Last edited: February 14, 2005

Gay Rights Effort May Be Tabled

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 25, 1998

By Kristin N. Sullivan, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

FORT WORTH — On a recent Tuesday morning, Cheryl Surber stood before the City Council and passionately urged members to kill an effort to have sexual orientation covered by the city’s anti- discrimination ordinances.

Such an ordinance, Surber said, would force Fort Worth employers to ask all employees, "Are you a homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, transsexual, transvestite, pedophile, rapist or celibate?"

Mayor Kenneth Barr frowned as the speaker’s allotted three minutes ran out. "Mrs. Surber," he said, "if you would conclude your remarks. Just conclude them right now."

Similar exchanges between speakers and the council have occurred almost each week since late October, when the council-appointed Human Relations Commission proposed adding gays and lesbians to the groups protected by anti- discrimination ordinances.

The tensions underscore how uncomfortable the issue is for a council that, as Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Silcox said at a recent retreat, "has an avoiding, stalling, hiding-in-the-bushes approach to this."

Barr is scheduled to meet Monday with Monte Elliott, chairman of the Human Relations Commission, to discuss the commission’s recommendation.

The commission hasn’t forwarded a written recommendation to the council, commission manager Vanessa Ruiz Boling said. Commissioners could consider a written statement at their next meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 8, she said. The commission accepts and investigates complaints of ethnic and gender discrimination.

But regardless of the commission’s recommendation, the issue may die without a public City Council debate, much as it did in 1992 during the tenure of Mayor Kay Granger, now the Republican U.S. representative for Fort Worth and parts of Johnson and Parker counties.

"I guess I’m just trying to be pragmatic," Barr told his council colleagues at the Nov. 21 retreat. He said that if it’s not going to pass, council members should consider whether to put the community through the trauma of a public debate on sexual orientation.

A survey compiled by the Human Relations Commission staff found ordinances barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in Austin, Dallas and Houston. Many other cities, including Arlington, do not include sexual orientation in anti-discrimination ordinances.

Barr has emphasized that he doesn’t consider discrimination against gays and lesbians to be an issue in Fort Worth, and he said that any instances can be addressed through existing laws.

"This isn’t even a shadow of the race relations problem that still exists in our community today," the mayor said. "And I don’t want to divert the attention of our Human Relations Commission from those problems to address something that I don’t believe to be a problem in our community."

Barr appears to be allied with at least three other council members on the issue. Silcox, and Councilmen Clyde Picht and Jeff Wentworth have indicated that they would not favor placing the commission recommendation on the council’s agenda for public discussion.

Councilmen Ralph McCloud and Frank Moss and Councilwoman Cathy Hirt, however, have said they favor public debate on whether city policies should address discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Hirt pointed to a commission survey showing that many major Tarrant County employers — including American Airlines, Bell Helicopter Textron, Alcon Laboratories and Texas Christian University — bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"We appointed the Human Relations Commission to tell us where we are lacking in policies that could deter discrimination," she said. "If in fact it weren’t a problem, then why do these other organizations feel compelled to create policies to protect them?"

Councilwoman Becky Haskin and Councilman Jim Lane, however, argue that the city should not approve any ordinance at odds with Texas law, which considers sodomy a crime, although it is rarely enforced. And Lane, an attorney, said the city should stay out of the debate until courts resolve whether a state can outlaw gay sex.

In Houston, a male couple arrested by police who entered a private residence in September were fined for "deviant homosexual" conduct, according to police. Attorneys for the men have said they plan to challenge the state law.

And last week, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state’s anti- sodomy law as a violation of the right to privacy.

Lane said: "I think we’re probably going to be forced into a public debate on it. But to me it is still a conflict in my mind for us to create an ordinance — and I’m still not convinced it is a problem — that it is in conflict with state law."

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