Fighting Queer Discrimination in San Antonio (Victory Update!)
Update Sept 5 4:00pm CST
The Nondiscrimination Ordinance passed the San Antonio City Council in a 8-3 vote. Best of all, before passing the bill was amended to remove harmful language restricting transgender bathroom access. This is a wonderful victory for equality in the state of Texas!
I asked GetEqual TX San Antonio Organizer Jennifer K. Falcon how she felt.
GetEqual TX actually slept outside last night to make sure we were the first to be there for the vote. We are so happy that the NDO and that it’s fully inclusive. None of our LGBTQ community was excluded.
But this struggle is not over. Next, Falcon hopes to continue working toward a federal — or statewide — LGBTQ employment nondiscrimination act.
Update Sept 4 11:30pm CST
I visited San Antonio’s City Hall tonight for a few hours to support the #LGBTQ Nondiscrimination Ordinance. Supporters of the ordinance were dressed in red, while opponents (much like at the Texas legislature) were in Catholic blue. Queer activists and their allies chanted as groups of opponents left, or when they were speaking inside, where the rally could be heard quietly but clearly from the council chambers.
Though opponents seemed to outnumber supporters, they were less organized and, much like the Texas Capitol protests, seemed angry and frightened while those in red shirts had a mostly celebratory air. Police were present but were calm, except for an incident when a debate turned heated, and a blue-shirted woman tried to press charges for the use of swear words. The cops separated the groups, but in the process one, Officer Martinez #1522, got overly physical for a moment, pushing a protestor out of the way.
Inside the council chambers, blue-shirted bigots cheered raucously for each of their speeches outlining why it was important to maintain their religious “right” to discriminate and at one point attempted to shout down a 16-year old as she read the names and causes of death of recently murdered trans-folk. Outside, the atmosphere alternated between sometimes tense chanting with peaceful singing and surprisingly frank and open conversations across sides.
When I left, City Council had heard from over 100 of the 700 people registered to testify. Queer activists plan to camp out overnight to be there for the vote, expected first thing in the morning. Before I left, I talked briefly with Tiffani Bishop of GetEqual TX:
This is the largest showing that we’ve had on our side — the supporters of the nondiscrimination ordinance. I was disappointed to see that the language regarding the bathroom provision still has not changed. However, we are hopeful that it could change via amendment but that is our last option at this point. I’m really hoping that the members of City Council have heard us, have heard that we refuse to allow the trans community to be thrown under the bus for any reason. We’re not going to make them wait for years.
A Texas-Sized Fight Against Discrimination
As far as the mainstream media is concerned, the fight for LGBTQ civil rights is only about marriage. Yet being queer is not a protected class — there are no federal protections as there are for race, gender, or disability. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act would change this, but it has little hope of passing despite direct action by groups like GetEqual. Only 21 states plus Washington, D.C. have passed LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. During his first candidacy, Barack Obama promised to sign an executive preventing federal contractors from discriminating but he’s refused to address the issue since.
Here in Texas, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and El Paso have all passed some form of municipal nondiscrimination ordinance, but San Antonio queers are notably left out in the cold. That could all change in the next days, thanks to a bill before the city council sponsored by District 1 City Council member Diego Bernal and supported by Mayor Julian Castro. Passage of this bill would be the culmination of a 15 year local struggle. Tomorrow’s vote looks promising, but the struggle has been hard fought and victory only shifts the status quo so far — the bill would prevent discrimination in city contracts, public housing, and against patrons of businesses like restaurants and hotels. However, it does not contain generalized workplace protection. Additionally, a troubling amendment added to the ordinance could reenforce pre-existing discrimination against transgendered individuals.
Dozens of local bigots have mobilized to fight the bill, many gathered under the offensively misleading banner of the San Antonio Human Rights Coalition. Others have been bused in from around the state and even Fox News got involved. Their hateful spin has caused a pointless panic around issues like what bathrooms transgendered people might be allowed to use, and whether the bill suppresses the “free speech” (i.e., right to be hateful) of the city’s religious but ethically bankrupt citizens.
Jennifer K. Falcon Talks NDO
GetEqual TX have spearheaded the fight for queer liberty, along with their allies in CAUSA, the Community Alliance for a United San Antonio. Earlier this week I caught up with GetEqual TX’s San Antonio Lead Organizer Jennifer K. Falcon. Not only a leader in LGBTQ activism, she also took part in the June/July protests over abortion laws at the Texas Legislature.
“In the city of San Antonio, if you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or even perceived as such, you can be legally removed from any public place. You can be denied or removed from housing once they find out you’re LGBTQ,” Falcon told me. Because the law doesn’t add workplace protections, many people are afraid of publicly supporting the NDO. “It’s a good step for San Antonio, but there’s still a long way to go for us.”
Since May, she’s tracked a disturbing number of incidents of threats and violence against the city’s LGBTQ population, leading the organization to issue a controversial travel advisory for queer people that was opposed by the mayor. Despite Castro’s push back, this issue is very real for LGBTQ individuals in San Antonio. Dozens of queer people have come forward to publicly testify to their discrimination, and hundreds more have communicated with Falcon privately. Life seems especially difficult for one particular part of the queer alphabet soup:
“If you want to know how welcoming San Antonio is, ask any transgendered person. The majority of discrimination cases we’re finding are from from our transgender community getting kicked out of places or asked to move. If they’re denied housing, they don’t have any emergency housing they can go to.”
Jennifer herself has faced disturbing attacks and been singled out for special attention by conservative hatemongers. “I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve been called satan.”
Jennifer also heard from a transwoman named Kelli Maples. “Kelli will tell you that in San Antonio we have a closeted society,” Falcon said. “In San Antonio, trans* people are afraid to go out.” Discrimination is such a routine part of her life that she feels forced to call every single restaurant or public place to make sure they’ll allow her unimpeded access before she can consider patronizing it. “She’s been forced to use the men’s bathroom by security at a pool hall. She’s been asked to move tables at restaurants on the River Walk.”
Although they seem to be the most in need of protection, they’ve also been the source of some of the most controversy. Right-wing pundits engineered a panic over the idea that the Nondiscrimination Ordinance would allow transgender people to sue for discrimination over bathroom access. City officials insist that a court decision over the inheritance rights of transgender woman Christie Lee Littleton already makes it legal to discriminate against transgender use of bathrooms. Despite this, the bill’s sponsor Diego Bernal agreed to an amendment specifically banning transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their assigned gender. This amendment is harmful — adding an extra barrier to equality should the Littleton precedent ever be overturned — while doing nothing to placate opponents of the Nondiscrimination Ordinance who want to undermine it entirely.
While the bill as a whole is likely to pass tomorrow, Jennifer K. Falcon remains hopeful that the harmful transgender bathroom amendment will be dropped. Tonight, activists from CAUSA marched on San Antonio City Hall from a nearby Federal Court. Since City Hall capacity is strictly limited, the rally gives those who can’t make it inside a way to support the cause. Falcon and others intend to camp out overnight to ensure their presence at Thursday morning’s final vote.
I hoped to personally cover the rally and hearing at San Antonio City Hall. Unfortunately my health is limiting my attendance tonight. Here’s some Tweets from selected San Antonio activists and journalists.