Friday, December 31, 2010

Brunch Against Bullying

Houston Stonewall Young Democrats, in cooperation with Equality Texas, is holding a "Brunch Against Bullying" on January 16th at 10:30 am in Houston at the home of Mr. Patrick Dickson.

The Brunch will raise funds for the Trevor Project, the only nationwide 24 hour hot-line for LGBTQ youth and to provide low cost transportation to Equality Texas' Lobby Day in Austin on March 7th.

Tickets at $50, there are also a number of sponsorship levels available, visit for more information.

The Trevor project is a wonderful, and worthwhile, beneficiary for this event, but I am particularly excited to see early efforts to help people get to Lobby Day.

Equality Texas' Lobby Day is a single day set aside each legislative session for queer Texans and their allies to visit lawmakers in Austin. Last year more than 400 people participated in Lobby Day, yet there are still legislators who claim that they "don't have any gay people in their district". It is vital to the advancement of justice that the people who make the rules we have to live by hear from LGBT constituents.

Anti-bullying efforts are sure to be a major legislative concern this year. Ensuring that legislators hear from constituents about the issue of bullying will help garner support.

I hope that other communities in Texas will soon start planning ways that they can encourage people to participate in Lobby Day. There are many people in our community for whom even a day trip to Austin is prohibitively expensive. If we are to advance it is imperative that those in positions of leadership work to find ways to insure that every voice is heard, not just the voices of people who can afford to be heard.

Please bring up the topic at the next meeting of any community organizations your belong to. This year, let's overwhelm the state capital with people advocating for their own freedom.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sentencing Delayed for Attacker of Trans Man

Terrance Calhoun, who brutally attacked and robbed a gay transgender student at Houston Community College this summer faced Harris County District Court Judge Belinda Hill at his sentencing hearing today.

The attack took place on June 22 near downtown Houston. Calhoun followed Lance Reyna into the restroom, shouted “Hey queer!”, and demanded Reyna’s possessions while thrusting a knife against Reyna’s throat. After robbing Reyna, Calhoun struck him in the face and shoved him to the floor.

I accompanied Reyna to the Houston Police Station a couple of weeks after the attack, where he identified Calhoun in a line-up. This was the first time he had seen his attacker since the robbery. Lance was pale and could barely speak above a whisper as he bravely identified the man who had left him bruised and bleeding on a restroom floor.

Calhoun's face in the lineup was brazen, his body held in tension between defiance and threat. A far cry from his demeanor in court today where he shuffled his feet, cried and spoke so softly that the judge repeatedly asked him to speak up.

Reyna testified in court today that he fears another attack and believes that Calhoun should serve at least a portion of the 5 years to life in prison that Texas law allows.

Calhoun plead guilty to aggravated robbery, but denied shouting the anti-gay epithet during the attack. His defense attorney attempted to convince the judge that the Christian values of his large, supportive family would prevent him from re-offending if the judge gave him probation instead of jail time. District Attorney Jonathan Stephenson succinctly retorted that if Calhoun's Christian values and supportive family didn't help him set his life straight after his previous drug conviction (a conviction for which he was serving probation at the time of the attack on Reyna) the court had no reason to believe they would do so now.

Judge Hill ordered Calhoun, who has been out on bail, to return to county custody for 120 days while she considers his sentence. “I’m pleased to know that my attacker is now behind bars, where he cannot harm anyone else,” said Reyna. “I thank the judge for her sensitive consideration of this issue, and look forward to her final ruling.”

The attack against Reyna was reported to the department of public safety as a hate crime, so it will be included in the Hate Crimes Statistic Report by the FBI, but the Harris County DA has declined to prosecute it as a hate crime under Texas law.

Understand that the Harris County DA is not claiming that it was not a hate crime, they are simply choosing not to request that the judge in the case add a finding that Calhoun acted out of an anti-gay bias to the charges against him.

Why not? Because the Texas hate crime law (found in Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42.014) only allows prosecutors to add to the maximum allowed for the crime in question. Because the guidelines for aggravated robbery allow for a sentence of 5 years to life in prison attaching the hate crime charge would not increase the potential punishment the judge could prescribe (a person can not serve more time than life). There is no incentive for the prosecutor to pursue a hate crime charge when doing so would create more work, and would not affect the final sentence of the defendant.

“The Texas Hate Crimes statute is disappointingly insufficient as a tool against attacks like this”, said Cristan Williams, executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America, "I am hopeful that state lawmakers will consider revising the law to make it more useful”.

According to Randal Terrel, former Policy Director for Equality Texas, over 1,800 potential hate crimes have been reported to the Department of Public Safety since the Texas hate crimes statute went into effect in 2001. Only 12 have been prosecuted as hate crimes.

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tarrant County) filed legislation last month (HB 172) that would require a study to look for ways to improve the law. (Legislative Queery's synopsis of the bill HERE) He filed a similar bill last session, which was heard in committee and sent to the full House for a vote, but it was not voted on before the end of session.

One solution to the problem with the hate crime law would be to edit the statute to allow an increase in the minimum allowable sentence in cases where the maximum is life. Under the current statute Judge Hill could sentence Calhoun to as little as 5 years in prison. He would then be eligible for parole in about two and a half years. If the law were amended so that including the hate crimes charge increased the minimum sentence, say to 10 years, prosecutors would have a reason to use it since it would likely result in longer sentences.

Another idea for improving the law would be amend it to include gender identity and expression. Currently the hate crimes statute list several attributes, and allows for a perpetrators bias against people with those attributes to trigger the hate crimes enhancement. Under the current law crimes committed because of the perpetrator's bias against transgender people cannot be prosecuted as hate crimes. ( This omission was not an issue in this case because Reyna is both gay and transgender, and because the epithet used "queer" demonstrates Calhoun's bias against gay people.) Last legislative session Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a bill (HB 2966) that would have done that. It did not receive a hearing.

Judge Hill indicated that her final ruling will likely be "deferred adjudication", a legal process by which she can wait to sentence him until he completes requirements of the court. Hill suggested that she might order Calhoun to attend one year of substance abuse treatment at a “lock-down” facility followed by 10 years of probation. If Calhoun did not follow the rules of the treatment facility or violated his probation he would then find himself back in front of Judge Hill, who could sentence him to up to in life in prison.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Adams Defends Covenant House's Treatment of LGBT Youth

Covenant House Texas is a faith-based homeless shelter that serves young people, ages 18-20, in Houston. LGBT clients of Covenant House have repeatedly reported that the staff make it clear that expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity will result in harsher treatment and that clients who are not willing to be in the closet are denied services. (Covenant House's recent treatment of queer youth is documented at

In addition to harassment of clients based on sexual orientation Covenant House makes a practice of refusing to house transgender clients unless they agree to dress as and present the gender that appears on their state ID.

Since last summer leaders of the Trans community in Houston, notably Cristan Williams and Josephine Tittsworth, have attempted to work with Covenant House to address these issues. In doing so they have attempted to enlist the help of Councilmember Wanda Adams, in whose district Covenant House lies. CM Adams also happens to be a former employee of Covenant House.

