by JODY SERRANO
A proposal to include sexual orientation and gender identity in San Antonio’s nondiscrimination policy has turned the city into a new gay rights battleground.
Amid a heated citywide debate that has drawn the attention of local, state and even national politicians, the San Antonio City Council has delayed a vote on the ordinance for weeks, though it is now scheduled to come before the council on Sept. 5.
The ordinance would prevent people who have demonstrated bias toward lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals from serving in city positions and prohibit the city from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also prevent local business owners from discriminating against LGBT individuals.
San Antonio is one of the only major cities in Texas that does not have such a nondiscrimination policy. Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination policies that include some protections for LGBT individuals.
On Tuesday, GetEQUAL Texas, a gay rights organization, issued a travel alert for all LGBT individuals traveling to San Antonio. The alert warned against “traveling alone in the city” and encouraged visitors to only patronize gay-friendly businesses and stay at hotels with specific policies preventing discrimination against LGBT people.
“Even if you’re visiting San Antonio, you can be kicked out of any public place,” said Jennifer Falcon, the lead organizer in San Antonio for GetEQUAL TEXAS. “We’ve had transgender people kicked out of the Riverwalk, kicked out of bowling allies. We even had a woman that looked too much like a man that was kicked out of H-E-B.”
The advisory came days after the San Antonio Express-News published a secret recording of San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan calling homosexuality “disgusting” and saying she did not believe that people were born gay.
“You know, to be quite honest, I know this is not politically correct,” Chan said during the exchange, which was caught on tape by a staffer who has since quit. “I never bought that you are born, that you are born gay. I just can’t imagine it.”
Chan said on Tuesday that her comments were taken out of context but that she stood by her opinions.
Although the state protects people from employment and educational opportunity discrimination based on age, sex, race, religion, national origin and disability, there is no statewide protection for sexual orientation or gender identity. Texas law deemed certain homosexual activity a Class C misdemeanor until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2003.
At the state level, measures to prevent discrimination against LGBT individuals have failed for years. State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, filed bills this year that would have banned workplace discrimination, but they failed to make it out of committee.
Van de Putte said the divide in San Antonio reminded her of the fierce debate that engulfed the Legislature when it took up abortion restrictions earlier this summer, but she said she remained optimistic.
“Anytime a community goes through such an emotional issue, it’s an opportunity for learning and for expanding that understanding,” Van de Putte said. “In a way, this dialogue has become very public. It has become very personal at the family dinner table as well.”
She said she was confident that the City Council would approve the ordinance and that she planned to reintroduce legislation on worker discrimination next session.
On Tuesday, another state lawmaker, Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, a Republican who is running for attorney general, also stepped into the debate, urging San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to withdraw the ordinance, according to the Express-News.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz also weighed in on the issue earlier this month.
“Any attempt to bar an individual from public service based on a personal religious conviction is contrary to the liberties guaranteed us under our constitution and should be emphatically opposed,” Cruz said in a statement. “It is encouraging to see so many Texans standing up to defend their religious freedoms in light of the misguided proposal put forth by the local city council.”
Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative group Texas Values, said the ordinance would violate religious freedom and threaten Christian businesses for standing up for their values. Saenz said it would also force local business owners into uncomfortable situations, like allowing men to use women’s restrooms.
“We’ve seen this is other states when people that are transgender may want to go into a men’s restroom one day and a women’s restroom another day, and if they’re not allowed in, they’re going to claim discrimination,” Saenz said.
At least one religious organization, the conservative Liberty Institute, has already pledged to sue the city if the ordinance is approved.
The debate has also incited fierce debate at the local level. Falcon, of GetEQUAL Texas, said religious leaders have called her Satan and have prayed for her at community input meetings. On Wednesday, hundreds of people protested outside of City Hall to urge council members to vote against the ordinance.
Eric Alva, a marine veteran who was the first American soldier injured in Iraq in 2003, spoke at the community meeting last week and was booed by hundreds in the chambers. Alva, who is gay, lost one of his legs in Iraq and spoke in favor of the ordinance.
Alva said in an interview that those who booed him should be ashamed.
“I know my God loves me because he was with me as I lay bleeding on the sands of Iraq,” Alva said.
JODY SERRANO reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.
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