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The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) would protect all classes of people from discrimination, but critics have attacked it on the basis that it will allow trans women to use women's restrooms.
When reading the word "Texas", one conjures up a cartoon image of a ten-gallon hat wearing, pistol-waving, barbeque-devouring archetype. So it's perhaps unsurprising that the state of Texas has no statewide protections for its protected classes. Now, Houston's mayor Annise Parker, the ACLU of Texas, and the city's business leaders are fighting to ensure all of the city's citizens have equal protections under HERO (Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance).
HERO is a fairly straightforward piece of legislation that fell victim to a bizarre sequence of events; today, residents of Houston are voting on whether they want to keep it in place or repeal it. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender and gender identity, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, military status, and pregnancy "in City employment, City services, City contracting practices, housing, public accommodations and private employment." This is not a new concept for a major US city—most of America's cities have a nondiscrimination ordinance in place to protect all of their citizens. Houston is the last major Texas city without such protections in place.
Parker proposed the ordinance to the Houston City Council in April of 2014 and was met with an outcry from the religious right, who claimed that the law's protections for trans people would put "women and children at risk of voyeurism, photographing and video recording, and sexual assault" due to "men" in women's bathrooms. Mike Huckabee incited his Facebook followers to protest, and conservatives renamed HERO "Mayor Parker's Sexual Predator Protection Act." Literature was quickly circulated amongst HERO's opposition which stated that "the presence of men in women's bathrooms, shower rooms, and locker rooms [will place] women and children at risk of voyeurism, photographing and video recording, and sexual assault." Despite this outrage, the Houston City Council passed HERO the following month.
The debate over HERO—now dubbed "the bathroom ordinance"—has devolved into a single transphobic series of ads.
The pastors filed a lawsuit against the city, the secretary who initially approved the petition, and Feldman, which was overruled by a state district judge. This past July, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the anti-HERO petitioners, ordering the city of Houston to repeal the ordinance or put it to a public vote in November.
Since the ruling, people on both sides of HERO have taken to social media and the airwaves in order to galvanize the Houston populace to vote one way or the other on Proposition 1. The debate over HERO—now dubbed "the bathroom ordinance"—has devolved into a single transphobic series of ads that attack Proposition 1. In an ad campaign, former Houston Astro Lance Berkman urged Houston residents to vote against the ordinance, saying, "Proposition 1, the bathroom ordinance, would allow troubled men to enter women's public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms." Radio ads sponsored by an anti-HERO PAC warned that "men" would be lawfully allowed to invade women's restrooms if the measured passed, which is "filthy," "disgusting," and "unsafe." Houston Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, too, dismissed the sweeping protections provided by the proposition as an ordinance "allowing men in women's locker rooms and bathrooms."
This sort of rhetoric, obviously, stigmatizes and demonizes the city's transgender residents—there has never been a documented case of someone pretending to be trans in order to spy on women and children in bathrooms. And though there's no documented threat from trans people, bathrooms have proven to be a hostile or even dangerous environment for them—especially in Texas. And, of course, the promise of HERO is that no person can be discriminated against because of any characteristic. The right for people to express their gender identity without fear of reprisal is but one aspect of the ordinance.
This ordinance helps to protect people in our community hit hardest by discrimination, people who often don't have the money to fight a long drawn out legal battle.
As Terri Burke, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas, told Broadly, "Too man.y Houstonians still face discrimination. City records show that more than half—56 percent—of the discrimination reports filed under this ordinance are for racial discrimination, 17 percent are for gender or pregnancy discrimination, and four percent for military status. This ordinance helps to protect people in our community hit hardest by discrimination, people who often don't have the money to fight a long drawn out legal battle or the time to jump through the hoops involved with filing a federal lawsuit."
In the days leading up to the vote, advocates for HERO have spoken out publicly. Hillary Clinton tweeted her support. Sally Field is in Houston speaking to the benefits of the proposition. The White House, Eva Longoria, Michael Sam, and Matthew Morrison have all expressed their support. Some have even plead to Beyonce to stomp for HERO, but Houston's most famous daughter has yet to contribute to the dialogue. Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans promised to donate $10,000 to HERO's opposition, but then rescinded after their onslaught of demagogic ads. In addition, Houston's economists see the repeal of HERO as potential disastrous for the city, and Fortune 500 companies have endorsed the ordinance, allying with the Houston Unites Business Coalition, a group of over 60 companies.
It remains uncertain if this public support of Proposition 1 will be enough to compel voters, but the aggressive bigotry of the right is evidence enough that the city needs HERO.
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