A non-discrimination measure endorsed by President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton failed to garner support from voters in Houston yesterday, winning just 39 percent approval from the city’s electorate.
Dubbed Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) by supporters, Prop 1 would have extended anti-discrimination protections to LGBT individuals—protections not yet enshrined in federal law—”in city employment, city services, city contracting practices, housing, public accommodations and private employment.” The ordinance also banned discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information and pregnancy, with violators of the law punishable by up to $5,000 in total fines.
Renaming the measure the “bathroom ordinance,” opponents waged an aggressive smear campaign, employing scare tactics and enlisting hometown heroes like former Houston Astro Lance Berkman to spread deceptive messages. Using videos, television and radio ad spots and covering the city in “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” signage, foes of the measure, such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, effectively changed the conversation from one of equality to one about “protecting our grand[mothers], and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters” from sexual predators dressing up as women in order to prey on women in public restrooms.
The message was not only inaccurate—Prop 1 doesn’t explicitly mention public bathrooms—it’s unquestionably transphobic. Plus, in the 200 cities and 17 states that have adopted similar legislation, there have been no reports of men using the law to gain access to women’s restrooms. Yet Houston voters, many of whom hadn’t “heard [that the ordinance] bans discrimination,” were nonetheless swayed.
With the support of Houston mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, Prop 1 first passed with an 11-6 Houston City Council vote in May last year. Soon after, following protests by anti-gay activists, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the city to either repeal the ordinance or put it up for vote in this month’s midterm elections. Despite Prop 1’s recent defeat, advocates for LGBT equality, such as Matt McTighe, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, remain hopeful.
“I feel very much that we’re at the same place as a movement where we were around 2009, when we had lost 32 times in a row every time the word ‘marriage’ appeared on a ballot for gay and lesbian people having the freedom to marry,” said McTighe in an interview with The Huffington Post. “This is still an issue that hasn’t really come up at the ballot box as much. So the work is really just beginning in terms of how to talk about this… This has been a huge learning experience that we’re going to get a lot out of.”
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