In order to bring equality to Houston, we need more education, more pressure, and a fresh push by the new city council.
On Tuesday, November 3, Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) succumbed to its opponents’ distortions and fear-mongering tactics, which managed to sway just enough voters to defeat the ballot measure. This leaves Houston as the only major city in Texas—indeed, in these United States—that does not extend equal rights protections to all its citizens.
In the most diverse city in America, that this happened is inexcusable. But we must understand how it happened if we hope to turn the tables.
The Campaign for Houston that opposed HERO was bankrolled by Steve Hotze, an unapologetic, sword-brandishing anti-LGBT crusader who is on record stating that he wants to “drive [gays] out of our city [and] send them back to San Francisco.” The opposition wisely kept Dr. Hotze away from the microphones during the campaign, but their tactics were no less reprehensible. The Campaign for Houston brandished a lie, playing on peoples’ misunderstanding of what it means to live life as a transgender person who simply wants to use the restroom to do his or her business. It was the only card they had to play, and they played it incessantly.
Unfortunately, it was enough.
We need to change the conversation about our transgender neighbors if we hope to turn the tide in Houston and elsewhere. Theirs is not an easy life. Transgender Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed or living on less than $10,000 a year. Nearly half have been fired or denied promotions, and a full 90% have been harassed or mistreated in the workplace. They are routinely evicted or denied housing and health care. Transgender folks—young people especially—are at a staggeringly high risk for bullying and suicide. And tragically, they’re also considerably more likely to be assaulted or murdered. And some of their murderers have even attempted to turn their own feelings of deceit into a legal defense. It’s called the “trans panic defense,” and it’s based on the theory that discovering someone is transgender can render you temporarily insane, if you can believe such nonsense.
And when it comes to America’s restrooms, 70% of transgender men and women report having been verbally or physically attacked while using one. Where our public bathrooms are concerned, transgender Americans aren’t the predators—they are the prey.
We also need to revisit our understanding of sexual assault. Contrary to the Campaign for Houston’s nightmare scenario—which has literally never happened—sexual predators aren’t hiding in the bushes or lurking in bathroom stalls. In fact, 90% of sexual assault victims know their attacker, and about half of all sexual assaults happen within a mile of the home. To suggest that predators are waiting for a city ordinance to pass so they can freely victimize strangers in public restrooms grossly distorts the nature of sexual assault itself and therefore endangers women.
Voters also need to be made aware of what an equal rights ordinance actually accomplishes. It’s not just an LGBT issue. In fact, HERO protects 15 distinct categories of people, and over half of the discrimination claims filed in Houston involve race. And yes, racial discrimination is federally prohibited, but making that case requires thousands of dollars and years in federal court. HERO achieves the same goal in months, for free.
Here at home, we will continue the fight. It’s too early to tell if Houston can expect the same backlash that swept Indiana when it tried to legalize discrimination last year, and we won’t wait to find out. Our next mayor and our newly elected city council members must make equality a priority the moment they are sworn into office. Our partners and volunteers who have worked to bring equality to Houston won’t back down until everyone can live fairly and equally under the law.
In the most diverse city in America, nothing could be more important.
Terri Burke is the executive director of the ACLU of Texas.