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By Dee Dee Watters
Like many Houstonians, I was stunned by last month’s majority “No” vote on Prop 1 (HERO). In the conversations I had with colleagues on election night, I was asked what my thoughts were. I responded with one word: “Fear!” My colleagues assumed I was talking about myself, and attempted to comfort me by saying, “We’re here to protect you!”
But I wasn’t expressing fear for myself—I was referring to my community of trans sisters and brothers. I fear that the HERO defeat will put additional and undeserved pressure on those of us who live in our trans truth. I fear it will also bring out the crazies who gleefully wish to do us harm for simply trying to use the bathroom. As I told my colleagues on election night, I’ll bet my last dollar that the suicide attempts will rise!
And the very next day, my prediction was validated. I received a 7 a.m. phone call informing me about a black trans man who survived a suicide attempt motivated by his fear of termination from his job in the wake of Prop 1 failing at the polls. He told me that during the campaign, a coworker noted his support of Prop 1, and ignorantly asked him if he was gay. Another coworker started digging into his background, discovered his trans status, and outed him at work. While this trans man survived his suicide attempt, how many more Houston-area trans people will unfortunately be successful in ending their lives?
So what did we learn from the HERO campaign? We learned that racial discrimination and transphobia in Houston are at problematic levels, and the HERO ordinance is necessary to combat them. While HERO was the law, 54 percent of the discrimination complaints filed with the Office of the Inspector General were race based.
The larger Houston LGBT community, along with our allies, should have forcefully condemned the obvious hate and hypocrisy that was aimed at their fellow transgender Houstonians. We should have immediately steamrolled their blatant attempts to demonize the Houston trans community with the bathroom rhetoric.
The Houston trans community should have been given the visibility and space needed to educate the public about our lives in order to counter the opposition’s lies and defend ourselves. The trans community also needed consistent talking points. What was our messaging strategy for Prop 1? What were my talking points as a black trans woman?
The HERO opponents certainly had their talking points! They were willing to lie, cheat, and bear false witness to kill Prop 1 by relentlessly repeating their“bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms” message. Instead, we were directed not to respond to the debunked bathroom lies and let the out-of-town activists Houston Unites brought in run their positive campaign; we were urged to talk about discrimination in regards to race, religion, or focus on HERO’s other 15 categories; and we lost on election day because the HERO debate was decided by that bathroom rhetoric that we failed to forcefully attack.
We should have forcefully called out the African American pastors for bearing false witness about our trans brothers and sisters and selling out the Houston black community. They were sanctimoniously running around town preaching about “sin,” but conveniently forgot the most important commandment of Jesus—to love one another!
What language should we have used to talk about discrimination based on the HERO’s 15 protected categories? What were the talking points for Houston people of color wishing to canvass the neighborhoods where the anti-trans lies were relentlessly being broadcast on black radio stations? Were we even talking to Houston people of color and respectfully listening to and letting them talk about their ongoing issues with discrimination? Were we building the intersectional citywide coalitions needed for victory in this critical human rights fight and knocking on doors in the neighborhoods that alarmingly signed petitions opposing HERO last year?
I’m stating the obvious here, but it needs to be said after over a year of demonization of Houston trans people by the media, the HERO opposition, and even people in our own community. Trans Houstonians are Houstonians, and an integral part of all the communities we interact with.
Before I’m recognized as trans, I’m first recognized as a black woman. I’m tired of people attacking my humanity and repeating the lie that was told by a number of black pastors during the HERO campaign that you can’t be black and trans. I guess they haven’t heard of Monica Roberts, Janet Mock, Kylar Broadus, Jevon Martin, Tona Brown, and Laverne Cox, just to name a few of the wonderful trans advocates we have here and around the country.
I’m the same black trans woman who for 14 years has passed out toys during the Christmas holidays to kids in the Third and Fifth Wards and has reached out to black and Latino churches asking them to join me in this holiday charity, only to be ignored.
I ask myself is that rejection based on their perception that I’m not black enough in their eyes, my trans status, or both? Let a sister know!
Have we finally come to grips in the Houston LGBT community—which is, in itself, a community of ostracized and marginalized people—with the reality that racism and transphobia permeate our ranks? It’s troubling that the LGBT community oppresses some of its people in the same way it is being oppressed by society at large.
So what are my suggestions concerning what we should do in the wake of this HERO loss and how will we attack this bathroom foolishness in the future? Houston, we need to rebuild and establish community!
In order to deal with the racial issues that are sadly, largely ignored in the LGBT community and hinder us in building the community we deserve, I believe we must first confront them head on. You might feel that it’s not your place to speak up (even if it’s only through emails and letters), but rest assured that it is your place! Speak up so we can have the uncomfortable conversations necessary for us to break down the stereotypes that cause destructive drama in our ranks.
We live in an evolving world in which we have a black president, marriage equality is the law of the land, and same-sex couples can kiss in public, adopt a child, or start a family. But we also live in a time that I thought we had grown past as a nation—a time in which we can all be discriminated against and denied access to employment, housing, public accommodations, or entrance to a bar or restaurant because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
And it’s sad that those who claim they worship God are often the ones most eager to discriminate.
Dee Dee Watters is a native Houstonian who is the founding director of Trans Women of Color United for Change (TWCUC), a performance artist, an award-winning activist for over a decade, and a deaconess at Progressive Open Door Christian Center.