In the aftermath of the repeal of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance in November, the bill’s proponents predicted dire economic consequences. Then-Mayor Annise Parker predicted a “direct, economic backlash” for the Bayou City. A #boycotthouston campaign erupted on Twitter. Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey fretted about possible consequences for the city’s convention and tourism business, plus the future of corporate relocations. Some HERO supporters hoped that one or both of the organizers of the men’s 2016 Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl would choose to move those events in retaliation.
None of that has happened. To be sure, by the time the polls closed, it was probably too late for the NCAA or Roger Goodell to take such a drastic step. Yanking a Final Four or a Super Bowl from one city and dropping it the lap of another on such short notice is a recipe for logistical chaos and red ink. But thus far, Houston has suffered no other consequences—nothing, nada, zilch—thus emboldening the Houston anti-HERO leadership to lend both their support and their tactics to legislators in Mississippi and North Carolina.
Earlier this month, Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastors Council, wrote an open letter to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant claiming that threats of economic consequences stemming from anti-HERO-type legislation were hollow:
As you know, the Final Four of the NCAA was just held in Houston and the radical LGBT movement’s threat to get this event, the Super Bowl, conferences and corporate bases out of Houston was shown to be a paper tiger and the raw use of intimidation. The churches and concerned citizens by the thousands refused to bow to the god of political correctness, the terrible ordinance was defeated overwhelmingly by the people and Houston continues to grow.
In other words, “We got away with it, and you can too.”
Or maybe not. At least not in North Carolina, where last month the state legislature enacted a law banning cities and counties from establishing their own anti-discriminatory policies based on gender identity, thus nullifying a recently-approved HERO-type ordinance in Charlotte and others elsewhere in the state.
Retribution has been both swift and painful to the Tarheel State. PayPal and Deutsche Bank called off planned expansions, costing North Carolina 650 jobs. Atlanta is vying to hijack the 2017 NBA All-Star game, where, under pressure from big business and the NFL Super Bowl Host Committee, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently vetoed a bill similar to that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed. Bruce Springsteen canceled his upcoming Greensboro gig, declaring in a statement that “Some things are more important than a rock show, and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.” A who’s who of some eighty CEOs—including those of Apple, Facebook, and the state’s largest employer, Charlotte-based Bank of America—signed on to a letter to McCrory that ripped him for signing the law.
In spite of Welch’s assurances, the tiger seems not to have been made of paper after all. After an attempt to brand the backlash as a mere “smear campaign” got little traction, McCrory has started backtracking. But along the way, he brought up a somewhat interesting point.
After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned taxpayer-funded non-essential state employee travel to North Carolina, McCrory wondered why Cuomo didn’t request that Syracuse boycott its recent Final Four appearance in Houston, “where voters overwhelmingly rejected a bathroom ordinance that was also rejected by the State of North Carolina… It’s total hypocrisy and demagoguery.”
Seems like a fair question. But as Cuomo’s chief counsel Alphonso David pointed out, though located in New York, Syracuse is a private university, and thus did not go to Houston on the state dime. Still, McCrory’s office seems puzzled about the lack of backlash Houston has received. In response to Atlanta’s wooing of next year’s NBA All-Star Game, the governor’s office sent out a hot message reading in part: “Thankfully no college team from Georgia made the Final Four again this year. Otherwise, the Atlanta City Council would have to boycott the City of Houston where voters overwhelmingly rejected a bathroom ordinance that was nearly identical to the one rejected by State of North Carolina.”
The fact that HERO was defeated in a referendum rather than the legislature is one reason Houston has not been subjected to the same ire as North Carolina, according to Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a group advocating LGBT equality on business grounds.
“In Georgia the business response was to prompt a veto from Nathan Deal,” she tells Texas Monthly. “There was a recourse. And in North Carolina there is pressure on the governor and the legislature to rethink and repeal, but in Houston, it wasn’t the decision of a governor, mayor or state legislature or city council. It was the voice of voters. And that’s a very different decision for businesses, having to punish voters.”
Shortall believes that the Houston vote was an anomaly, one that took place in an odd “bubble in time” just a few months ago, when public awareness about transgender people—whose bathroom privileges formed the crux of the Houston vote—was still very low.
“We have all been going to the bathroom with transgender people this whole time and nothing has happened,” Shortall says. “This is a solution in search of a problem. I think the calculation on their part was, ‘This is an easy wedge issue, because nobody’s gonna stand for transgender people. Nobody even knows a transgender person.’ And that’s turning out not to be true anymore.”
