In the midst of Pastor Tom Brown’s war on City Council, specifically on Mayor John Cook, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega, EPCB presents you with this article by Isaac Perez Bolado, in hopes of giving you knowledge on the recent history of local gay rights.
In August of 2009, the El Paso City Council voted to approve a budget provision to allow all city employees, married and unmarried, gay and straight, to extend their health insurance benefits to their partners, starting following year. It was a small step, comparable to others already taken by other cities in the state, like Austin and Dallas.
Originally, the item was proposed during budgetary meeting on July 30. The item was agreed on and expected to be voted on with the bulk of the budget. Initially, the measure passed smoothly through the conveyor belt of El Paso’s local politics. David Crowder, of Newspaper Tree, commented on his blog that “El Pasoans had little to say” about the measure.
When the issue hit the newsstands, the Chico’s tacos controversy was still fresh in most people’s heads. If you were in another planet and did not hear about it, here is a small summary. A group of gay men goes to Chico’s Tacos at midnight. Two of them kiss in the lips. A security guard tells them “we don’t do that stuff here” and asks them to leave, not knowing that the city prohibits discrimination against LGBT people in public places since 2003. The gay men refuse to leave. The guards call the police. The police tell them that they could be arrested for breaking a Texas’ statute against sodomy that was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court six years before. A hundred people protest the incident a few days later, and though there was no concrete result or change, no apology issued or security guard immediately fired, the matter added a certain tension to the air. The gay community, or at least those who consider ourselves to belong to it, had a feeling that it was the beginning of a new time of awareness.
Personally, I felt that after years of seeing only minor coverage of our issues, mainly in hopes of catching local glimpses of national news, our plights were finally making it to the front pages of local media. We were savoring the symbolic victory of feeling that finally people were realizing we are here.
The fact that the city was extending benefits to same-sex partners of employees looked to me like a ripple of progress, an attempt at putting out the right example to the people of the city (later on, Rep. Steve Ortega clarified at an El Paso Press Club event that they had been cooking up the policy for months before the Chico’s Tacos incident). Bottom line: it was a good thing, but the benefits themselves would only reach, at most, 45 people in a community with over 1,300 stable gay couples (this according to a study by UCLA in 2007).
That is why not many of us expected the mob that stormed the city council the week after, uttering biblical threats of fire and brimstone and demanding a popular vote. Members of various religious groups, among them Cielo Vista Church, Word of Life Church and El Paso for Jesus lined up to speak at the “Call to the Public,” Bibles in hand. They claimed that providing equal benefits to gay and unmarried straight couples (“shacking up” was a favorite expression) was “a moral issue,” “a smack in the face of 95% of the people in El Paso” and “an assault on traditional marriage and family values.” The issue, they said, warrants a popular vote.
During that first meeting, Rep. Beto O’Rourke was the real hero. Since Texas law prevented the City Council from addressing issues not on the agenda, O’Rourke called for a recess to the meeting just so he could step outside and respond to the attacks.
“Hard-working city employees who happen to be gay but are in a committed relationship are barred from getting the same benefits as their married counterparts,” he said. “They have no more choice to be gay than I have in having brown hair or a funny nose.”
The week after, the balance between opponents and supporters continued. Roughly divided between the two sides, the council had a chance to hear from both. The majority of the arguments for the domestic partnership benefits argued for equality, freedom and ending discrimination. Most of the arguments against the benefits were references to the Bible, using taxpayer money against some taxpayer’s will and the so-called “sanctity of marriage.” A local pastor said that the city would invoke the wrath of God on El Paso, and that the city would be destroyed like Sodom if the council approved the measure (the same argument was made in 2001, when the Gap, a company that gives equal benefits to all employees, chose not to relocate its headquarters to El Paso on the premise that the city was not friendly to LGBT people). One of the speakers was interrupted and asked to sit down as she pointed her finger to the mayor and said “You are hypocrites!”
A glimpse of hope appeared when Rep. Eddie Holguin asked for a chance to respond to the opponents of the benefits in a special item for the next week’s agenda.
“How can people who claim to preach the love of God say so many hateful things?” said Holguin.
The newspapers, websites and TV stations of El Paso could not get enough of the issue. Proponents like Steve Ortega and Beto O’Rourke argued in columns and interviews that the benefits allowed El Paso to remain competitive and a par with employers like AT&T, Wells Fargo, Johnson & Johnson and cities like Austin and Dallas. Opponents Tom Brown of Word of Life Church and Larry Wilkins from Cielo Vista Church argued that the city had no right to use taxpayer money to advance the “gay agenda.”
Opinions also raged in the comment sections and in opinion polls. In some websites you could find comments like “God help us! You gays go away please!!!!!!” and “Isn’t Lisa Turner a dude?” (Lisa Turner is a transgender woman who has spoken to the city council regularly for years before this controversy).
The third week, close to a hundred people showed up from the opposing side. About forty showed up in favor. Close to fifty speakers addressed the council that morning, increasing the tension in the room with each speaker. When the issue finally came to vote, the lineup remained the same as when the issue first passed: 6-1. Except this time, representatives Quintana and Holguin, usually opposed to increases in spending, fully came out for the benefits.
“At the beginning I was divided 60 to 40 for it,” said Quintana. “Now I’m a hundred percent for it.”
But the battle is merely starting. As in the beginning, opponents of equal benefits are still strong in their resolve to bring the issue before the voters. All they need is 1,500 signatures, which they will likely get on a Sunday at the mega-church.
In my opinion, the biggest obstacle we face as proponents of equal rights for everyone, gay, straight, married or unmarried, is gaining the hearts and minds of El Paso for our side. It seems as though the majority of El Pasoans are not fundamentalist Christians set out to prevent progress for happening. But we must face it, we could face an apathy problem. Back in 2005, only 8% of voters in El Paso cared enough to show up at the election that banned gay marriage from the state constitution. From those, 68% were likely moved by fear, prejudice and religious motives to deny a fundamental civil right (the ability to marry) to a sizeable amount of the population.
Still, I believe we stand a chance at this. The debates in the media and in city council denote, in my view, a deep generational divide. The people who speak against this at city council, those who have the time to go online and comment, the people who flipped their middle finger at me during the protest outside Chico’s, were mostly older than fifty.
Most of the youth, on the contrary, have no problem accepting that discrimination against gay people is just like discrimination against women, African Americans and immigrants: there is no right reason to deny them of the same benefits that straight people get.
The challenge now is to get them to help us, their brothers and sisters, their uncles and aunts, their cousins and best friends, to believe that we can change things, that our fight is the right thing to do in the 21st century. The fight is not just about 45 people working for the city now. It is about opening the door to progress, about opening El Paso to new opportunities and bringing fairness to its people. It is about recognizing that the time to do the right thing is always now.
Educating others today is crucial. Staying silent is killing the opportunity for El Paso to enter the 21st century. It comes down to our generation to prove that we are a city that respects and honors diversity, a city that can move past our differences and celebrate all the things that make us one.
by Isaac Perez Bolado
EPCB wants to bring the gay rights issue to the forefront in the Brown / City Council debacle and in local politics in general. EPCB feels the gay rights issue has consistently been quietly swept aside by the local media and it is time to make strides towards making El Paso a progressive city before it falls victim to these overzealous conservatives who are afraid of change and full of hate towards those with alternative lifestyles.
Let it begin here, with the underground…