Gay Rights Lobby's Quiet Fight for Hate Crimes Bill
illustration by Doug Potter
LGRL lead lobbyist Dianne Hardy-Garcia remembers that time as both heart-wrenching and hopeful in light of all the media coverage the murders engendered. "We hoped we could make something good happen out of such tragic circumstances," she recalls. The issue at hand was an LGRL-supported bill, submitted by Houston Democrats Senator Rodney Ellis and Representative Scott Hochberg to revise a 1993 hate crimes law that enhances penalties for criminals who commit a crime based on prejudice or bias against a person or a group. Ellis and Hochberg wanted to reinstate language removed from the original 1993 bill that helped clarify the law by defining those acts as crimes of prejudice or bias against persons of a certain "race, creed, or sexual orientation."
The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, but in the final hours, failed in the House by a mere two votes. The problem, it seemed, was not with the words "race" and "creed," but with "sexual orientation." Including language that would protect the gay population from hate crimes was perceived by many conservative members as "special rights." (In fact, it was Sen. Ellis himself who removed the "race, creed, and sexual orientation" phrase in 1993 when it appeared the entire bill hung in the balance over the gay rights issue.) After the defeating vote in 1995, Hardy-Garcia was devastated, she says, having been under the perhaps naïve assumption that following the media attention to the murders, "peoples' minds had been changed."
This time around, there's been no media splash on gay issues to start the session, and Hardy-Garcia thinks maybe that's a better scenario. While their agenda is the same -- Sen. Ellis has once again filed a bill to revise the language in the hate crimes law -- the LGRL changed methods, and is trying out the new trend in legislative persuasion: grassroots popular support for bills among the citizenry to pressure legislators. Along with an intensive mail-in campaign by the lobby group to support their agenda, LGRL is also partnering up with other minority organizations such as the NAACP, and others, for media events later in the spring. Will the new technique help win the battle for gay rights? Not giving in to despair and disappointment is key to winning the war, Hardy-Garcia says -- defeating misinformation and homophobia by initiating discussion, not necessarily passage of all their bills, tops the LGRL agenda.
The hate crimes revision is a priority for the lobby group this session, but a bill filed last week by Rep. Debra Danburg (D-Houston) who represents the primarily gay area of Montrose, is sure to draw even more fire. Her bill prohibits employment and benefits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Danburg admits chances for the bill's passage are "not good," and that the issue of "special rights" will again arise. "But I believe in this bill," she argues. "Clearly making a living is not a special right."
The most vocal opposition on either of these two bills is likely to come from longtime LGRL nemesis Rep. Warren Chisum, a Republican from Pampa and president of the Texas Conservative Coalition representing 75 legislators. Chisum helped defeat the hate crimes revision bill last session in the House, making the unfortunate argument in the press that gays bring violence upon themselves -- that they "put themselves in harm's way. They go to parks and pick up men, and they don't know if someone is gay or not."
In an interview last week, Chisum said he will again oppose Ellis' revisions to the hate crimes law, as well as the non-discrimination bill. "It's more forcing their ideas on the people," Chisum argued. "They're the ones who choose to have this hate crime bill. They're the ones who want to be listed in the same category as a minority, and yet there's no evidence that homosexuality isn't a choice. Minorities, almost exclusively, are not a choice." As for the non-discrimination bill, Chisum said he would prefer the armed forces' "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and employment protection. "If it's not part of your work, don't say anything," offers Chisum. "It's not a situation that verifiable. With race it's obvious they're one, but there's no way to tell whether homosexuals are. If you put something in the law that says they should be protected, it's special rights."
Chisum is pursuing passage of another bill that concerns the LGRL, one that would outlaw same-sex marriages. Current marriage law in the state of Texas already forbids same-sex marriages, yet in light of the recent court decision in Hawaii legalizing same-sex marriages, Chisum just wants to make sure Texas' laws are clear. "My bill says that if you're married in a state that has laws not concurrent with laws in Texas, we will not recognize that marriage," he says. Why push this point? Chisum answers that, in his opinion, "marriage is the absolute basis for family between a man and a woman. You need opposite sexes to raise a child." What about single parenting? Does the representative plan on filing bills to abolish that? "Of course not," responds Chisum. "But it's not necessarily the best situation."
And while the value of such discussions on the House or Senate floor as to the origin of homosexuality, and who is enforcing what on whom, may be questionable, the finer points of law may prevail as to the effectiveness of the current hate crimes law. "We can make the case that a number of prosecutors have been reluctant to use the law because it's vague and needs to be clarified," says Sen. Ellis' aide Rafe Bemporad. "Since 1993, hate crimes have been on the decline. It would help to give prosecutors the tools to help keep this trend going."
As for the bill's chances this time around, Bemporad is cautiously optimistic. "The dynamic in this session is completely different from the last. The Senate has a Republican majority for the first time since Reconstruction. So, it's not going to sail through the Senate like last time, but it could get strong support in committee." Bemporad points out that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee has a Republican majority as well, but its chair, John Whitmire (D-Houston), could be a prevailing influence. The House committees are to be assigned this week.
On other fronts, the LGRL will fight for more money for HIV/AIDS education, medication, and social programs. The need should be obvious. State health department administrators point out that while funding for HIV and AIDS programs has remained a pretty steady $15 million to $15.5 million since 1991, the number of reported cases has doubled. The LGRL will also resist any bills filed to make Texas a referendum-and-initiative state.
Hardy-Garcia acknowledges that referendum-and-initiative-style lawmaking is clearly a populist ideal, but points out that in most states, those citizen-based laws have primarily served conservative forces hoping to pass anti-gay laws.