Friday, December 31, 2010

Brunch Against Bullying

Houston Stonewall Young Democrats, in cooperation with Equality Texas, is holding a "Brunch Against Bullying" on January 16th at 10:30 am in Houston at the home of Mr. Patrick Dickson.

The Brunch will raise funds for the Trevor Project, the only nationwide 24 hour hot-line for LGBTQ youth and to provide low cost transportation to Equality Texas' Lobby Day in Austin on March 7th.

Tickets at $50, there are also a number of sponsorship levels available, visit www.houstonstonewallyd.com/brunchagainstbullying.html for more information.

The Trevor project is a wonderful, and worthwhile, beneficiary for this event, but I am particularly excited to see early efforts to help people get to Lobby Day.

Equality Texas' Lobby Day is a single day set aside each legislative session for queer Texans and their allies to visit lawmakers in Austin. Last year more than 400 people participated in Lobby Day, yet there are still legislators who claim that they "don't have any gay people in their district". It is vital to the advancement of justice that the people who make the rules we have to live by hear from LGBT constituents.

Anti-bullying efforts are sure to be a major legislative concern this year. Ensuring that legislators hear from constituents about the issue of bullying will help garner support.

I hope that other communities in Texas will soon start planning ways that they can encourage people to participate in Lobby Day. There are many people in our community for whom even a day trip to Austin is prohibitively expensive. If we are to advance it is imperative that those in positions of leadership work to find ways to insure that every voice is heard, not just the voices of people who can afford to be heard.

Please bring up the topic at the next meeting of any community organizations your belong to. This year, let's overwhelm the state capital with people advocating for their own freedom.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sentencing Delayed for Attacker of Trans Man

Terrance Calhoun, who brutally attacked and robbed a gay transgender student at Houston Community College this summer faced Harris County District Court Judge Belinda Hill at his sentencing hearing today.

The attack took place on June 22 near downtown Houston. Calhoun followed Lance Reyna into the restroom, shouted “Hey queer!”, and demanded Reyna’s possessions while thrusting a knife against Reyna’s throat. After robbing Reyna, Calhoun struck him in the face and shoved him to the floor.

I accompanied Reyna to the Houston Police Station a couple of weeks after the attack, where he identified Calhoun in a line-up. This was the first time he had seen his attacker since the robbery. Lance was pale and could barely speak above a whisper as he bravely identified the man who had left him bruised and bleeding on a restroom floor.

Calhoun's face in the lineup was brazen, his body held in tension between defiance and threat. A far cry from his demeanor in court today where he shuffled his feet, cried and spoke so softly that the judge repeatedly asked him to speak up.

Reyna testified in court today that he fears another attack and believes that Calhoun should serve at least a portion of the 5 years to life in prison that Texas law allows.

Calhoun plead guilty to aggravated robbery, but denied shouting the anti-gay epithet during the attack. His defense attorney attempted to convince the judge that the Christian values of his large, supportive family would prevent him from re-offending if the judge gave him probation instead of jail time. District Attorney Jonathan Stephenson succinctly retorted that if Calhoun's Christian values and supportive family didn't help him set his life straight after his previous drug conviction (a conviction for which he was serving probation at the time of the attack on Reyna) the court had no reason to believe they would do so now.

Judge Hill ordered Calhoun, who has been out on bail, to return to county custody for 120 days while she considers his sentence. “I’m pleased to know that my attacker is now behind bars, where he cannot harm anyone else,” said Reyna. “I thank the judge for her sensitive consideration of this issue, and look forward to her final ruling.”

The attack against Reyna was reported to the department of public safety as a hate crime, so it will be included in the Hate Crimes Statistic Report by the FBI, but the Harris County DA has declined to prosecute it as a hate crime under Texas law.

Understand that the Harris County DA is not claiming that it was not a hate crime, they are simply choosing not to request that the judge in the case add a finding that Calhoun acted out of an anti-gay bias to the charges against him.

