Houston 'bathroom bill': What it says about transgender issues in US

Houston voters' decision Tuesday to reject a measure to protect transgender people and others from discrimination came after a contentious debate. 

Pat Sullivan/AP/File
A man urges people to vote against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance outside an early voting center in Houston on Oct. 21. The measure, which would have extended nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender residents, failed by a wide margin Tuesday night.

The defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Tuesday points to the growing need for a compassionate dialogue around transgenderism, some observers suggest.

The measure, which offered broad nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender people, among others, fell by a wide margin in a city referendum.

While supporters of the measure were disappointed at its failure, they were perhaps even more dismayed by the tone of the debate leading up to the vote. Critics rallied support against the ordinance by saying that it allowed sexual predators and mentally disturbed men to use women’s bathrooms under the guise of being transgender. The claim, supporters said, was outrageous and based on a radically incorrect view of transgender people.

With transgenderism becoming more open, the issue of what public bathrooms transgender individuals should use has played out in school districts nationwide. The Obama administration has called for transgender children in public schools to be able to choose the restroom they wish, but that policy has caused angst in states and local districts.

The first step toward finding resolution is a sense of empathy, says Erik Fogg, founder of Something to Consider (STC), a Massachusetts-based organization that seeks to promote productive dialogue on divisive issues.

“Ultimately, for almost everyone, politics is driven by an emotional reaction to something,” Mr. Fogg says. “If you can’t empathize [with someone], you can’t care.”

Specifically, the Houston ordinance protected a range of groups – from military service members to the elderly – against discrimination in a range of fields – from city contracts to private housing. But the debate to defeat it turned on perceptions of transgender individuals, who were also granted protected status under the ordinance.

Led by the city’s religious community, opponents claimed the transgender protections would put women and children in public restrooms in danger.

“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.”

The argument shows the gap that will need to be bridged for a more constructive debate on the issue, Fogg notes.

Conservative media outlets have reported that boys claiming to be transgender have harassed girls in school bathrooms. But liberal watchdog groups such as Media Matters have sought to debunk such allegations, arguing that no incidents of harassment have occurred in schools and other venues that have adopted consistent nondiscrimination policies.

“People need more accurate information, not fear-based horror stories,” says Robyn Ochs, a campus speaker who focuses on identity, sexuality, and gender.

But advocates also need to employ “the charm offensive,” Fogg says, because for conservatives opposed to nondiscrimination measures, the prevailing opinion is that “if you’re going to change your sex, it’s not the law’s job to jump in and do backflips for you.”

“Progressives have to make [the issue] emotionally positive and resonant rather than frightening.”

Polls suggest that public opinion is slowly moving toward tolerance and acceptance. More than 70 percent of Americans say transgender people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, and about the same number favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian people from job discrimination, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey published in July.

The process, Fogg acknowledges, will take time. “You work hard for it for 10 years and might see something happen,” he says. “That’s how political change works, that’s how cultural change works.”

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