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Get Used to It

Openly gay city council member John Loza wants Dallas to ban discrimination against gays in private employment and housing.

Is Dallas, a bastion of Bible Belt conservatism, ready for a law banning discrimination against its gay and lesbian residents?

That's the question John Loza, the city council's only openly gay member, plans to put to his colleagues soon after Saturday's election, in which Loza is expected to win a third term handily.

In May or June, Loza hopes to introduce legislation prohibiting discrimination based on "sexual orientation" in private employment, housing and other areas--and establish an enforcement mechanism to penalize lawbreakers. The ordinance would mirror similar laws across the United States, most notably one passed by Fort Worth's city council last September that bans discrimination against gays in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Does Dallas really need it? "Unfortunately, we still have discrimination," Loza says, "and it doesn't seem like anything is happening at the state and national level" to supplement laws banning discrimination based on race, religion and other factors. Loza would like to see a local ordinance that would provide for a Human Relations Commission to investigate complaints citywide and enforce the law. Whether the commission would have teeth to do just that depends on how the law is written, he says.

Loza cites strong support on the city council for what gay rights groups call a "nondiscrimination clause." He counts Veletta Lill and Laura Miller as strong supporters. If elected in District 6, openly gay candidate Ed Oakley, a former city Plan Commission member, would also be a strong voice in favor of a nondiscrimination ordinance. Meanwhile, many black and Hispanic council members from communities where homosexuality is taboo would likely vote yea despite moral qualms; they abhor the idea of discrimination against any group.

Proponents portray the measure as one on which a wide spectrum of people can agree since it doesn't pass judgment on homosexuality as a moral issue. "Hopefully, this won't be too controversial," Loza says.

Still, the proposal could face tough opposition from conservatives in a region that still tilts Republican and Baptist. Of the nation's top 10 metropolitan areas, Dallas is one of only three cities lacking an ordinance banning discrimination against gays. San Antonio and Houston are the other two. A push for citywide gay rights protection is under way in Houston, but that effort has caused controversy because of a parallel plan to adopt benefits for same-sex partners.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights group, 238 state and local governments have passed nondiscrimination policies of some sort. Some of those governments have also approved same-sex partner benefits, same-sex partner "registries" and laws prohibiting discrimination against "gender identity," i.e. protection for transvestites and transsexuals (the "transgender" category, according to gay community terminology).

In Dallas, the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance (DGLA) says it strongly supports a local law. Steve Atkinson, past president of DGLA and co-director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, is busy firming up commitments from council members. "It's the fair and right thing to do, and it's good for business," he says. Atkinson points out that many major corporations, including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, have adopted anti-discrimination policies as a means to improve their ability to retain employees and keep them productive.

Dallas' lack of legal protection for gays is proof the city is "behind the times," he says. Nevertheless, Atkinson, who has received death threats during past gay rights campaigns, is bracing himself for a tough public debate. Even though the Dallas Voice, a weekly gay newspaper, has published several articles on the issue, he hopes that the ordinance's supporters have enough time to get behind it before the mainstream media enters the fray. "As soon as it gets into print," Atkinson says, "it inflames the right-wing idiots, and they all go to church on Sunday and talk to their friends."

Supporters of the law insist that anti-gay discrimination is still a major problem. One strategy to garner public support, Loza says, "is to have people who have been discriminated against tell their stories."

Judith Yates, a private investigator and corporate diversity trainer in Dallas, blames anti-gay bias for her failure to graduate from U.S. Postal Inspectors training in 1996. "I came out during my background investigation by explaining my roommate was not my roommate," recalls Yates, 38, who volunteered the information after deciding honesty was the best policy for a future law enforcement officer.

After that, she says, she was the subject of four months of "harassment, discrimination and ostracism." Other women refused to talk to her after gossip spread that she was interested in them sexually. "There's not one of you I find remotely attractive," Yates later announced. Others taunted her to her face. "Do you want to hear a really good lesbian joke?" one man asked. She said no, but the man persisted in telling a "really nasty" gag.

The biggest problem, say Yates and others, is the emotional burden that gays and lesbians shoulder when forced to keep their private lives private. In numerous mundane situations, talk of one's private life is natural and commonplace for heterosexuals but forbidden for gays, who fear retaliation at work. Yates explains: "I can't put my partner's picture on my desk; I can't talk about the kids I think I may adopt."

Louise Young, 53, a longtime gay activist in Dallas and member of the Human Rights Campaign's business council, puts it another way. "Let's say your partner gets ill," she says, "and you can't say anything to your co-worker." Perhaps, Young adds, you aren't brave enough to request time off. "That would be a tremendous drain on you and would really divert from your focus at work."

Young, who has fought successfully for nondiscrimination policies at Texas Instruments and Raytheon, believes such job protections have made her a better employee. Some gay and lesbian co-workers have come out of the closet and are no longer fearful of casually mentioning their partners. Even so, she doubts she has changed many minds on homosexuality as a moral issue. "Legislation...is a whole different avenue than people's acceptance," she says.

If the debate over anti-gay discrimination sounds familiar, it's because Dallas has already had one, albeit with smaller stakes. In 1995, the Dallas City Council voted 9-5 to forbid discrimination against gays and lesbians in hiring, firing and promotion of city workers. The move spurred a loud but unsuccessful backlash among segments of the public and council members who protested that they had been kept in the dark right up until the measure was brought before the council.

Councilwoman Donna Blumer was one of those dissenters, deeming it a "special rights" measure. The cultural conservative, who is finishing out her last term, probably won't get a chance to vote on Loza's upcoming legislation. But she still has concerns that others are sure to voice. Specifically, she asks whether the law would infringe on the rights of Christians who believe homosexuality violates their faith. "Is it going to impact religious schools?" she asks. "What burden would it place on day-care centers or churches that don't believe homosexuality is a valid lifestyle?"

Loza good-naturedly replies that he hasn't worked out details of his plan yet. But he's certain the council will pass it. "Most Dallasites oppose discrimination," he says.

In the long term, Loza would also like Dallas to follow other municipalities and approve domestic-partner benefits for same-sex and unmarried couples. And he's adamant that "transgender" citizens be protected through an additional clause to the ordinance prohibiting "gender identity" discrimination. "If we're going to do it, we're going for everybody," Loza says. "The right to not be fired from a job is not a special right."


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