In a tough blow to LGBT people everywhere, Houston voters on Tuesday repealed a year-old non-discrimination ordinance –a repeal that appeared to be largely driven by fears that it would enable sexual predators to enter women’s restrooms to assault young girls.
The vote was 39 percent for and 61 percent against Proposition 1, asking whether voters wanted to retain the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The law, passed by City Council in May of last year, prohibited discrimination against a wide range of minorities, (including race, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity), in a city where more than 50 percent of the population is a racial minority.
But opponents of the measure, the Campaign for Houston, portrayed the ordinance as “The Bathroom Bill” and pounded the airwaves with an ad showing a man following a young girl into a public bathroom stall. The voiceover warned that a vote for HERO would mean “any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom by simply by claiming to be a woman that day.”
“Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom and, if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined,” said the ad.
Supporters of the ordinance tried to counter the message with their own ad, showing a retired Houston police officer and “father of four girls” saying, “It’s already illegal for men to go into women’s restrooms to harm someone.” They also warned that, if Houston repealed the ordinance, it would likely mean a loss of major employers for the city and the loss of such high profile events as the Super Bowl.
Houston’s three-term Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of any major city in the country, championed the ordinance from the beginning and blamed its rejection on “a campaign of fear-mongering and deliberate lies.” She also made clear during the campaign that she felt the effort to repeal the ordinance was an attack on her and Tuesday’s vote was a particularly stinging loss for Parker, who is finishing up her term-limited third term as mayor.
At a gathering of “Vote Yes on Prop 1” supporters Tuesday night, Parker reiterated those feelings, noting that, during her 40 years as a political activist, she has watched the city vote four times to deny equal rights to lesbians and gays.
“No one’s rights should be subject to a popular vote,” Parker said. “It is insulting, it is demeaning, and it is just wrong.” She said opponents of the ordinance ran a “calculated campaign of lies designed to demonize a little understood minority.”
Parker said opponents — whom she characterized as “right-wing ideologues and religious right” – “just kept spewing an ugly wad of lies from our TV screens and from pulpits.”
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick portrayed the repeal effort as a pushback by the church to “stand up” in the “a Christian nation.” And he sought to extend the political implications of the vote. Speaking to opponents of the ordinance at their victory rally Tuesday night, Patrick the vote was a message to “those who supported this, including Hillary Clinton who wants to be the next president, that you’re out of touch with America, you’re out of touch with your own party, you’re out of touch with common sense, you’re out of touch with common decency.”
Echoing a buzz phrase often used by Republican presidential frontrunner Ben Carson, Patrick applauded Houston voters for leading the effort to “end this constant political correctness attack on what we know in our heart and our gut as Americans is not right.”
The Houston Chronicle reported that voter turnout Tuesday broke all records since 2003, drawing nearly 27 percent of voters to the polls.
As of the last filing deadline, Campaign for Houston, the group that wants to repeal the ordinance, reported raising only $62,000 and spending $88,000. Houston Unites Against Discrimination, the group supporting the ordinance, had received $1.7 million in contributions and $1.3 million in expenditures.
According to city campaign finance records, the Human Rights Campaign contributed more than $400,000 to pro-ordinance campaign, Houston Unites Against Discrimination. HRC spokesman Stephen Peters said the group also contributed more than $300,000 through in-kind resources, “like staff time working on the campaign, phone banks, and mail and phones to mobilize Houston voters.”
“HRC has deployed 34 staff members to Texas, the largest amount we’ve deployed for a single campaign,” Peters said.
The pro-gay national conservative social welfare group American Unity Fund gave $250,000 to Yes on Prop 1. A political action committee called the Annise Parker Campaign gave $95,000.
Houston is the fourth most populous city in the nation and the only one that lacks a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance. It is also an old, bloody battleground for gays. In 1985, 28 percent of registered voters rejected two laws –one to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in city employment and another to records about city hiring based on sexual orientation. Both were defeated with 82 percent of the vote. In 2001, 52 percent of Houston voters approved a chance to the city charter to prohibit any “privilege” based on sexual orientation and to deny domestic partners of city employees the benefits provided to the spouses of married city employees.