If you’ve been following the controversy surrounding HERO, Houston’s embattled anti-discrimination ordinance that extends standard protections to 15 classes of people, you know that today is a big day. Voters are currently deciding the fate of Proposition 1, a referendum that, if approved, would uphold the measure—which was passed by the city council back in 2014 before being suspended and ordered to a vote by the Texas Supreme Court. While supporters of HERO point out that it brings standard nondiscrimination coverage already on the books in many major cities to Houston, opponents have fixated on the fact that the measure would ensure that transgender citizens may use the public bathroom consistent with their gender identity. Where trans women and men pee should not be an issue, and yet the opposition has engaged in a nasty campaign of demagoguing around exactly that question, not-so-subtly suggesting that trans folks are child predators or deranged men attempting to gain access to women’s facilities.
To be clear, there is no evidence that this grossly transphobic fever dream has any basis in reality—as a forceful New York Times editorial put it on Monday, “[Bathroom use] is a fundamental right that does nothing to endanger others. There is absolutely no evidence, empirical or anecdotal, to suggest that transgender people have a proclivity to harass or sexually assault people in restrooms and locker rooms.” And, in any case, such hypothetical crimes are already very much illegal. But that doesn’t mean the suggestion isn’t working on voters. Indeed, as BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden shows in a thorough and troubling look at the Prop. 1 campaign, the erroneous bathroom meme has basically defined the issue in many Houstonians’ minds.
“Of the roughly two dozen voters BuzzFeed News interviewed in Houston,” Holden writes, “about half believed the ordinance applied solely to granting men and transgender people access to public bathrooms. Roughly a quarter knew of the law’s wider scope banning discrimination. Another quarter knew nothing about it.” In reporting his piece, Holden found many Houstonians who had bought the transphobic bathroom lie wholesale and were planning to vote “no,” sometimes even while understanding that repealing HERO would remove protections for veterans, pregnant women, and other not-specifically LGBT groups. Clearly, the local supporters of HERO, despite being relatively well funded and wielding the power of major LGBT advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, have failed to combat the bathroom-predator meme.
Where does the skittishness to attack the lie head-on—a reticence that Holden runs into a dispiriting number of times throughout his reporting—come from? Certainly in part from utter disbelief—the wild, unfounded hysteria of some of the anti-HERO ads is difficult to take seriously. And, of course, there’s something to be said for ignoring the meme rather than dignifying it with a response. But I think, at least within the LGBT community, there’s also a bit of cultural blindness going on.
Many queer folks live in a world where gender-neutral bathrooms are common, or, as in many gay bars, gender designations on the facilities are more or less suggestions. While distinctive gender identities and expressions are obviously important, we tend to move through spaces that are more relaxed about (or even dismissive of) the binarized division between “the sexes” and be less weird about different sorts of bodies sharing the same space. Speaking for myself, it’s been a long time since the thought of peeing in the same room as a woman even registered as strange, and experience suggests that many queer folks feel the same way. Additionally, the complexity of queer desire tends to undermine the assumption of sexual tension between men and women in all situations. There’s something about the category-stretching thinking one must do when coming out as queer that erodes the power of these kinds of straight cultural anxieties, so much so that it can be hard to understand how other people can still hold onto them. But, as Holden’s interviews demonstrate, they absolutely do—to a profound degree.
Whatever happens with HERO, if we want to continue the push for anti-discrimination measures on the local and, ideally, national scale, we are going to have to become better at talking across that divide. The success of the scapegoating of trans people in Houston is sure to inspire similar tactics elsewhere, and next time the community response must be both swifter and savvier. Think of the children!-style grandstanding around bathrooms or whatever else may seem absurd, but even so, the rhetoric is working. We can no longer afford to ignore it in disgust or laugh it off—no matter how low the opposition goes. The costs of turning away are just too high.