Now that we have one, what does it mean?
by Megan Smith
Photo by Christopher Bown
Houston, we have a HERO.
Cheers of “HERO! HERO! HERO!” filled Houston City Hall on the evening of May 28, as those clad in red embraced and rejoiced. After a much-anticipated and long-awaited roll call vote, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) passed 11-6, with Council Members Brenda Stardig (District A), Oliver Pennington (District G), Michael Kubosh (At-Large 3), Dwight Boykins (District D), Jack Christie (At-Large 5), and Dave Martin (District E) voting “No.”
The ordinance, which was first introduced by Mayor Annise Parker on April 21, prohibits discrimination on the basis of any protected characteristic (sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy) in city employment, city contracting, housing, places of public accommodation, and most private-sector employment. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.
“This is not the most important thing I have done or I will do as mayor,” Parker said following the vote. “But it is the most personally satisfying and most personally meaningful thing that I will do as mayor.”
City Council heard over 20 hours of public testimony from those on both sides of the debate in the weeks leading up to the HERO vote. While supporters argued this ordinance is necessary in order for all Houstonians to be treated with fairness and respect, opponents—who consisted mostly of clergy members and others who oppose the HERO based on religious grounds—attempted to frame the ordinance as a “sexual predator protection act.”
Two major amendments to the ordinance were adopted before the Council’s final vote. The first, which was proposed by Council Member Robert Gallegos (District I), lowered the ordinance’s threshold relating to private-sector employment. As originally drafted, the HERO would have only applied to private employers with 50 or more workers. With the Gallegos amendment, however, the ordinance now prescribes that after one year, firms with 25 or more employees will be covered; two years after passage, the ordinance will apply to firms with 15 or more employees.
The second significant amendment, from Council Member Jerry Davis (District B), removed the ordinance’s controversial “bathroom language” that specifically addressed transgender Houstonians’ rights to use the bathroom that most closely aligns with their gender identity. While those opposing the ordinance claimed that this language in Section 17-51(b) would allow “men in dresses” to enter women’s restrooms and pose a threat to women and children, the LGBT community said the phrasing of the clause allowed businesses an out if the defendant had a “good-faith belief” that the person’s claim of being transgender was false.
Although this language was removed, Mayor Parker assured transgender Houstonians that they continue to be protected under the ordinance and that they are still able to file a discrimination complaint with the Office of the Inspector General if barred from using a restroom based on their gender identity or any other protected characteristic. “To my trans sisters/brothers: you’re still fully protected in the Equal Rights Ordinance. We’re simply removing language that singled you out,” Parker said on Twitter.
While supporters of the ordinance are rejoicing in its passage, opponents have vowed to continue fighting the HERO by petitioning for a referendum on the November ballot. The opposition needs to gather roughly 17,000 signatures by the end of June in order to put the issue before Houston voters.
While conflicting messages about the HERO continue to fly, sorting through what the ordinance will and will not do can be difficult. OutSmart spoke with Council Member Ellen Cohen (District C) and Council Member Robert Gallegos (District I) to seek clarification on what the HERO will mean for Houstonians.
The following statements about the HERO are TRUE.
The following statements about the HERO are FALSE.