By Terrance Turner
On August 1, Houston’s mayoral candidates participated in a “Pride Forum” at the Jesse H. Jones School of Business – Texas Southern University. As the host explained, the goal was to clarify positions, not receive endorsements. “Nobody’s walking away from this event with an endorsement or with a check,” said host Brad Pritchett. “What we’re hoping is that you’ll learn more about these candidates and decide who best represents you as an LGBTQ person.”
Moderators: Emmett Schilling is the Executive Director of the transgender education Network in Texas (TENT). The organization fought anti-LGBTQ bills in the Texas legislature and looked at the intersection of the community, with emphasis on immigrants’ rights and access to public accommodations. LaKeia Ferreira-Spady lives in Third Ward with her wife. She has a long history of advocacy, and in her day job, she works to make sure that everyone has access to reproductive health care and abortion access.
The first candidate was Bill King, who ran for mayor in 2015. He was faced with a “lightning round” of questions requiring quick “yes” or “no” answers.
In 2015, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was placed on the ballot for a public vote. Did you vote to repeal? “Yes.” If elected, would you direct your administration to draft a new non-discrimination ordinance that addresses LGBTQ+ people in the public and private employment, housing, and public accommodations and place it on the public agenda? “I have a plan for what I want to do, which I’ll be able to explain.”
Recently, the city of Waskom in Texas declared itself “a sanctuary city for the unborn” by passing a resolution that bans most abortion procedures. Will you pledge not to follow that path and that you will support access to constitutionally protected reproductive health care? After asking to repeat the question, King responded: “I don’t think the city ought to be passing any abortion laws one way or the other.”
Would you support increased funding for HIV/AIDS in the city of Houston? “Well, that depends on where the money’s going to come from.”
As mayor, will you ensure that transgender city employees keep their access to healthcare through their city insurance policies?
“I don’t know what access they have right now.”
On HERO: “I did not like the last ordinance. I wrote about it extensively at the time and [about] why I didn’t like it which you’re happy to read or I can expound on it,” he said. “I don’t think that that experience was healthy for our city. I don’t think it was healthy for either side of it. What I would propose to do is try to bring both sides together to discuss if there’s something we can agree on as a consensus and not just have a big fight over it all over again.”
The Short Answer portion (13 mins.) consisted of several open-ended questions. Responses are included below:
Tell us about a time when you could have supported an LGBTQ person professionally or personally. “Well, so my daughter had a childhood friend that literally grew up in my house — and interestingly [my daughter] ended up marrying this young lady’s older brother, so she’s now part of the family — and it was pretty obvious to me from an early age that she was gay. And her family they were a lovely family they were a very conservative, churchgoing kind of people, and I watched her family sort of struggle through her coming out and how they were going to deal with that. I would like to think that I played some constructive role in the process.”
Nearly 25% of all homeless youth in the Houston region identify as LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ plus youth are at a higher risk of homelessness in part because of family rejection and aging out of the foster care system. How would you address this crisis — and tailor a response that SPECIFICALLY addresses issues that LGBTQ+ homeless youth face? “So I think homelessness in the city is spinning out of control right now,” King said, “and there’s a whole lot of reasons why. I’ve recently been down spending some time in the camps, actually talking to people. I’ve taken some of them to breakfast on several occasion to try to figure out what the pathways are to homelessness, and there are many, many pathways there. there’s a huge mental health component there’s a substance abuse [component],” he said.
“There’s a whole group of young people mostly that age out of foster care, and once they age out, we just kind of dump them out on the street and don’t do anything. There is no silver bullet solution to this; every pathway requires a unique solution to it, and so I think we have to be much more aggressive and much more creative in how we deal with those issues. I’m not familiar — I haven’t run into the type of phenomenon you’re talking about, but I’d be happy to learn about it and figure out what’s the right pathway,” King answered. “And it’s especially important when it comes to young people because the statistics show that if you are chronically homeless for more than two or three years as a young person, the chances of you ever getting into a home again go down dramatically. So we have really got to concentrate on dealing with young people’s homelessness.”
The city of Houston has 18 sister cities around the world; of those, at least five are in countries where being LGBTQ+ is currently illegal or where LGBTQ+ people face threats of harassment and physical violence for being who they are. In your opinion, does the mayor of Houston play a role in promoting civil rights around the world, particularly as the face of our city on trade missions to countries that may still criminalize and abuse LGBTQ+ people? And can you expound upon that?
