Caldwell: Houston, let’s lead the way in fight against hate

Originally Published in the Houston Chronicle – June 18, 2016

Homophobic terrorism like what was committed against Orlando’s LGBT community can happen anywhere in U.S.

The best thing Houston can do in the short term following the Orlando massacre is to put on the biggest, best and baddest pride parade in the history of the city. Putting American values of freedom, diversity and equality on display for all to see is the best antidote to terrorism and hate toward LGBT and Latino people we saw a week ago today.

Love and compassion are necessities, too. I don’t agree with Chick-Fil-A’s past anti-LGBT positions in any way, shape or form, but was heartened – and eager to give the company credit for a compassionate gesture – when its local stores opened their normally closed doors on Sunday to feed Orlando’s first responders and people donating blood. It’s a sign of America, no matter our differences, coming together.

We all will and should continue to come together and grieve. The mass murder and maiming of 100 people at a gay club was epic, confusing and deeply personal to many people. Locally, the demand for services at Legacy Community Health’s flagship Montrose location, which serves Houston’s LGBT patient population since before the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, is high. We’ve noticed in the past few days that the tragedy seems to be having a deeper impact on our younger gay and transgender patients (probably because it’s the first time they’ve been exposed in such stark terms to violent homophobia). Long term, we hope homophobic terrorism sparks greater public pushback in Texas against harsh rhetoric and policies that negatively affect the LGBT community. As one of Texas’ largest community health centers, Legacy’s model of health care includes advocacy on behalf of our patients – be they the huge numbers of uninsured in Southeast Texas, pregnant moms, veterans and, yes, LGBT people. So in that spirit, we urge lawmakers to reconsider introducing proposals, floated pre-Orlando, in the upcoming legislative session.

Later this year and into next, a few legislators are expected to push for so-called religious freedom laws, which squarely target gay and transgender Texans by allowing business owners to refuse service to them. Recall that this is what North Carolina and other states (Mississippi and Tennessee’s bills allow doctors and therapists to refuse service) did, only to meet a severe economic backlash and public relations debacle led, importantly, by major businesses.

Texas must not go down this dead-end road. We’ve had a strong, effective religious freedom law on the books since 1999. Any new laws reek of blatant discrimination, even if proponents claim until the cows come home that it doesn’t. It’s the textbook definition of singling out one group for unequal treatment, which is, as many powerhouse Texas Fortune 500 companies make clear, bad for business.

Perhaps emboldened (mistakenly) by Houston’s vote against the Equal Rights Ordinance last fall, another likely policy proposal floated by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick involves a “bathroom bill” banning transgender people from using the restroom safest for them. While Texans are just beginning to understand what it actually means to be transgender, an education process that understandably will take some time, we all should pause to consider the consequences of politically targeting one group of people.

You don’t need data to know mean-spirited rhetoric around bathroom usage – there’s a ton of it – damages our youth, but here are some anyway: Transgender youth are more likely to be at risk for depression (51 percent) than their nontransgender peers (21 percent). More than 40 percent of transgender youth try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, compared with 4.6 percent of the general public, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute.

Policies should protect every single child, especially those at such a high-risk for suicide. Texas schools may follow the Obama administration’s inclusive guidelines around bathrooms – or not. But it should be up to the local school boards, not state government.

Homophobic terrorism like that committed against Orlando’s LGBT community can happen anywhere in this country. It touched our community 25 years ago with the horrific death of Paul Broussard, a Houston man who was beaten and stabbed as he left a gay nightclub in the Montrose area. It was a time when violent attacks were common against gay men.

Hate is one of those inescapable forces that affects all of us. As the fourth-largest and most diverse city in the U.S., Houston should, in the words of Mayor Sylvester Turner at one of the many vigils held last week, lead the way not only in standing with Orlando but in fighting against hate in our own city, whether based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Let’s start now.

Caldwell is CEO of Legacy Community Health in Houston.