Members of San Antonio’s lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community want the city’s next mayor to follow the lead of Dallas and Houston and expand the 2013 non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) to include private companies.
The NDO now extends to city employment, public accommodations (restaurants, stores, public events), public housing, city contracts, and appointed officials, boards and commissions. There are significant religious exemptions to the rule. Unless they have an internal policy, private companies that operate outside the realm of public accommodations can fire an employee for being gay or choose not to do business with someone because of their sexual orientation.
The push to extend the NDO comes less than two years after then-Mayor Julían Castro and City Council voted 8-3 to pass an updated non-discrimination ordinance that extended greater protections to the LGBTQ community and to veterans. That vote, however, was not followed by any specific action.
This month, Mayor Ivy Taylor answered her critics by directing city staff to establish what is now called the Office of Diversity and Inclusion that will enforce the NDO and act on any complaints of it being violated. The updated NDO now covers sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status along with race, color, religion, national origin, sex, and disability.
Taylor voted against passage of the NDO in 2013, but since becoming interim mayor she has pledged to uphold the ordinance.
Taylor and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte are in a June 13 runoff for mayor, with early voting June 1-9. The Rivard Report reached out to both candidates to ask for their views on the subject of including private companies in the ordinance and related topics.
The push for greater protections in San Antonio is just one piece of a larger drama unfolding in cities and states across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing an historic appeal that could lead to legalized same-sex marriage. A ruling is expected by the end of June. Several states, including Texas, continue to oppose legalization and to pass legislation intended to block what now seems inevitable.
Society, meanwhile, seems to be getting more and more comfortable with the concept of equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Even Robert Gates, a Republican, former Secretary of Defense, former President of Texas A&M University, and now president of the Boy Scouts of America, is calling for that organization to abandon the rule that bans gay adults.
Changing social and political views are evident even in Gates’ generation. Acceptance is all but universal among younger generations. Millennials and the next generation behind them — today’s teenagers — seem genuinely perplexed that same-sex marriage and equal protections under the law are even issues anymore.
Texas Wins and Equality Texas
During a luncheon meeting with several members of local media last week, representatives from Texas Wins and Equality Texas assessed the political landscape in Austin and what the local LGBTQ community hopes to achieve with a newly elected mayor and City Council.
Robert Salcido, an Equality Texas field organizer and the local LGBT Chamber of Commerce board vice president, said putting real “teeth” to the NDO is a major goal, meaning it needs to be enforced and it needs to be expanded.
To date, only three complaints have been filed with the City based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation discrimination. Two have been dropped due to technicalities. One complainant backed out to pursue a civil suit.
Taylor and others have speculated that the newly established Office of Diversity and Inclusion might now have the legal authority to actively enforce the NDO, something city staff might have lacked until now.
Salcido said he is encouraged by Taylor’s move but wants to see San Antonio’s City Council follow their counterparts in Dallas and Houston to amend the ordinance to include private companies.
Christina Gorczynski, the Texas Wins campaign director based in Houston, agrees.
“Waiting for Washington D.C., or waiting for Austin to resolve local issues like this will keep us waiting for too long,” Gorczynski said. “People find discrimination now, so let’s resolve discrimination right now with the powers that are available to the mayor and city council.
“Local officials are empowered by their charter to create ordinances like the nondiscrimination ordinance and they should be able to take full advantage of that and be able to protect the values of its community.”
It’s probably safe to say the highly contentious battle that ended with the 8-3 vote in 2013 is fresh enough in everyone’s memory locally that few officeholders would be eager to see the issue come up for another debate and vote.
“To have the true enforcement mechanisms that are needed, it would have to go through a charter amendment – at that point, that’s when we would add in the power of subpoena and that’s where they can really levy fines,” Salcido said. “There’s really no recourse to obligate them to pay” a fine as an ordinance.
Beyond the formality of codifying nondiscrimination, LGBT advocates and allies say that true equality can only be achieved when the message reaches the hearts and minds of citizens. Discrimination also has an economic impact, Gorczynski said.