While other council members (most notably Jolanda Jones) have been helpful, CM Adams has consistently denied that there is a problem, been uncommunicative, and failed to attend a meeting she had not only committed to, but requested.

The conflict has reached new levels now that the city's funding of Covenant House has come up for renewal. (Last year Covenant House Texas received $948,119 in government grants, including funds from the City of Houston.) CM Jones initially "tagged" the funding, delaying a vote on it until a later council meeting. Today it was back on the agenda.

Jones spoke briefly saying that she was concerned about the continued funding of "a certain organization that I think has issues with equal treatment of humans", but explained that since the vote that was being taken was for a large block of homeless agency funding, and since there was no way to separate out the portion that would go to that "certain organization" that she was going to support extending the funding so that other agencies could continue their work. (VIDEO - Jones comments start at 1:01)

Adams then spoke in defense of Covenant House (naming it, despite Jones' demure omission of the agencies name), saying " Covenant House has long history of doing great work and making sure that our homeless youth are protected without any... type of prejudices [sic]". She went on to praise the agency's director: Rhonda Robinson "I know that Rhonda works really really close [sic] with the community and making sure that all policies are followed."

Which gets right to the root of the problem. Covenant House does not have a non-discrimination policy. So when they (or their apparent mouthpiece Wanda Adams) say that they are "following all policies" they are telling the truth, but "following all policies" is not the same thing as "treating all people fairly".

Covenant House actually claimed to have a non-discrimination policy during a meeting with Jones on June 11th (a meeting Adams was scheduled to attend but missed). In her response to Adams today Jones explained that her office was informed recently that Covenant House does not, in fact, have a nondiscrimination policy.

What's more, the claim that Covenant House Director Rhonda Robinson works closely with the community is demonstratively false. Robinson has routinely promised to work with the community, but has gone months without following through on basic commitments or communicating in any way. In an August 24th letter CM Jones expressed her frustration that Robinson had not provided her with copies of Covenant House's intake procedures despite promising to nearly two months ago, giving the agency 7 days to follow through on a commitment from July 6th, a commitment that had initially been made on June 11th.

Without an enumerated nondiscrimination policy that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and without a training program in place designed to teach staff to be sensitive to the needs of queer kids, Covenant House will continue to harass, deny services to and discriminate against LGBT clients. For the time being, it seems, they will continue to do so using nearly a million dollars in public funds.

Adams, whose district includes the historic 'gayborhood' of Montrose (and whose office can be reached at 832-393-3001), was criticized earlier this year for her pointed absence from a vote to renew funding for AIDS hospice Marjo House, earning her the moniker "Absentee Adams".

Today, after her full-throated support of an organization that routinely discriminates against LGBT kids, it seems the only thing worse for queer Houstonians than Wanda Adams leaving a room, might be Wanda Adams staying in it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

HB 415 - Accurate Birth Certificates

HB 415 - By Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) would allow the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS) to issue birth certificates which accurately reflect the parents of a child. BVS routinely issues new birth certificates for adopted children which list the adopted parents. Currently under Health and Safety Code Section 192.008(a) BVS is prohibited from listing two men or two women as parents of an adopted child even if they are both the legal parent of the child.

Beyond issues of simple fairness this creates a barrier when parents attempt to enroll their child in school, obtain a visa, access medical records or perform any of the routine day to day task that require parents to legally establish their relationship with their child.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana found in Adar, et al v. Smith that denying parents the right to both be listed as parents in an adoption from another state violates the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately that precedent does not extend to Texas couples who adopt children in Texas.

Anchia filed this legislation last session (81st HB 2080), it received a hearing but was never voted out of the House Public Health Committee.

Friday, December 10, 2010

UPDATE: Chisum Remains in Speakers Race

UPDATE: Chisum has stated on his facebook page that he has not dropped out of the race:
"There is no two ways about it: the Republican House members must caucus and unite behind a single conservative candidate for Speaker. If there is no caucus I will remain a candidate for Speaker when the Legislature meets on January 11, 2011."
The "caucus" he's referring to is a proposal being supported by some conservative Republican House members that the Republican members of the House agree to meet by themselves, vote for a Speaker candidate, and agree to all vote for whoever wins that vote. This is very similar to how the Speaker of the United States Congress is selected, but is an unprecedented way to select a Speaker of the Texas House.

Frankly it would set a dangerous precedent. The current system of selecting a speaker based on the votes of the whole house insures that the person selected is, generally speaking, to the center of the ideological spectrum of the body. If one party, any party, requires it's members to vote for the party's selected candidate, rather than for the candidate members believe would best protect the priorities of their constituents, it will guarantee the election of a partisan ideologue as Speaker, rather than the statesman (or woman) the House needs to run effectively.


Original title: Chisum to Drop Out of Speakers Race, Support Paxon

The Ellis Herald reports that notorious bigot Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) will drop out of the race for Speaker of the Texas House and support Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) in his attempt to unseat Speaker Joe Straus.

Chisum, you may remember, is the father of the Texas version of the "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) and perhaps the most rabid homophobe in the State of Texas (more HERE).

According to the Rules of the Texas House the speaker is elected by the 150 members of the House, from amongst its members, by a simple majority vote. The speaker is responsible for the day to day operations of the House and appoints all committee members and chairs. 'Speaker of the House' is the third most powerful position in Texas Politics, right behind Governor and Lieutenant Governor.

Traditionally the speaker is a member of whatever party has the most members in the House, although that is not required, a speaker from the non-ruling party has never been elected. Starting with the close of the previous legislative session any member of the house may begin to collect "pledges" from other members, promising their votes for speaker.

Chisum declared his intention to run for speaker shortly before the November election. I spoke with one House member (it was a private conversation, so I'm going to leave their name off) who said that Chisum's record on queer issues is part of what prevented them from supporting him: "My Gay constituents would kill me!"

The current Speaker, Joe Straus, was elected by an almost evenly divided house (74 Democrats and 76 Republicans) and with significant Democratic support. He is a moderate who was widely praised for his bipartisan even-handed handling of the affairs of the House. Which is why the far right hates him.

The current House is not nearly so evenly divided (it will probably be 51 Democrats and 99 Republicans - but there is still one race that may face an additional recount and one special election to fill the seat of a member who died shortly after the election). To maintain his speakership Straus will need to collect 76 pledges from members, but those members can be of any party.

One might assume that all 51 Democrats will pledge to Straus, but with a tight two person race it may be tempting for some to pledge to Paxton in exchange for prime committee appointments and preferential treatment for their legislative agenda. That's how the speaker previous to Straus, Tom Craddick, came to power. Several of the vilified "Craddick Ds" who supported him are still serving and may be willing to make a similar deal with the devil this session.

