What Houston’s Reaction to the Equal Rights Ordinance Says About My City
HERO evokes another era—one we shouldn’t be proud of.
Editor’s note: The day after this article published, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair asked that his donation to anti-HERO efforts be returned. He cited unauthorized statements about his opposition to the ordinance as the reason for rescinding his contribution.
Seldom have I had occasion to feel ashamed of my adopted hometown of Houston. Like so many people, I spend most of my days believing it’s a great, underappreciated city where diversity and tolerance thrive, at least as long as the economy keeps churning along and no one discovers a true alternative source of energy. But the events of the last few weeks have reminded me of an older Texas, the one I wanted to get the hell out of when I was growing up—the one that was a center of backwardness and bigotry I told myself Houston had left behind.
Thanks to the fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, a proposition on the city’s November 3 ballot, I’m reminded that my illusions were just that. The ordinance is designed to protect fifteen classes of people—on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, military service, gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation—from discrimination in housing and employment and the like. Houston is the only big city that doesn’t have one, and the only city in Texas that’s lacking one. It’s designed not only to protect against discrimination but to allow for speedy redress without, literally, building a federal case, which can take forever to resolve.
But if you’ve read previous posts, you know that HERO has turned into a death struggle between, well, Houston future and Houston past. The city council passed an ordinance in 2014, but litigation followed from the religious right, and ultimately the Texas Supreme Court ordered that the ordinance either be removed or put to a vote. Hence HERO’s place on the November ballot. The group promoting the ordinance—which the mayor and the business community whole heartedly support—is Houston Unites, a well intentioned but somewhat disorganized group that for months has been trying to assure passage. On the other side is a conclave of far-right interests, from politicians to ministers—black and white—to the current lieutenant governor of Texas, all of whom seem dedicated to promoting the idea that HERO is not about equal rights for all, but about granting transgender women and sexual predators the opportunity to infiltrate women’s restrooms. Just in case you missed it, there’s long been a law on the books preventing men from entering women’s restrooms, and vice versa. And, for a pretty long time, rape in any location has also been against the law.
Up until very recently, most Houstonians did not pay much attention to this fight because, well, it was pretty unthinkable that an ordinance granting equal rights to just about everyone in town wouldn’t just…succeed. Instead, as in years past, the far right was organized, ready, and well funded, using the bathroom tactic to mask its very real and very deep loathing of people who identify as gay or transgender.
Branding the equal rights proposition as “The Bathroom Ordinance” has proven to be extremely effective. The first commercial featured a young woman who said she might want to have her baby in Houston one day, but because of coed bathrooms, was thinking hard against getting pregnant at all. (I know, but still. It worked.) Soon after former Astro Lance Berkman joined the fray, worrying about what might happen to his wife and four daughters if they used Houston’s public restrooms. (Mayor Parker responded on Twitter, calling Berkman a hypocrite because he uncomplainingly played baseball in other cities with equal rights ordinances. “Guess his daughters didn’t go to the games,” she noted.) The most recent ad showed a man entering a restroom stall behind a little girl.
Then there were the public appearances. First came Steven Hotze, who in August railed against LGBT activists in his usual dramatic fashion. Carrying a sword on stage at the beginning of his “Faith, Family Freedom Tour,” he declared: “I’m not going to fight homosexuals with sweet words. I’m going to fight them with God’s word.” His goal, he said, was to drive gays and transgender men and women clear out of town. “Has anybody ever heard of the Nazis? Were they wicked? Ok. What did we send our boys over to do in World War II?” This, of course, is the same man who runs the Hotze Health and Wellness Center, offering women safe, natural release from the agonies of menopause, candida and libido loss.
And last week we were treated to a sermon by the pastor of Houston’s 63,000 member Second Baptist Church, Ed Young. Flipping through the pages of the ordinance on the church’s sprawling stage during his Sunday Sermon, he proclaimed that HERO “opened up our city to something I think is absolutely Godless.” He went on to insist that: “Those of us who believe men should use men’s facilities and women should use women’s facilities—we will be discriminated against.” Then he urged his brethren to “vote No, No, No, on the first ordinance you read because it will carry our city further and further down the road of being totally in my opinion secular and Godless.”
There were a couple problems with what Young said. There is the separation of church and state thing—oh, yeah, that—but he also noted his wife had recently encountered a man leaving a women’s restroom as she was walking in. Hate to be a wet blanket here, but there was no equal rights ordinance in effect at that time, because the mayor had suspended it pending the litigation and the vote. Then too, he was short on details: Maybe the bathroom user was a transgender man, sure. But maybe he was just…a janitor? One more thing crossed my mind as I watched Young preach on a YouTube video: how many closeted men, women, and children listened to that good Christian’s sermon and asked themselves why God didn’t love them, and contemplated doing something dire about it? But that’s just the mom in me talking.
Finally, there was Dan Patrick, who acting as both lieutenant governor and talk show host declared at a press conference that “no woman should have to share a restroom or locker room with a man.” Women sportscasters everywhere might breathe a sigh of relief—except for that sexual discrimination thing.
Caught by surprise, the pro-HERO forces now appear to be rallying. The Greater Houston Partnership has joined the fray, fearing protests and boycotts that could endanger the Super Bowl scheduled for Houston next year. It didn’t help that the owner of the Texans, Bob McNair, donated $10,000 to the anti-HERO forces.* Maybe, given the performance of the Texans, he figured he had nothing to lose.
There are less than two weeks until the election, and I am thinking it might be a good time to take to my bed, or at least disconnect from all news producing devices. I’d like to continue to live with the illusion that Houston is a whole lot better than this.