Why Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance Failed

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is openly gay, supported HERO.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

When news spread that Houston’s broad nondiscrimination ordinance—which included protections for LGBT people—had failed at the polls, RedState editor Erick Erickson penned a post titled “Perverts and the Mentally Ill Lose in Houston, TX.” Erickson wrote:

In Houston, TX, perverts and the mentally ill worked together with the gay rights lobby to let men use women’s bathrooms. They called anyone who disagreed with them “bigots.” … Tonight, the people of Houston fought back and rejected the attempt to allow perverts, the mentally ill, liars, and others who want to get in to opposite sex bathrooms. Christians and common sense won. Perverts, the mentally ill, and the gay rights mob lost.

There are two problems with this invective. The first is that Erickson wrote it at all. The second is that people believed it.

I doubt a popular conservative blogger would feel comfortable today calling gays “perverts” or “mentally ill”—despite the fact that such disparagement was their primary tactic until the 1990s. Yet this rhetoric was ubiquitous in the battle over Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. The apparent tolerance among conservatives for such invective is troubling. But what’s far more disturbing is that people believed it.

As soon as HERO’s fate was clear, many LGBTQ activists declared that it lost because of “hate.” I don’t think that’s quite right. To be sure, the campaign against HERO was infected with an astonishing amount of anti-trans obloquy and vitriol. But I suspect most people who voted against the ordinance did so not out of hate, but out of fear.

It is human nature to fear what we do not understand. Most Americans now understand, on at least a rudimentary level, what it means to be gay, to love someone of the same sex. Very few Americans understand what it means to be trans, to be assigned a gender at birth that does not correspond with your true identity. And until they understand this issue, they will be susceptible to malicious propaganda like Erickson’s. In light of that fact, here are three potential steps forward for the LGBTQ community post-HERO.

1. Debunk the lies, then debunk them again, and again, and again.

This point will frustrate HERO’s advocates, who spent the last several months trying to discredit the primary falsehood spread by HERO’s opponents: that the ordinance would allow molesters to enter women’s bathrooms with impunity and assault women.

As my colleague J. Bryan Lowder wrote on Tuesday, however, the message never came through. BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden found that many Houstonians bought into the bathroom bill lie, thanks largely to a smear campaign by anti-LGBTQ groups depicting the molestation, which, they claim, would inevitably result from HERO’s passage. Lowder notes that HERO supporters demonstrated a certain “skittishness to attack the lie head-on”—emerging in part from a desire to ignore it “rather than dignifying it with a response.”

But we must respond, because, as Holden’s reporting and the anti-HERO ad campaign illustrates, the lie is astonishingly potent. It is potent because it exploits the fear that trans people are aberrant freaks and sexual predators by placing them in the same category as actual predators, then collapsing the distinction between the two. It is potent because people are earnestly terrified of predators in the bathroom and sincerely believe that trans-protective laws will expose them to such monsters. It is potent because too many people don’t understand the difference between a trans person and—as the National Review’s horrifically transphobic Kevin D. Williamson wrote—“a man in a dress.”

Conservatives like Erickson and Williamson foster and kindle transphobia by turning ignorance into terror, then providing cover for those who wish to use that terror to further hate. Until the underlying confusion and fear is resolved, they’ll keep winning. Which brings me to:

2. Confront the fear.

The idea of your loved ones being molested is profoundly frightening. That’s why so many anti-gay campaigns, including Proposition 8, either implied or insisted that gay rights would lead to gay schoolteachers molesting children. And it’s why the campaign against HERO focused almost entirely on the utter falsehood that trans protections would increase bathroom molestation.

When I first heard those charges, I was furious, and I refused to address them seriously. (For good reason, I might add: No state with trans protections has experienced this problem, though many trans people are subject to physical violence in bathrooms.) But I’ve come to realize that my initial knee-jerk reaction was flawed. What I hear—what most gay and trans people hear—are conservative commentators who really know better pretending to be ignorant in order to achieve their own deeply immoral aims. Erick Erickson is a smart man; he knows that HERO was not actually an effort by “perverts and the mentally ill … to let men use women’s bathrooms.” But he also knows that if he repeats that lie ad nauseam, decent, well-meaning people will buy into it.

Those of us who support tolerance must explain why this fear is unfounded—not stupid or bigoted or cruel or parochial, but simply wrong. The marriage equality movement succeeded in large part because canvassers went door-to-door chatting calmly and respectfully with people who opposed gay rights. If LGBTQ advocates want to convince Americans that trans people deserve equality, they must replicate this strategy, explaining why equal bathroom access is such a vital component of a trans person’s ability to live with dignity. Many of us assumed, post-marriage, that trans rights would simply fall into place as America grew more inclusive. The HERO defeat demonstrates just how erroneous that instinct was.

3. Convey a simple message simply.

HERO opponents told a compelling (if totally false) story: Radical liberal elites wanted to let perverts and maniacs into public bathrooms, and conservatives needed to step up to protect women. Proponents of the ordinance had no compelling counternarrative except to explain why this talking point was mendacious. In the end, the more gripping narrative won the day, as it usually does in these kinds of fights.

In fact, there is a riveting counternarrative to the bathroom myth—but the LGBTQ community hasn’t really learned how to tell it. This narrative is simple. Being trans is not a mental illness. Gender dysphoria, the sense that one’s gender doesn’t align to one’s sex, is a mental illness—one that is cured by transitioning genders. A transitioned or transitioning person, in other words, is a healthy person, one who is finally able to live their authentic self with dignity. The more society accepts trans people and acknowledges their true gender, the healthier and happier trans people will be. Granting equal bathroom access is a fundamental part of that process.

It’s difficult for most of us to imagine how painful it must feel to be ejected from the bathroom that aligns with your true gender. That makes the pain easy to ignore. It was, at one time, difficult for most of us to imagine what it felt like to be barred from marrying the person you love. The LGBTQ community made that pain impossible to ignore. Trans advocates must make a case—a simple, coherent, unified case—that excluding them from the correct bathroom is hurtful, pointless, and wrong. They must explain why bathroom rights are so vital to them—and why they’ll have no effect on anybody else.

Most important, LGBTQ activists cannot wait until they’re facing down another HERO-type battle to make their case. The campaign to show Americans the humanity of trans people must begin today. It is too late to avert catastrophe in Houston. But there is still time to prevent transphobia from spiraling into a full-blown human rights crisis.