Houston's rejection of LGBT protections could ripple far beyond Texas

The fourth-largest city in the US rejected a nondiscrimination measure Tuesday, causing local LGBT supporters to question their advocacy campaign and supporters in other states to prepare for similar opposition.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP
Rita Palomarez (l.) and Linda Rodriguez pray during an election watch party attended by opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance on Tuesday, in Houston. The ordinance that would have established nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people in Houston did not pass.

Dubbed "the bathroom ordinance," a broad equal-rights measure that would extend protection in public spaces regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity in Houston, failed miserably Tuesday after a 61-to-39 vote.

The ordinance included protections for a wide range of minority groups, including the elderly and military veterans. However, the sticking point for many Houston voters was a clause that would permit transgender individuals to use public restrooms designated for the gender with which they identify, an issue that has become increasingly prominent as the concerns of transgender people have become increasingly public.

The fact that the ordinance failed in liberal Houston, one of the first cities in the United States to elect an openly gay mayor, has served as a wakeup call for advocates.

“It’s almost unbelievable that this could happen in a city like Houston,” Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, told The Associated Press. “But make no mistake: if we don’t double down today, we’ll face the same thing again and again in cities across the nation.”

And nondiscrimination advocates may face similar opposition sooner than they think.

The outcome in Houston has already strengthened a movement in California, where the 2013 legislature permitted transgender students use facilities based on their gender identity. Opponents, including Karen England and her organization Privacy for All, are promoting a 2016 ballot measure that would overturn the 2013 legislature and require people to use facilities based on their “biological sex.”

Opponents of the Houston measure highlighted concerns that eliminating biological designations for bathroom use could open the door for sexual predators to victimize women in the vulnerable position of using the restroom.

“The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement. “It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms – defying common sense and common decency.”

Advocates who are dismayed by the fearful tone that crept into the debate leading up to the vote in Houston are rethinking how they can reframe the discussion to alleviate such concerns.

“Ultimately, for almost everyone, politics is driven by an emotional reaction to something,” Erik Fogg, founder of Something to Consider, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Jessica Mendoza. “Progressives have to make [the issue] emotionally positive and resonant rather than frightening.”

In retrospect, advocates of local nondiscrimination laws say they could have done more to support "the bathroom ordinance."

Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, told The Associated Press that nondiscrimination advocates should have stressed potential economic losses from the ordinance’s failure. Instead, supporters advertised the ideal of universal of discrimination protection; an argument that experts say other minorities simply didn’t buy.

“They had allies in the African-American community, who are traditionally Democratic and progressive voters but did not buy into the argument that gays and more specifically transgender (people) are a group that needs to be protected,” said Stein.

Some supporters question if they could have pushed a more successful campaign rooted in economic arguments, with more leadership by Houston’s lesbian Mayor Annise Parker. 

“I fear this will have stained Houston’s reputation as a tolerant, welcoming, global city,” said Mayor Parker. “And I absolutely fear that there will be a direct, economic backlash as a result of this ordinance going into defeat.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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