Last month, Houston Mayor Annise Parker introduced a sweeping equal rights ordinance (ERO) that included protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Despite being the fourth most populous city in the country, Houston is one of the only large cities that doesn’t have any municipal nondiscrimination protections. On Wednesday, the Houston City Council delayed voting on the ordinance, reflecting the impact conservative opposition is having — particularly in regards to transgender protections.
Among those leading the opposition is the Christian right legal juggernaut, the Alliance Defending Freedom. In an analysis published a few weeks ago, ADF claimed that the ERO will place “women and children at risk of voyeurism, photographing and video recording, and sexual assault” because of “men in women’s” facilities. The memo also claimed that individuals and churches could be prosecuted — in both cases because they discriminated in either providing services or employment.
These same arguments are apparent in talking points that have been distributed to would-be opponents of the ERO at city council meetings. It blatantly suggests that the protections will lead to rape, “more perverted men to become bold in acting out their perversion,” “sex offenders to roam around public bathrooms,” “physical, verbal, and sexual abuse,” and the promotion of “sexual intercourse in a public setting.” This, the hand-out warns, could expose children to behavior “that should not be so” and may lead them “to start experimenting different acts or things in which they normally would never have done.”
According to Texas Values, the state’s prominent Christian conservative group (and a state affiliate of the Family Research Council), the ERO also “falsely equates race with sexual conduct,” suggesting that sexual orientation is not an “inborn, involuntary, and immutable trait” like race, national origin, sex, and — ironically — religion. The Family Research Council (FRC) chimed in this week as well, describing the bill as celebrating “a radical definition of sexuality.
FRC also highlighted how local conservatives have dubbed the ERO “Mayor Parker’s Sexual Predator Protection Act.” Jared Woodfill, Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, believes that it “provides an opportunity for sexual predators to have access to our families.” State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R) similarly believes that the ordinance will protect “men ‘dressing up’ as women to enter and terrorize women and children.”
The issue of transgender individuals’ bathroom use is what divided the Council and prompted their decision to delay a vote. In particular, the original draft of the ordinance included a provision (17–51-b) granting an exception for a business that might deny an individual access to a public accommodation based on “that person’s expression of gender identity.” According to the draft, someone accused of such discrimination could argue that they had a “good faith belief” that the individual’s gender expression was inconsistent with the gender of the space.
Some on the Council have proposed to simply remove that provision, so as not to humor any justification for discriminating against transgender people. Others, however, support adding an even stronger exception. If their language was adopted, a “good faith belief” could not only be used as a defense, but could lead to the dismissal of the investigation altogether. In other words, it wouldn’t matter if the person refused access was actually transgender and the victim of discrimination under the ordinance; so long as the person who refused access believed there was good reason for the discrimination, he or she would not be held accountable for it.
Despite how contentious Houston’s fight has been, the public outcry and unfounded concerns about the consequences of allowing transgender people to safely use the bathroom are identical to when the same fight played out in San Antonio last year. San Antonio’s City Council passed its ordinance, with no exceptions for discriminating against transgender people, by an 8–3 vote.