) and I am confident that the people of Houston are smart enough to elect a qualified, intelligent person to the position. Although with magicians involved, who knows?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bullying IS a Criminal Matter - That's the Problem

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee held a local federal hearing on bullying last Monday at Houston City Hall. Rep. Al Green; Houston City Council members Bradford, Jones, Adams and Houng; a representative of HISD; State Senator John Whitmire and State Reps Alma Allen and Sylvester Turner also attended (State Reps. Jessica Farrar and Garnet Coleman (Who have filed legislation in the past to address the issue) were unable to attend and sent their regards).

There was moving testimony from children, parents and community members (including Equality Texas Board Member Rob Scamardo), but the concern repeatedly raised, particularly from Sen. Whitmire and and Rep. Allen, was a fear of criminalizing childish behavior. Whitmire spoke at length about his fear that a legislative solution to bullying would send troubled children to prison or juvenile hall, creating angry, bitter and uneducated adults whose behavior would be yet more troubling.

They're right. Simply marching bullies away from school in handcuffs is not a solution, we must teach our children that bullying is unacceptable. Which is why a legislative solution to the problem is so desperately needed. Because right now, in many cases, the only solution available to administrators is to treat children as criminals.

For instance, if a child set up a fake Facebook profile from home purporting to be another child, and posting pictures and statuses denigrating of that other child the only solution currently available would be to charge the offender with online harassment (Penal Code 33.07) , a third degree felony. Few adults want to create a felon out of child who made a cruel decision, and so fake social networking profiles continue to be used by bullies. School administrators are unable to do anything to address the issue because the actions take place off of school campus.

What about a child that, on school campus, daily threatens to attack another child? They could be charged with making terroristic threats (Penal Code 22.07), but school administrators often fear overreacting, so they tell the terrified victim to avoid the bully, or at most offer to transfer the victim to another class or school, because, frankly they don't have many other options.

Of course a bully who physically attacks another child could be charged with assault or with any number of other offenses, but experience shows us that administrators rarely call the police, but will, at most, suspend the bully, so that the victim must face an enraged bully again in just a few short days. Again, even the option of suspension is only available if the attack took place at school, otherwise administrators hands are tied.

This lack of action, this fear of reporting crimes to the police, is particularly shocking considering that teachers and administrators are bound by law to report any abuse or neglect of a child, regardless of who commits the abuse (Family Code Chapter 261). The law includes in the definitions of abuse "mental or emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and material impairment in the child's growth, development, or psychological functioning" - which would certainly encompass bullying. So strong is the compulsion to not criminalize children that teachers and administrators routinely open themselves to legal liability through their lack of action.

So if creating crimes that would prevent bullying is not working - what is the solution?

Several common sense ideas were introduced last session - none of which became law:

Rep. Mark Strama's HB 1323 would have allowed school administrators to address bullying that took place off campus, so long as it affected the education environment, required schools to notify both the parents of victims of bullying and the parents of the bully, allowed administrators to transfer bullies to other schools or classrooms, and would have created a statewide reporting requirement, allowing for better tracking and understanding of bullying.

Rep. Garnet Coleman's HB 3746 would have created a non-discrimination policy for public schools covering "actual or perceived ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or national origin" that would apply to both students and employees of public schools. It would have also required school district to offer regular training to staff and would have creating a statewide reporting system for instances of bullying.

Rep. Jessica Farrar's HB 2923 would have created a similar nondiscrimination policy.

If people like Sen. Whitmire are concerned about the fight against bullying turning children into criminals then they should be supporting solutions like these. Under the current law administrators and teachers rarely have non-criminalizing solutions to the problem of bullying, and they seem unwilling to pursue criminalizing solutions, to their own peril. We must give teachers and administrators the tools and education they need to address this issue, or suffer a generation of queer youth lost to depression and suicide.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Coleman Again Vows to Fight Bullying; Does He Mean It This Time?

In a Houston Chronicle editorial Rep. Garnet Coleman has pledged to refile legislation to create a statewide nondiscrimination policy for Texas Public Schools. Rep. Coleman has filed similar legislation every regular session since 2003 (2003 - HB 862, 2005 - HB 376, 2007 - HB 2527, 2009 - HB 3746 (similar legislation had previously been carried by former House members Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt and, before her, Glen Maxey (the only openly gay person ever to serve in the Texas House).

