Last week, residents of Houston voted by referendum to overturn the city’s one-year-old anti-discrimination ordinance. The vote represents a tragic setback for many vulnerable groups in Houston, while the underhanded campaign against the law may have wider implications for transgender Americans.
Mayor Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors of a large American city, wrote the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) after she realized Houston was the only major American city without a similar anti-discrimination measure on the books. It was passed into law by a city council vote in May 2014.
Among other things, HERO made it illegal to fire someone based on 15 legally protected classes, including race, disability status and pregnancy. However, it was the protections for members of the LGBT community that particularly caught the ire of local conservatives. Along with the other protected groups, HERO made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity with respect to city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment and housing. Similar laws have already been in place for years in other large cities in Texas, including Dallas and Austin. San Antonio also has such an ordinance, minus the protections around private employment.
Led by several pastors, conservatives in Houston responded to HERO by launching an aggressive campaign that aimed simultaneously to defame the ordinance and eventually to force a public referendum. They particularly set their sights on the transgender community, claiming that protections based on gender identity with respect to public accommodations would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and sexually harass or assault young girls.
Choosing the slogan “No men in women’s bathrooms” for their campaign, the anti-HERO conservatives ran TV ads depicting men following women and girls into women’s restrooms, with the clear aim of conflating transgender women with male sexual predators. Lance Berkman, the popular Houston Astros baseball player who retired early last year, made a TV spot in which he stated that HERO would allow “troubled men who claim to be women” to use women’s bathrooms, implying that trans women represented a threat to his own daughters.
The anti-HERO campaigners put together a petition attempting to force Houston to hold a public referendum on the anti-discrimination measure, but the city reported that they failed to secure the needed signatures — a conclusion upheld by a local judge. However, when the anti-HERO campaign appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, the court unexpectedly reversed the ruling, forcing the issue onto the Nov. 3 ballot. Mayor Parker responded by accusing the Texas Supreme Court of playing right-wing politics.
Some HERO supporters have argued that the issue didn’t belong on a ballot in the first place, because nobody’s fundamental rights should be up for a vote. There is no question that members of the 15 protected categories covered by the law face discrimination in Houston and throughout the U.S. While HERO was in place, five of the 11 complaints the city received under the ordinance were the result of someone being denied entry to private clubs on the basis of race. Vice Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Davis argued on behalf of the ordinance by recalling an incident in which he himself was discriminated against as a black man and not allowed to enter a club.
The fear-mongering in Houston is part of a wider backlash that has developed as the transgender community has obtained greater visibility in recent years. The sensationalized panic narrative about violent trans women serves to obscure the actual mechanics of violence against women in several respects.
For starters, the bathroom panic trope distracts from and distorts the very real epidemic of violence experienced by transgender people in the U.S. Transgender women of color are especially vulnerable. This year alone, at least 22 transgender women have been murdered across the U.S., including 19 trans women of color. Many violent crimes against trans women go unsolved or unpunished. In part, this results from subtle victim-blaming dynamics that often come into play where violence against trans women is concerned.
The bathroom panic trope also reinforces the false notion that violence against women is typically committed by male strangers, when in fact it is usually committed by someone the victim knows. There have been rare incidents in which men have entered women’s bathrooms and committed sexual violence against strangers. However, violence against both cisgender and transgender women is far more often committed by a partner or a family member.
Of course, violence committed against women in bathrooms has always been illegal, with or without HERO. Indeed, no other city that has laws in place similar to HERO has reported experiencing any particular problems with sexual violence in bathrooms.
But even as the furor over HERO grew, a court decision in Texas actually did legalize a form of sexual violation against women and girls, which seems to have gone largely unnoticed by conservatives. In September 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a law barring, for example, upskirt photos was written in an overly broad way and hence was unenforceable. It took until June 2015 for a new bill banning such photos to be passed into law in Texas, and anti-HERO conservatives were silent about it.
It is too soon to predict how the HERO aftermath will play out. Some have suggested that the city will face economic consequences if private business moves elsewhere in response to the referendum, and activists have already called for the National Football League to move the 2017 Super Bowl out of Houston. One Houston trans woman who had spoken in support of HERO after experiencing employment discrimination recently decided to leave the city after the ugliness surrounding the campaign.
Even as visibility grows for the transgender community, social progress will likely remain halting. Especially given the potential for violence against trans people, the impact of the dehumanizing propaganda of the anti-HERO campaigners could turn out to be just as significant as the repeal of the ordinance.