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Yes, We Need a HERO: Houstonians Unite to Save the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance

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By John Wright

The November ballot fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) could go either way, according to the manager of the campaign in support of the law.

But Richard Carlbom, of Houston Unites, said he’s optimistic that a majority of the voters will say “Yes” to HERO on November 3, upholding the city’s ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and 13 other characteristics.

A coalition of progressive groups—led by the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, Freedom For All Americans, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP Houston Branch, and the Texas Freedom Network—launched Houston Unites in mid-August, shortly after the City Council placed HERO on the ballot in response to a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.

“This is going to be a really, really, really hard campaign,” said Carlbom, a veteran organizer who led the successful effort to defeat a same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota in 2012. “Either side could win. Where I place my confidence is that Houstonians will understand what’s at stake, will break through the horrible garbage that the other side is going to spew at them, and really have a fruitful conversation about the values of this city.

“And at the end of the day, Houstonians are going to vote in favor of keeping HERO in place, because that’s what reflects their values,” Carlbom added. “Now, we just have to do the work to make it happen.”

With only two months until the election, and with internal polls reportedly showing voters evenly split on HERO, Carlbom said the keys to victory will be raising as much money as possible and recruiting a large number of volunteers in a relatively short period of time. He estimated Houston Unites needs to bring in at least $2 million to prevail in what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

“The two most precious resources [a campaign has] are time and money. Time is short, and we haven’t raised much money yet,” Carlbom said. “We need to try and build this thing to massive scale. We need thousands of people to come out and door-knock with us, canvass with us. We need people to phone bank with us, we need folks ready to help us staff booths at every little neighborhood and community celebration that’s going to happen in Houston between now and Election Day.”

Shortly after launching Houston Unites, HERO supporters suffered a minor setback when the Texas Supreme Court struck down the city’s approved ballot language for the November vote. In response to yet another lawsuit from HERO opponents, the court ruled that the city must ask residents to vote for or against the ordinance itself, rather than for or against repealing it. But Carlbom downplayed the significance of that decision.

“We’re going to play the hand that we’re dealt, and we’re going to win based on the core values of Houston,” he said. “We’ve won plenty of ‘Yes’ votes, and we’re going to win again.”

In addition to raising money and recruiting volunteers, Carlbon said Houston Unites will work to rally the business community in support of the ordinance. In recent years, corporate opposition has been key to defeating anti-LGBT legislation in several states, including Texas. And although few large Houston-based companies have spoken out publicly in favor of HERO, Carlbom said he expects that to change.

“Frankly, our opponents want to use this to drive people out of town, which is ridiculous. From the business community’s perspective, the rhetoric from the opposition should be absolutely startling, because that rhetoric alone is dangerous when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent,” he said. “I believe we’re going to win their support, and they’re going to speak out with a clear voice on the issue.”

HERO opponents, meanwhile, are expected to build their campaign around the debunked myth that sexual predators will use the ordinance to enter women’s restrooms by pretending to be transgender. In response to the court’s ruling on the ballot wording, the Houston Pastor Council suggested HERO will allow men in women’s restrooms “simply by declaring that they are expressing themselves as female that day.”

“It is that simple, and that terrifying for women and girls who could be accosted at any time in a place where their privacy should have sanctity,” the group said in a statement. “This ordinance violates the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and threatens the safety of the women and girls who live in or pass through Houston.”

Carlbom said Houston Unites will counter the transgender bathroom myth—which he called “gutter politics”—by stressing that although public safety is important, more than 200 U.S. cities already have similar laws in place, with none reporting any measurable increase in violence associated with restroom use.

“What I would say to you is that as ugly as the other side’s going to be, we’re going to be that much cleaner,” Carlbom said. “We have a very clean argument here, and that is, for those who are believers and those who are Christian, the Bible teaches us that you should treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. And that is the very essence of what the Equal Rights Ordinance is.”

For more info on the campaign, visit houstonunites.org.

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