One might think that Houston, a city that has elected an openly lesbian Mayor for three consecutive terms and has been touted the most diverse city in America in terms of its population, would have a sterner attitude against discrimination. But, the overturning of its recent anti-discrimination legislation paints a contradictory, and very terrifying picture. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, commonly abbreviated as HERO, first introduced in May 2014, aimed to end discrimination for 15 broad categories, among them not just sexual orientation and gender identity, but also race, marital status, pregnancy, age, religion, military service, and more. Many influential figures, ranging from President Barack Obama himself to Houston’s own lesbian mayor Annise Parker, to Hollywood celebrities like Sally Field pledged their very vocal support for it. Even apart from this, the campaign for HERO had a strong grassroots effort, with volunteers campaigning for it both door-to-door and through social media platforms. Why then, despite all these efforts and so much media exposure, did the Houston citizens vote against it?
Since it is situated in a state like Texas, with a dark history of endorsing confederate flags and inflicting violence and discrimination on racial, sexual and gender minorities, many view Houston’s rejection of HERO as something that was inevitable. But is Houston really that bigoted? As mentioned earlier, Houston has voted for an openly lesbian Mayor thrice, becoming the most populous American city to have elected a queer Mayor. Houston’s racial diversity has been found to surpass that of bigger cities like Los Angeles or New York. So, why did Houston choose to upturn an ordinance that would protect these very people from discrimination? The reason is simple: transphobic fear-mongering.
The ordinance, had it been enforced, would have prohibited discrimination in workplaces, housing, transportation, and all sorts of public accommodation, which includes public restrooms. HERO would make restrooms more gender-neutral, and allow people to access to restrooms of not just the gender identity they were assigned at birth, but of the gender they identify with. Hence, those against the ordinance took up this one simple fact (which isn’t even what this ordinance is about) and used it to build fear and apprehension in people’s minds. The anti-HERO campaigners openly claimed that this law would cause men to “dress up as women” and enter women’s bathrooms and “cause disturbance“. Many of these people also believed that this law would encourage paedophilia, by giving grown men the license to harass little girls by giving them the license to enter female restrooms. The slogan “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” became their campaign’s rallying point, and to make things even uglier, they even released multiple anti-HERO advertisements to drive home their skewed reasoning. The group ‘Campaign for Houston’ had been bombarding voters with a recurring message in ads, yard signs, and mailers: that this ordinance would allow sexually predatory men into women’s restrooms. They dubbed it “the bathroom ordinance” and ran television commercials depicting a man trapping a little girl in a bathroom stall.
Their arguments, which are completely ridiculous, paints transgender people as sexual predators, “perverts” and paedophiles. These people cannot even grasp the concept of transgenderism: of not being born with the gender one actually identifies with. Instead, they think transgender people are only pretending to be of another gender, that they are transgressing their “natural” roles, that they are simply, “a man in a dress“. By placing transgender people in the same category as actual sex offenders, and then collapsing the distinctions between the two, they are reinforcing people’s fears of “predators” in the bathroom, and that trans-empowering laws will cause people contact with such predators.
Hence, a nearly overwhelming majority voted against this ordinance, causing a severe blow to not just LGBTQ rights, but the rights of so many different minority groups. In the same year where the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage equality became a major headway for the LGBT cause, this serves to expose how the movement still has a long way to go. There is still more to be done in raising awareness, debunking myths and challenging stereotypes about sexual minorities such as the transgender community. A lack of awareness about transgender rights, made worse by Anti-HERO fear-mongering, caused the failure of an ordinance which could have ended discrimination for good in Houston. Mara Keisling, the founder and director of the National Center for Transgender Equality said: “This was, clearly, a lack of underlying, fundamental public awareness and acceptance. We know that once people know a trans person personally, or even just know a little bit more about us, it’s harder to bring up these old stereotypes and scare tactics that don’t have any basis in truth. But you can’t just say, ‘that’s not true’ without being known to people and trusted.”
While this is definitely a setback for the LGBTQ rights movement, it’s not the end of our struggle. The fight for visibility, acceptance and representation, and the fight against discrimination will continue to rage on. While on the one hand, this ordinance has been upturned, Philadelphia’s city council has appointed its first “Office of LGBT affairs“, to look into violations of Human Rights of the LGBT community. Hence, while there’s some bad news, there’s some good news too. The battle’s still not lost.