The policy would cover "actual or perceived ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or national origin" and would apply to both students and employees of public schools. The more recent versions would also required school district to offer regular training to staff and would have creating a statewide reporting system for instances of bullying.

(Before I say anything else about this bill I want to point out that Rep. Coleman (whose district includes part of the historic 'gayborhood' of Montrose) included "gender identity and expression" in his list of protected classes. Coleman deserves the utmost kudos for this. All too often, when writing bills, elected officials feel that including the trans community will make it too hard to pass their bills and so they have left out gender identity and expression.)

I hope that Rep. Coleman's statement to the press means that he will fight for this bill next session. The bill numbers tell the tale of his declining interest in it over the last few sessions. Bills are numbered in the order they are filed (except for the first 10, which are reserved for the budget and the Speaker's priorities). Legislators tend to file the legislation that is most important to them earlier, because the earlier a bill is filed the earlier it can start the process of becoming a law. So when a bill that one session is HB 376 is, four years later, HB 3746 it clearly is no longer a priority.

The other indicator of Coleman's declining commitment to this legislation is the declining number of authors and co-authors. A house bill can have up to 5 authors and (theoretically) 145 co-authors. House members who wish to support a bill before it makes it to the floor can, with the author's permission, add their name to the bill. Multiple authors and co-authors help during the committee hearing process by indicating the level of support the bill will receive on the floor.

In 2005, the second session Coleman filed the bill it had 5 authors and 14 co-authors. The next session in 2007 it had 4 authors and no co-authors. Last session (2009) it had only two authors: (Coleman and Rep. Marissa Marquez).

Authors and co-authors are also an indication of how hard the original author is hustling to gain support for the bill. It generally doesn't take much for one lawmaker to persuade another to attach their name (assuming they agree on the issue), just a friendly conversation explaining what the bill does. The 17 member decline in authorship indicates that Coleman didn't bother to have those conversations in 2009.

Coleman is not unique in filing legislation and then not fighting for it. Last session there were 4,836 bills filed, only 847 of those became laws. Some of the bills that didn't become law were incorporated into other bills, and some of them were fought for and died anyway, but most of the bills that didn't become laws were bills that were filed just so their author could go back home and say "I tried".

There was a time when the leadership in the queer community was satisfied with "I tried", when the acknowledgment that the community was, at the very least, worth placating was enough to gain our support for a lawmaker. That time is rapidly coming to an end.

More and more we are realizing that the stakes in the battle against bullies are life and death. I hope that Coleman realizes this and chooses to bring his considerable influence to bear in support of this legislation next spring.

If you would like to contact Rep. Coleman's office and politely request his unadulterated support for his own legislation you may do so at (713) 520-5355 or [email protected]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Notorious Bigot Warren Chisum to Run for Speaker of the House

Rep. Warren Chisum, the man who brought us the Texas version of the "Defense of Marriage Act", announced his candidacy for Speaker of the Texas House today according to the Austin American Statesmen.

You may remember Chisum for his attempt to block the divorce of two men in Dallas, as the person who killed Rep. Strama's anti-bullying bill, or as the reason the Texas hate crimes statute says "Sexual Preference" instead of "Sexual Orientation". I, however, will forever remember him as the man who removed legislation to create a statewide commission on Holocaust and Genocide from consideration rather than allow an amendment to be offered that would have recognized that the Nazis targeted queer people.

The Speaker of the House is elected by members of the House from among House members of the ruling party. In 2009 the current Speaker, Joe Straus, replaced the former speaker Tom Craddick by putting together a coalition of Democratic and Republican House members.

Strauss has been praised for his hands-off bipartisan approach to the Speakership. Which stands in sharp contrast to the strong-armed approach favored by Craddick. (Craddick's many controversial decisions led to the phrase "Bad Precedents" becoming a kind of inside joke around the capitol.) Chisum was a major supporter of Craddick, who gave him prime committee appointments and generous support for his legislative agenda.

Chisum is far outside of the mainstream of the house, and frankly has very little chance of becoming Speaker. Announcing his candidacy is the impotent act of a bitter, defeated man.

However, the thought of a Chisum speakership should be frightening enough to provide any fair-minded Texan with their share of chills this Halloween season.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Anti-Bullying Legislation in Texas Part III

Be sure to read Part I and Part II

What can be done to insure that anti-bullying legislation passes in 2011?