Why not? Because the Texas hate crime law (found in Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42.014) only allows prosecutors to add to the maximum allowed for the crime in question. Because the guidelines for aggravated robbery allow for a sentence of 5 years to life in prison attaching the hate crime charge would not increase the potential punishment the judge could prescribe (a person can not serve more time than life). There is no incentive for the prosecutor to pursue a hate crime charge when doing so would create more work, and would not affect the final sentence of the defendant.

“The Texas Hate Crimes statute is disappointingly insufficient as a tool against attacks like this”, said Cristan Williams, executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America, "I am hopeful that state lawmakers will consider revising the law to make it more useful”.

According to Randal Terrel, former Policy Director for Equality Texas, over 1,800 potential hate crimes have been reported to the Department of Public Safety since the Texas hate crimes statute went into effect in 2001. Only 12 have been prosecuted as hate crimes.

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tarrant County) filed legislation last month (HB 172) that would require a study to look for ways to improve the law. (Legislative Queery's synopsis of the bill HERE) He filed a similar bill last session, which was heard in committee and sent to the full House for a vote, but it was not voted on before the end of session.

One solution to the problem with the hate crime law would be to edit the statute to allow an increase in the minimum allowable sentence in cases where the maximum is life. Under the current statute Judge Hill could sentence Calhoun to as little as 5 years in prison. He would then be eligible for parole in about two and a half years. If the law were amended so that including the hate crimes charge increased the minimum sentence, say to 10 years, prosecutors would have a reason to use it since it would likely result in longer sentences.

Another idea for improving the law would be amend it to include gender identity and expression. Currently the hate crimes statute list several attributes, and allows for a perpetrators bias against people with those attributes to trigger the hate crimes enhancement. Under the current law crimes committed because of the perpetrator's bias against transgender people cannot be prosecuted as hate crimes. ( This omission was not an issue in this case because Reyna is both gay and transgender, and because the epithet used "queer" demonstrates Calhoun's bias against gay people.) Last legislative session Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a bill (HB 2966) that would have done that. It did not receive a hearing.

Judge Hill indicated that her final ruling will likely be "deferred adjudication", a legal process by which she can wait to sentence him until he completes requirements of the court. Hill suggested that she might order Calhoun to attend one year of substance abuse treatment at a “lock-down” facility followed by 10 years of probation. If Calhoun did not follow the rules of the treatment facility or violated his probation he would then find himself back in front of Judge Hill, who could sentence him to up to in life in prison.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Adams Defends Covenant House's Treatment of LGBT Youth

Covenant House Texas is a faith-based homeless shelter that serves young people, ages 18-20, in Houston. LGBT clients of Covenant House have repeatedly reported that the staff make it clear that expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity will result in harsher treatment and that clients who are not willing to be in the closet are denied services. (Covenant House's recent treatment of queer youth is documented at www.covhou.com).

In addition to harassment of clients based on sexual orientation Covenant House makes a practice of refusing to house transgender clients unless they agree to dress as and present the gender that appears on their state ID.

Since last summer leaders of the Trans community in Houston, notably Cristan Williams and Josephine Tittsworth, have attempted to work with Covenant House to address these issues. In doing so they have attempted to enlist the help of Councilmember Wanda Adams, in whose district Covenant House lies. CM Adams also happens to be a former employee of Covenant House.

While other council members (most notably Jolanda Jones) have been helpful, CM Adams has consistently denied that there is a problem, been uncommunicative, and failed to attend a meeting she had not only committed to, but requested.

The conflict has reached new levels now that the city's funding of Covenant House has come up for renewal. (Last year Covenant House Texas received $948,119 in government grants, including funds from the City of Houston.) CM Jones initially "tagged" the funding, delaying a vote on it until a later council meeting. Today it was back on the agenda.

Jones spoke briefly saying that she was concerned about the continued funding of "a certain organization that I think has issues with equal treatment of humans", but explained that since the vote that was being taken was for a large block of homeless agency funding, and since there was no way to separate out the portion that would go to that "certain organization" that she was going to support extending the funding so that other agencies could continue their work. (VIDEO - Jones comments start at 1:01)

Adams then spoke in defense of Covenant House (naming it, despite Jones' demure omission of the agencies name), saying " Covenant House has long history of doing great work and making sure that our homeless youth are protected without any... type of prejudices [sic]". She went on to praise the agency's director: Rhonda Robinson "I know that Rhonda works really really close [sic] with the community and making sure that all policies are followed."

