In Houston’s Defense
After failure of the equal rights ordinance, critics are being a little too harsh on the Bayou City.
The biggest news story from Texas’s 2015 election, held on Tuesday, was the failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which would have prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and private services. As my colleague John Nova Lomax wrote on Wednesday, the fact that it was not just defeated but crushed, by 62 percent to 38 percent, was “a stunner,” and one that could have serious consequences. HERO’s legal protections would have extended to fifteen different characteristics, but the opposition had focused on its inclusion of “gender identity,” with ads casting the ordinance as little more than a ruse, one which would allow predatory men to roam freely through women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. As Lomax put it, the apparent effectiveness of this tactic makes the voters of Houston look like a bunch of yokels:
Make no mistake – the rest of the world is ever-eager to have their opinion of Texas as a haven for bigots and yahoos endorsed. What plays well in Kingwood and Clear Lake no longer is received well in London, Berlin and New York, and while the local suburbanites might say that they don’t give a damn, they might when a multinational uses this as an excuse to choose Atlanta, Dallas, or Chicago over Houston.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the margin of defeat wasn’t so huge, but when two-thirds of your citizens are perceived as bigots, well, that’s a bit of a problem.
Indeed, Houston has been woodshedded in both the state and national media over the past few days, and many of HERO’s disappointed supporters have diagnosed bigotry, transphobia, hate and fear as the drivers of its defeat.
The dismay makes sense. As Lomax notes, Houston is the only major city in Texas without an equal rights ordinance on the books, and just weeks ago, polls showed a plurality of voters in support of the measure. So does the diagnosis. Transphobia has fueled opposition to HERO since the debate over the ordinance began, in 2014. From the outset, as my colleague Dan Solomon wrote at the time, you had freelance social conservatives like Mike Huckabee weighing in with warnings that Houston could count on men to use the legal protection of gender identity to infiltrate supposedly safe spaces for women. The implicit premise of this warning, and in the ads that have aired in Houston recently, is that a transgender woman remains a man—”troubled” at best, as former Astros player Lance Berkman put it in an ad opposing HERO—and that “gender identity” is a form of deviance, sin, or mental illness: something that should be proscribed, not protected.
Still, I think people are being too hard on Houston here. The diagnosis is a bit wrong. And if I’m right, Houston’s critics are missing some important points. Since the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage this summer, transgender rights have emerged as the next frontier of social justice. Houston’s vote on HERO became the nation’s first quasi-referendum on the subject, because the opposition focused on the ordinance’s inclusion of gender identity, and supporters, in pushing back against the prejudice and ignorance of their opponents, effectively accepted the frame. LGBTQ advocates may see the results as a measure of endemic, deplorable bigotry in this backwards city in Texas. That’s overly simplistic, though, and so the sweeping denunciations of transphobia aren’t likely to be productive—in Houston, or anywhere else.
Since Tuesday, many comments on HERO’s defeat have noted a few bewildering details: Houston was the first major city to elect an openly gay mayor—the outgoing Annise Parker, who was elected in 2009 and re-elected twice—and it remains the largest one to do so. It is probably the most diverse major city in the country: more international, more socioeconomically varied. All of this underlies the assessment my colleague Mimi Swartz offered a few weeks ago: “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 debate over HERO, she continued, had rattled her: “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.”
I live in Austin, and having been focused on state and national politics, I didn’t follow the debate over HERO closely. Though transphobia is differently rooted than xenophobia, homophobia, etc, I’m not aware of anything that would make Houston, as a city, more vulnerable to this pathology than any of Texas’s other major cities, all of which have managed to pass equal rights ordinances. Neither was anyone else until its actual failure. “This ordinance is a public statement of what the majority of Houstonians already embrace,” explains the FAQ at HOUEquality.
And having been following state and national politics closely, I can see an alternative explanation of HERO’s crushing defeat. The past few years have been great for gay rights in the United States, and auspicious for transgender rights. Even in Texas, things haven’t been entirely grim. Progress has been mostly confined to the municipal level—Parker’s election is one example of that, as was San Antonio’s passage of an equal rights ordinance covering both sexual orientation and gender identity, in 2013—or courtesy of the Supreme Court. But there hasn’t been any regression on the state level; much to the chagrin of certain social conservatives, none of the anti-LGBTQ legislation filed in 2015 made it through the Lege.
Meanwhile, in May 2014 the Houston City Council voted to replace its existing legal protections against discrimination—isn’t it amazing that the hopelessly backwards city of Houston had an equal rights ordinance?—with HERO, which extended protections to gay and transgendered people as well as the groups previously covered. Social conservatives, who had opposed the proposal in the first place, started a petition to repeal it, which the city rejected, which led to a lawsuit, which led to the city’s effort to subpoena sermons related to HERO, etc, all of which culminated in July, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Houston either had to put HERO on the ballot, or forget about it.
The legal proceedings that led up to the election, in other words, are pretty fuzzy to me. But the upshot is clear enough. Houston held an off-year election on an ordinance that extended legal protections to gay people and transgendered people, after a year and a half of highly contentious proceedings on both sides, at a moment when critics of LGBTQ rights are reeling from such a profound series of setbacks that they recently had to resort to rallying around a county clerk in Kentucky whose religious beliefs about marriage were blatantly inconsistent with the law of the land, her oath of office, and her own actions with regard to the sanctity of marriage.
The leaders of the opposition, in other words, were highly motivated, and Houston has a few idiosyncrasies that worked in their favor. For one, it’s probably the single city in America most unlikely to see a municipal ordinance about anything as a statement of purpose or a point of pride. It’s in Harris County, which is home to donors like Steve Hotze, who had been thwarted at every pass during the course of the session, and operatives like Jared Woodfill, the former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, who is clearly considering a run for state party chair and who led the opposition to HERO. Worst of all, Houston is in Texas, where voter engagement is such that Tuesday’s elections also resulted in the passage of the statewide Proposition 1, the property tax relief proposal, which also has ominous implications for equality in Texas.
To be sure, symbols matter. As Lomax writes, HERO’s defeat sends the wrong message about Houston; I would add that whenever statewide officials are tweeting about who’s allowed in the girl’s bathroom, Texas is having a bad messaging day. But if we’re assessing the relative equality and justice of the city of Houston, we’ll find that there are plenty of reasons HERO’s defeat shouldn’t be grounds for a sweeping indictment of the city writ large. Houston is the same city it was a week ago. The evidence of its capacity for growth, evolution, opportunity and fairness are abundant. And the denunciations, accordingly, are giving me a feeling of phobia fatigue. The dismay over HERO’s defeat isn’t evidence that Houston is in thrall to bigotry. It’s evidence, in my view, that it’s not.