Rep. Strama is expected to re-file HB 1323 (which will then get a new number), but he needs to be pressured to file it earlier, preferably in November. The earlier a bill is filed the earlier it gets referred to committee and the earlier the process can start. If you would like to contact Rep. Strama and ask that he file the bill earlier this time you can call his office at (512) 463-0821 or e-mail him at [email protected]

The Chair of the Public Education Committee needs to be pressured to schedule the hearing for the bill as soon as possible. It is possible that the House may have a new Speaker next session, which will likely mean a new committee chair, and even if the same Speaker remains in power the chair may change. As soon as that person is named anyone who supports anti-bullying legislation needs to contact them and start asking that this legislation is scheduled for a hearing as soon as possible.

A State Senator needs to be found who is willing to carry the legislation in the Senate. Maybe your Senator will? If you don't know who your Senator is you can find out here: http://www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/Senate/Members.htm#FYI Even if they are not willing to carry the legislation it is good for them to know that they have constituents that support it.

In the end it comes down to that 140 days. 140 days to improve the lives of every student in Texas. That's not a lot of time. We must start now if we are going to give the next Asher Brown the support they need.

Anti-Bullying Legislation in Texas Part II

Be sure to read Part I

So, if HB 1323 had overwhelming support, why didn't it become law?

One of the great truisms of the Texas legislature is that the system is designed to prevent things from getting done. Every other year 183 people meet for 140 days. Every decision about how to improve the lives of Texans that needs to be made must be made by those people in that time. If not it must wait another 2 years for the process to start over again.

In the end HB 1323 just ran out of time. 140 days in the session, that's all. In addition, there are a number of deadlines that a bill must make along the process. HB 1323 barely missed an important one on May 14th, 2009, and with that thousands of Texas schoolchildren were left to suffer for another two years.

Let's look at what happened...

February 17, 2009
Day 35 of the legislative session.

The first bills of the session were filed on November 10, 2008, but HB 1323 wasn't filled until this day. In the House bills are numbered in the order they are filed (except for the first 10 bills, which are reserved for the budget and issues the Speaker of the House considers important).

February 26th, 2009
Day 44 of the legislative session


HB 1323 is read for the first time on the House floor. Each bill gets a "First Reading", which consists of reading out the bill number, the name of the legislator who filed it, and a very brief description of the bill, known as a caption. Bills are read in the order they are numbered, so it takes awhile to get to number 1323. During First Reading each bill is referred to a committee which is charged with holding public hearings on it. HB 1323 was referred to the Public Education Committee.

The good news is that Committees can hear bills in any order they want. The Chair of each committee (who is appointed by the Speaker of the House) gets to determine the order in which bills are "heard" by the committees. Committee Chairpersonships are usually given to allies of the Speaker or House members who have served for so long that their seniority demands it.

March 31, 2009
Day 77 of the legislative session

Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from the Houston Suburb of the Woodlands was chair of the Public Education Committee last session. Rep. Eissler scheduled the bill for a hearing on March 31, 33 days after it was first referred to his committee. As I said before the bill was overwhelmingly supported in the committee hearing.

Committees do not generally vote on bills on the same day they are heard. The Chair calls for a vote on each bill (it is possible for a majority of the members of the committee to force a vote, but that is almost unheard of). So although the bill was heard on March 31st, it was "left pending" in committee until:

April 9, 2009
Day 86 of the legislative session

The 11 person committee voted: 6 in favor, none opposing and 5 absent (it's not unusual for a fair number of members of a committee to be absent for a vote, all house members serve on at least 2 committees, and must also appear before other committees to present, or 'lay out', their bills - a sort of hand-shake agreement between members means that the chair will usually not bring a bill to a vote at all unless it's going to pass anyway).

But wait! Just because a bill has been voted out of committee doesn't mean that it's on its way. All bills have to be placed on one of the House's "Calendars". These are lists of different kinds of bills that will be considered by the House. The House has 7 different calendars, each dealing with a different area of the business of the House. Certain calendars are considered on different days and certain calendars take precedence over others.