“So that would definitely be a criterion in my mind, about going to and becoming a sister city — a whole range of values across the board, this being one of them,” King replied. “But I will tell you: I don’t think I’m going to be making many junkets when I become mayor because we’ve got plenty of problems right here, and I’m going to be staying here and concentrate on those.”
This year 24 people have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement including one transgender woman in June. The mayor is often the loudest voice representing Houston and has a moral responsibility to be a voice for their community. how would you use that voice to support and defend asylum seekers and undocumented migrants?
“So I think most of you know that I wrote for the Houston Chronicle for about 10 years, and I wrote extensively about immigration issues when I was there, and I would refer you to that.”
So the last question is why do you think you’re the best person to represent the interests of the LGBTQ community? “Well, I’m the best person to represent not the interests of just your community, but all Houstonians. Look, we have a broken city right now. The streets are in the worst condition of my lifetime. We’re still flooding, people — routinely. Just two years ago, we flooded a hundred thousand homes inside the city, and our flood czar says we’re no better prepared today than we were before Harvey. You know, about seven or eight years ago, we passed a new tax on ourselves called a drainage fee, and since then we’ve collected about $900 million in drainage fees that we were told would be money that would be spent on mitigating flooding in Houston. No more than half of that money has been spent on drainage. About $450 million of that has been spent on something other than drainage. That’s not right.”
King went on: “Crime is up. We got fewer police officers. We were promised 600 more police officers. Right now, we actually have fewer police officers than that,” he said. After reiterating his sentiments on homelessness, King went on. “I’ve studied each of these issues at length,” he continued. “I’m prepared to do this job and I’m particularly prepared to address the finances […] last year, we had an operating deficit of $435 million in the general fund. It’s the largest deficit in the history of the city by far.” (The Houston Chronicle reported in March that the city is facing a $179 million deficit.) “Since this administration has been in office, we’ve been running deficits almost twice what they were in the Parker administration, which were twice what they were in the Bill White administration. That’s not a sustainable path. And let me tell you what: until we get the finances fixed, nothing else is going to matter in this city.” King went on to discuss property taxes and revenue caps — neither of which had to do with LGBT issues.
Mayor Sylvester Turner was interviewed at the end of the program. “It’s one thing to be diverse,” Turner said in his opening remarks. “It’s another thing to be diverse and inclusive. We’re working every day to make sure everybody has a seat at the table, and that’s critically, critically important.”
Did you vote to repeal the HERO ordinance? “No.” If (re-)elected, will you direct your administration to begin drafting a new non-discrimination ordinance that covers LGBTQ+ people in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations and place it on the council agenda? “Well, I think that it’s important for us to educate people in our community. You don’t want to bring it forth for failure, and so it’s not the time right now to do that,” he said. “Not at this time.“
Recently the city of Waskom in Texas declared itself “a sanctuary city for the unborn” by passing a resolution banning most abortion procedures. Will you pledge, if elected mayor, not to follow that path and that you will support access to constitutionally protected reproductive health care? “Yes, I will not follow that path.”
As mayor, would you support increased funding for HIV/AIDS in the city of Houston? “Yes.” (According to the Houston Chronicle, “more than 26,000 people in Harris County have HIV. The county’s 1,200 new cases annually are the most in Texas and Houston has the nation’s eighth-highest rate of new infections.”)
As mayor, will you ensure that transgender city employees will be able to keep their health insurance through city policies? “Yes. I was the one that helped put it in there.”
Turner elaborated on HERO: “You don’t want to put forth [HERO] again for failure, and it’s important to educate people to move them forward,” Turner said, adding that “it’s important to educate people because if you put something forth right now and it goes down again, it just sets us back. So let’s educate let’s continue to work with the LGBTQ advisory committee, which I’ve put in place, and let’s work with other organizations and then we can move forward.”
Short Answer (11 minutes)
Could you tell us about a time when you supported an LGBTQ+ person either personally, professionally or both? “Yeah, a couple of weeks ago, when I appointed Fran Watson as a municipal judge, and right after that Phyllis Frye [the first openly transgender judge in the United States]; re-appointed her back to municipal court. Bill Baldwin on the Planning Commission. Those are just a couple that come quickly to mind.”
