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Keep “Perverts” Out Of Toilets: Transphobia Leads To Houston Rejecting Its Equality Bill

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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?

“No Men in Women’s Bathrooms”, and Other Scare Tactics

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.

 Trans People Seen as “Sexual Predators”?

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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