After Houston voters rejected HERO earlier this month, the question of how a law intended to protect the rights of a variety of people turned into whether Houstonians believed that transgender women were actually men for many of the ordinance’s supporters. Rather than let the issue get bogged down in a futile quagmire of bathroom panic, our own John Nova Lomax argued the pro-HERO forces should have countered people’s fears for their children with an appeal to their fears for Houston’s bottom line.
If anti-HERO ads appealed to every person’s worst fears, pro-HERO ads played to logic and decency—which was apparently a mistake. Instead of letting the anti-HERO forces define the issue, Houston’s business community should have taken the lead, maybe scripting one ad echoing what Harvey said above, another showing the real threat to Houston’s convention business and major events (namely, the 2017 Super Bowl) that could come from such a resounding endorsement of what the rest of the world will interpret as bigotry.
That might have been successful as a political strategy (at the very least, it couldn’t have done much worse), but as a realistic look at the consequences of rejecting HERO, it’s hard to say that “major events will boycott Houston” is likely to bear out. Consider this: It’s been less than three weeks since Houston voters turned out to express that they did not want their city to have an equal rights ordinance, and rather than cancel major international events, Houston’s attracting more.
Specifically, it was announced this week that Houston will play host to the Copa América Centenario, the South American soccer tournament. It joins nine other U.S. cities in hosting matches—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle—which suggests that, when making the determination about where to host such an event, HERO’s failure doesn’t really factor into the equation.
That shouldn’t be a surprise, ultimately. Arizona has long been the home of the largest cultural boycotts in the country, whether for its refusal to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday for years after the rest of the country did, or for its stringent anti-immigration laws. But even there, the stakes have been relatively low, and there’ve been few surprises: Stevie Wonder refused to play in the state until they recognized MLK day as a federal holiday, but when U2 had to consider canceling a tour kickoff show in the state, they opted to go the “sternly-worded-press-release” route instead. When the immigration law of 2010 once more put Arizona in the spotlight, most of the major cultural boycotts came again from musicians—and while Kanye West and Rage Against the Machine followed through with it, artists like Lady Gaga once more decided to keep their protest to lip service.
Indeed, tough talk tends to be the preferred prescription for discriminatory laws: Major League Baseball considered moving the All-Star Game out of Phoenix in 2010, but opted to keep the game there. The one time a major sporting event did bail on the city—when the 1993 Super Bowl pulled out of Tempe after voters rejected the King holiday yet again—it came after the league made very clear that the consequences of rejecting the law recognizing the holiday would include losing the game.
No such threats were made regarding the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston or the NCAA Final Four next March. The Copa América Centenario didn’t consider HERO relevant to its plans about where to hold its event, and it’s hard to imagine that, if there’s no momentum behind such boycotts in the immediate aftermath of HERO’s rejection, it’s likely to pop up in the future.
In other words, when it comes down to it, the idea that there’s a major economic risk to a city that embraces discrimination against marginalized people seems to be largely speculative. There was plenty of talk about boycotting Indiana after the state passed its RFRA law earlier this year, but the criticism from the big boys—Apple, NASCAR, etc.—resulted in little action. Only Salesforce and Angie’s List actually did more than talk (along with the band Wilco and performers Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman). When considering the political risk/reward of a discriminatory law, losing some small convention business, a mid-sized tech company opting not to expand its headquarters immediately, and fewer Wilco concerts don’t exactly add up to the nightmare scenario that is likely to sway voters from voting with their uglier instincts.