Opponents of HERO with a No Men in Women's Bathrooms sign

Houston votes against Equal Rights Ordinance

Last night bigots cheered as Houston voted down the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance, which was passed into law in May and quickly faced a repeal referendum.

The ERO created penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity – protections that now do not exist in Houston – as well as 13 other categories protected against under federal law: “sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.” But the ERO failed because voters thought it was about just one thing: men in women’s bathrooms.

Yes, this is yet another example of the dangers of the trans bathroom meme, the notion that predatory men or trans women (they’re the same to the bigots) are going into women’s bathrooms to attack cis women. It’s an absurd notion, one with no basis in reality, but it’s been used successfully to fight efforts for protections against discrimination for years now. It needs to be countered directly and much more successfully than it was in Houston.

Buzzfeed’s Dominic Holden wrote about the saturation of this message in Houston:

“I haven’t heard it bans discrimination,” Cory Alters told BuzzFeed News as he waited for the bus on a blustery Friday afternoon. With four days remaining before the vote, Alters said he had only heard that the measure required letting men and transgender women into women’s bathrooms.

“Bathrooms are the hot-ticket item — that’s what everybody is talking about,” he said. “I don’t want girls in my bathroom, and girls don’t want guys in their bathroom.”

One block down Travis Street, 44-year old Donna L., who refused to give her full last name, said the same: “I heard people saying pedophiles would be going into restrooms. That is the main thing everybody is talking about. I hadn’t heard anything else.”

Of the roughly two dozen voters BuzzFeed News interviewed in Houston, 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.

This loss was despite high spending on the part of national LGBT organizations like HRC. Much of this comes down to a failure to reach out to communities of color. In a city with a large Spanish speaking population, there weren’t even major Spanish language ad buys. Houston based writer and advocate Monica Roberts has called this the “Prop 8 2.0 campaign” because of the tactical failures on the part of organizers:

The Black LGBT community and our allies have been warning for months that action was needed in our community IMMEDIATELY or else HERO was going down to defeat. We pleaded for canvassing in our neighborhoods, pro-HERO ads on Houston Black radio stations and hard hitting attacks to destroy the only card our haters had to play in the bathroom meme.

We also needed trans people of color front and center attacking the meme instead of being almost invisible for this entire campaign, But once again the Houston Black LGBT community was ignored, and this time the whole city will pay for Houston Unites lack of vision and the milquetoast campaign that was run.

None of this is even a little bit new. We’ve been here before. And it didn’t need to happen again. Frankly, what good is “the transgender moment” when gay orgs can’t be bothered to uplift trans voices and successfully counter a bullshit argument opponents have been using for years? When we can’t even get basic human rights protections? Now that they’ve won marriage, it’s becoming increasingly clear the gay establishment doesn’t know how to listen to and engage, and follow the leadership of trans folks and communities of color – which they’ll have to do to maintain any relevance and win on the important fights still ahead.

Header image: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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