Houston We Have a Real Problem (and It Is Not Just About Bathrooms)

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

I am disappointed but not surprised that on November 3, 2015 in America's 4th largest city, also America's largest city with an out LGBT person as Mayor, a comprehensive nondiscrimination law that included LGBT people among a dozen categories was repealed in a public referendum by 61-39, 22 points! In a city of 2.2 million people, only 100 thousand people voted in favor of keeping the ordinance.

We knew this was coming. The Anti-Gay Industry (AGI), a consortium of right wing religious fundamentalists recognized what group was least understood, and targeted the transgender community. They exploited the one issue that for the last century has been used repeatedly to defeat civil rights laws and societal advancement affecting race and gender issues and anyone perceived as "different"... the bathroom issue. These religious fundamentalists have become, The Potty Police!

Kate Clinton observed that no major civil rights movement has been without its bathroom issues. The Disabilities Rights Movement? Bathroom accessibility. The Black Civil Rights Movement? Bathroom sharing. The Equal Rights Movement? Fear of unisex bathrooms if ERA passed.

Full Transgender Inclusion in Leadership and Messaging

Kerry Eleveld recently reported that transgender people were not included in the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) leadership. I found no reports to the contrary.

What struck me most ... is the fact that our side spent that much money and still failed to produce a cohesive message that resonated. That's partly because even as activists on the ground like native Houstonian Monica Roberts and other advocates tried to elevate the conversation about transgender discrimination, the organization running the effort -- the Human Rights Campaign -- continually tried to quash it... listless the campaign's message was on our side.

Houston 2015 is not New Jersey 2005. A state legislature is not a public referendum. NJ had a governor who resigned after admitting that he was gay, while Houston has a popular lesbian mayor. We invested mere thousands of dollars, where Houston spent several millions. But we did things in NJ that were creatively different, having learned lessons from failures in other jurisdictions.

Just over 10 years ago I took a leadership position in amending New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination to include "gender identity or gender expression" in categories such as employment, housing and public accommodations. The stand alone "trans" bill was introduced in the Assembly in January 2005 and for several months, neither then Garden State Equality (GSE) Chair, Steven Goldstein, nor I could find a State Senator to sponsor our bill.

The ACLU-NJ would not support it. Why? Several sympathetic Senators thought that we would fail and in failure some transgender people might lose rights that we were perceived to have based on an appellate court decision in 2001. Failure was not an option! By late March in 2005 I found a freshman senator willing to ignore the naysayers and sponsor the bill. In December 2006, it passed 102-8.

Bathrooms and Framing

In NJ we were proactive in framing the bathroom issue and keeping it in perspective. The word "discrimination" was powerful.

Transgender people were all over the State House, we brought our children to speak for full LGBT equality at the Capital in Trenton and at massive town Halls that received press. Yes, we were real people and we used the public facilities!

In 2005-2006 our Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ (GRAANJ) received a $5000 grant from HRC and $1000 from The Task Force plus the priceless legal mind of Lisa Mottet. NCTE offered their resources. I was also Vice-Chair of GSE where transpeople represented over 10 percent of the Board and we worked hand in hand for Transgender Equality as well as Marriage Equality. We leveraged every single GSE event to speak not only for Marriage Equality, often framing it as it uniquely affected transgender people as well as speaking for Transgender Equality. We made people think!

When GSE commissioned a Zogby Poll designed for marriage equality, we included questions about transgender discrimination and equality. Steven Goldstein is a communications expert and we learned some of the subtleties of framing questions. Analyzing the results by demographics, were helpful to us in framing our issue to different communities which responded to different words. We learned what kind of language worked and that there was science and art to getting this done.

Ever heard of the term "poster child" for a cause? You want a person to represent the cause to connect with the public in order to create public empathy with that person or that "cause!" When Steven made an offer to make a 30 second TV ad to support our legislation, it was like manna from heaven! I believe that it was the first TV ad of its kind and although there was a limited budget to target our political audience only 21 times, it was more than our total GRAANJ budget!

Garden State Equality also leveraged considerable resources on behalf of the campaign to pass the legislation. In 2006 the organization aired a television commercial featuring a transgender woman named Carol Barlow talking about being told during a job interview that she was unemployable because she is transsexual. The outreach to lawmakers and public education paid off: The non-discrimination bill passed by an overwhelming 102-8.

Returning to the present and to the subject of bathrooms, imagine a TV commercial with a bearded trans man being forced by the "Potty Police" to go to the women's bathroom! Did no one think of that? Of course LGBT people did, but no one in charge acted! No one attacked the opposition with their own message! How about this, "If you want to keep these 'men' out of women's bathrooms, vote YES!"

Zack Ford reported that, "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."


Reading from various blogs and lists, I get the distinct impression that in the days ahead of the vote political strategists warned LGBT activists as there was little Spanish-language outreach and no big ad buy countering the lies of the opposition in Spanish-language media in a city that is 44 percent Hispanic. Monica Roberts, a long-time African-American transgender activist, warned of little outreach in the black community, which makes up 24 percent of the city.

It was observed that none of the ads by HERO proponents punched hard at the nasty hate ads. Instead, "they overwhelmingly ran nicey-nice ads about good neighbors and equality and human dignity."

There is no one formula that makes a winning strategy or the successful execution of that strategy. There is a science to this and an art in making it happen. Success requires us to be proactive and to adjust when conditions require and sometimes to fight fire with fire.

In NJ in 2005 and 2006 we executed a well framed multi-level, multi-pronged creative strategy that that engaged and hit the right notes for all cultural and religious demographics and worked in full partnership with our LGB and straight allies. We were one with them and they were us! We and our families were everywhere, making 2 look like 20 and we made a hand full look like 100. Yes, there were the last minute surprises, the unexpected minefield, but we were able to handle it.

Impertinent Questions

As LGBT people what is our goal? What is the end game? Individuals in our community are different in many ways, but I think that we all seek the same thing, societal respect. Laws are a powerful tool to achieve that respect. We have a common enemy who does not quit. Will we allow them to "divide and conquer" us to stop our movement? Do they find strength from our enemies from within, our LGBT self haters, or those men or women whether gay or not, who appear insecure about their own gender identity? What about our ambivalence and the low turnout in the election? We have to fight harder and smarter for our rights than those who fight to keep them from us.

Let us learn from our successes and not repeat our past failures. I've touched on just some of the things that we did right in NJ in the hope that it will help in the next battle... tomorrow! Dallas?

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