HERO—the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance—passed last night. It’s been a bit of circuitous journey for the ordinance designed to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Houstonians—with Mike Huckabee showing up to weigh in, serious questions about the parts of the bill that allow transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, and votes to delay the vote occurring to let the attention die down. But shortly after 7:30 last night, Houston Mayor Annise Parker signed it into law after an 11-6 vote from City Council.
The meaning of the ordinance for the people of Houston is complicated, and there’s been a bit of confusion about what the law actually says. Here are the basics:
HERO doesn’t just serve LGBT people
The bulk of the attention surrounding the ordinance certainly focused on LGBT members of the Houston community, but the bill is actually farther-reaching than that, though: The language of the bill prohibits discrimination based on “sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.” That’s a fairly exhaustive list (“race, color, ethnicity” each being singled out covers a lot of bases), but it does clear up the notion that this bill is just about LGBT folks—or that the more controversial part of the bill, which we’ll get to in a moment, is the defining aspect of it.
The “bathroom panic” is not an issue here
Both opponents of HERO and some supporters have focused on the “gender identity” section of the bill, and specifically a part of the ordinance that had mentioned the use of public restrooms by transgender people: When Mike Huckabee took up the issue, he claimed that the bill would “be unsafe for women and children,” a reference to a point he’d made on his Fox show recently:
“If the child…a boy…walks in and says ‘you know what, I really am feeling my girl’s side, he gets to go shower with the girls when he’s 14. I mean, I’m just thinking of all the 14-year-old boys I went to school with, and how many of them would have awakened with that revelation.”
The fear of transgender women—or of fourteen-year-old boys pretending to be transgender women—entering bathrooms to spy on or expose themselves to girls and women is one that, according to experts, has a no basis in reality. Nonetheless, that aspect of the ordinance was stricken from its final version.
Section 17-51(b) of the ordinance contained the provision and was removed from the version that passed. This upset some supporters of transgender rights nationally, but as Houston transgender blogger Monica Roberts wrote, the removal of that aspect of the bill was actually a good thing:
[W]e were working with council to get amendments done to clean up that problematic language in a way that would be satisfying to our community.
FYI, here’s the full text of Section 17-51 (b)
(b) It shall be unlawful for any place of public accommodation or any employee or agent thereof to deny any person entry to any restroom, shower room, or similar facility if that facility is consistent with and appropriate to that person’s expression of gender identity. It shall be a defense to prosecution for discrimination on the basis of gender identity under this article, however, if the defendant had a good faith belief that the gender or gender identity of the person discriminated against was not consistent with the gender designation of the facility.
The problematic section I underlined and put in bold print is why the Houston transgender community and our allies after consulting with us asked to have it pulled. Leaving that as is would have allowed transphobes to engage in gender policing and we would have no recourse to it.
The removal of 17-51 (b) sidesteps the issue, though Mayor Parker says that it doesn’t leave the transgender community without protections:
Under pressure, Parker removed the measure despite opposition from its supporters. Following that, however, she sent a tweet that called into question the significance of the change: “To my trans sisters/brothers: you’re still fully protected in Equal Rights Ordinance. We’re simply removing language that singled you out.-A”
HERO creates a $5,000 penalty for discrimination
No one will be whisked off to jail if they refuse to follow the ordinance, though they can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor. Instead, what HERO does is allow for a fine of up to $5,000 for violating the law, which went into effect immediately last night. If a business with more than 15 workers who discriminates against gay employees, or if an anarchist coffee shop refuses to serve military personnel, it could face those fines for violating the law. Religious organizations are exempt, as are genuinely private clubs and organizations that didn’t just declare themselves to be private in order to skirt the law.
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)