The State of the Trans Community, Part 3 - the Houston Debacle and Its Significance

Let's be honest in our analysis of the Houston debacle. Many of us saw it coming, so it cannot be called a surprise. Texas might be part of the Confederacy, but Houston has elected a Democratic mayor the past forty years, and most recently thrice-elected a lesbian. The residents of Houston are not predominantly white evangelical "Christians," but 2/3 Latino and African-American. HRC and its coalition partners, including the ACLU of Texas and Texas Competes, created a powerful ground game for GOTV (Get Out the Vote), but the fix was already in long before that final weekend. That grassroots effort is just another example of a carpenter whose only tool is a hammer, so to him everything looks like a nail. This wasn't the first time the community mounted the wrong advocacy campaign at the wrong time; analogies are being drawn to California's Prop 8, and I can add the unhelpful effort on gender identity legislation in Maryland in 2013. Those involved gave of their time and money, with maximum effort, but those resources were used to fight with the wrong strategy.

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance controversy had been brewing for over 18 months, so there was plenty of time to gear up. No one knew there would be a referendum until the corrupt Texas Supreme Court, composed of elected Republicans, ignored the law on petition qualifications ten weeks ago, but we all knew the ground upon which the battle would be fought. This law covered fifteen classes, which was messaged by the proponents, but the opposition was solely directed towards trans women. Not trans men, too - just trans women. So once it became evident there would be a referendum, all involved knew the parameters under which the battle would be fought. The local trans community, led by blogger Monica Roberts, repeatedly said as much as well.

Business got involved, as did some political heavy hitters, such as President Obama and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. But unlike in Indiana and Arizona, where business made it clear they were willing to leave or reconsider expansion, in Houston it was too little, too late. The NFL could have said it was going to move Super Bowl 51, and that probably would have been the end of the opposition, but there was only silence from Roger Goodell and Co. No surprise there, because a day later they announced they had no intention of moving. Such action is to be expected from the league that is overrun with domestic violence and child abuse cases.

The crux of our problem in Houston can be summarized by the recognition that the community at-large has not developed any messaging to deal with the bathroom panic. We know this because we saw none during this campaign.

So the question is, why not? I led the first anti-referendum campaign against a "bathroom bill" seven years ago in Maryland. And won. There have been others since then; some we won, some we lost.

There has never been a concerted effort by the gay community to develop the messaging needed. I pleaded with our national groups for years, as did Diego Sanchez and others. The only really effective public media campaign, of trans men in the women's room, was developed by Michael C. Hughes in Minnesota last year, which went viral and helped stop a number of state legislative bills:


There is a tendency in our movement to play personal favorites, to circle the non-profit wagons and ignore those with experience. Neither I, nor any member of my team, was ever contacted by Houston for any advice, even knowing we won the first campaign and then prevented another county one and a state referendum, too. Folks in Houston had had no trouble criticizing us from afar in Maryland in 2011, however. And even though we got it done, they weren't willing to recognize they might learn something from us. Same holds for the national orgs.

Every community is different, every legislature or referendum requires a different strategy. There clearly hasn't been any concerted effort to develop a generalized toolkit response to "bathroom bills"; it simply wasn't a priority for the gay community, which has spent very little money and time historically on trans issues. I'm not complaining; I acknowledge that people are primarily motivated by self-interest, so that is just how it is. Let's not pretend, however, that the community, having made a very strong last-ditch GOTV effort in Houston, has been on top of these issues.

I've read social media comments from gay white men and women that once again the trans community has deprived the gay one of its rights. Shades of ENDA, 2007. Fortunately those folks are dinosaurs, and have little political impact in 2015. But their presence in the donor community does have impact, and has precluded research on confronting bathroom panic by all but a very few national LGBT research groups. It's no wonder Houston Unites wasn't ready, and depended on the old grassroots GOTV model.

Now Houston's residents will have to pass the law again; in the meantime they can depend on federal law with respect to employment and housing. We must also remember that even where strong local or state ordinances exist, many employers don't know about Title VII coverage of the trans and gay communities because the national advocacy groups are not educating them. Without that education, and sometimes even with it, discrimination still exists, as documented in this recent research from the DC Office of Human Rights.

This leads me to the Equality Act, now sitting abandoned in Congress.

I've noticed that the effort to strategize with a broad swath of the community, as we did with ENDA, has ended. There are no more meetings at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Freedom for All Americans seems to be operating in secrecy, both on the state and federal levels. Maybe it's because the national gay leadership has so far failed to move Congress over the past 40 years, so a new strategy is being mobilized. If it is, many activists are now in the dark and disengaged.

We know the opposition is mobilizing against us under the guise of religious freedom, and driving votes based on trans bathroom panic. We know civil rights battles were fought over bathrooms in the 60's and then again in the struggle for the ERA. We've lived through Senator Larry Craig in the bathroom at Union Station and gays in the showers in submarines. The trans community has been fighting the bathroom/shower wars since 2007.

It's time for the leadership to get together, admit its failures and develop a new game plan. It's time for some honest conversation between gay and trans activists about the issues that are most urgent for the entire LGBT community in this country. It's time for the donors to come forward and let us know if they plan on continuing to play a role.

The day will come, probably sooner than we imagine, when the Equality Act will become law. It will take a new community effort, though, to make it happen, led by new faces and voices. It won't be easy, and there will be difficult conversations, but we've been so successful to date that it would be a shame not to try. We strive, we persevere and we never give up.

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