IssuesLocal NewsHarris County Commissioners Court Adopts Gender Identity Policy

The new policy prohibiting Harris County employees from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity echoes elements of the defeated HERO ordinance.
June 28, 2019
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Earlier this week the Harris County Commissioner’s Court voted to revise employee nondiscrimination policies to include controversial language on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

Passed on a 3-2 party-line vote, the measure revises sections of the county’s Personnel and Procedures handbook to specifically include so-called “SOGI” protections.  

These provisions prohibit discrimination or harassment based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Prior to the revisions, the official policy only identified discrimination based on “sex.”

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) brought the measure forward as part of a supplemental agenda that was announced on June 21, just four days prior to the June 25 public meeting. Only four people were on hand to address the issue prior to the vote.

Commissioner R. Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) countered with a separate resolution that would have prohibited harassment of all employees without identifying special groups. He suggested that Ellis’ proposed change would just create a “laundry list of those we don’t harass along the way.”

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Ellis dismissed Cagle’s proposal and pushed through a vote for the SOGI language.   

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo joined Ellis in voting to approve the SOGI language, while Republican Commissioners Steve Radack and Cagle voted against it.

Although the agenda for the June 25 meeting claimed the commissioners were considering a policy change compliant with federal and state law, Congress has not approved SOGI language at the federal level. H.R. 5, known as the “Equality Act,” would amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include “sexual orientation and gender identity.” 

That bill has only passed the U.S. House and has not been taken up by the Senate.

During the 86th Texas Legislative session, members of the state’s LGBT caucus proposed a number of SOGI-related protection bills, but none of the proposals made it to the governor’s desk.

Navigating the seemingly ever-changing language demands of activists has proven tricky even for supporters of these SOGI measures.  

After former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro referred to his desire to provide “reproductive justice” to not only women but “trans females” in the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night, some trans activists demanded and received an apology for his so-called “misgendering.”  

On Twitter, Castro clarified that he meant “it’s trans men, transmasculine, and non-binary folks who need full access to abortion and repro healthcare.”

SOGI policies led to the high-profile firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kevin Cochran in 2015 after Cochran authored a devotional book that expressed a biblical view of marriage and sexuality.

Additionally, SOGI policies elsewhere have expanded beyond government employees and led to penalties and government-imposed fines for Christian business owners such as Jack Phillips in Colorado and Aaron and Melissa Klein in Oregon. Elsewhere the measures have led to conflict over bathroom policies, parental rights, and whether biological boys should compete in girls sporting events.

Some organizations have dubbed these as efforts to “Ban the Bible.” 

Texas Values president Jonathan Saenz criticized Harris County’s Democrat county commissioners for “putting politics over common sense policy.”

“The lack of transparency on this controversial “Ban the Bible” styled policy is more evidence that it’s wrong to put the government against people of faith.” 

Such LGBT policy controversies are not new to Harris County; in 2014 and 2015 a firestorm erupted over “HERO,” the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

According to opponents, HERO’s language would have created safety risks by allowing transgender persons to freely use the bathroom of their choosing, and could allow the city to impose fines or criminal charges on business owners who adhere to faith-based views of human sexuality and marriage.

After lengthy legal wrangling over the validity of a citizen petition, a lawsuit, a controversial attempt by city lawyers to subpoena pastor sermons, and rulings from the Texas Supreme Court, HERO was finally subjected to voter approval in November of 2015.  

Houston voters resoundingly rejected the proposal with 61 percent opposing the measure.

Referring to the 2015 vote, Saenz responded to the Harris County’s recent action by noting, “The people of Houston have consistently said “no” to these “Ban the Bible” policies.  This is just more evidence of local governments bypassing public input in order to fulfill their own liberal agendas.”

Commissioner Ellis, a former state senator and Houston city council member, was unopposed in the 2016 general election, and his first term will expire in 2020.  

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack will also be up for re-election in 2020 and has already drawn a Democrat opponent in educator Diana Alexander.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo won a surprise victory over long-time Judge Ed Emmett in the 2018 general election. Prior to taking office, Hidalgo had worked as an interpreter at the Texas Medical Center.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.