Reed Bilz’s son, Brian, lives thousands of miles away in California. Although he’s now an adult, she still worries about him. Over the past few years, Bilz has become increasingly anxious about Brian, who is transgender, visiting her in Texas.
“The transition has literally saved his life,” said Bilz, a Fort Worth resident. “He tried to commit suicide several times and now he’s just as happy as he can be.”
While state lawmakers worked to pass legislation preventing trans youth from accessing transition-related care, Bilz is concerned Fort Worth city code is harming residents and city employees. Frustration with the city’s inaction prompted Bilz to speak out. A clause in the city’s human relations ordinance allows business owners and their employees to prevent anyone from using a bathroom designated for the “opposite sex.”
The language could allow business owners and employees to prevent anyone from using the bathroom of their choice based on physical appearance.
Fort Worth has not had to enforce the language nor has the city received any complaints of discrimination, city staff said. The language contradicts other parts of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which explicitly protects trans and gender non-conforming residents from discrimination.
Joel Burns, who went viral in 2010 for a passionate “It Gets Better” speech to gay teens, served on Fort Worth City Council between 2008 and 2014. He was in office in 2009 when council members added gender expression and identity to the nondiscrimination ordinance.
Burns doesn’t view the language as problematic, because protections for LGBTQ residents are included earlier in the ordinance.
“I know the intent of the City Council was clear when we amended our nondiscrimination ordinance: That in Fort Worth we welcome everyone and will protect our citizens and visitors from discrimination,” Burns said.
The language is not having a measurable impact on residents because the city has not received any complaints, said Christina Brooks, head of the city’s diversity and inclusion department.
“I definitely think that as we become a more data-driven city, then there might be more questions as to what language is really helping produce the results that we want to see in Fort Worth,” Brooks said.
Language of the ordinance
It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the city that all of its residents and persons subject to its jurisdiction should enjoy equal freedom to pursue their aspirations and that discrimination against any individual or group because of race, creed, color, sex, religion, disability, age, national origin, familial status, sexual orientation, transgender, gender identity or gender expression is detrimental to the peace, progress and welfare of the city.
(b) It shall not be unlawful for any person or any employee or agent thereof to deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, bathhouse or similar facility which has been designated for use by persons of the opposite sex.
Bilz, along with other members of the human relations commission, tried twice to get the bathroom language removed from the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance in 2018 and 2019. Both times, the council disregarded the request. The human relations commission is a group of residents tasked with advising city council and the city manager on discrimination issues.
“We sent them two attempts to get them to listen, and they ignored us, even though that’s their job,” Bilz said. “It’s our job (to tell them), and it’s their job to listen to us.”
Eva Bonilla was chair of the commission in 2019. The commission previously suggested the council remove the language Aug. 14, 2018, then re-upped the recommendation in a 2019 letter to the city council.
“The Human Relations Commission remains aware that there is a significant amount of anxiety, fear and misinformation associated with transgender rights especially as they relate to bathroom usage,” the letter read. “The Human Relations Commission believes that removal of the language does not compromise bathroom safety, as existing criminal laws already protect people in public spaces.”
Cary Moon served on the council in 2019 when the human resources commission recommended the city change the ordinance. He remembered discussing proposed changes to the human relations ordinance at length. However, in the end, few adjustments were required, Moon said.
“We had no known employee concerns with the policy nor a formal employee complaint,” Moon said. “In the end, we kept the policy the same.”
History of Fort Worth’s nondiscrimination ordinance
Four years later, debate over LGBTQ healthcare and identity in Texas has become more heated. Families with transgender children are making plans to leave the state after lawmakers passed legislation banning gender-affirming care for minors, according to the Texas Tribune.
Locally, Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare asked the Texas comptroller’s office to investigate a local bar known for holding LGBTQ-centric events. Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker recently pulled an optional LGBTQ reading badge from the library’s Mayor Summer Reading Challenge in response to email complaints about the program. Last week, an outdoor market drew protests after refusing to host an LGBTQ vendor.
All of these actions signal one thing to trans and gender non-conforming residents: They are excluded, Bilz said.
“Now’s the time to maybe make up for the damage you’ve done,” Bilz said. “Don’t commit any more damage.”
When the city of Fort Worth first added discrimination protections for gender expression, gender identity and transgender people in 2009, it was among the first to adopt the protections in Texas.
