UH alum, LGBT rights advocate weighs in on HERO
James Lee is an alum of the University of Houston and an awarded civil rights activist in Houston. Lee was a founding member of the LGBT Advocates organization at UH and also worked to create an LGBT inclusive, non-discrimination policy on campus called the Josephine Tittsworth Act.
Lee recently received the Hispanic Heritage award from Mayor Annise Parker for his work as an advocate for LGBT rights in Houston and for his support within the Hispanic community. With the recent failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance to pass in the city of Houston, The Cougar spoke with Lee about his thoughts on the ordinance and the role of the LGBT community on campus and in the city.
The Cougar: Why did you choose to go to the UH, and how did you get involved on campus when you got here?
James Lee: One of the reasons I chose to go to the UH was that I heard they had recently acquired an LGBT resource center. I wanted to make sure I went to a university that was accepting of all people, especially LGBT. They were missing a non-discrimination policy that fully protected all LGBT students, so I created an organization called the LGBT Advocates, which was the first of it’s kind. (It was a) strictly political LGBT organization focused on changing university policy and improving it for LGBT students. The goal of the organization, at the beginning, was to create a campus wide non-discrimination policy that included all LGBT students.
TC: How were you able to get the policy passed?
JL: The non-discrimination policy was an issue before I even got to the University. A lot of people had been working hard to try to enact a policy that was inclusive of all LGBT students, but they weren’t able to get it. A lot of it for me was creating relationships with other students and organizations and making sure they felt like we were investing in them and they could invest back in us. I reached out to other organizations, and we really created a coalition of students who felt that this change needed to happen.
TC: What sort of change did the policy bring to UH?
JL: UH started being recognized as a hub in the South for LGBT students. Young people who wanted to go to a university wanted to feel included and get involved without having to worry about discrimination. Now there was something in place to say that if someone wasn’t treated fairly, there’s a way to handle it. The thing is, even with that in place, there’s always going to be gaps in policy. Two years ago, we actually had to go back with another initiative because some transgender students were having issues with their identification record and were actually being outed in classroom settings and academic environments like advising sessions.
TC: Were UH students involved in the original campaign for HERO? If so, how?
JL: The policy for gender markers on campus is actually how we kicked off the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. On campus, there was a big fuss made about changing gender markers and there was actually this rumor spread about bathrooms. The interesting thing was that UH already had a non-discrimination policy that fully protected all LGBT students and transgender students using the restrooms, either single bathroom stalls or the one that fit their gender. Some fraternity and sorority students came out against the policy, saying that people would be harassed in bathrooms; so that kind of argument, even on a college campus, was something opponents of equality were using. Once we were successful in passing the gender marker bill, which was called the Josephine Tittsworth act, the same students who were involved with the policy change then worked towards creating momentum for HERO as it was being drafted in city council.
TC: Why was the Josephine Tittsworth act necessary?
JL: Before the Josephine Tittsworth Act was being drafted, transgender students were afraid for their safety when they were in classroom settings because there are some people who don’t like them and are afraid of them and have even been physically harmed just for being transgender. Just this year alone, 22 people have been brutally murdered in the U.S. because they were transgender. It was a big issue for these students because of the discrimination they face.
TC: How can students get more involved and help bring about change?
JL: Get involved with student government. I think SGA opens up a lot of opportunities for someone to be influential and use that influence for good. There’s also a lot of organizations out there that do a lot of really good work helping young people figure out how to enact real change and policy, so I would recommend getting involved with organizations like Planned Parenthood or the Texas Freedom Network.
TC: What are your thoughts on HERO not passing the ballot?
JL: HERO’s loss on election night will have consequences for Houston. Some I’m not sure we can even begin to foresee. Without HERO, LGBT Houstonians and many others will go without protections in housing and employment, and that will have adverse affects on our economy and the reputation of the city. But the one thing I think every Houstonian should remember is that on election night, we lost a campaign, but that doesn’t mean this is who we really are. This was politics at its worst. The Houston I know and love does not tolerate discrimination.