This city will vote in a referendum Saturday on a controversial measure that would guarantee equal employment and economic opportunity for city employees "without regard to race, color, religion, age, disability, sex, national origin or sexual orientation."
Those last two words have created a furor here.
Opponents of the measure warn that it could mean that Houston may soon be awash in a sea of immorality and perversion, reeling from an onslaught of homosexuals and sadomasochistic bars. They summarize their concern by saying that Houston could "become another San Francisco."
Campaign pamphlets distributed by the legislation's opponents depict a little girl cringing in terror as an ax murderer moves in for the kill. The title reads: "Murder, Violence and Homosexuality."
Although Mayor Kathy Whitmire favors the measure, the opposition includes such diverse groups as the Houston Chamber of Commerce, the county Republican committee, a group of 70 Baptist ministers and the Ku Klux Klan.
Whitmire's stance on the issue has been that Houston cannot risk its reputation as a city of opportunity. "We can't afford to become known as a city that condones prejudice and discrimination," she said recently.
But, despite her support, the campaign to approve the measure appears to be flagging. Those against it say that giving job protection to homosexuals is like giving them a foothold in how Houston is run, the license to flex political muscle to the detriment of others.
Absentee voting has been heavy, and opponents say that should work in their favor.
"We want to send a message that there will be no more special treatment for special interests," said Marc Mouton, the campaign director for a group called Campaign for Houston. Mouton described the organization as a loose coalition of Houston's citizenry opposed to the referendum issue.
Mouton said approval of the measure would be a signal to the nation's homosexuals "that the life style is accepted in Houston and there would be a rapid influx of homosexuals to the South." He predicted an increase in acquired immune deficiency syndrome and sadomasochistic bars if it is approved.
The large gay population of Houston, meanwhile, has maintained a more muted tone, reasoning that a strident approach would only alarm other citizens. Proponents of the referendum issue have formed a group called Campaign for a United Houston, not to be confused with Campaign for Houston. Bill Oliver, a spokesman for the group, called the vote a simple justice issue.
"There have been times in our history when people with no commitment to the American creed thwarted the American dream by causing public policy decisions to be made contrary to what America stands for," he said. "We had a presidential order banning discrimination under (Harry S.) Truman and (Dwight D.) Eisenhower, but that did not mean the country did not have to enact a 1964 civil rights bill."
The gay rights controversy began last year, when Councilman Anthony Hall introduced an ordinance to ban such discrimination. It was adopted, but a group led by Councilman John Goodner gathered 60,000 signatures to force the city referendum.
Goodner's view is that such a law is unnecessary, that Whitmire never expressed serious concern about the issue until the ordinance was adopted and that voter approval could be the first step toward the creation of a pro-gay power bloc on the council.
Goodner, like several others, referred to San Francisco, where gay activists have considerable political clout, as an example of things to come if the measure is approved in the referendum.
But Hall took exception to that comparison.
"My feeling is I'm not sure there is anything wrong with San Francisco at all," he said. "I am disappointed in the gross misrepresentations that have been made by the opposition. The issue is whether the city should have a policy that guards against discrimination because of sexual orientation."
Along the way, those opposed to the measure brought in a Nebraska psychologist--denounced by his own state's professional society--who proposed that all homosexuals be confined to their homes until a cure for AIDS is found.
The Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to the referendum issue, saying it would be bad for business.
The city's two major newspapers sent reporters to San Francisco to examine how that city functions.
The Ku Klux Klan held an anti-gay rally in downtown Houston last Saturday, calling the mayor "butch" and shouting such slogans as, "We don't want squad-car lovers."
Goodner, however, did not appreciate the klan's support. "As far as I'm concerned, they can go fly a kite," he said.
Taken together, the two sides had spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on their campaigns by the beginning of this week.