“I am proud to have helped pass the effort in 2009 for Fort Worth to be the first city in Texas to expand its nondiscrimination ordinance to include gender identity,” Burns said. “In Fort Worth, it remains unambiguous that discrimination is unlawful here, including that based on gender identity.”
The bathroom clause itself dates back further than the 2009 revisions — to 1979 when the city added religion and sex to the ordinance. The language has remained unchanged through recent revisions.
The original intention and the true impact of the language are unclear, Brooks said.
“I do understand that when there isn’t a clear understanding of language, it can be misinterpreted, and it can have an unnecessary and negative impact on quality of life for individuals just going about their normal, everyday activities,” Brooks said.
One way the city plans to preempt this issue in future city buildings is through building single-stall family restrooms to be used by residents of any gender, Brooks said.
The city’s discrimination ordinance ensures residents can access housing, employment and public places. It also provides recourse for residents who experience discrimination in public places.
The ordinance ensures “that all of our residents have access to the same level of dignity as they go about their everyday lives,” Brooks said.
How to report discrimination to the city of Fort Worth
Residents may file complaints related to housing, employment and discrimination in public spaces here.
The diversity and inclusion department is the agency in charge of hearing all complaints of alleged violations of the human relations ordinance. The complaint has to be filed within 90 days of the incident. Ten days later, the department will notify both parties that a complaint has been filed.
If a violation is found, the department will try to resolve the complaint informally, through conference or conciliation, if that fails then the department can escalate the complaint to municipal court.
Anyone may bring a complaint following alleged discrimination in a place of public accommodation, which is “every business within the city, whether wholesale or retail, which is open to the general public and offers for compensation any product, service or facility.”
Unlike federal nondiscrimination laws, the ordinance is tailored to the needs of Fort Worth residents in particular and can be amended based on the desires of residents. Protections for transgender individuals were added to the ordinance after Fort Worth police and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raided a landmark gay bar in Fort Worth, the Rainbow Lounge, in 2009.
Police injured two patrons in the raid, and the beverage commission later fired two agents; the Fort Worth Police Department suspended three officers for one to three days, according to Fort Worth Star-Telegram archives.
“That’s one way that we can respond, using legislation, to the needs of our community,” Brooks said.
Fort Worth recently received a perfect score in the municipal equality report compiled by the LGBTQ advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign.
Legal Implications of local and state regulations
If a trans or gender non-conforming resident reports discrimination in a public space, they would bring that complaint to the city’s diversity and inclusion department, which would investigate the claim and take it to the city attorney’s office. There, city staff would determine whether to pursue legal action in municipal court.
If the diversity and inclusion department chose not to escalate a resident’s complaint, the resident could take their concerns to the human relations commission. The commission meets on the first Monday of every month. The group’s June 5 meeting was canceled.
The city’s ability to regulate issues related to diversity and inclusion could soon be impacted by the recently passed House Bill 2127. The bill would limit the city’s ability to enforce certain ordinances, including nondiscrimination ordinances. The bill, if signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, would take effect Sept. 1.
Supporters of the bill, including Abbott, argue that a patchwork of local regulations is hurting the Texas economy, according to the Texas Tribune. The city is not sure precisely what impact, if any, the bill will have on Fort Worth’s existing and future ordinances.
Ensuring LGBTQ residents feel safe and welcome in the city is important to District 9 council member Elizabeth Beck, who has a history of supporting LGBTQ issues, said. Beck represents Near Southside, where residents recently protested an outdoor market that publicly excluded LGBTQ vendors.
“I’ll always strive to make sure that our policies and procedures support those individuals,” Beck said.
The Report reached out to several current members of the human relations commission but did not hear back by the time of publication. Most adjustments to the city ordinances stem from resident participation and calls for change, Brooks said. She has faith that Fort Worth can have thoughtful discussions about some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“We can’t just assume that because our department is here that you don’t have to say anything, because we need your support,” Brooks said. “The city needs to hear solutions from the people that are being impacted every day. We need you to come to the table with solutions.”
To Bilz, if Fort Worth wants to change the language, the way forward is simple.
“First of all, the Human Relations Commission needs to act again, and push the issue,” she said. “And the city needs to listen.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.