Most of the 7 calendars are overseen by the Calendars Committee, one of the most powerful, and busy, committees in the House. The Calendars Committee requires that all of the paperwork on each bill be carefully filled out and formatted so that their job of figuring out which calendar to place each bill on is easier. The committee clerk has to file that paperwork and then it must be formally accepted on the floor, which happened on:

April 20, 2009
Day 96 of the legislative session


The Calendars Committee reads through every bill and determines which calendar to place it on. Once it's placed on a calendar the bill will get a "Second Reading" which will be the first time the entire membership of the House will get to discuss the bill.

The Calendars Committee considered HB 1323 and decided it should go on the General State Calendar. (The General State Calendar is for bills that are not an emergency issue, will affect the entire state, but are limited as to whom they affect. HB 1323 would have only affected school children, their parents, and school administrators - not every Texan, and so it was placed on General State).

HB 1323 was placed on the General State Calendar on:

May 8, 2009
Day 114 of the legislative session

So HB 1323 got in line behind several hundred other bills to get its second reading. At this point HB 1323 was less than half way on the road to becoming a law. With several thousand bills to consider each session the Legislature has created deadlines all along the 140 day schedule; hurdles that each bill must pass by a certain time or be forced to wait another 2 years to be considered.

Last session the deadline for second readings was:

Midnight, May 14, 2009
day 120 of the legislative session

So the debate on HB 1323 had to begin before then. When midnight fell the House was still deep in heated debate on a different bill and HB 1323 was still in line. It missed being read by 11 bills, mostly due to procedural delays caused by Rep. Warren Chisum, the notorious bigot who brought us the Texas version of the "Defense of Marriage Act".

(I honestly doubt that Chisum intentionally delayed the work of the House to kill this particular bill, as I doubt he was paying much attention to it, but the fact remains that his dithering and obstinacy on the floor caused the death of a good bill.)

Would HB 1323 have become law if it had made the deadline? It seems unlikely. After second reading there is a third reading on the house floor, another opportunity for debate, and another vote. The bill must then be referred to the Senate where the whole process begins again (first reading, referred to committee, heard in committee, voted out of committee, referred to Calendars, placed on a calendar, second reading, third reading), then if the Senate made any changes to the bill the differences between the House version and the Senate version must be hashed out in what is called a "Conference Committee". Then the House and the Senate would have had to vote to approve the compromise that the Conference Committee came up with and refer the bill to the Governor, who can still veto it.

(There is a shortcut available. If a version of the bill is introduced in the Senate (known as a "Senate Companion") at the beginning of the session the House version can take its place in the process, saving a great deal of time. But HB 1323 did not have a Senate Companion, so it would have had to go through the whole Senate Process, and with only 20 days left in the session it seems unlikely that would have happened.)

What can be done to insure that the bill passes in 2011? Read Part III

Anti-Bullying Legislation in Texas Part I

The recent rash of suicides of queer youth, including the death of 13 year old Texas Student Asher Brown, has caused many in the queer community to call for anti-bullying legislation. What some people may not realize is that this is not a new idea.

Last session (2009) Rep. Mark Strama (Travis County) introduced a fairly comprehensive bill that would have given school administrators new tools to fight bullying in public schools. HB 1323 would have allowed School administrators to address bullying that took place off campus, so long as it affected the education environment, required schools to notify both the parents of victims of bullying and the parents of the bully, allowed administrators to transfer bullies to other schools or classrooms (currently the victim is transferred), and would have created a statewide reporting requirement, allowing for better tracking and understanding of bullying. All pretty common sense steps to help administrators reduce bullying. So why didn't it pass?

There wasn't much opposition.

The ACLU spoke against it in committee, and distributed a flier to lawmakers that said, in part - "“Shielding children from getting snubbed or being called names undermines children's ability to develop the coping mechanisms to be able to fend for themselves”. In other words 'bullying, harassment, terror are just parts of growing up' (which is why I stopped renewing my ACLU membership).

The "Freemarket Association", a right-wing, no-government organization that calls itself a "Think Tank" and is associated with the Liberty Institute (the organization that wrote the Chisum/Staples brief against the Dallas Gay Divorce Case), also registered their opposition, but couldn't be bothered to testify against it.

On the other hand the legislation was supported by, among others: the Texas State Teachers Association, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas Network of Youth Services, and the National Association of Social Workers - Texas Chapter.

In the end not one member of the 11 member House Public Education Committee voted against it.

So, if the bill had overwhelming support, why didn't it become law? Read Part II to find out.