Amazon Prime hit Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and Orange Is The New Black‘s Laverne Cox are all raising awareness about transgender issues, Shortall believes, and the process is taking mere months rather than years. “People got to know gay people through popular culture,” she says. “Will & Grace mattered. Glee mattered. Maybe they didn’t know a gay person up to then, but then they start to know gay people in their lives and then that person is not the ‘other’ anymore, it’s my friend or my relative or whatever. And now that’s happening with transgender people too, and it’s happening so fast, I think people on both sides of the issue are surprised.”
Even so, the fact that Houston skated away from any kind of meaningful backlash is surprising. Residents of Charlotte are being punished because of the actions of their governor and state legislature, but the people of Houston are not being singled out for their own vote.
And where was the Houston business community on this score? Yes, pro-business groups like the Greater Houston Partnership (Houston’s chamber of commerce) spoke out in favor of HERO, but the actual components of Houston’s business community were silent in both the run-up to and the aftermath of HERO’s defeat.
Of the 26 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Bayou City, all but three are in oil and gas. That industry has thus far been content to maintain a stony silence on LGBT equality, at least in Texas. According to their web site, exactly none of the Houston-based O&G behemoths have signed on as Texas Competes supporters, though 34 Fortune 500 companies (and scores of smaller ones) have. Houston voters were neither advised how to vote by the CEOs of Phillips 66, Halliburton and Baker Hughes nor did those same captains of industry urge voters to reconsider or express regret after last year’s referendum.
Perhaps they feared a backlash from their customers or their employees. O&G is not known as the most socially liberal of fields. But neither is pro-sports, but that has not stood in the way of teams outside of Texas. Each of Atlanta’s four pro-sports teams urged Deal to veto the Georgia measure. That was not the case in Houston, where the Astros and Rockets made no statement on the vote, and Texans owner Bob McNair actually went the other way, for a time, at least, pledging (and then quickly rescinding) a $10,000 donation to opponents of HERO. Of the eight “Big Four” pro-sports teams in Texas, only the Dallas Mavericks are supporters of Texas Competes.
Are these oil giants and gridiron squads scared of boycotts? Shortall believes any worry that companies might have is misplaced. “Not one single company that has spoken out in favor of LGBT equality has been punished by their customers or their fans,” she says. “Not one. I would know. It’s my job to know, but there have not been any instances of boycotts.”
Employers realize that thought in LGBT issues is evolving. A few years back, it was daring for a Fortune 500 company to publicly declare for gay rights. But now it seems risky to alienate the community. “When you think about the future of any city economy you have to think about millennials and millennials are watching this stuff very carefully,” Shortall says. “And I am talking about straight millennials and cisgender millennials. The argument used to be that we need talent from everywhere including the LGBT community, and that’s not where we are anymore. Now, even if you are willing to ignore the LGBT community, you have to be aware that millennials are going to be 75 percent of the workforce.”
Texans should watch North Carolina very carefully. Like Texas, North Carolina’s business community likes to portray itself as both high-tech and cutting edge (with its Research Triangle serving as its Austin) and a great place for stuffier industries like banking and finance. Both of those sectors of the Tarheel business community have made it plain that McCrory’s signing of this bill does not sit well with them, and the actions of multinationals like Deutsche Bank and national powerhouses like PayPal show they are in accord.
Still, it seems that at least some conservative legislators are ready to make Houston’s decision a statewide one. State Representative Matt Krause, Republican of Fort Worth, hopes to enshrine a North Carolina-style “religious liberty” law in the state constitution, one that would allow business owners to turn away people whose lifestyles clash with their stated religious beliefs. “I wanted to put it in the constitution to make it even stronger,” Krause said. “It is still something I think is very important.”
On the other hand, here’s Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business: “You have to weigh the negative impact on Texas if this were to become the law of the land,” Hammond said. “It’s flustering to see.”
Krause is really swinging for the fences. To amend the constitution, he would need a two-thirds vote of the state House and Senate and a popular vote. Given the recent results in relatively liberal Houston, only the Lege appears to stand as an obstacle to Krause’s proposed amendment.
One thing is certain: should that measure pass in such emphatic fashion and on a statewide level, the backlash against Texas would make what is happening to North Carolina look like child’s play.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Transparent‘s platform. We regret the error.