Trans activists criticize Houston Unites for excluding them from campaign supporting ordinance
After a year and a half of legal battles over its fate, voters repealed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance 61-39 percent on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Opponents of the ordinance, which they described as the “bathroom bill,” called the 11-point defeat a turning point in the social conservative cause.
“This is a national game-changer,” said Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values Action, which opposes LGBT equality. Claiming the campaign’s success could lead to a nationwide blueprint for other campaigns opposing LGBT rights, he added, “[It was] massive victory for common sense, safety and religious freedom.”
HERO’s repeal is not only a victory for opponents of LGBT equality, but also a stunning blow to the legacy of outgoing mayor, Annise Parker.
The ordinance, also known as Proposition 1, would have prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation on the basis of 15 protected classes, including race, gender, pregnancy, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and military status. Religious institutions were exempted, but violators of the ordinance could have been fined up to $5,000.
While it passed the Houston City Council last year, HERO had since been mired in costly legal battles, culminating in a July decision by the Texas Supreme Court to halt its enforcement. The ruling forced the city to either repeal it or put it on the ballot. The council soon afterward voted to put it on the ballot, leading to Tuesday’s defeat.
Opponents organized under the banner of the Campaign for Houston and winnowed in one message: that the ordinance would allow men to use women’s bathrooms. The message was meant to stoke panic that women and children could be raped or assaulted.
The transgender panic messaging was accompanied by previous efforts arguing that it violated religious liberties and would waste taxpayer dollars with court fines.
Amy Stone, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio who studies LGBT politics and policies, said the transgender scare tactic was all too familiar.
“The religious right, who largely oppose these ordinances, have ceased to use gay panic defenses,” Stone said said. “They now focus on the danger of transwomen in bathrooms and the threat, in some cases, they raise for women and children.”
The bathroom panic strategy has been “used over and over again since the 1990s,” Stone said. Opponents bank on the public’s lack of education on transgender issues, and in Houston, it worked.
“It’s all about claiming the narrative,” Stone said. “Opponents banked that voters would assume transwomen are men. They make the insidious assumption and conflation about transwomen and cisgendered men sex offenders. They are just tactics whipped about kids’ lives at hand because of the effort to secure LGBT rights.”
Longtime Houston resident, transgender rights activist and prominent blogger Monica Roberts said Houston Unites, the organization supporting Proposition 1, indeed failed to educate the public about transgender issues. She called Houston Unites’ efforts “human rights malpractice.”
“They cut the transgender community out of the deal and failed to do the one thing they needed to do to win: they failed to take away the opponents’ bathroom talking points,” Roberts said.
She equated it to the failed strategy in 2008 to defeat Proposition 8 in California, which banned marriage equality.
Houston Unites also failed to reach out to people of color, she added.
“They should have reached the black community, but failed to do so. They had no outreach to people of color,” Roberts said. “They weren’t listening to folks who live here. They didn’t engage locals.”
She was concerned about supporters’ strategy in the months ahead of the ballot referendum.
“My mother told me she got calls from opponents but none from Houston Unites. They also did not have trans folks to talk to voters. I didn’t get any calls to speak.” Roberts said.
It was as if the campaign was doomed from the start.
While the Houston chapter of the NAACP was a Houston Unites coalition member, there was no mention of the proposition when the chapter held its annual award ceremony and gala.
“You can tell how bad it is when there was no mention of HERO at the NAACP Houston awards on the Friday before the election,” Roberts said.
Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another Houston Unites member, knows there’s enough criticism to go around.
But the campaign also came down to mere numbers.
Turnout was unusually high for Houston, hovering at 26 percent compared to between 14 and 16 percent. The high turnout was also attributed to the open mayor’s race.
Out of a field of 13 candidates running for the open seat, Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner, an LGBT ally, and Bill King, a former Kemah, Texas mayor who is courting Republicans, will face one another in a Dec. 5 runoff.
But many voters simply had HERO on their mind.
“There were 20,000 more votes in the Proposition 1 race than in the mayoral race. Of the people who voted, many were first-time municipal voters who may only vote in Republican primaries.” Burke said.
The opposition to HERO contradicts numerous polls indicating a majority of Texans believe LGBT individuals should be protected from discrimination. But it comes down to the campaign itself. Winning campaigns are highly organized machines.
“Oftentimes it comes down to organization. The opposition in this case was clearly organized,” Stone said. “And in an off-year election it’s all about concerted turn-out and get out the vote efforts. It’s a numbers game.”
With emotions still raw over the outcome, Burke said it is too soon to address the way forward.
With a new mayoral administration coming in — Mayor Parker is term-limited — many proponents of HERO are waiting for the next step. But they’re also waiting to hear what went wrong.
“I hope the lesson learned is you can no longer run campaigns for human rights without people of color, transgender people or transgender people of color,” Roberts said.
The postmortem must address the exclusion of transgender and transgender people of color from campaigns beyond Houston’s boundaries.
“We are experts on our lives. The entire ordinance was incumbent on fighting the ‘bathroom’ lie. But they denied us the chance to talk. If they don’t get anything from the postmortem then let them realize they can’t try the Prop 8 playbook again,” Roberts said.
During this lame duck period, there will be time to listen and reflect on the campaign. Much of the criticism, Burke predicted, will be constructive and fair.
“The silver lining, if you could call it that, is we have an opportunity to renew our education and outreach efforts to ensure people have a better understanding of transgender people. We will fight the bathroom lies,” Burke said.
As a native Houstonian, Burke said the referendum does not reflect the city of Houston overall.
“I grew up in Houston and this is not a reflection of the city,” Burke said. “But as the opponents will see, elections have consequences. I hope opponents see what people are now saying about the city.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 6, 2015.