Paxton is affiliated with the Teabaggers, although not the arch-conservative Chisum is, he did vote for the Texas version of DOMA during his first term in the House (so did Speaker Straus). There really haven't been any other "test" bills to make it to the floor since then and since he has, for the most part, served on financial committees so he does not have a committee voting record that can be analyzed to understand where he stands on other queer issues.

That said, Paxton's rhetoric about being a "true" conservative and his strong Teabagger ties would seem to indicate that few, if any, of the legislative priorities of queer Texans would see the light of day in a Paxton House.

General consensus is that Straus has a good chance of hanging on to the speakership, but with 34 freshmen members of the House without a record to base predictions on, it's still anybody's game.

Monday, December 6, 2010

That Sneaky Sodomy Law

SB 152 by Joan Huffman has the laudable goal of protecting victims of sexual abuse, but an arcane and unenforceable law still on the books in Texas may turn her commendable intentions into a McCarthian nightmare for queer Texans.

SB 152 would allow Texas Judges to admit testimony and evidence of previous sex crimes by defendants accused of sex crimes. The Bill amends a section of code which lists 5 sets of offenses that would be admissible including offenses under Penal Code Chapter 21. Unfortunately for LGBT Texans that Chapter includes this:
"Sec. 21.06. HOMOSEXUAL CONDUCT. (a) A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex."
In 2004 the Supreme Court of the United States declared Penal Code 21.06 unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, but the law has never been removed from the books.

Of course any good judge would not permit evidence of "Homosexual Conduct" to be introduced because they would know that any good lawyer would immediately recognize grounds for appeal since the code is unconstitutional. Unfortunately not every defendant gets a good judge, and many defendants do not get a good lawyer.

One need only to look at the rhetoric around California's prop 8 to know that many on the far right already consider LGBT people suspect of child abuse. SB 152 would create an official vehicle in statute to introduce that bias into the courtroom.

I fear that if this bill becomes law someone in a small-town west Texas courtroom will face a line of questioning that begins "are you now, or have you ever been a practicing homosexual?"

Some might argue that anything that can be done to get sex offenders off the streets is a good thing. It's important to recognize, however, that innocent people are, from time to time, brought to trial for crimes they did not commit. One of the foundations of American jurisprudence is that we assume that anyone who is charged with a crime is innocent until proven otherwise. We must therefore also assume that the evidence allowed in court by this bill, if passed, would be used against an innocent person.

The solution of course is simple: remove Penal Code 21.06 from the books. Why do we even still have an unconstitutional law on the books? Because very few lawmakers want to face the charge of being "pro-sodomy" in their next election, and the code can't be removed without approval of the State Legislature.

Last session Rep. Garnet Coleman introduced a bill to repeal Penal Code 21.06 (HB 3026 81R). It didn't even receive a hearing.

There are several other laws already on the books that refer back to Penal Code 21.06, so it's not like SB 152 would create a unique situation, but every time a reference back to the code is created in statute this bit of law becomes more firmly entrenched in the statute. What's more this bill would have been an excellent opportunity to excise the "Homosexual Conduct" law from the books since it was already dealing with that section of code. It's unfortunate that Sen. Huffman lacked the courage, moral fortitude, or knowledge to take advantage of that opportunity.

Until lawmakers get past their cowardice and take the simple, common sense step of removing this unconstitutional law from the books every attempt to strengthen Texas's Sex Crime laws will put honest, hardworking LGBT Texans at risk.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wendy Davis Gets Anti-Bullying Legislation Right

SB 245 by Wendy Davis is the most comprehensive, thoughtful, piece of anti-bullying legislation filed this session. The bill is almost identical to HB 224 filed by Mark Strama in the House last month, but corrects one very important omission present in that bill.

Both bills offer a fairly comprehensive approach to fighting bullying. They requires all school districts to create a training program for staff, volunteers who work with students, students and parents designed to teach them to prevent, identify and respond to bullying. They also would allow school administrators to transfer bullies to a different class or campus than their victims if the victim's parents or guardians request it (under current law only the victim may be transferred) and create a uniform definition of bullying in the education code, adding cyberbullying.

Both bills would allow school administrators to address cyberbullying that takes place off campus if the electronic communication is received on campus or at a school event or if it substantially disrupts school operations, and include a requirement that schools report statistics on bullying to the state. It's in the specifics of the reporting requirement that the bills differ.

The House bill requires school districts to report if the cause of the bullying was based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. The Senate bill has the same requirement, but includes Gender Identity and Expression in it's enumerated list.

Beyond adding a provision that will help transgender kids, the Senate bill is far more useful to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (and for that matter, Straight) students than the House version. More often than not, when kids are bullied for being queer it's not because of who they are attracted to, but because they are not conforming to other students expectations of how men and women are supposed to behave.

Davis served last session on the Senate Education Committee and is likely to do so again this session. Having a voice on the committee will help her in her efforts to pass this bill.

It's exciting to see this bill in the State Senate. The Texas Senate has historically been reticent to tackle the issue of bullying. Last session only two bills were filed on the topic, neither of which got a hearing (SB 29 (81R) by Zaffirini and SB 1725 (81R) by West) neither of which was as comprehensive as this bill.

It is generally harder to pass a bill in the Senate than in the House. Senate rules require that bills be considered in the order they are filed. Each session a "blocker bill" is filed early on. By general agreement this bill sits at the front of the line and no action is taken on it. It requires 2/3 of the Senate to set aside the rules and consider a bill out of order. With the blocker bill at the front of the line holding everything else up this means that, effectively, a Senator must get 2/3 of her colleagues to agree that voting on a bill is a good idea in order for it to pass.

Since passage in the Senate is a larger hurdle, having a bill that is this strong start on the Senate side gives me hope that we may actually see some real action taken by the legislature this session to fight bullying.

UPDATE: WFAA in Dallas has a short interview with Davis saying the bill was inspired by Fort Worth City Council Member Joel Burns famous "It Get's Better" speech. Burns was elected to fill the seat Davis held before running for for State Senate.

Thanks to Dallas Voice's Instant Tea Blog for pointing this out.

UPDATE (03/01/11): Davis has substituted the language on her bill SB 242 to make it a companion of Rep. Strama's HB 224 - the language of the two bills is now identical

Monday, November 29, 2010

Make the Rules Apply to Every Student

SB 66 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini would close an administrative loophole that prevents schools from expelling transfer students that violate the school's code of student conduct. To understand why the loophole exist in the first place let's take a look at how laws are made in Texas.

There are three major sets of laws that govern the State of Texas. The first is the Texas State Constitution. The State Constitution is superseded by federal law, but takes precedence over any other state law. It can only be amended if 2/3 of both the House and Senate agree to a statewide vote and then a majority of Texans vote to approve the amendment.

The second is State Statute. State Statute is superseded by the State Constitution, but takes precedence over Administrative Code. Statute is written by the Texas Legislature and must pass by a majority in both the Texas House and Senate and then be signed (or at least not vetoed) by the governor. All of the House and Senate bills discussed on this website are attempts to amend State Statute.

