State lawmakers and local business owners convened to discuss a proposed bipartisan law that would grant protections for LGBTQ individuals at the workplace, in housing, and in public spaces. According to a recent study, such a law could give a billion-dollar boost to local and state economies.

The online panel discussion, hosted Friday by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, reviewed an economic impact study that found such protections – if enacted in 2021 – would result in hundreds and thousands of jobs across the state, more than $1 billion in annual state revenue, and nearly another $1 billion in local government revenue across the state over the next five years.

“The reason we should really have these types of protections is not because they benefit the economy, it’s because it’s the right thing to do,” said Ray Perryman, president and CEO of The Perryman Group, which conducted the study.

Texas is one of 27 states where there are no explicit statewide protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  

“[If passed, the law] will ensure that LGBTQ people have the same opportunities as their neighbors, friends, and co-workers to work hard and earn a living without fear of being fired for who they are, to rent a home without fear of losing that home because of who they love, and to raise a family and fully participate in our community, without the fear of being turned away [from] their daily activities,” said State Rep. Jessica González (D-Dallas).

González, a freshman representative in the Texas House and vice-chair of its LGBTQ Caucus, has joined forces with State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) and other lawmakers, including state representatives Sarah Davis (R-Houston) and Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), to introduce a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill during the 2021 legislative session.

The discussion took place just days after a state board overturned a rule that would have allowed state social workers to refuse to serve LGBTQ clients or those with disabilities.

“This latest attempt [to restrict social services] shows how important it is that we update Texas laws to be inclusive of everyone, and to afford basic protections so that all of us have the same opportunities to live, work, and access essential services without fear of who we are or who we love,” Menéndez said.

The economic impact study was requested by Texas Competes, a business coalition that seeks to educate public and private sectors about the economic risks of discrimination. Perryman conducted the study before the coronavirus pandemic shattered the state’s economy, but its implications are even more relevant now, said Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes. “[Nondiscrimination legislation is] one more tool among many to help Texas maximize recovery in the months and years ahead.”

The study found that a comprehensive nondiscrimination act could yield more than 12,000 additional jobs by 2025 and more than 38,000 by 2045 in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area alone.

“As the competition to try to restore economic growth happens, it’s going to be more intense and more difficult than ever” to attract talent, Perryman said, noting that environmental, social, and governance considerations are key factors when companies decide they want to grow or relocate.

“Equality is a big part of that,” he said.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from employment discrimination.

“That [legal] interpretation may, over the coming years, be extended to things like housing and health care,” Shortall said, but thousands of Texans are still at risk of discrimination.

“The one thing that those Supreme Court cases cannot extend to are these public spaces,” she said, “Still to this day, a family could legally be denied housing simply for having a transgender child. [Or a] couple could legally be denied service in a shop or a restaurant simply for dining and being together.”

The City of San Antonio’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which was updated in 2013 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification, only applies to City employees or companies working with the City, not private businesses.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who participated in the Friday panel, led the charge for that ordinance when he served on City Council.

Statewide protections are long overdue, Bernal said, but “my mom has a great phrase that she always uses … ‘it’s always and never too late to do the right thing.'”

When the state was considering a “bathroom bill” in 2017 that would have required transgender people to use facilities in accordance to their biological sex, several organizations considered relocating their conventions and meetings away from Texas and San Antonio.

“Had a bathroom bill passed, that would have been a true detriment to San Antonio in the tourism economy right now,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, the city’s tourism bureau. “Since 2016, California has [had] a restriction on state-sponsored travel to Texas for its employees, because of what California believes is just discriminatory legislation in the state of Texas, so that impacts us greatly.

“We’ve heard at times from meeting planners that they love San Antonio, we have a great reputation, but they do worry that we’re just going to have … another discriminatory fight at the Legislature.”

Businesses of all types and sizes benefit from an inclusionary environment, Perryman said.

For AT&T, which sponsored the panel discussion, inclusion is ingrained in the company’s DNA, said JD Salinas, AT&T’s assistant vice president of external and legislative affairs.

“It is a business imperative to champion diversity inclusion, not only inside AT&T, but outside as well,” he said. “Our employees deserve to feel safe and included at work, but they should feel the same way in the communities where they live.”

Jody Bailey Newman, a restaurateur who owns The Friendly Spot Ice House, said the moral and business case is simple.

“Being against discrimination is good for business and good for our souls,” Newman said. “It is good for business because that crumpled-up dollar or that straight dollar or that credit card, it’s all the same, right?”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org