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By John Wright
In a major setback for the LGBT movement, Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated by more than 50,000 votes on Tuesday.
Sixty-one percent of Houston voters, or 156,882, cast ballots against HERO, or City Proposition No. 1, compared to 39 percent in favor, or 100,427, according to unofficial results.
Many experts predicted HERO would be defeated, due to increased turnout in heavily Republican and African-American precincts, where voters were less likely to support the ordinance. But few expected the outcome to be so lopsided.
Houston Unites, the coalition of groups supporting the ordinance, expressed disappointment but vowed to keep fighting for LGBT protections in the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“Although Houston won’t yet join the 200 other cities that have similar nondiscrimination measures, the fight continues,” the coalition said in a statement, adding that it had learned “many important lessons” from the campaign. “We have to continue sharing our stories so that more Houstonians know what HERO is really about and aren’t susceptible to the ugliest of smear campaigns run by the opposition.”
HERO would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and 13 other characteristics in employment, housing, public accommodations, and city contracting.
But LGBT advocates seemed to universally agree that HERO opponents’ strategy of highlighting one small aspect of the ordinance—protections for transgender people in public accommodations—led to its defeat. They said voters were swayed by unfounded fears that HERO would allow men to use women’s bathrooms. The anti-HERO campaign flooded the airwaves with misleading ads suggesting the ordinance would lead to sexual predators preying on women and children.
Speaking at Houston Unites’ watch party, Mayor Annise Parker accused HERO opponents of “a calculated campaign of lies designed to demonize a little-understood minority,” referring to trans people.
“They just kept spewing an ugly wad of lies from our TV screens and from pulpits,” Parker said. “This was a calculated campaign by a very small but determined group of right-wing idealogues and the religious right, and they know only how to destroy, not how to build up.
“It was clear when we passed the ordinance in council, that if we had agreed and said we’ll take gender identity out, they would have gone away,” Parker added. “That would have been wrong then, and it would be wrong now, and it will be wrong in the future.”
Parker also said she feared the outcome had “stained Houston’s reputation as a tolerant, welcoming, global city” and would result in “direct economic backlash.”
By Wednesday morning, the hashtag #BoycottHouston was gaining momentum on Twitter, with some calling for the 2016 NCAA Men’s Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl to pull out of the city.
Depending on the extent of the economic fallout, many believe Houston’s new mayor and council will attempt to amend HERO, possibly with an exemption for restroom use, before passing it again. But such a watered-down measure would be unlikely to garner support from national groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, which were major financial backers of the pro-HERO campaign.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who supports HERO, was the top vote-getter in the mayor’s race, and heads to a December 12 runoff against the second-place finisher, former Kemah Mayor Bill King, who opposes the measure.
HERO’s landslide defeat at the ballot could make it more challenging politically for the new mayor and council to take up the issue, and opponents seemed likely to oppose an amended ordinance, even if it includes a carveout for restroom use.
Former Harris GOP chair Jared Woodfill, a spokesman for the anti-HERO Campaign for Houston, told BuzzFeed News after Tuesday’s vote that gay people don’t deserve “special protections” because homosexuality isn’t “an immutable characteristic.”
At Campaign for Houston’s watch party, Woodfill introduced Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houstonian who spent $70,000 on an anti-HERO ad.
“It’s unfortunate that liberals like Annise Parker are so out of touch with the people of Houston that something like this shows up on the ballot,” Patrick said in a statement. “The supporters of this proposition brought in movie stars and elites from Washington DC and Hollywood to try to force their twisted agenda on the good people of Texas. It didn’t work, and advocates of this ridiculous proposal are on notice tonight that the voters of Houston will not stand for this kind of liberal nonsense.”
In publicly opposing HERO, Patrick was joined by Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and numerous other Republican elected officials. Meanwhile, the pro-HERO campaign received support from the likes of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden. and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as a host of celebrities.
Pro-HERO groups raised more than $3 million, swamping opponents, as Houston became ground zero for the LGBT movement’s No. 1 post-marriage equality priority, passing nondiscrimination laws.
Now, LGBT advocates fear the outcome will have national implications, prompting opponents to replicate the “no men in women’s bathrooms” strategy in campaigns across the country. But the battle isn’t over in Houston, either.
“Opponents of equality utilized fear-mongering and disinformation to sway Houston voters to deny equal rights and protections to people in this great city, but none of us who have worked to bring equality to Houston are throwing in the towel,” ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said in a statement, calling on the new mayor and council to adopt another equal rights ordinance “as quickly as possible.”
“We intend to harness the energy and enthusiasm of everyone who came together for this campaign to continue the fight for equality in Houston and across Texas,” Burke said.