Nearly 25% of all homeless youth in the Houston region identify as LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ youth are at a higher risk of homelessness in part because of family rejection and aging out of the foster care system. How would you address this crisis — and tailor a response that SPECIFICALLY addresses issues that lgbt+ homeless youth face?
“I think it was my bill — I think it was either 2013 or 2015 — that called for the study of LGBTQ+ homeless youth to come up with the best practices on how to address that specific population. That was a bill that I wrote, the bill that I authored, and the bill that I passed. Right now, we have to recognize there are a number of homeless youths from the LGBTQ+ community that are on our streets. We have to work to provide them with housing and the wraparound services that they need. And so — and that’s something you have to work on every single day.
Just like right now, we’re debating the juvenile curfew, whether or not it should be extended. But what you don’t want to do is issue citations to [homeless] people on the street that are on the streets because they don’t have a place to lay their head. They don’t have a place to go to. And we don’t need to be writing them citations; we need to be trying to provide them safe places where they can go. And so I’m very sensitive to that, because these are individuals that have been rejected by either their family members or their friends, people who don’t understand, people who are not tolerant, and we are the ones that have to provide them with the assistance that they need. and we have to remove the stigma. So we have to embrace them and love them, support them, undergird them, and that’s the role as mayor that I should be playing,” he said.
The city of Houston has 18 sister cities around the world; of those, at least five or in countries where being LGBTQ+ is currently illegal or where LGBTQ+ people face threats, of harassment and physical violence for being who they are. In your opinion, does the mayor of Houston play a role in promoting civil rights around the world, particularly as the face of our city on trade missions to countries that may still criminalize and abuse LGBTQ+ people?
“Yes. The answer is yes. But I understand you can be a city and a country that has policies that are contrary to the policies that you stand for… just like on climate change. The federal government is moving in one direction; the City of Houston just put forth the first climate action plan. So the federal government is going this way; the city of Houston is going another way. The state of Texas has not been friendly as it relates to LGBTQ rights. And does that mean that you shun the City of Houston when we’re moving in a different direction? What it does mean is that where there are cities in other countries who share policies and beliefs that are similar to the City of Houston, we need to partner with them, not shun them,” Turner said. “Because sometimes, the leadership comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.”
“Just like in the United States of America. On many of these issues — climate change, LGBT rights, education, healthcare — the leadership is coming from the bottom up, not from the federal system coming down. So let’s partner with these cities. It doesn’t mean that we run away from who we are, or our values. But we ought to be able to provide support and encourage people to move in the right direction.”
This year 24 people have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including one transgender woman in June. The mayor is often the loudest voice representing Houston and has a moral responsibility to be a voice for their community. How will you use that voice to support and defend asylum seekers and undocumented Houstonians?: “I have used that voice over and over again in multiple forums both on the local and the national level,” Turner said, adding that “we let people know about their rights, their due process rights. We’re letting people know, for example, one day we have these mass deportation raids, that you do not have to open your doors. We’re providing people with hotlines and the other resources that they need. We are doing that right now. I made it very clear, for example, that HPD is not ICE, and HPD is not going to participate with ICE in these ways. So we’re doing that. We’re working with other partners,” Turner said. “We’re already doing it; I’m already doing it and will continue to do it, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Why do you feel that you are the best person to represent the interest of LGBTQ Houstonians? “Well, number one, no one person can do things by him or herself,” Turner said, “but it is important that every person joins with other people so that we are operating on a united front. That’s number one. Number two, you have to recognize that you don’t know everything. That’s one of the reasons why I set up the LGBTQ advisory committee. We have to work together; you have to educate me, as well, on what we need to do. And then we have to have the right person. I believe I’m the right person,” he said.
“We are moving forward in the city of Houston. Now I regret that HERO went down. But now we’ve got to put forth the right dynamics in order to bring it back, for it to be successful,” he said. “I have a record of achievement and accomplishments when it comes to pension problems, for example. Been plaguing the city for 21 years — 21 years! For the first time, we now have pension reform in the city of Houston. That’s permanent,” Turner went on. “A couple of months ago, unemployment in the City of Houston was the lowest it’s been since 1981.”
“We’re a diverse city but you can be diverse, separate, segregated, and apart. The question is: can we be diverse and inclusive all at the same time?” Turner asked as he concluded. “I think — I don’t think — I have a track record of success. We’re not where we need to be in the city, but we are moving in the right direction and what is important to have continuity of leadership,” he said. “I’m asking to be appointed — I mean to run — four more years.”