The third, and the issue that SB 66 is attempting to address, is Administrative Code. The Constitution and Statute contain enough laws to fill multiple bookshelves, but there are enough questions about exactly what some of those laws mean that the various state agencies have to create rules about exactly how to enforce the law. Different agencies go about this in different ways, but almost every state agency has a governing body that sets its administrative code.

In setting the administrative code the agency is supposed to look at the "legislative intent" of the legislature in passing the law (or proposed constitutional amendment) that is being interpreted. This is done by carefully reviewing the language of the law and looking at the hearings and floor debates that took place as the law was being considered.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is responsible for creating rules to clarify the Texas Education Code. When the TEA took a look at Education Code Sec 25.036 the rule they created caused a loophole that meant that transfer students can not be expelled, even for severe violations of the school's student code of conduct.

Education Code Sec. 25.036. TRANSFER OF STUDENT. (a) Any child, other than a high school graduate, who is younger than 21 years of age and eligible for enrollment on September 1 of any school year may transfer annually from the child's school district of residence to another district in this state if both the receiving district and the applicant parent or guardian or person having lawful control of the child jointly approve and timely agree in writing to the transfer. (b) A transfer agreement under this section shall be filed and preserved as a receiving district record for audit purposes of the agency.
Seems reasonable right? If a parent wants to transfer their student to a different school district, and everyone involved is agreeable the law lets them do it. This could be used to move a child who has been the subject of bullying to a new school, or to give a child who has fallen in with a bad crowd and started making poor decisions a fresh start, or just make the process of dropping the kids off for school a little easier for a parent who commutes. It's a common sense solution. The problem arises from one word - "annually" - and the TEA's somewhat creative interpretation of it.

The TEA has determined that the limit of one transfer per year imposed by the statute means that a student, once transferred, can not be removed from their new district. This ties the hands of school administrators making it impossible for them to expel a transfer student, even for egregious violations of the student code of conduct.

(Why would the TEA create such a nonsensical rule? The money local school districts receive from the state is determined, in part, by student enrollment. Every time a student transfers districts the TEA must recalculate the disbursement. It would seem that, rather than do what's right for students, the TEA decided to save themselves some paperwork.)

SB 66 corrects the loophole created by the TEA rule by deleting the word "annually" from the statute and adding a provision specifically allowing the school districts to make compliance with the student code of conduct a provision of the students continued enrollment.

Sen. Zaffirini filed this legislation last session (SB 1445), but interference from the TEA prevented it from getting a hearing.

Being able to move bullies, or their victims, to a new district is a valuable tool - one we need. But the loophole created by the TEA's irresponsible rule removes accountability from the system. SB 66 marks a return to common sense.

Friday, November 26, 2010

We ♥ Legislative Brackets

Except for under very limited circumstances the Texas State Constitution does not allow the State Legislature to write laws that only apply to certain counties. Texans, in general, value local control and the framers of the state constitution wanted to keep lawmakers in Austin from meddling in local affairs too much.

Of course the constituents of those lawmakers still expect them to help out with local issues. So what's a lawmaker to do? They could work to pass laws that would address the local issue but would apply to the whole state, but the other state lawmakers may not want to subject their constituents to rules designed for another part of the state. It takes a majority of both houses to pass a law - so the author of a law designed to address a local issue must find a way to write it so that it will not affect anyone else's constituents.

The solution is a "bracket". A bracket is a way of describing the counties to which a law applies. Lawmakers can't write a law that says "this law only applies to county X" but they can write a law that only applies to a county that has certain characteristics.

By creating very narrow requirements a law can be written so that it only applies to one county.

In order to comply with the State Constitution the bracket must be written so that a county can grow out of or into, so you often see population being used in brackets. Other characteristics - such as containing a facility licensed for a space port, or being licensed for a low-level nuclear waste facility - also get used from time to time. Since a license can be obtained or revoked it fits the "grow out of or into" criteria.

See if you can figure out which counties are described by these brackets, taken from bills filed for the 82nd legislature.

SB 105: applies only to "a county that is located wholly or partly above a hydrocarbon-producing geological formation that underlies all or part of two counties: (1) that are adjacent to one another; and (2) each of which has a population of more than 1.4 million."

HB 54 applies only "In a county located on the Texas-Mexico border that has a population of 500,000 or more and is adjacent to two or more counties each of which has a population of 50,000 or more"

HB 107 applies only to "a county: (1) with a population of less than 185,000; and in which two or more municipalities with a population of more than 65,000 are wholly located."

State elected officials tend to give each other a great deal of freedom to deal with local issues. Most of the time if a lawmaker can bracket their legislation in such a way that it only affects their own constituents other officials will not object (not all of the time, of course). It's important, when you see a bracket, to ask yourself why the author wants the law to apply so narrowly. Sometimes brackets can be used to further political vendettas by overriding the decisions of county commissioners or city councils.

If nothing else attempting to decipher a bracket can be a fun education in the geography of Texas.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Walle's HB 195 Would Weaken Current Anti-Bullying Laws

Rep. Armando Walle (D-Harris County) has filed HB 195 which would prevent school administrators from expelling students or placing them in alternative education programs unless the behavior they are being punished for is both serious and persistent.

Current Law (the Safe Schools sub-chapter of the Texas Education Code) requires school districts to create student codes of conduct and permits schools to discipline students who violate those codes. It allows school administrators to expel or place in an alternative education program students who violate the code in either a serious or persistent manner.

HB 195 goes through the existing law and changes all instances of "serious or persistent" to "serious and persistent". Under the proposed changes school administrators would not be able to remove students from school who committed only one serious violation of the code of conduct, or who committed multiple minor violations.

What makes this proposed change particularly bizarre is that the current law is permissive. It says that school administrators "may" expel or place in alternative education programs students who violate the code of conduct. This allows for administrative discretion and ensures an individual response to individual student's behavior.

This bill is unnecessary, irresponsible and would weaken one of the few tools administrators currently have to fight bullying.

Trans Pioneer Phyllis Frye Becomes Texas' First Trans Judge

Phyllis Randolph Frye, longtime legal advocate for the transgender community, was sworn in this morning as the state's first transgender judge. Frye was appointed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker as an Associate Municipal Judge. The city council unanimously approved her appointment, along with a couple dozen other appointments, with little fanfare and no dissent.

The significance of the moment was not lost on Mayor Parker who fought back tears as she welcomed the appointees to the council dais. Council member Sue Lovell who, along with Parker and Frye, fought for years as a citizen to improve the lives of queer Houstonians, beamed as she spoke of how far the three of them have come. Several council members specifically thanked Frye for her willingness to serve.

It was only 30 years ago that Frye risked arrest every time she entered City Hall. At that time the City of Houston and most American cities had ordinances criminalizing cross dressing. Frye defied the law to fight for it's repeal, which finally happened in 1980.

Frye is only the third transgender judge in the country. The other two both serve in California.

