Gender Neutral Bathrooms: A Hot Button Issue in Houston's 2015 Mayoral Race

**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY AUG. 26**A sign marks the entrance to a gender neutral restroom  at the University of Vermont in Burling
**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY AUG. 26**A sign marks the entrance to a gender neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt., Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

In a political environment where matters of gender equality are tossed around like a game of hot potato, few issues are more polarizing than the topic of gender neutral public restrooms. It can at once inspire a sense of freedom and fairness for some and fear and distrust in others.

The upcoming mayoral race in Houston, Texas is no exception, where this hot button issue has set one candidate apart from the pack. Ben Hall, a longtime attorney with a track record of fighting for equal rights, has been alone in his opposition to proposed legislation termed the HERO ordinance.

On its face, the ordinance would seem to be the answer to advancing the city's efforts to protect citizens from discrimination. Yet, it can be difficult for voters to discern truth from myth and more importantly, what may be hidden in the fine print of laws designed to "protect our freedoms."

When unpacking the language of equal rights/anti-discrimination laws, the questions are loaded, the answers are complicated, and the job of separating fact from political spin is not for the faint of heart -- especially with the onslaught of tweets, soundbites and provocative campaign ads coming from all sides.

Interview segment with Mayoral Candidate Ben Hall:

What sets you apart from other candidates such that voters should chose you for mayor on November 3rd?

I'm not a career politician and I not have not learned -- apparently -- the game of lying and over promising. I'm a real guy with real solutions for a great city. What I've noticed in this campaign is the shallowness amongst the other candidates.

They really don't want to get in depth with some of our more complicated issues and I am alone in my consistent opposition to what is termed the HERO ordinance or the Human Equal Rights Ordinance, as it is being brandished about in Houston. It's masquerading as an equal rights ordinance but the lawyering in the language unnecessarily exposes people in the city to danger in sex segregated areas. Despite the fact that I have fought against discrimination all my life, I cannot support this ordinance.

I have seen the television ad (151007 Norwood bathroom ad) urging Houston citizens to vote "no" against Proposition 1 a.k.a. the HERO Ordinance. It is quite provocative and I must admit it gave me pause on an emotional level. Yet, given that the proposition is designed to protect the majority of Houstonians from discrimination across fifteen classes including, race, gender and military status as well as sexual orientation and gender identity - how did the issue of danger for girls and women in public restrooms become the central point of your opposition?

In fact, it's not the central point of my opposition. I have a number of criticisms but that is the central point of the Campaign for Houston opposition to HERO. What you should know, is that in 2012 the city of Houston adopted a policy protecting thirteen of the fifteen categories. So we already have that law.

What this ordinance does is criminalize any discriminatory actions. So rather than civil or monetary sanctions they took it up a notch, two years after passing the initial ordinance. The only categories that our prior ordinance did not have were familial status and genetic information; all the other categories were already protected.

My criticism is a more technical one, because the law is dangerous. It has no objective criteria for what male and female is. It does not narrow itself to transgender individuals.

It actually says that anybody who self-identifies as male or female, irrespective of their anatomical construction, cannot be discriminated against based on that subjective self-identification.

My criticism is that because there is no objective standard for police officers, or the public or anyone else to determine whether a person is using the ordinance to gain permission to enter sex segregated areas like bathrooms and so on, it is too dangerous. And I cannot support it.

And as a result, I have been very clear to say it's too dangerous as written, in a county where we have 8,235 registered sex offenders. Granting this kind of blanket permission for sex offenders to self-identify and gain legal access into sex segregated areas is irresponsible.

Had they been more limited, or even excluded sex-segregated areas such as Fort Worth... Fort Worth actually excluded bathrooms, locker rooms, showers. The city of Houston's ordinance goes too far and as a result that's why you have that provocative commercial which shows just how easy it is to use this ordinance to endanger the lives of children and women.

It is my understanding that such LGBT inclusive and gay and transgender anti-discrimination laws exist in seventeen other states and according to many sources, there have been no reports of abuses or sexual assaults in public restrooms that the ad I viewed opposing the bill would seem to suggest.

Also the proposition does not change the fact that it is illegal to enter a restroom to harass or harm other people. So I am wondering if your research has concluded that the city of Houston will have a different outcome given the large number of sexual offenders.

Well let me go back and kind of correct some of the assumptions of the predicate. Number one, the city of Houston-- as our mayor has said-- has the most aggressive formulation of this ordinance. No other city has as aggressive and ambiguous an ordinance as ours.

Number two, the city of Fort Worth, while it does have a similar ordinance, actually excluded sex segregated areas and said that the ordinance cannot be used to allow men to self-identify and gain access into women's showers, bathrooms and so on.

So while there is this mantra and a lot of conversation saying that other cities have these same ordinances, the very hard work of going out and comparing the other ordinances is something that I have undertaken. I have read forty-three of the two hundred plus ordinances and I am telling you that I have found no other ordinance [so far] that has the language of our ordinance.

This is what our ordinance says: "we can no longer distinguish between a woman and a man..." That language is nowhere else, in any other law.

Also you said something else--that there is no instance of transgender individuals going into bathrooms to molest anyone. Let me correct that. If you go to our website we have actually posted an event in Dallas where a transgender sex offender used the ordinance to enter a restroom to molest a child and this is a documented case. There is also a case out of Toronto, Canada where they adopted this gender identity law-- there was a transgender male who sexually molested a child in a sex segregated area. My criticism is not against transgender individuals--let me make this clear.

My criticism is about the ordinance giving permission to individuals to enter sex segregated areas without objective criteria. So yes, it is true that anyone going in a bathroom with the intent to do harm is a criminal offense. The difference is that we are giving a person who may be malintended, permission to go in and police officers can't stop them from going in or prevent their access.

There are some who may just be a "peeping tom" and want to look or take pictures. These are the reasons why I am saying we can do better and therefore instead of being a politician, I am saying I cannot support it. It would have been easy to say, "Let's just get along and go along," but I think people want to have a real leader who is telling them the truth, so I am saying this is dangerous and I cannot support it.

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