Politics Rights

Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Dies at the Polls

Katie Haugland, flickr
Written by Ethan M. Long

Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance, which has been the center of a battle between the city’s mayor, Annise D. Parker, and group of locals led by pastors who have repeatedly sought to destroy it, lost at the polls last night. Equal rights lost 61.1 to 38.9 percent.

71.1 percent of registered voters did not show up to the polls on Thursday; a number which could’ve made a huge impact. Because of low turnout, the 160,286 that voted against the ordinance has now made the decision for the more than 1 million registered voters estimated in the city.

Long story short, the bill was introduced in May 2014, with almost immediate backlash. A petition demanding the recall of HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, was sent to the city in July, 2014. After reviewing it, there were conflicting views on whether there were enough legitimate signatures to make the petition valid. Many were crossed out, while others appeared to be written by the same person.

After the City Council decided the petition was invalid, the Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom sued the city along with a group of local pastors, who were in turn the the victims of a subpoena by the city. The city wanted proof that the pastors had coerced their members into signing and spreading the petition. Multiple lawsuits and back-and-forth muddled the entire situation.

In July, the Texas Supreme court decided that the City Council had to repeal the ordinance by August 24 or set it to public vote.

What the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance states is that discrimination in city employment, city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing is prohibited. No matter what age, background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or religion, everyone was to be treated equally. This is what HERO stood for.

For an idea of what those who campaigned against the ordinance thought it was, read what former Houston Astros first baseman Lance Berkman said in a radio ad:

“Proposition 1, the bathroom ordinance, would allow troubled men to enter women's public bathrooms, showers and locker rooms. This would violate their privacy and put them in harm's way.”

This willful mischaracterization of transgender people captured the imaginations of the public, and was helped to spread by the local media coverage, which Media Matters called “abysmal.” Most coverage saw all the positives of the ordinance overshadowed by the talking point that “sexual predators could sneak into women’s bathrooms.”

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This talking point has been at the center of most debate regarding transgender rights, and individuals have worked to combat it using the #WeJustNeedToPee hashtag on social media. The hashtag has targeted Wisconsin’s SF1543 bill and Canada’s C-279 which, while was introduced to fight hate crimes against transgender individuals, has been amended to restrict bathroom use. It is being used today to bemoan the failure of HERO and to educate the public.

In selfies taken in the US and Canada, men with beards pose in the womens’ restrooms that anti-transgender rights advocates would force them to use based on their gender at birth. Transgender women also pose near urinals, highlighting how the rhetoric of “no men in women’s restrooms” would put them at risk of abuse.

“The media’s unwillingness to debunk opponents’ bathroom talking point likely played a major role in turning public opinion against the ordinance,” Media Matters wrote in their blog earlier today.

The campaign against Prop 1, as the vote became, saw numerous advertisements produced. Here’s one by non-profit group “Texas Values,” which aims to “preserve and advance a culture of family values in the State of Texas.”

The ad was produced in collaboration with CitizenLink, a group “building a stronger family policy alliance.” The two groups partnered to destroy HERO, calling “the bathroom bill” a “dangerous” ordnance.

“Proposition 1 is a serious threat to Houstonians safety and security, and this video clearly shows one of those threats,” said John Paulton, Director of Alliances with CitizenLink, in a press released on their website. “Houston is already a tolerant city and there is no need for heavy-handed government dictates found in Proposition 1.”

Lee Fang, journalist at the Intercept, posted on his Twitter last night that CitizenLink was given $5.3 million by the Koch brothers.

Meanwhile, groups rallied around the phrase “No MEN in WOMEN’s bathrooms.”

Still, the ordinance had strong endorsements in their corner.

Actress Sally Field told a crowd at a Human Rights Campaign-sponsored “Yes on Prop 1” event what she felt about the conservatives’ talking point.

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“It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” she said.

President Obama was said to have strongly supported HERO. “While the administration generally does not take a formal position on specific proposals or initiatives, the president and vice president have been strong supporters of state and local efforts to protect Americans from being discriminated against based on who they are and who they love,” said Jeff Tiller, a White House spokesperson.

Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also voiced their support through their Twitter accounts.

The future of equal rights and non-discrimination in Houston is cloudy. Sylvester Turner, who will be facing off against Bill King in a December run-off election for Mayor, has “been a vocal and staunch supporter of HERO,” according to the “Equality” section of his campaign website, which also showcases the steps he’s taken to fight discrimination. He could, perhaps, seek to create and get a stronger version of a non-discrimination ordinance passed.

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About the author

Ethan M. Long

Ethan Long is a journalist based out of Boston, MA.

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Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Dies at the Polls

by Ethan M. Long
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