Frye is nationally recognized as an expert on the legal issues facing transgender Americans. Her law firm is currently representing Nikki Araguz in the suit brought by Mrs. Araguz's late husband's ex-wife in Wharton County. The ex-wife is attempting to void the Araguz's marriage (so that she may inherit the estate of her ex-husband). The suit centers on the fact that Mrs. Araguz was originally legally recognized as male by the state of Texas and could have national ramifications for the transgender community.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Anti-Bullying Bill Most Likely to be THE Anti-Bullying Bill

Rep. Mark Strama (D-Travis County) filed HB 224 last Tuesday (the second day of filing for the session). HB 224 is substantially similar to the anti bullying bill he filed last session (HB 1323). (Read Legislative Queery's day by day account of that bill's history HERE.)

The bill is a fairly comprehensive approach to fighting bullying. It requires all school districts to create a training program for staff, volunteers who work with students, students and parents designed to teach them to prevent, identify and respond to bullying. It also would allow school administrators to transfer bullies to a different class or campus than their victims if the victims parents or guardians request it (under current law only the victim may be transferred) and creates a uniform definition of bullying in the education code, adding cyberbullying. HB 224 would allow school administrators to address cyberbullying that takes place off campus if the electronic communication is received on campus or at a school event or if it substantially disrupts school operations. The bill also includes a requirement that schools report statistics on bullying to the state.

I really like this bill with one - very notable - exception... the reporting requirement. Schools would be required to report bullying based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. They would not be required to report bullying on the basis of gender identity or expression (GI&E).

Beyond throwing the transgender community under the bus (which is bad enough), this omission creates a glaring loophole that prevents this legislation from being as useful as it could be for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual students. Most of the time when a queer kid is bullied it is not because of who they are attracted to, but because their attackers feel that the victim is not behaving in a gender appropriate way. "Butch" girls and "sissy" boys bear the brunt of the bullies rage, that's not about sexual orientation - that's about gender expression.

Without the inclusion of GI&E in the reporting requirement many school administrators will not report harassment that that does not specifically include a reference to the victims sexual orientation. This will create a loophole where, for instance, bullying a male student for being a "fag" gets the bully in trouble, but bullying them for being a "sissy" doesn't. Bullies are smarter than many people give them credit. They will find this loophole and exploit it.

HB 224 is likely to be the anti-bullying "water bearer" this session. Most, if not all, of the bills designed to address bullying will be referred to the Public Education committee. It is probable that the chairperson for the committee will schedule all of them for public hearing at the same time. This is done for practical reasons. It allows the committee to hear from a number of experts and citizens all at once and to consider the different solutions being offered in direct comparison to each other.

After the hearing one of the Public Education committee members will likely offer a "committee substitute". This is a way of amending the bill in committee by completely replacing it with a new bill on the same topic. The committee substitute will incorporate the preferred solutions offered by the different bills the committee considered in the hearing, creating a kind of super-bill.

Because Strama has a history of carrying this sort of legislation and has been very public in his support for it his bill is likely to be the one that is amended by committee substitution becoming the only anti-bullying bill that makes it out of committee, but with elements of other bills attached. That makes it very important to pay attention to H.B. 224.

It also makes it important for H.B. 224 to have a number of co-authors. Co-authorship is a way for a house member to put their name on another member's bill. It allows them to show their support even before the bill gets to the floor of the house and everybody has a chance to vote on it. Last session this bill had 19 House members who were willing to put their names on it. Including 1 Republican.

Strama will need to talk to his fellow members to get their support. But it is also important that they hear from their constituents. If you feel that HB 224 is a good idea please consider calling your State Representative and asking them to become a co-author. If you do not know who your state representative is you can find out at

SB 205 - Require Schools to Create Anti-Bullying Policies

SB 205 by Sen. John Whitmire would require all public schools in Texas to adopt a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. The bill is exhaustive in the detail it prescribes for the policy, but does allow each school district to tailor its policy to the specifics of its students.

The bill lays out 13 things that each district's policy must address, the policy must:

  • prohibit bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, and intimidation
  • describe the behavior expected from students
  • lay out the consequences of bullying - specifically allowing counseling or referral to anti-bullying services
  • include a procedure for reporting bullying, including anonymous reporting
  • encourage students and employees to report bullying
  • layout a procedure for investigating bullying
  • describe how a school district will respond to confirmed bullying
  • prohibit retaliation against people who report bullying
  • have a rule against intimation of witnesses and victims of bullying to prevent reporting
  • describe how a school district will respond to retaliation for reporting or intimation of witnesses or victims
  • specify how the policy will be publicized
  • specify that publicization of the policy must state that it applies both on campus and at off campus school sponsored events
  • identify which school officials are responsible for implementing the policy
I like this bill. However, it doesn't go nearly as far as SB 245 by Davis (which also requires schools to adopt anti-bullying policies). Davis' bill includes a host of other anti-bullying solutions, like a reporting requirement and permitting schools to transfer bullies to other classes or campuses (currently only the victim can be transferred), but the level of detail in Whitmire's policy requirement will make it difficult for recalcitrant districts to wiggle out of the requirement.

The best solution would be for Whitmire's policy requirement to be amended onto Davis' bill. Most of the time each half of the legislature (House and Senate) only sends one bill on a topic to the other for consideration. Since these two bills were introduced in the Senate it would be best if they were combined in the Senate. Senators Davis and Whitmire will need to work together to create the best synthesis of the two.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Veasey Refiles Hate Crime Study Bill

HB 172 by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tarrant County) would require the state to conduct a study on how the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act is being used.

The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act allows for increased sentences for crimes committed because of the victims real or perceived "race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or sexual preference".

Over 1,800 potential hate crimes have been reported to the Department of Public Safety since the Texas hate crimes statute went into effect in 2001. Only 12 have been prosecuted as hate crimes according to Equality Texas.

There are different ideas about why the Hate Crimes law is not being used. One excuse often given by District Attorneys for not attaching the Hate Crimes enhancement is that crimes like assault already carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. Attaching the Hate Crimes charge would not increase the maximum possible sentence and would create more work for the DA, since they would have to prove the motivation for the crime.

Another theory about why the Hate Crimes enhancement is not being used is that prosecutors are not properly educated about how it works and are reticent to prosecute what they do not understand.

The hope is that a study of the effectiveness of the law would help lawmakers better understand its faults and that legislation could then be passed that would amend the law to make it more usable.

Veasey filed this same bill last session (HB 616). That bill made it through subcommittee and committee hearings but ran out of time and never received a vote of the full house. HB 172 was filed on Monday, the first day to file bills. I'm very happy to see Veasey file this so early, it shows that he is serious about it. The lower bill number will mean that the bill is referred to committee earlier in the session and will have more time to work through the legislative process.

The next step for Veasey is going to be convincing a State Senator to file a companion bill. Bills must be passed by both the House and Senate before going to the governor to sign. Bills originating in the house bills are "read" on the house floor and then referred to a committee. The committee then holds public hearings on the bill. If the committee likes the bill and votes "yea" on it it's then referred to the "Calendars" committee which places it on the schedule for the whole house to consider. When its scheduled spot on the calendar comes up the bill is then "read" a second time and the whole house has an opportunity to debate it and then vote on whether it should become law. The bill is then "read" a third time (usually the day after the 2nd reading) and must be voted on again.

