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Separating fact from fiction in the fight for better sidewalks — and gay rights — in a changing Houston

Broken sidewalks in Montrose July 2014
Broken sidewalks abound in Montrose. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Sidney Lanier Middle School Houston
Students in the Montrose area have walked to Lanier Middle School for years. Wikimedia Commons
News_Gay Pride Parade_would Jesus discriminate
Attendees at the Houston Pride Parade post a question to opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Amendment. Photo by Dalton DeHart
protesting HERO equal rights ordinance May 2014
Opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Photo courtesy of KHOU Houston/Channel 11
Broken sidewalks in Montrose July 2014
Sidney Lanier Middle School Houston
News_Gay Pride Parade_would Jesus discriminate
protesting HERO equal rights ordinance May 2014
Clifford Pugh newest column mug head shot

In an op-ed piece in Sunday's Houston Chronicle, Montrose Management District executive director Bill Calderon laid out a strong case that fixing the crumbling sidewalks in the near-town neighborhood should be a priority — certainly a good cause not many people could argue with.

But one paragraph nearly cause me to spit out my morning coffee. It read:

Amble through Montrose any morning, and the urgency of fixing those sidewalks is clear. No longer dominated by gay and straight singles, the neighborhood now teems with children trooping to local schools: Wharton Dual Language, Wilson Montessori, Gregory Lincoln Learning Center, Carnegie Vanguard, Lanier Middle School."

While it may be unintentional, the subliminal message seems clear, "Now that the gays are gone and the children are here, let's fix those darn sidewalks."

 These kids have walked to school for years, navigating broken sidewalks, because their parents don't have cars — and no one has crusaded on their behalf. 

OK, so I may be overreacting, although any time "gay" and "children" and "school" are used in the same sentence, I worry that some right wing nut is going to spout the ridiculous notion that gays are sexual predators while all the research indicates the vast majority of such predators are heterosexual.

In a follow-up conversation, Calderon insisted the piece was in no way meant to minimize the role of Montrose's historic gay community. "Instead, the point was that the neighborhood's diverse demographic profile — longtime gay residents, affluent new buyers, disabled neighbors and visitors, school-age children, gay and straight residents aging in place — means that a diversity of residents are at risk from dangerous sidewalks," he said.

But it got me wondering how advocates for even the noblest of causes can stretch the truth to push their position.

Figures from HISD indicate that the number of children attending Montrose-area schools hasn't changed that much in the past five years, except for Carnegie Vanguard High School, which wasn't in its current location in 2008. As a high school for the gifted and talented, it draws students from across Houston who are usually bused in, drive or are dropped off in a car.

The truth of the matter is that despite perceptions of Montrose as an "adult community" (that's what a former city councilman called our neighborhood a decade ago when we protested a proposed street closing requested by a nearby private school), there have always been kids around. They have often been children of low-wage workers who live in apartment complexes that are now being rapidly torn down to make room for upscale townhomes that are more likely to be occupied by empty nesters fleeing the suburbs.

These kids have walked to school for years, navigating broken sidewalks, because their parents don't have cars — and no one has crusaded on their behalf.

There is a lot of anecdotal information about how Montrose is becoming "less gay," with the closing of longtime bars Mary's, Chances, and EJ's, among others, but little data to indicate if this is really true. While a lot of straight couples have moved into Montrose (isn't it nearly always the case that when the gays spruce up an area, the straights follow?), a sizeable number of gay and straight singles remain, along with gay couples, who — news flash — have stable relationships (many have married in other states because they can't in Texas) and children.

One fact that can't be disputed is that gays and lesbians have had little recourse to address claims of discrimination in Houston.

 Until a couple of months ago, Houston was the largest city in the nation with no laws protecting citizens from discrimination. 

The Houston City Council remedied that by recently passing the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance but efforts to overturn it could be headed for the November ballot. Already, opponents are spreading misinformation that transexuals will be allowed to use women's restrooms and prey on unsuspecting women and children under the new ordinance. A host of experts cite evidence from other cities with non-discrimination ordinances that proves that just isn't the case.

The ordinance, dubbed "HERO" by its supporters in a stroke of marketing genius (who doesn't want to be a hero?), bans discrimination in a host of areas, not just limited to sexual orientation and gender identity, and provides a procedure to make a complaint and seek resolution. (Also covered are sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.) Religious institutions, private clubs and businesses with fewer than 15 employees are exempt.

Until a couple of months ago, Houston was the largest city in the nation with no laws protecting citizens from discrimination — and the only city among the top 10 largest U.S. cities not to have such an ordinance. 

If Houston is going to really be The City With No Limits, it's time for some of its citizens to expand their minds.

And fix the crumbling sidewalks, too. 

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