Which gets right to the root of the problem. Covenant House does not have a non-discrimination policy. So when they (or their apparent mouthpiece Wanda Adams) say that they are "following all policies" they are telling the truth, but "following all policies" is not the same thing as "treating all people fairly".

Covenant House actually claimed to have a non-discrimination policy during a meeting with Jones on June 11th (a meeting Adams was scheduled to attend but missed). In her response to Adams today Jones explained that her office was informed recently that Covenant House does not, in fact, have a nondiscrimination policy.

What's more, the claim that Covenant House Director Rhonda Robinson works closely with the community is demonstratively false. Robinson has routinely promised to work with the community, but has gone months without following through on basic commitments or communicating in any way. In an August 24th letter CM Jones expressed her frustration that Robinson had not provided her with copies of Covenant House's intake procedures despite promising to nearly two months ago, giving the agency 7 days to follow through on a commitment from July 6th, a commitment that had initially been made on June 11th.

Without an enumerated nondiscrimination policy that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and without a training program in place designed to teach staff to be sensitive to the needs of queer kids, Covenant House will continue to harass, deny services to and discriminate against LGBT clients. For the time being, it seems, they will continue to do so using nearly a million dollars in public funds.

Adams, whose district includes the historic 'gayborhood' of Montrose (and whose office can be reached at 832-393-3001), was criticized earlier this year for her pointed absence from a vote to renew funding for AIDS hospice Marjo House, earning her the moniker "Absentee Adams".

Today, after her full-throated support of an organization that routinely discriminates against LGBT kids, it seems the only thing worse for queer Houstonians than Wanda Adams leaving a room, might be Wanda Adams staying in it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

HB 415 - Accurate Birth Certificates

HB 415 - By Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) would allow the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS) to issue birth certificates which accurately reflect the parents of a child. BVS routinely issues new birth certificates for adopted children which list the adopted parents. Currently under Health and Safety Code Section 192.008(a) BVS is prohibited from listing two men or two women as parents of an adopted child even if they are both the legal parent of the child.

Beyond issues of simple fairness this creates a barrier when parents attempt to enroll their child in school, obtain a visa, access medical records or perform any of the routine day to day task that require parents to legally establish their relationship with their child.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana found in Adar, et al v. Smith that denying parents the right to both be listed as parents in an adoption from another state violates the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately that precedent does not extend to Texas couples who adopt children in Texas.

Anchia filed this legislation last session (81st HB 2080), it received a hearing but was never voted out of the House Public Health Committee.

Friday, December 10, 2010

UPDATE: Chisum Remains in Speakers Race

UPDATE: Chisum has stated on his facebook page that he has not dropped out of the race:
"There is no two ways about it: the Republican House members must caucus and unite behind a single conservative candidate for Speaker. If there is no caucus I will remain a candidate for Speaker when the Legislature meets on January 11, 2011."
The "caucus" he's referring to is a proposal being supported by some conservative Republican House members that the Republican members of the House agree to meet by themselves, vote for a Speaker candidate, and agree to all vote for whoever wins that vote. This is very similar to how the Speaker of the United States Congress is selected, but is an unprecedented way to select a Speaker of the Texas House.

Frankly it would set a dangerous precedent. The current system of selecting a speaker based on the votes of the whole house insures that the person selected is, generally speaking, to the center of the ideological spectrum of the body. If one party, any party, requires it's members to vote for the party's selected candidate, rather than for the candidate members believe would best protect the priorities of their constituents, it will guarantee the election of a partisan ideologue as Speaker, rather than the statesman (or woman) the House needs to run effectively.

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Original title: Chisum to Drop Out of Speakers Race, Support Paxon

The Ellis Herald reports that notorious bigot Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) will drop out of the race for Speaker of the Texas House and support Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) in his attempt to unseat Speaker Joe Straus.