After passing on third reading the bill then goes to the Senate and starts the process again (1st reading, referred to committee, public hearing, voted out of committee, calendars, second reading, third reading). Then, if the Senate amended the bill so that it is different from the House version 5 members of the House and 5 members of the Senate get appointed to meet in a "conference committee" which hashes out a compromise between the two versions. The conference committee's version of the bill must then go back to both the House and the Senate and be approved by majority vote. Only then can the bill go to the Governor to be signed into law.

(The process for Senate bills works in the same way, only starting with the Senate and going to the House.)

But wait! There is a short cut! If a Senator introduces the same bill in the Senate as a House member introduces in the House then they can both work their way through the system at the same time. Then, if the House bill passes on third reading before the Senate bill does the House bill can simply take the place of the Senate bill at whatever stage of the process it's in.

(So if, when the House bill passes on third reading, the Senate version has already been put on the schedule by calendars the House version can skip first reading and committee hearings in the Senate and just take the place of the Senate version on the schedule).

Most bills that eventually become law are introduced in both a House and Senate version. If Veasey is serious about the study taking place he needs to start talking to State Senators about carrying a Senate version.

To read a detailed, day by day account of one bills journey through the legislative process read Anti-Bullying Legislation in Texas

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

HB 208: The First Explicity Pro-LGBT Bill of the session

Rep. Roberto Alonzo filed HB 208 on Monday, the first day of filing. HB 208 amends the list of characteristics which insurance companies may not consider when offering policies to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Alonzo represents district 104 in southwest Dallas, which includes the Bishop Arts district, an up and coming "gayborhood". He has a large number of vocal queer constituents and I'm happy to see him file this bill.

I was also happy to see him file it last session. With 125 bills authored or co-authored last year Alonzo never seemed to get around to fighting for this bill, or offering it as an amendment to other legislation.

Neither the version of this Alonzo filed last session, nor the Senate companion filed by Rodney Ellis got a hearing. Here's hoping they will make this legislation a higher priority this year.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

They're Wearing the Same Legislation, How Embarrassing

Yesterday Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Harris County) filed legislation that is almost an exact copy of the voter ID bill Rep. Riddle so notoriously camped out for two days to file first thing on that morning.

HB 112 varies from HB 16 by only a few words. Both bills list a court ordered sex change as an identifying document. I'm tempted to take my cue from Rep. Harless and just copy/paste what I wrote about the Riddle bill here, but instead here's the LINK.

The reason something like this can happen is that most legislators do not write their own legislation. "Legislative Council" is a team of lawyers who work for the Texas Legislature and write most of the bills filed. You can go to to look up any legislation (I always try to link to that site when writing about legislation, so following the link is also an option). When you view at the text of the bill look to the upper left corner. If you see a series of letters and numbers that starts with 82R and ends with three letters a dash and a letter that means that the bill was written by Legislative Council.

The three letters are the initials of the drafter. So looking at HB 112 and HB 16 we can tell that they were drafted by the same person - "JRJ" (which is not surprising since the lawyers who work for Legislative Council tend to specialize). Legislative Council lawyers are not allowed to tell lawmakers about the bills they are writing for other lawmakers so JRJ would not have been able to let Riddle or Harless know they wanted to file the same bill. It would seem that JRJ got almost identical instructions from two Representatives and drafted almost identical bills.

This is also the real reason that Rep. Riddle camped out to file her bills first. While it's true that a lower bill number makes a bill more likely to pass the difference between 16 and 112 is nominal when there are over 5000 bills filed. The real reason to be first in line is so the press will talk about you, and not the person 96 bills behind you who filed the same legislation.

Recap of the First Day of Filing

Yesterday was the first day to file bills in the Texas legislature. These bills represent the highest legislative priorities for the officials who filed them. There were 156 bills and 1 concurrent resolution filed in the Senate and 198 bills filed in the House. I haven't yet read through all of the legislation but here are some highlights from today:

SB 42 - allow victims of cyber-bullying to be transferred to other classes or campuses
HB 16 - voter ID bill - bad for Texas, good for Trans community
HB 24 - allow cyber-bullies in alternative school
HB 130 - create a statewide bullying hotline
HB 169 - allow schools to force bullies into JROTC programs
HB170 - create a 300 foot safe zone around school campuses

Most legislation gets passed by being amended onto other bills, so it's important to look out for legislation that is on similar topics. Here are some bills that were filed that have the potential to be improved by adding queer friendly amendments.

SB 29 - would allow grad students at state schools to be eligible for health benefits. Currently state schools are prohibited from offering health benefits to the domestic partners of staff. This bill could be an opportunity for that legislation.

SCR 1 - teabagger nonsense about states rights. (SCR stands for Senate Concurant Resolution, in this case it won't accomplish anything or change any laws if passed, it's just an opportunity to pontificate) It goes on - at length - about the 2nd, 9th and 10th amendment. There is an opportunity, if this bill makes it to the floor, for someone to attempt to amend a reminder of the 16th amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law, specifically as it should apply to marriage equality and employment protections.

HB 22 - would require public schools to report how many non-citizen students they have. This is another one of the Debbie Riddle anti-immigrant bills. What's interesting is that it says that schools should report this information in a way that would not discriminate based on "race, color, disability, sex, religion, age, or national origin". There is an opportunity to add to this list "Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity an Expression. The more times this enumerated list appears in the code the better.

HB 82 - revises the way that the state informs 18 year old men that they are required to register for selective service. The precise wording of the notice could be amended to also notify people of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Another interesting bill that some people may not recognize will benefit the queer community.

HB 38 - stiffens penalties for graffiti on certain structures - including community centers that provide medical, social, or educational programs. This would include most LGBT community centers and may be helpful in countering the hate graffiti that they often have to contend with.

There are many bills that still need to be read - we are seeking additional contributors to help us work through them please e-mail to volunteer.

Monday, November 8, 2010

First Senate Anti-Bullying Bill of the Session

SB 42 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini would expand to include bullying by electronic means the portion of the Texas Education Code that allows the victim of bullying to be transferred to another class or school.

This is a common sense approach, but one that does not go nearly far enough. Texas desperately needs to give school administrators to tools to transfer bullies. Under the current law an administrator can only transfer the victim, which can cut them off from any faculty or social support they have. Although not the intent, transferring the victim can feel like a punishment and can worsen self esteem issues that bullying victims often face.

It's a good bill, but I wish it went further.

Is 1-800-Bullying Taken?

HB 130 by Rep. Carol Alvarado would create a statewide hotline and website to allow students to report bullying if the bullying takes place on school campus or at school events. Reports of bullying would be forwarded to the students school principal, or if the bully is not a student to the local police.

