Houston Ballot Measure At The Center Of Major LGBT Equality Fight

"No men in women's bathrooms" is the slogan for opponents of the civil rights protections.
A man urges people to vote against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance outside an early voting center in Houston on Wednesday,
A man urges people to vote against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance outside an early voting center in Houston on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015.

Houston has been thrust into the center of the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, with voters set to decide on a measure Tuesday that would provide anti-discrimination protections. 

Prop. 1, known as Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance -- or HERO, for short -- is a broad civil rights measure that would protect people from discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability and 11 other categories. (Religious organizations and institutions would be exempt from the requirements.) The protections for sexual orientation and gender identity have attracted the most attention and controversy.

Opponents of the measure are using the slogan "No men in women's bathrooms." They argue that men will take advantage of the transgender protections and invade "a safe space for women and girls," in the words of one Houston-area pastor. 

Conservative activists attempting to sink the ballot measure -- dubbed the "bathroom ordinance" -- have aggressively pushed this message. In August, they released a radio ad featuring an unidentified woman who said she was pregnant and worried about raising a child in the city. 

"There are already federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination against pregnant women but this ordinance will allow men to freely go into women's bathrooms, locker rooms and showers," the woman in the ad said. "That is filthy, that is disgusting and that is unsafe."

The most recent TV spot released by the anti-Prop. 1 coalition Campaign for Houston shows a man entering a bathroom stall with a young girl. 

"Any man at any time could enter a woman's bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day," the narrator warns.

Houston Unites, the coalition advocating for Prop. 1, has called these claims "vulgar and grossly misleading."

"Nothing in the equal rights ordinance changes the fact that it is -- and always will be -- illegal to enter a restroom to harm or harass other people," the group said in response to the August radio ad. "And the ad leaves out the fact that the law protects tens of thousands of Houstonians from job discrimination based on their race, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability."

Other Texas cities that have adopted LGBT protections have said they haven't seen an increase in sexual assaults in women's restrooms.

Prop. 1's biggest backer is Houston Mayor Annise Parker (D), a lesbian who has been a vocal supporters LGBT rights and is in her final term in office. Parker has four adopted children -- a son who is black and three daughters who are mixed race -- and has noted that the ordinance would also affect them.

"It is personal, and it's not only personal because of sexual orientation," Parker told the Los Angeles Times.  

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, right, celebrated her runoff election victory in 2009 with her longtime partner, Kathy Hubbard.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, right, celebrated her runoff election victory in 2009 with her longtime partner, Kathy Hubbard. The two married in January 2014.

The Houston city council narrowly approved the equal rights ordinance last year, but after a petition drive by anti-gay activists, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the city in July to either repeal it or put it on the November ballot.

The fight has attracted national attention, with Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both tweeting their support for the measure.

A slew of celebrities, national companies and local businesses have also spoken out in favor of Prop. 1.

"Apple is proud to be a part of Houston with four stores that employ over 500 people," the company said in a statement last week. "Our stores and our company are open to everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love. Apple supports Proposition 1 as it sends a clear message that Houston is focused on a future of inclusion, diversity and continued prosperity."

Many local businesses fear that the city could see a backlash if it rejects the measure, similar to what Indiana experienced when Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed an anti-gay "religious freedom" law. Pence eventually signed a revised version of the measure.

There is no federal law protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination, although a group of lawmakers introduced a bill in July that would provide comprehensive protections. 

Early voting, which ended on Oct. 30, has been particularly strong in conservative and African-American areas, which political scientists note could be bad news for Prop. 1 supporters. 

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