Law center event sparks LGBTQ dialogue

2015 has already proven to be a remarkably progressive year in terms of extending civil rights, particularly to members of the LGBTQ community. Marriage rights to same-sex couples has been extended, and UH has added gender identity and expression language to its nondiscrimination statement.

This progress, however, and the consequent backlash, warrant more scrutiny of current and long-standing LGBTQ-related laws than before. With Houston’s mayoral election rapidly approaching, voter awareness is vital.

To that end, the UH Law Center recently hosted a “Fostering Equality Continued Legal Education” event on Friday, featuring such relevant and prominent figures as Phyllis Frye, UH Law’s first openly transgender graduate, Ronald Turner, a professor of Law at UH, and even incumbent Houston mayor and open lesbian Annise Parker.

“It is very important for the (UH) Law Center to tackle the important and pressing issues of today,” said Robert Johnson, director of Continuing Legal Education at the Law Center.

“This year, the United States Supreme Court held that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. Additionally, Houston residents will soon be voting on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. But it doesn’t end there…We are seeing a movement, and it’s important for people to have a venue to discuss the issues.”

Frye spoke on transgender law.

“Whenever we see protections, whenever you go for protections for jobs, housing, any kind of discrimination, sexual orientation by itself won’t do it,” Frye said. “Sexual orientation and gender identity by themselves won’t do it. You also have to have gender expression. If you’re interested in protecting the LGBT community, you need to have all three.”

Rebecca Robertson, Legal and Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, commented on the transforming understanding of religious liberty in an era of increasingly expeditious strides in the name of equality.

“Religious liberty and equality for all Americans are not actually in tension… In fact our constitution is big enough for both of those values,” Robertson said.

Ronald Turner, a professor of law at UH, also discussed the current state of legislation, concerning the LGBTQ community. He focused on the Fair Housing Act of 1986, the expansive 2010 Equality Act and Houston’s own equal rights ordinance (HERO), which will be included on the upcoming mayoral ballot.

The focus then shifted to include religion, which has often been inextricably involved in motivations both against, and also in support of, legislation regarding LGBTQ rights. A panel of three religious pundits shared their interpretations of religious philosophies as they pertained to same-sex relationships and the transgender condition.

“(Interpretation of Islamic texts) can change due to time, place and circumstance. How the text is interpreted can change,” Spearlt, an associate professor of law at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said. “Part of why it changes is because of culture.”

“When it comes to dealing with the texts typically used against LGBT inclusion, we need to be honest with the bible,” Rev. Laura Mayo, senior minister of Covenant Houston, said.

Senior Rabbi Oren J. Hayon of the Congregation Emanuel echoed these inclusive sentiments.

“If we want these sacred texts to…continue to be relevant and effective and meaningful to the loving couples that are at the core of this conversation, … we have to enter into this conversation with integrity and thoughtfulness and reverence for the decision making that had preceded us,” Hayon said.

All of this testimony was argued in support of the notion that there is indeed potential for the religious and LGBTQ communities to operate inclusively of one another.

The event culminated with the appearance of Mayor Anise Parker. As the initial proponent of the HERO proposition, Mayor Parker spoke of Houston’s atmosphere and the city’s potential as a whole to further equality for all.

“This city is not just a microcosm of where America is going,” Parker said. “We are a bell-ringer for the changes that can happen when you have so many different folks from all over the world coming together in a way that has been productive, peaceful and, in general, supportive.”

CORRECTION: Robert Johnson was originally identified as a professor of law at UH.

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