Makes sense to me. This bill would allow students to report instances of bullying without having to face their teachers and faculty. I am concerned, however, that the bill does not create a requirement for school administrators to follow through on the reports and that it only applies to bullying on campus or at school events.

Cyber-bullying in particular is committed off campus most of the time. It's the internet age, we must give school administrators modern tools to address modern problems. Any legislation that does not permit administrators to address off-campus bullying will fail to protect Texas school children.

HB 170: the 300 Foot Bully Leash

HB 170 by Rep. Richard Raymond would allow school administrators to place students who engage in verbal, written or physical behavior that is designed to distress another student, is distressing to another student, or would be distressing to most people, into an alternative school if the behavior took place on school property, within 300 feet of school property, on a school bus, at a school bus stop, or at a school-sponsored event.

This is such a basic, simple, obvious response to bullying it is shocking that it is not already an option.

The only thing in this bill that is likely to draw opposition is the 300 foot provision. The ACLU of Texas testified against anti-bullying legislation last year because of their concern that allowing school administrators to address off-campus bullying would impinge on the the free speech rights of bullies. It will be interesting to see if the paltry 300 foot "safe" zone this bill creates will raise their ire or not.

This bill should already be law. If it, or some version of it, does not pass the members of the 82nd Texas legislature have failed the people of Texas.

Rep. Raymond's Solution to Bullies - Give Them Guns

Rep. Richard Raymond (D - Webb County) has a 'unique' solution to the problem of bullying - he would like to give school administrators to power to force students to enroll in Junior ROTC programs. (ROTC stands for "Reserved Officers Training Corps" - it's a paramilitary program designed to recruit officers for the U.S. military)

HB 169 would allow students who violate a schools student code of conduct (which is designed to counter bullying) to be forcibly enrolled in the school's JROTC program.

It's kind of an interesting idea - my personal misgivings about the military aside - the discipline and rigor of a JROTC would seem a good response to the issue of bullying. The problem is that JROTC programs are subject to the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" provisions of the uniform code of military justice. So rather than teach bullies who target queer kids that their intolerance is unacceptable this bill would enroll them in a program that re-enforces the idea that LGBT people are not as deserving of respect and dignity as other people.

What's more, queer kids who violate a school's student code of conduct would not be able to participate in a JROTC program and so would be subject to more severe punishments like suspensions and alternative school.

This solution to bullying is poorly thought out at best. It's been introduced in previous sessions and never seems to go anywhere. Let's hope forced military service continues to be off the table as a punishment option.

Guillen Files First Anti-Bullying Legislation of the Session.

Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Starr, Duval, Zapata, and southern Webb counties) has filed the first anti-bullying legislation of the session.

HB 24 would allow schools to place students who engage in electronic harassment in alternative school if the communication was sent from school grounds or the communication was received on equipment that is school property.

The bill includes as electronic harassment making obscene proposals; threatening to harm the recipient of the communication, their family or their property; and repeatedly contacting the recipient when they do not wish to be contacted.

It's a step in the right direction, but is very narrow in its scope. The kind of electronic harassment it covers is already illegal (Class B misdemeanor), but as I previously wrote such crimes are rarely prosecuted, so giving school administrators another way to deal with the issue is a good idea.

More concerning is that the bill limits the type of harassment it covers to on-campus activity or communication received on school property. It's very hard to tell exactly where someone was when they made a Facebook post - or posted to their Tumblr - so how are administrators going to prove that the communication was sent from school grounds? (maybe we are supposed to hope that foursquare will develop an app for that).

Rep. Guillen has probably tried to make this so narrow in scope to avoid some of the opposition that Rep. Strama faced to his anti-bullying legislation last session, most vocally from the ACLU of Texas who were concerned that allowing school administrators to address off-campus bullying would violate the free speech of the bullies.

I worry that in trying to so narrowly focus the legislation he has created a useless tool, but I applaud his efforts and sincerely hope that some version of this legislation will pass this session.

Debbie Riddle - Trans Advocate?

Today was the first day for filing legislation in the Texas legislature - 64 days until the start of the 82nd session.

Rumor is arch-conservative Rep. Debbie Riddle of Harris County camped out in front of the filing office so she could be first in line. Her camp-out was successful and her block of 6 anti-immigrant bills will be some of the first out of the gate when the legislature convenes.

HB 16, the first of these*, is a voter ID bill - one of the favorite rallying calls for the anti-immigrant crowd. Under current law voters can present either their voter registration card or state issued ID at the poll to prove their identity. Many anti-immigrant activist (including Riddle) are convinced that undocumented immigrants are forging voter registration cards to vote illegally (despite a study by the republican state Attorney General Greg Abbot that could not find a single instance of voter fraud at in-person voting locations). The anti-immigrant activists want to require a state-issued voter ID be presented in order to vote.

The populations least likely to have a state issued photo ID are low-income and predominately African-American or Hispanic: groups that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. So it's no surprise that Republicans love this idea. Attempts to get similar legislation to pass last year caused the legislative session to grind to a halt.

Hidden in HB 16 is an uncharacteristically decent bit of legislation from Rep. Riddle - who is perhaps best known for her fear of terrorist babies and calling children's health care programs a plot from the "depths of hell".

HB 16 would create a two tier system for voter identification. Voters would either have to present a photo ID, or preset two forms of non-photo ID. With-in the delineated list of acceptable forms of non-photo ID is this:
"court records of the person's adoption, name change, or sex change;" (emphasis added)
Currently Texas law only recognizes a court issued sex change in one other area, in the family code where a court record of sex change is listed as an identifying document for applying for a marriage license. In fact the list of identifying documents in HB 16 is almost identical to the list currently in the family code. I suspect that the drafter of this bill simply copied the list over, probably without realizing its significance.

The ability of Texas courts to issue a legal sex change is at the core of the Nikki Araguz case currently being fought in Warton County (Mrs. Araguz's firefighter husband was killed in the line of duty - his ex-wife is suing Mrs. Araguz for the widow's benifits claiming their marriage was invalid because Mrs. Araguz was originally legally recognized as male by the State of Texas before receiving a court ordered change of sex).

This is a vitally important issue for the Transgender community in Texas. The ability to be legally recognized as their gender of identity is crucial to obtaining employment, housing and navigating the legal system. An additional recognition of the ability of courts to issue that legal document would benefit the community tremendously.

There will likely be several versions of voter ID legislation filed this session. It is probable that some elements of each will be included in the final version of the bill - which will likely be carried by a major player in the Republican Party. Riddle is a little too extreme for the Republican leadership, it seems unlikely to me that she would carry the final version.

The question now is - how long before Riddle discovers what she, almost certainly accidentally, filed; at what point will she or someone else try to remove it from the bill and will anyone have to guts to try to stop them?


*bills are numbered in the order they are filed except for the first 15 bills which are reserved for the budget and the speakers priorities - so HB 16 is the first bill filled.

