Voters in Houston, the fourth-most-populous U.S. city, rejected a measure Tuesday that would have barred discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, protections not guaranteed under Texas law.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was backed by outgoing Mayor Annise Parker — the first open lesbian to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city — as well as local liberal groups and many in the business community. Several prominent Republicans, social conservatives and Christian pastors rallied against the proposal.
The ordinance would have prohibited discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment and housing on the basis of a number of characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
The political wrangling over the measure went on for more than a year. Some conservative Christians saw it as an attack on religious liberties. But backers of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community said HERO reflected the values of a modern and multicultural city and was needed to stamp out bigotry.
Many opponents focused on a small part of the ordinance that they said concerned the use of public bathrooms by transgender men and women. They also said it could allow for sexual predators in public restrooms.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party Republican, said in an advertisement opposing HERO, “It's about allowing men into women’s locker rooms and bathrooms. No woman should have to share a public locker room or restroom with a man.”
Parker said after the vote that HERO’s defeat may have stained the city’s reputation. “This was a campaign of fearmongering and deliberate lies,” she said.
Advocates in the LGBT rights community echoed that sentiment. “Anti-transgender activists made false and offensive claims designed to exploit the public’s lack of familiarity with the transgender community and the unique challenges it faces,” said Michael Silverman, the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, in a statement. “From Day One, this law has been about ensuring that Houston residents receive basic protection from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations and that they have legal recourse if they are fired from their jobs, thrown out of their homes or refused service just because of who they are.
The measure won support from liberal groups and business leaders, including the Greater Houston Partnership, which has more than 1,200 member companies.
“As we work to attract businesses and talented professionals to our region, they have made clear that they are seeking a community that is welcoming, diverse and inclusive,” said Bob Harvey, the president and CEO of the partnership.
Indiana and Arkansas this year revised “religious freedom” legislation after facing threats of boycotts and a firestorm of criticism from those who said the measures would allow people to cite their religious beliefs to discriminate against the LGBT community.
Civil rights groups such as the ACLU vowed to keep pushing for an anti-discrimination ordinance despite the defeat. “The work in Houston must continue until everyone is protected from discrimination,” said ACLU national political director Karin Johanson in a statement. “Houston continues to be the only major American city without a law protecting its residents from discrimination … A strong local coalition will continue to work to end discrimination against all Houstonians, and the ACLU will support them.”
Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, tweeted that it was tempting to despair after the proposition failed. “But the fight for equality has always been hard,” she wrote. “Let’s dust off & put our gloves back on.”
Al Jazeera and Reuters