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The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Is Dead

Houston’s much-debated Proposition 1 was taken down by 62 percent of voters.

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In this Oct. 21, 2015 file photo, a man urges people to vote against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance outside an early voting center in Houston. On Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, voters statewide can give themselves tax breaks, pump billions of dollars into roads and make hunting and fishing constitutional rights by supporting seven amendments to the Texas Constitution on Tuesday's ballot. And Houston will choose a new mayor and decide whether to extend nondiscrimination protections to its gay and transgender residents in a referendum being watched nationally. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File

The long, convoluted story of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance has finally come to its conclusion. After it passed city council in May 2014, the bill promptly faced repeal efforts, which ignited a small firestorm when city lawyers subpoenaed pastor sermons to determine if some were electioneering from the pulpit. The ordinance wound its way through the courts in the ensuing months, and ultimately found itself on the ballot for voters to decide on November 3. And the voters did decide. They decided that they did not want an equal rights ordinance in their city.

Houston’s Proposition 1, which would have ensured that all people—regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, age, disability, or just about any other factor by which a person is capable of being discriminated against—would be free to enter public spaces without fear of discrimination, lost by an overwhelming margin at the ballot box. A whopping 62 percent of voters opposed the measure. That’s a major defeat in a city like Houston—the nation’s fourth largest—and one whose political alignment is generally considered more progressive than the neighboring suburbs.

HERO’s defeat wasn’t unexpected. Texas Monthly‘s Mimi Swartz wrote about the organized efforts to ensure that equal rights would not be granted to all Houstonians last month; just last week, John Nova Lomax read the tea leaves that were the early voting returns, and suspected that the ordinance—which was generally regarded favorably by poll respondents—would fail among an electorate that was more conservative than the people who answered the polls.

Some are celebrating that victory. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick published a letter thanking those who turned out to reject HERO, explaining that “voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality—that is already the law. It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms.”

Much of the opposition to HERO centered around this belief. Houstonians may have expressed their opposition to transgender rights on Tuesday night, but they didn’t turn out with 62 percent of the vote in order to ensure that people in wheelchairs could be turned away from restaurants with impunity.

Contrary to Patrick’s celebratory note, Houston law now actually does allow men to enter women’s restrooms and lockers. In fact, it requires that transgender men do so.

That’s strange irony that makes the “men in women’s restrooms” arguments seem disconnected from some people’s reality. But there are transgender men in Houston, and Houstonians, in their eagerness to determine where transgender women are allowed to pee, have ensured that fellas like Hughes will be in the bathrooms with their daughters.

The fact that language like “men in women’s restrooms” treats transgender men like they don’t exist is worth noting, but the most instructive thing one can draw from HERO’s defeat is that the new frontier of civil rights in not just Houston or Texas, but the United States, is clearly transgender rights. The fact that an ordinance designed to ensure equal protection for fourteen groups was reduced to a fight to keep transgender women from using women’s restrooms makes that abundantly clear.

It’s easy to read that as a backlash to the way that transgender people—especially trans women—have experienced increased visibility in the culture in recent years. Caitlyn Jenner is an easy example, but she’s hardly the only trans person to make headlines lately. Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Fallon Fox, Laura Jane Grace, Chaz Bono, and others have ignited a national conversation about what gender means and how people identify; so have award-winning TV shows and movies like Transparent and Dallas Buyer’s Club. 

Until fairly recently, it was easy for people who didn’t know any trans people to forget they existed. That swung both ways—there were fewer people who felt much need to form an opinion on whether transgender women were, in fact, women, but there were also fewer people pushing to protect their rights in the first place. Now, though, that conversation is happening in places where it was previously ignored—and as a result, it seems that people are eager to weigh in.

The way that Houston weighed in tells us a few things. But the most obvious takeaway is that right now, using one of the country’s largest and most diverse cities as a bellwether for trans rights, the defeat of Proposition 1 tells us that there’s still a long way to go.

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  • José

    Now that HERO is defeated it will be illegal to sexually harass someone in a public restroom!
    Of course that was true with HERO but let’s not allow facts to get in the way of good old fashioned scare campaigns.

    • minime13

      But it still won’t be illegl for men to go to women’s restrooms. Such irony.

  • oblate spheroid

    “voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality—that is already the law…”

    No, Danny, it isn’t. Not when you can be fired for being gay.

    • CynicalSofty

      Where?

      • Jed

        in houston, dumbass.

        • CynicalSofty

          Hey! That was weirdly uncalled for! 😉 I was just asking for the name of a specific business that had actually fired an employee for being either LGBorT.

      • oblate spheroid

        In every place without a nondiscrimination ordinance, which includes Houston and something on the order of 28 states and countless other cities
        http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122181/gay-couples-celebrating-today-could-be-fired-monday-being-gay

        • CynicalSofty

          ah, but I actually meant “which business in Houston has fired an employee for being gay?”

  • Celestar

    “so have award-winning TV shows and movies like Transparent and Dallas Buyer’s Club” Liberals give other liberals awards just to justify how crazy they are. One reason I stopped watching the Emmy’s and Ocars….

  • Jed

    I posted this at TxOb, also:

    NYT editorial shows how this is being viewed by the adults in the country (i.e. elsewhere):

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/opinion/in-houston-hate-trumped-fairness.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

    Opening sentences:

    “Sometime in the near future, a transgender teenager in Texas will attempt suicide — and maybe succeed — because vilifying people for their gender identity remains politically acceptable in America. The hateful rhetoric of leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is the latest, ugliest example.”

    And closing paragraph:

    “As opponents of the ordinance celebrate their victory this week, transgender people across the country are understandably reeling. They should take comfort in knowing that history will not be kind to the haters who won on Tuesday. In time, the bigots are destined to lose.”

  • Shirley N Eddie Martinez

    Hero supporters, a bunch of melarky! Discrimination against employment, race, religion, etc, etc already dome. Remember the Civil Rights Act people??? This was about a mayor with a hidden agenda. First passing this “law” without public approval. Does she think she’s Obama or what? Then attacking church pastors and taking legal action against churches, who does she think she is Putin???

    • Laura

      This is not the case for LGBT people. Neither the Civil Rights Act nor (Texas) state law protects them. It is still legal under federal and (Texas) state law to fire someone for being gay. Additionally, there are very good reasons why a municipal ordinance needs to fill in the gaps left by federal and state coverage, even for the other categories that are already “dome.”

  • 6660splendidday

    That old uninformed lying Bigot in the Photo looks like he would be a greater danger to women in a bathroom than anyone I know in the Gay community. I always say beware of this type.