Friday, October 29, 2010

GLBT Caucus Volunteer Attacked at Polling Site

The GLBT Political Caucus (of Houston) has released a statement that one of their volunteers was attacked by a volunteer for the Fernando Herrera campaign.

"Francisco Valle is well known by poll workers at West Gray for holding signs and waving to voters as they turn in to the parking lot.This afternoon he was doing just that when a volunteer from the Fernando Herrera campaign confronted him, just because he didn't like his Bill White sign.But Francisco refused to stop waving his sign and that's when things got out of hand. The man grabbed Francisco and began trying to yank the sign from his hands.Luckily the police arrived and Francisco was unhurt..."
Herrera is running against Rep. Jessica Farrar - one of the greatest allies to the queer community in the Texas House. This incident underscores the importance of voting for pro-equality candidates in the Texas Legislature. The violent thugs who are supporting candidates like Herrera will only grow emboldened if their candidates are elected.

Today is the last day of early voting in Texas. If you have not done so already - please vote.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Houston School Board Candidate Attacks GLBT Caucus - Fakes HRC Endorsement

Houston ISD School Board Candidate Peter Schwethelm has found the solution to ending school bullying... magicians. The outsider candidate - who has also suggested that getting Whole Foods to give away free vegetables is the solution to nutritious school lunches - is seeking to assure the queer community that he has a magician diligently working on a, yet un-articulated, program to end the torturous conditions that queer children endure.

Schwethelm just can't understand why Houston's GLBT Political Caucus won't support his candidacy and its, yet to be conceived, magician powered bullying solution. So Schwethelm has decided to camp out at the early voting location nearest the historic 'gayborhood' of Montrose and pass out literature attacking the Caucus. (high quality version available HERE)

The criticism of the GLBT Caucus is a fair one, and one I've made myself. The Caucus is perceived by many to be little more than a tool for the Democratic Party. It invites all candidates to screen - but rarely - if ever - endorses non Democrats even in nonpartisan races like school board. One would think, however, that it might behoove Schwethelm to know the name of the organization he was criticizing before sending his flier of to the printers. (I suppose it's possible that "The GLBT" refers to some other organization - perhaps one the magician told him about).

Just for a second though look past the 'creative' syntax - the criticisms of partisan politics followed by the touting of an endorsement from a partisan organization - the lack of understanding of what "legislation" is and that school board members do not introduce it - the confusion about the meaning of the phrase "detailed plan" - the vague ideas about youtube and reinventing facebook and magicians - look down at the lower left hand corner of the flier.

See that? That's the logo for the Human Rights Campaign - correction: that's the TRADEMARKED logo for the Human Rights Campaign (the nation's largest lobby organization fighting for the rights of LGB (and when it suits them - T) people) which has neither endorsed, nor it seems ever heard of Schwethelm before this flier was distributed. Indeed HRC has issued a "cease and desist" order threatening legal action if Schwethelm continues to imply a connection between his campaign and HRC.

I kind of feel sorry for the guy, clearly he cares about this issue, but his bizarre way of attempting to discuss it regulates him the same class as the "rent is too damn high" guy or that porn star who keeps running for Governor in California - candidates so laughable in their ineptitude that they can never be taken seriously.

There are some good candidates running for School Board (Juliet Kathy Stipeche, who received the GLBT Political Caucus endorsement among them) and I am confident that the people of Houston are smart enough to elect a qualified, intelligent person to the position. Although with magicians involved, who knows?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bullying IS a Criminal Matter - That's the Problem

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee held a local federal hearing on bullying last Monday at Houston City Hall. Rep. Al Green; Houston City Council members Bradford, Jones, Adams and Houng; a representative of HISD; State Senator John Whitmire and State Reps Alma Allen and Sylvester Turner also attended (State Reps. Jessica Farrar and Garnet Coleman (Who have filed legislation in the past to address the issue) were unable to attend and sent their regards).

There was moving testimony from children, parents and community members (including Equality Texas Board Member Rob Scamardo), but the concern repeatedly raised, particularly from Sen. Whitmire and and Rep. Allen, was a fear of criminalizing childish behavior. Whitmire spoke at length about his fear that a legislative solution to bullying would send troubled children to prison or juvenile hall, creating angry, bitter and uneducated adults whose behavior would be yet more troubling.

They're right. Simply marching bullies away from school in handcuffs is not a solution, we must teach our children that bullying is unacceptable. Which is why a legislative solution to the problem is so desperately needed. Because right now, in many cases, the only solution available to administrators is to treat children as criminals.

For instance, if a child set up a fake Facebook profile from home purporting to be another child, and posting pictures and statuses denigrating of that other child the only solution currently available would be to charge the offender with online harassment (Penal Code 33.07) , a third degree felony. Few adults want to create a felon out of child who made a cruel decision, and so fake social networking profiles continue to be used by bullies. School administrators are unable to do anything to address the issue because the actions take place off of school campus.

What about a child that, on school campus, daily threatens to attack another child? They could be charged with making terroristic threats (Penal Code 22.07), but school administrators often fear overreacting, so they tell the terrified victim to avoid the bully, or at most offer to transfer the victim to another class or school, because, frankly they don't have many other options.

Of course a bully who physically attacks another child could be charged with assault or with any number of other offenses, but experience shows us that administrators rarely call the police, but will, at most, suspend the bully, so that the victim must face an enraged bully again in just a few short days. Again, even the option of suspension is only available if the attack took place at school, otherwise administrators hands are tied.

This lack of action, this fear of reporting crimes to the police, is particularly shocking considering that teachers and administrators are bound by law to report any abuse or neglect of a child, regardless of who commits the abuse (Family Code Chapter 261). The law includes in the definitions of abuse "mental or emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and material impairment in the child's growth, development, or psychological functioning" - which would certainly encompass bullying. So strong is the compulsion to not criminalize children that teachers and administrators routinely open themselves to legal liability through their lack of action.

So if creating crimes that would prevent bullying is not working - what is the solution?

Several common sense ideas were introduced last session - none of which became law:

Rep. Mark Strama's HB 1323 would have allowed school administrators to address bullying that took place off campus, so long as it affected the education environment, required schools to notify both the parents of victims of bullying and the parents of the bully, allowed administrators to transfer bullies to other schools or classrooms, and would have created a statewide reporting requirement, allowing for better tracking and understanding of bullying.

Rep. Garnet Coleman's HB 3746 would have created a non-discrimination policy for public schools covering "actual or perceived ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or national origin" that would apply to both students and employees of public schools. It would have also required school district to offer regular training to staff and would have creating a statewide reporting system for instances of bullying.

Rep. Jessica Farrar's HB 2923 would have created a similar nondiscrimination policy.

If people like Sen. Whitmire are concerned about the fight against bullying turning children into criminals then they should be supporting solutions like these. Under the current law administrators and teachers rarely have non-criminalizing solutions to the problem of bullying, and they seem unwilling to pursue criminalizing solutions, to their own peril. We must give teachers and administrators the tools and education they need to address this issue, or suffer a generation of queer youth lost to depression and suicide.