Despite the remarkable success LGBT advocates have seen in recent years, culminating in the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage last June, Tuesday’s defeat of a broad civil rights ordinance in Houston, Texas, sent a strong message that the equality movement – particularly when it comes to overcoming transphobia – has a long way to go.
“The reality is that marriage has never been the only issue,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, law and policy project director and senior counsel at Lambda Legal, in an interview with MSNBC. “It’s an issue that had enormous visibility and inspired a lot of people. But discrimination has been, and continues to be an enormous challenge.”
On Tuesday, voters roundly rejected Proposition 1, otherwise known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO for short. The measure would have banned LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations throughout the nation’s fourth largest city: Houston, Texas. Instead, a 61%-39% defeat for HERO left Houston as the nation’s largest city without local nondiscrimination protections for its LGBT residents.
The vote had other, more subtle effects as well. For LGBT advocates and allies, it served as a profound wakeup call to anyone who thought the movement ended with nationwide marriage equality, while proving that old-fashioned scare tactics still work against them. For their opponents, meanwhile, the vote offered a much-needed boost of encouragement – and potentially, a roadmap – in their effort to fight similar measures at the local, state, and federal levels.
“We believe this sends a strong message to organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and other radical groups that think they can come into cities and impose this kind of agenda on people,” Rev. Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors’ Council, told MSNBC.
Tuesday’s vote followed 18 months of aggressive campaigning against HERO, which opponents warned could be exploited by male sex predators masquerading as transgender women in order to prey on girls in the restroom. In one particularly gruesome TV ad, paid for by the anti-HERO group Campaign for Houston, a man is shown waiting in a bathroom stall until a young girl comes in – her face locked in an expression of terror as he follows her into the neighboring stall and shuts the door behind them.
“Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day,” the spot states. “No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom.”
LGBT advocates insist such attacks are baseless. In over 200 cities and 17 states (soon to be 18) that ban LGBT discrimination in public accommodations, there hasn’t been any increase in bathroom-related harassment or assault. When asked for evidence to the contrary, Campaign for Houston did not respond to MSNBC’s request.
This kind of fear mongering is nothing new. It dates back to the days of Anita Bryant, who in the 1970s led a “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal a Dade County, Florida, ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In her view, “practicing homosexuals” were converting children to homosexuality.
More recently, supporters of California’s former ban on gay marriage – known as Proposition 8 – rolled out a similarly child-centered campaign that focused on the damage same-sex nuptials would inflict on families. Though the Prop 8 ads did not suggest that any physical danger was at stake – as ads against HERO did – they played on people’s deepest and most irrational fears that same-sex marriage would somehow brainwash children or turn them gay.
“LGBT people have always been the subject of fear mongering and political ads and campaigns designed to cause people to see us as predators or scary or a threat,” Pizer said. “This is not a new tactic.”
Eventually, though, it became ineffective – at least against the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities. Pizer is confident that through advocacy and education about trans rights, bathroom-based attacks will prove to be just as weak, especially when LGBT advocates are given proper time to mount a counter campaign. Many legal scholars were caught off guard when the Texas Supreme Court decided over the summer that HERO – which had been adopted by the City Council in May 2014 – would have to be put to a vote or repealed entirely. So supporters had only three months to challenge attacks against the ordinance and explain to Houstonians why it was necessary.
“Trans identity is a newer idea for many people, but I have no doubt that the ultimate answer will be nondiscrimination protections in Houston and many other places,” Pizer said. “The opposition messages are not true and the lie of those messages will become visible to more people in time. But it does take a little time.”
While the LGBT community waits, however, HERO’s defeat could have broad implications outside of Houston. In Texas’ last legislative session, Republican lawmakers introduced more than 20 anti-LGBT bills and Tuesday’s vote could encourage proponents to give it another go. Welch, for example, said that the Houston Area Pastors’ Council supported two of those bills – one that would have nullified nondiscrimination ordinances in Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Plano, and San Antonio, and one that would have defined gender at the state level as what is “established at the individual’s birth.” The council, Welch said, would support that legislation again.
Meanwhile, battles over nondiscrimination protections are also playing out at the federal level, as well as in other states, and LGBT advocates expect to see their opponents draw upon the successful attacks launched in Houston.
“[HERO’s defeat] signals that people who oppose LGBT equality will use these tactics in other places,” Pizer said. That doesn’t mean, however, that those tactics will always work.
“Ultimately,” she said, “the truth will be known.”