HOUSTON -- The co-owner of a landscaping company here called Garden Guy turned down a job in October by sending an e-mail to a man who had requested an estimate for work on his yard:
"I am appreciative of your time on the phone today and glad you contacted us," Sabrina Farber wrote. "I need to tell you that we cannot meet with you because we choose not to work with homosexuals. Best of luck in finding someone else to fill your landscaping needs. All the best."
Floored, the recipient of the e-mail, Michael Lord, and his partner forwarded the message to dozens of friends. Within days the e-mail had spread across the Internet to bloggers, gay media outlets and online gardening forums from Seattle to Washington, D.C.
Farber and her husband, Todd, who have owned the landscaping company since 1991, were bombarded with profane phone calls and e-mails. Their online forum flooded with outraged posts.
"It blackens my mind to think that an alternative version of the KKK is alive & kicking in the USA," read one of the milder comments.
The Farbers, declining to be interviewed, released a statement saying that they "do not hate homosexuals" and "did not refuse service with malicious intent. ... We meant to uphold our right as small business owners to choose who are clients are. We are humbly sorry for the hurt that it has caused."
Lord and his partner, Gary Lackey, also declined to be interviewed.
The episode was a jolt to many in Houston, where gays and lesbians have enjoyed increasing acceptance over the years. Despite the city's conservative reputation, there has been a significant shift in support of gay rights here, said Jack Valinski, executive director of Pride Houston, a gay-rights group.
"The e-mail was an aberration. People may want to discriminate, but they're not blatant and public about it like they were before."
Gay and lesbian activist Carol Wyatt said that she's "not surprised by homophobia, but that this woman thought it was socially acceptable to write about it in an e-mail. We've come a long way in Houston in terms of tolerance and acceptance. For this to bubble up is embarrassing for a lot of people who care about this city."
There have been no threats of legal action, and both sides seem content to let the matter die.
But Valinski said that activists may push for an anti-discrimination ordinance that prevents businesses from rejecting customers based on sexual orientation.
The Farbers are clear about their convictions in a "Learn About Garden Guy" page of their Web site (www.garden-guy.com). "The God-ordained institution of marriage is under attack in courts across the nation, and your help is needed," reads a tagline above a link to nogaymarriage.com.
Tim Wildmon, president of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, defends the Farbers.
"It shouldn't come as a shock when a guy who takes his faith seriously says, `I can't support this,'" Wildmon said. "He doesn't need to be persecuted for his actions."
A few posters on the now-defunct Garden Guy forum agreed.
"Gays, lesbians and transgendered people do plenty of picking & choosing who they work with, too," wrote one poster. "You just had the guts to say it," wrote another.
But the Association of Professional Landscape Designers declared that "this conduct does not conform to the policy and practice of APLD."
In an e-mail to friends, Sabrina Farber reportedly wrote that her husband received death threats, and she was told she shouldn't have had the right to bear children. The couple delisted their home phone number, which had appeared on the Internet along with their home address.
Houston has come a long way since the 1970s, when police arrested women for wearing pants with the zipper in front, said Phyllis Frye, a transgender lawyer. She led a successful drive to overturn the ordinance that made it a crime to dress like a member of the opposite sex in public.
Last June, Sgt. Bruce Oliver, a 24-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, held a news conference to announce he was preparing to undergo a sex-change operation. Sitting alongside him in support was the president of the Houston Police Officers' Union.
The change has come slowly, in fits and starts.
Voters overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional ban on gay marriage last year. Yet Houston has two openly lesbian elected officials: city Controller Annise Parker, who has been elected five times to a city office, and Councilwoman Sue Lovell.
In 2005, 49 percent of respondents surveyed in Houston said that homosexuality was "morally wrong," down from 59 percent in 1997. "This is a good-ole boy town that has changed a lot, but not as much as we'd like," Valinski said.
In the meantime, those put off by Garden Guy policy can protest with their wallets, longtime gay activist and former evangelical Baptist Ray Hill said.
"The Garden Guy isn't the only landscape company in the Yellow Pages," he said.
Lianne Hart writes for the Los Angeles Times.