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Battle over gay rights shifting into next phase in Fort Worth

Fort Worth, Texas is the battleground of gay rights advocates and conservatives. Activist won when transgender people were included in a nondiscrimination ordinance.

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16th November 2009 12:04



From midafternoon Tuesday until early Wednesday, gay-rights supporters and conservative opponents went toe-to-toe at City Hall, trying to sway a council vote on Fort Worth’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

The City Council voted just before midnight to include transgender people in the nondiscrimination ordinance, but the fight is far from over.

Now the debate goes behind closed doors as city staffers consider how to implement the rest of the proposals drawn up in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge incident.

Among the proposals still to come before the council are extending health, pension and family-leave benefits to same-sex domestic partners and revising the city health insurance plan to cover gender reassignment procedures.

A number of changes have been agreed to by City Manager Dale Fisseler without council votes. Among them are rewarding businesses that provide equal benefits to all employees; developing a marketing campaign to attract gay conventions and events; and training city employees on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.

Gay-rights advocates and conservative groups alike are watching the action and urging their allies to speak out.

Two candidates for state and county office spoke during the council meeting Tuesday. Stephanie Klick, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Republican Party, said the impact will likely be felt in future elections.

"It certainly might make somebody begin to consider running and doing the necessary steps to prepare," Klick said.

Texas has a long history of having conservatives recruit challengers to politicians who voted to expand gay rights and anti-discrimination measures. The Mississippi-based American Family Association is using the action in North Texas to rally its backers nationwide, saying what’s going on in Fort Worth is a prelude to President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats acting to have U.S. taxpayers subsidize sex-change operations for federal employees.

The task force that drew up the recommendations — a panel whose members included prominent gay-rights advocates — is also watching what comes next at City Hall.

"We’re going to be in existence until whoever the body is — whether the city manager or the council — takes up that issue," said Jon Nelson, who served on the task force.

Police and state liquor agents arrested five people in June at the Rainbow Lounge, a gay bar, and one man was injured. Patrons said police used excessive force, although internal investigations cleared both agencies.

Task force

Nelson and 15 other residents were appointed to the task force. After a series of meetings, they made 20 recommendations, mostly dealing with long-term political rights for the gay and lesbian community.

The city has agreed to most of the provisions, the biggest being to provide more training in dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.

Supporters say the other changes — even the increased benefits — are relatively low cost and are increasingly common in the private sector. Eighteen Fortune 100 companies now pay for "transgender inclusive" health insurance, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which monitors employment and other issues. Fifty-seven percent of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits, the group said.