Chisum, you may remember, is the father of the Texas version of the "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) and perhaps the most rabid homophobe in the State of Texas (more HERE).

According to the Rules of the Texas House the speaker is elected by the 150 members of the House, from amongst its members, by a simple majority vote. The speaker is responsible for the day to day operations of the House and appoints all committee members and chairs. 'Speaker of the House' is the third most powerful position in Texas Politics, right behind Governor and Lieutenant Governor.

Traditionally the speaker is a member of whatever party has the most members in the House, although that is not required, a speaker from the non-ruling party has never been elected. Starting with the close of the previous legislative session any member of the house may begin to collect "pledges" from other members, promising their votes for speaker.

Chisum declared his intention to run for speaker shortly before the November election. I spoke with one House member (it was a private conversation, so I'm going to leave their name off) who said that Chisum's record on queer issues is part of what prevented them from supporting him: "My Gay constituents would kill me!"

The current Speaker, Joe Straus, was elected by an almost evenly divided house (74 Democrats and 76 Republicans) and with significant Democratic support. He is a moderate who was widely praised for his bipartisan even-handed handling of the affairs of the House. Which is why the far right hates him.

The current House is not nearly so evenly divided (it will probably be 51 Democrats and 99 Republicans - but there is still one race that may face an additional recount and one special election to fill the seat of a member who died shortly after the election). To maintain his speakership Straus will need to collect 76 pledges from members, but those members can be of any party.

One might assume that all 51 Democrats will pledge to Straus, but with a tight two person race it may be tempting for some to pledge to Paxton in exchange for prime committee appointments and preferential treatment for their legislative agenda. That's how the speaker previous to Straus, Tom Craddick, came to power. Several of the vilified "Craddick Ds" who supported him are still serving and may be willing to make a similar deal with the devil this session.

Paxton is affiliated with the Teabaggers, although not the arch-conservative Chisum is, he did vote for the Texas version of DOMA during his first term in the House (so did Speaker Straus). There really haven't been any other "test" bills to make it to the floor since then and since he has, for the most part, served on financial committees so he does not have a committee voting record that can be analyzed to understand where he stands on other queer issues.

That said, Paxton's rhetoric about being a "true" conservative and his strong Teabagger ties would seem to indicate that few, if any, of the legislative priorities of queer Texans would see the light of day in a Paxton House.

General consensus is that Straus has a good chance of hanging on to the speakership, but with 34 freshmen members of the House without a record to base predictions on, it's still anybody's game.

Monday, December 6, 2010

That Sneaky Sodomy Law

SB 152 by Joan Huffman has the laudable goal of protecting victims of sexual abuse, but an arcane and unenforceable law still on the books in Texas may turn her commendable intentions into a McCarthian nightmare for queer Texans.

SB 152 would allow Texas Judges to admit testimony and evidence of previous sex crimes by defendants accused of sex crimes. The Bill amends a section of code which lists 5 sets of offenses that would be admissible including offenses under Penal Code Chapter 21. Unfortunately for LGBT Texans that Chapter includes this:
"Sec. 21.06. HOMOSEXUAL CONDUCT. (a) A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex."
In 2004 the Supreme Court of the United States declared Penal Code 21.06 unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, but the law has never been removed from the books.

Of course any good judge would not permit evidence of "Homosexual Conduct" to be introduced because they would know that any good lawyer would immediately recognize grounds for appeal since the code is unconstitutional. Unfortunately not every defendant gets a good judge, and many defendants do not get a good lawyer.

One need only to look at the rhetoric around California's prop 8 to know that many on the far right already consider LGBT people suspect of child abuse. SB 152 would create an official vehicle in statute to introduce that bias into the courtroom.

I fear that if this bill becomes law someone in a small-town west Texas courtroom will face a line of questioning that begins "are you now, or have you ever been a practicing homosexual?"

Some might argue that anything that can be done to get sex offenders off the streets is a good thing. It's important to recognize, however, that innocent people are, from time to time, brought to trial for crimes they did not commit. One of the foundations of American jurisprudence is that we assume that anyone who is charged with a crime is innocent until proven otherwise. We must therefore also assume that the evidence allowed in court by this bill, if passed, would be used against an innocent person.

