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Austin's Referendum That Would've Legalized Sexuality-Based Housing Discrimination

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
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Jim Obergefell (second from left) celebrated the legalization of same-sex marriage last week. Still, he said, housing discrimination remains an issue for the LGBTQ community.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges represents a monumental step in the movement for LGBTQ equal rights, but it wasn’t the final footfall in Texas. As the case's lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell put it last week in a rally at the State Capitol, issues surrounding employment and fair housing protections aren’t codified in Texas state law.

But, in Austin, the city council passed a sexual preference employment protection in August of 1975, and a “public accommodations ordinance” that banned discrimination based on sexual preference in 1976. So why, despite those progressive policies, did an Austin organization lead an initiative to allow discrimination on the basis of sexual preference? 

The 1982 referendum was spurred by a 27,000-signature petition from the group Austin Citizens for Decency, who argued that property owners should be able to choose their own tenants. But, as the group’s leader Dr. Steven Hotzetold the New York Times in 1982, the primary concern was “whether our City Council has the right to give public sanction and public respectability to homosexuals by making them a minority group with rights and privileges that can be protected.”

In August of 1981 in a public hearing on possible fair housing amendments to the city charter, then-Mayor Carol Keeton Strayhorn and Council Member Ron Mullen, who also later served as mayor, both expressed doubts in the Fair Housing Ordinance. Mullen said he’d previously voted against similar amendments in 1977, that no members of the gay community that had testified before council were homeless, and that he would “not give homosexuals a stamp of approval,” according to council minutes.

Instead of voting on the Fair Housing Ordinance then, the council decided to put the issue to a city-wide vote, drafting a ballot initiative for the November election, though it was later moved to January's.

The language of the initiative, however, was crafted using the language of a group that protested the idea of instituting housing protection based on sexual orientation. So, it essentially asked voters if they wanted to legalize discrimination. 

Unsurprisingly, the measure was voted down by 67 percent

Then, a little over a month after the initiative failed, council met on February 18, 1982, and Keeton Strayhorn defended her initial 'no' vote on housing protection in public hearings, citing citizen concerns:

“For some five years I have listened to a great deal of the same discussion and I've listened to it again recently to the arguments pro and con for amending Austin's Fair Housing Ordinance to cover age, marital status, parenthood and sexual orientation. I do not have any quarrel, obviously with parenthood or children, nor do I have any quarrel with age or diversity of life style per se. As we have said before, and I repeat, I don't feel that government should be dictating life styles.”

Keeton Strayhorn cited a pamphlet from the group Citizens for a United Austin, which panned the measure as an unnecessary waste of time and money, saying "they simply want Austin to remain as it is now."

However, the group believed Austin's progressive reputation was well-founded, that discrimination targeting the gay community wasn't necessarily a huge issue and that it was a purely symbolic vote that would never pass.

But, seeing as the referendum would've meant property owners could legally discriminate against potential tenants and the group included members of the gay community, they probably would've liked to see a Fair Housing Ordinance pass in the future — they just felt the initiative was a waste of time. 

The amendment to the Fair Housing Ordinance passed on a 5-2 vote, with KeetonStrayhorn and Mullen voting against it.