“In order for San Antonio to remain economically viable moving forward, you must as a community, take this opportunity to demonstrate that all people are valued and welcome here (and that) all hard-working people can provide for their families without fear of being fired or evicted or turned away just because of who they are.”
Mayoral Candidates and the NDO
After months of heated community debate that drew record numbers of deeply divided citizens to San Antonio City Council’s chambers, the Council voted 8-3 in favor of including sexual orientation and gender identity status to the City’s current list of protected classes. Taylor, then the District 2 council member, voted against the ordinance because of concerns that people that do business with the city may have to make a choice between their faith and complying with the ordinance.
“This doesn’t mean that people of faith choose to discriminate … it means that they cannot diminish their faith because it’s politically correct to do so,” Taylor said before she cast her nay vote. “I would not be able to sleep at night if I voted yes. It’s not just about me, it’s my job to represent my constituents.”
Then-state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte spoke out in support of the local ordinance. She had previously filed a bill in 2013 at the state level with similar provisions for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that never made it out of committee.
“I knew it was an uphill battle in a conservative legislature but we were able to get a hearing and it was a great hearing,” Van de Putte told Out in SA last month. “I actually lacked one vote to get it out of committee. Now I don’t know that I would have been able to get it passed but we were going to introduce it again in 2015.”
Van de Putte has long been an advocate for gender equality and LGBTQ rights and participated in the 2014 Pride “Bigger Than Texas” Parade.
Taylor’s proposal to create the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and designate a human relations liaison Claryssa Cortez to its operations came before City Council for discussion during the May 13 B Session last week with almost no opposition and was unanimously passed without discussion the next day during A Session. According to Out In SA, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said the position, technically an existing vacancy within the City attorney’s office, was already part of the budget.
The proposal came after weeks of criticism from LBGTQ advocacy groups that Mayor Taylor was not taking enforcement of the NDO seriously. When asked about possible repeal of the NDO and revoking domestic partner health benefits for City employees (which she supported in 2011 and continues to support) during a mayoral forum hosted by KLRN-TV, she said:
“It would be better if we just focused on the business of the City. I also found when I became mayor that there have been no efforts to actually implement the ordinance that had been passed and so I felt that it was a political stunt.”
This, among other comments Taylor has made during her campaign, sparked outrage among LGBTQ community and its allies – especially the LGBTQ advisory committee that met with Taylor in October 2014. Taylor issued a formal apology via email to the committee, the LGBTQ community, and local media. Less than a month later, the Department of Diversity and Inclusion is formed.
“Years back, (Taylor) supported the expansion of (city employee) benefits one to include same sex partners but on the flip side of that she did not support the NDO,” Salcido said. “We won’t go as far to say that she’s an advocate or an ally of the community, but there has been some demonstration on her part that she is open to the conversation.”
Meet Claryssa Cortez, Your New Human Relations Liaison
According to a City news release: “The Human Relations Liaison will not only receive and review all written complaints from the website but will also provide responsive attention by phone and in person to facilitate conciliation between the individual who believes they have been discriminated against and the business, landlord, or agency involved.”
Monday, May 18, was Cortez’s first day as human relations liaison. She’ll be taking over for Deputy City Attorney Veronica Zertuche.
“I don’t necessarily have a background in (law), but I do have experience connecting resources and working with the City,” Cortez said Monday. She just graduated from UTSA with a masters in pubic administration on Sunday and had been working in the Development Services Department. This position will be her first as a management fellow with the City. “I didn’t expect (this liaison position), but I’m definitely excited to meet all the stakeholders and getting all the puzzle pieces to fit together.”
Cortez may cycle through to another department after her year as liaison, but the position will be a permanent one, Zertuche said. Both Taylor and Van de Putte support making the position a part of next year’s budget and years to come.
Since September, there are have been 26 complaints registered through the City’s NDO website, Zertuche said – ranging from legitimate to strange complaints about City services that have nothing to do with discrimination. Now it’s up to Cortez to tell the difference.
*Featured/top image: Joseph Polasek and Samuel Duplechain at the 2014 Pride “Bigger Than Texas” Parade. Photo by Scott Ball.