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Houston, Let’s Address This Problem

???Keep these numbers in mind as you read through this article.  800, 29, 38, 74, and 92.

A new effort has been launched by a broad coalition of groups and individuals to enact a city-wide ban on workplace and public accommodation discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

To make this a reality, a change to the City Charter is necessary because a decade-old antigay amendment that states:

“Except as required by State or Federal law, the City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children; nor shall the City provide any privilege in promotion, hiring, or contracting to a person or group on the basis of sexual preference, either by a vote of the city council or an executive order by the Mayor. Further, the City of Houston shall not require entities doing business with the City to have any of the above benefits or policies. – Article II, Section 22.”

This effectively precludes City Council from simply enacting a non-discrimination ordinance when it comes to sexual orientation (aka, “sexual preference”). Note: this charter provision is neutral with regards to gender identity / expression.

Other than ridding our fair city of this obnoxious legal artifact, why do we need such protections enacted in Houston?

Back to some of those numbers…

There is no federal employment protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It is still legal to fire someone solely on the basis of their gender identity or expression in 38 states – and 29 states based on sexual orientation.  Both those numbers include Texas.

While the number of companies that include sexual orientation and/or gender identity in their employment non-discrimination and harassment policies continues to grow (as evidenced by the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index), fair and equal treatment in employment matters is often out of reach for many in the GLBT community.

The situation is equally stark when it comes to public accommodations – particularly for the transgender community.

Still, why Houston and why now?

I could say that it’s the right thing to do – that it comports with basic American (and Houston) values of fairness, equality of opportunity and justice. This certainly aligns with a 2011 Out & Equal Workplace survey where nearly three out of four – or 74% – heterosexual adults agree that how an employee performs at his or her job should be the standard for judging an employee, not whether or not they are transgender or if they are gay, lesbian or bisexual. Most of those (roughly 6 out of 10) indicated not merely agreement, but strong agreement with that statement.
Instead, let me make the case this way.

The gains seen over the last twenty years in corporate America are clear trend lines. Businesses small and large in America agree: When it comes to profitability, discrimination is costly and fairness brings economic benefits. More than two decades of data show that implementation of non-discrimination policies costs companies little to nothing – but the rewards in terms of recruiting & retaining talent, job productivity and access to (here’s another one of those numbers from earlier) a market with $800B in annual buying power can be huge.

This is also true for a city.

The City of Houston needs to do this to be competitive. Having a robust and thriving economy is dependent on several factors – and this is one area where (despite having elected an openly lesbian Mayor) our city lags behind other Texas cities like Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth. But we’re not just in competition in Texas – Houston competes on national and world stages and our image continues to be tarnished by the lack of these protections for GLBT citizens.

When we think of discrimination, we generally jump directly to the individual, personal hurt that GLBT inequality inflicts… but it’s more than just the personal injury.  Discrimination is ultimately bad for business and our city’s economy.

No one argues that the U.S. economy is growing as quickly as we would like, but it is growing – and Houston is a leading light in this area. Signs continue to be positive and once the recession is past, the trend of “boomer” retirement will soon reassert itself which should heat the employment market up even further.

An educated, flexible and mobile U.S. workforce has always been critical to our nation’s economic well-being and security: a need that will only become more pronounced over the course of these next decades. Companies look for cities to do business that have policies and practices that are consonant with their values. Houston cannot afford to be “the second choice” because we’re locked into an out-dated and anti-competitive position.

Now enacting this charter change is not a silver bullet when it comes to ending GLBT discrimination – but it’s a start. And despite the half-truths and disinformation that will no doubt come during this political process, let’s also be clear — like a federal ENDA — this change won’t:

  • Apply to religious organizations as defined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Create preferential quotas for GLBT people
  • Require businesses to provide domestic partnership or same-sex marriage benefits*
  • Require businesses to provide transgender medical or surgical benefits*

(*Based on the results from 10 years of the HRC Corporate Equality Index, it’s pretty clear that the marketplace will drive most employers to parity in these areas in order to be competitive – but that’s not driven by statute. )

What this charter change will do is remove unnecessary barriers to employment and public accommodations – putting the City of Houston on a par with other international cities. It will open up opportunities to court businesses and bring new people to our city.

One final number: 92.

That’s the percentage of people in the 2011 Out & Equal Workplace Survey who erroneously believed that non-discrimination protections are already in place. Clearly the American public is already “there” – as is corporate America. It’s time for Houston to catch up.

Related Links:

  • Fairness Works Houston – FaceBook Group
  • LGBT rights in the United States Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: 38 states offer no transgender protections; 29 states offer no protections for sexual orientation
  • Center for American Progress (CAP) poll: Small businesses support non-discrimination.
  • CAP small business survey: 67% of businesses with sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies said there were no costs associated with implementing those policies. 80% reported no costs for maintaining polices once enacted.
  • 2011 Out & Equal Workplace Survey: 74% of heterosexual adults agree that how an employee performs at his or her job should be the standard for judging an employee, not whether or not they are transgender or if they are gay, lesbian or bisexual. 92% mistakenly believe that such protections already exist.
  • 2011 Buying for Equality Guide Released, Out & About Newspaper: The LGBT community’s buying power is fast approaching $800 billion this year, according to research by Witeck-Combs Communications and
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Left of center Houstonian working in the energy industry and in his spare time on LGBT equality. Current co-Chair of Out & Equal Houston, a regional affliate of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.