The solution of course is simple: remove Penal Code 21.06 from the books. Why do we even still have an unconstitutional law on the books? Because very few lawmakers want to face the charge of being "pro-sodomy" in their next election, and the code can't be removed without approval of the State Legislature.

Last session Rep. Garnet Coleman introduced a bill to repeal Penal Code 21.06 (HB 3026 81R). It didn't even receive a hearing.

There are several other laws already on the books that refer back to Penal Code 21.06, so it's not like SB 152 would create a unique situation, but every time a reference back to the code is created in statute this bit of law becomes more firmly entrenched in the statute. What's more this bill would have been an excellent opportunity to excise the "Homosexual Conduct" law from the books since it was already dealing with that section of code. It's unfortunate that Sen. Huffman lacked the courage, moral fortitude, or knowledge to take advantage of that opportunity.

Until lawmakers get past their cowardice and take the simple, common sense step of removing this unconstitutional law from the books every attempt to strengthen Texas's Sex Crime laws will put honest, hardworking LGBT Texans at risk.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wendy Davis Gets Anti-Bullying Legislation Right

SB 245 by Wendy Davis is the most comprehensive, thoughtful, piece of anti-bullying legislation filed this session. The bill is almost identical to HB 224 filed by Mark Strama in the House last month, but corrects one very important omission present in that bill.

Both bills offer a fairly comprehensive approach to fighting bullying. They requires all school districts to create a training program for staff, volunteers who work with students, students and parents designed to teach them to prevent, identify and respond to bullying. They also would allow school administrators to transfer bullies to a different class or campus than their victims if the victim's parents or guardians request it (under current law only the victim may be transferred) and create a uniform definition of bullying in the education code, adding cyberbullying.

Both bills would allow school administrators to address cyberbullying that takes place off campus if the electronic communication is received on campus or at a school event or if it substantially disrupts school operations, and include a requirement that schools report statistics on bullying to the state. It's in the specifics of the reporting requirement that the bills differ.

The House bill requires school districts to report if the cause of the bullying was based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. The Senate bill has the same requirement, but includes Gender Identity and Expression in it's enumerated list.

Beyond adding a provision that will help transgender kids, the Senate bill is far more useful to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (and for that matter, Straight) students than the House version. More often than not, when kids are bullied for being queer it's not because of who they are attracted to, but because they are not conforming to other students expectations of how men and women are supposed to behave.

Davis served last session on the Senate Education Committee and is likely to do so again this session. Having a voice on the committee will help her in her efforts to pass this bill.

It's exciting to see this bill in the State Senate. The Texas Senate has historically been reticent to tackle the issue of bullying. Last session only two bills were filed on the topic, neither of which got a hearing (SB 29 (81R) by Zaffirini and SB 1725 (81R) by West) neither of which was as comprehensive as this bill.

It is generally harder to pass a bill in the Senate than in the House. Senate rules require that bills be considered in the order they are filed. Each session a "blocker bill" is filed early on. By general agreement this bill sits at the front of the line and no action is taken on it. It requires 2/3 of the Senate to set aside the rules and consider a bill out of order. With the blocker bill at the front of the line holding everything else up this means that, effectively, a Senator must get 2/3 of her colleagues to agree that voting on a bill is a good idea in order for it to pass.

Since passage in the Senate is a larger hurdle, having a bill that is this strong start on the Senate side gives me hope that we may actually see some real action taken by the legislature this session to fight bullying.

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UPDATE: WFAA in Dallas has a short interview with Davis saying the bill was inspired by Fort Worth City Council Member Joel Burns famous "It Get's Better" speech. Burns was elected to fill the seat Davis held before running for for State Senate.

Thanks to Dallas Voice's Instant Tea Blog for pointing this out.

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UPDATE (03/01/11): Davis has substituted the language on her bill SB 242 to make it a companion of Rep. Strama's HB 224 - the language of the two bills is now identical