Defeat Of Houston Equal Rights Measure Serves As A Wakeup Call For LGBT Movement

"The foundation wasn't there."
HERO opponents successfully made the election about access to public restrooms.
HERO opponents successfully made the election about access to public restrooms.
Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Tuesday's vote on Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance wasn't even close. Sixty-one percent of voters turned out to repeal the city's broad nondiscrimination measure, making Houston the only major city without such protections.

The lopsided vote took many people by surprise. After all, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights community heavily outspent opponents of Prop. 1 -- known as HERO for short -- and racked up a long list of endorsements from politicians, celebrities and businesses. It also had an ally in Houston Mayor Annise Parker (D), a lesbian and outspoken advocate for LGBT rights.

But all of that wasn't enough to overcome a simple (and factually misleading) slogan from the other side: "No men in women's bathrooms."

A day after the loss, as LGBT advocates look at what went wrong, the community is realizing that the path toward equality may be even tougher and longer than anticipated.

"I know it's really easy for people to armchair-quarterback this and say the campaign was horrible, but you don't lose 2-1 on a moral issue because the campaign was bad," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "You lose it because the foundation wasn't there."

HERO would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability and 11 other categories. Religious organizations and institutions would have been exempt from the requirements.

But conservatives successfully shifted the focus of the debate to the protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, scaring the public into thinking that male sexual predators could claim transgender status to enter women's restrooms and assault women.

One of the most visible TV spots released by the anti-HERO coalition Campaign for Houston showed a man following a young girl into a bathroom stall.

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

Prop. 1 never specifically mentioned bathrooms. It did, however, bar discrimination in public accommodations, which include public restrooms.

It's illegal for a man to disguise himself and assault a woman in a restroom. HERO would not have changed that. Other Texas cities that have adopted similar LGBT protections have said they haven't seen an increase in sexual assaults in women's restrooms.

"If there is a bathroom argument to be made, it is that it is our transgender brothers and sisters who are more at risk in bathrooms," ACLU Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said.

A 2013 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law dedicated to studying LGBT issues, found that 70 percent of transgender or gender non-conforming respondents in Washington, D.C., "reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms."

But those facts never caught on.

"This is still a complex issue that voters haven't faced really before," said Matt McTighe, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, an organization that was a leader in the pro-Hero Houston Unites coalition. "Comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans has not something that's really been on the ballot box in municipalities the size of Houston, and it's a relatively new issue."

The bathroom talking point isn't new. In 2011, the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that puts out research on advancing LGBT equality, released a guide noting that opponents commonly used the bathroom argument to distract and scare people. MAP suggested that advocates combat anti-transgender fears by pointing to the other localities that already have nondiscrimination protections.


But that may not be enough. Keisling, whose group provided support for the campaign but was not officially part of the Houston Unites coalition, said it was clear the LGBT community still didn't really know how to combat "bathroom panic."

"It's apparent that we don't really know. I think we all have to get together and look at that and figure that out," Keisling said, noting that there would definitely be a big meeting in the coming days in which LGBT groups would do just that.

There were also plenty of advocates who said Wednesday that the Houston Unites campaign should have been run differently.

The pro-HERO campaign largely sidestepped the elephant in the room. According to Zack Ford at ThinkProgress, Houston Unites put out only one ad featuring a transgender person, and it didn't address the bathroom issue.

Houston transgender activist Monica Roberts also faulted organizers for not paying attention to communities of color, which were being fed anti-HERO talking points.

"We pleaded for canvassing in our neighborhoods, pro-HERO ads on Houston Black radio stations and hard hitting attacks to destroy the only card our haters had to play in the bathroom meme," she wrote on her blog, TransGriot. "We also needed trans people of color front and center attacking the meme instead of being almost invisible for this entire campaign, But once again the Houston Black LGBT community was ignored, and this time the whole city will pay for Houston Unites lack of vision and the milquetoast campaign that was run."

Michelangelo Signorile, who is editor-at-large with HuffPost's Gay Voices and a radio host on SiriusXM, said the loss reminded him of the Prop. 8 battle in 2008, when California voters went to the polls and voted to outlaw same-sex marriage.

"The anti-gay side focused on harm to children, activating irrational fear deep inside people's brains regarding homosexuals. There was no counterpunch, as in Houston, where ads did not powerfully take on the hate mongers," Signorile wrote. "And there was no outreach to specific communities of color that the opponents were hitting with distorted hate messages."

Burke, whose organization was also a key member of the coalition, responded that Houston Unites' partners included several civil rights groups focused on communities of color.

"I think we tried to honestly reach out to a diverse group, and I think that they were reflected in everything that we did," she said. "Again, could we have done more? We could have done more of everything. I don't know if it would have changed the outcome."

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have nondiscrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity. 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.

In Texas, officials have been far less receptive to transgender rights. The state's Republican governor opposed HERO and pushed the "No men in women's bathrooms" slogan. And in the past year, Texas lawmakers have introduced two bills that would make it a crime for a person to use a restroom designated for a gender that wasn't their biological sex at birth.

Just last year, a national poll found that the majority of Americans were not comfortable allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

But as with marriage equality, younger voters are more supportive of transgender rights than older ones. A HuffPost/YouGov poll from February found that young people were far more likely than members of older generations to say that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms designated for a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth.

"The main premise -- the thing that got everybody all worked up -- is demonstrably nonsense, and was so besides the point," Keisling said. "But it worked. And it worked because the voters didn't know us."

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