Joining a group of cities and counties across Texas—including Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and El Paso—Harris County commissioners voted 3-2 at a June 25 meeting to update nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies to specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The decision lends protections to all employees of the county as well as the Harris County Flood Control District.
"All this policy does is put us in line with the rest of the country," said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who requested to have the item added to the agenda. "Even if somebody has some preconceived notions about someone because of their orientation or their gender identity, most people in 2019 don’t think it’s right to be able to fire someone simply because of that."
Prior to the adoption of the new language, the county's policy prohibited discrimination and harassment based on sex. The county was already providing instruction to employees that gender identity and sexual orientation both fell under that umbrella, said Robert Soard, the first assistant at the Harris County attorney's office.
David Kester, Harris County's director of human resources, told commissioners that while the county has worked to accommodate some complaints in the past, there were no outstanding complaints that had not been resolved nor any instances of a complaint being filed that was legally actionable.
Soard said although there were no actionable complaints, the county attorney's office was in favor of making the language more specific, which he said would be helpful when training new employees.
Mike Webb, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, was one of several speakers to express support for the revisions at the meeting. Webb said the lack of specific language in the county's policy could be tied to the lack of official complaints being filed.
"If you don’t see you are protected, how you would you even know to file a complaint?" he said. "I cannot tell you the number of county employees who come to me … not feeling comfortable being out and being who they are in our own county government."
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo also supported the revisions, the latter of whom said they will be crucial to attracting employees to the county moving forward.
The revisions were opposed by Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle. Cagle proposed a separate resolution that would update the policy to broadly prohibit harassment of all employees.
"I think a strict county policy that we don’t harass anyone is a preferable policy to one to where we’re just creating a laundry list of those we don’t harass along the way," he said. "Harassment of persons is strictly prohibited."
Ellis suggested such a policy would be unenforceable, and the court ultimately amended the agenda item to direct the county attorney's office to look into the feasibility of a more broad anti-harassment policy.