By a whopping 61–39 margin, Houston voters defeated the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) Tuesday, which would have extended nondiscrimination protections to many groups, including the LGBT community. Fear and misunderstanding of transgender people — specifically, the notion that “men” would have free access to women’s restrooms — clearly won the day.
Conservatives have been crowing over their victory by piling on even more anti-LGBT messages. The anti-HERO Campaign for Houston’s chief spokesman, Jared Woodfill, told BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden Tuesday night, “We don’t believe that males — regardless of whether they are transgender or cross-dressers or someone who identifies as a woman — should be able to go into a female restroom, shower, or locker room under the protection of law.” He clarified to Holden that he considers transgender women to be men and, “I don’t think homosexuality is an immutable characteristic.”
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values Action told Breitbart — under the headline “Perverts lose” — that HERO’s defeat is a “national game changer,” and the rest of the country should work to defeat any measure that is similarly “deceptive and dangerous.”
Celebrating the win, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) reiterated that Proposition 1 was “about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms,” while Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) praised Houston voters for defeating “the latest extreme example of political correctness.”
It’s not hard to see how these fear-mongering tactics, false and demonizing as they were, dominated the struggle.
According to Holden’s on-the-ground reporting, many Houstonians were more familiar with the “bathroom ordinance” than they were HERO or anything that had to do with “equal rights” or protecting against discrimination. Even those who knew the breadth of the bill’s protections were still swayed by the bathroom myths. As one police officer told him, with the idea of “males entering the restrooms,” for her, “All of the other good things go by the wayside.”
The Houston Unites campaign, which advocated for HERO’s passage with support from national groups like the Human Rights Campaign, admitted Tuesday night, “We’ve learned some important lessons.” By “sharing our stories” and “speaking up with one voice,” the campaign feels it could have done more to combat the “ugliest of smear campaigns.”
Indeed, Houston Unites did very little to respond to the bathroom fearmongering, running only one ad that actually introduced a transgender person, and he didn’t discuss bathrooms at all. The other ads all emphasized the many non-LGBT groups that HERO would have protected. Some LGBT activists are already clamoring for change in future campaigns.
Brynn Tanehill, director of advocacy for the LGBT military organization SPARTA, wrote of HERO’s defeat that the LGBT movement’s traditional tactics simply cannot prevail over the myths about bathrooms in a single campaign. “Trying to convince the general public is an (expensive) fool’s errand,” she wrote Tuesday night. “The three million dollars in Houston could have been used to fund studies that would counter right wing talking points about transgender people, and continue to build the consensus of people who are experts in the field. Alternately that money could have been used to hire a transgender policy experts and advocates dedicated to working transgender issues full time in half the states in the US.”
Fighting for HERO at the ballot was very much not LGBT activists’ choice, but Tannehill believes that subtle administrative changes outside the public eye will still continue to be more effective at protecting transgender people under the law. “The sooner we stop wasting our time tilting at legislative and ballot windmills, the better.”
Still, Houston might not be done considering HERO through legislation. Opponents have suggested they may not object to a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes exemptions for bathrooms and locker rooms — exemptions other Texas cities have included in their cities’ laws.
But outgoing Mayor Annise Parker (D) is adamant that Houston should not back down. She explained Tuesday night, “It was clear when we passed the ordinance in council, that if we had agreed and said we’ll take gender identity out, they would have gone away. That would have been wrong then, and it would be wrong now, and it will be wrong in the future.”
Among the country’s largest cities, Houston remains one of the only with no nondiscrimination ordinance protecting its citizens.