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HERO Supporters Consider New Strategies

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Community members discuss how to overcome the bathroom argument.
By John Wright

LGBT advocates plan to eventually launch a petition drive to get the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance back on the ballot.

First, however, they intend to draft a strategic plan, set up a citizens advisory committee, and conduct a robust public education campaign about the need for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said those were among the recommendations that emerged from a two-and-a-half-hour community debriefing on HERO that drew around 200 people on January 12. “We agree that whatever happens next has to be citizen-led, not council-led,” said Burke, who chaired the meeting. “But everybody is in agreement—both the organizing groups and the public at large—that we can’t even think about that until we figure out how to overcome the bathroom argument. We need a multi-pronged public education campaign that’s aimed at transgender prejudice reduction.”

Houston voters overwhelmingly repealed HERO on November 3, based largely on opponents’ false, fear-mongering ads suggesting the ordinance would lead to sexual predators entering women’s restrooms and preying on young girls.

“The truth is, nobody knows how to combat the bathroom message,” Burke said. “We don’t in Houston, and they don’t anywhere else in the country. All the great minds in the country are trying to figure out how to respond to it. We have to come up with our six-word response to No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

Burke said it’s unlikely any petition drive would be completed in time for HERO to appear on the November 2016 ballot. HERO supporters would need to gather 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the city’s charter. But reviving HERO through a petition would take the political onus off of council members, who’ve said they’re in no rush to revisit the ordinance given that the public vote was so decisive.

Incoming mayor Sylvester Turner, who supported HERO, told OutSmart that his top priorities are addressing the city’s infrastructure needs and financial challenges—issues that have “universal agreement” among voters.

If he can first conquer potholes and pensions, Turner expects voters will give him permission to tackle other issues, including possibly HERO. “I think anything that’s a distraction from dealing with the infrastructure and the financial challenges really does a disservice to those particular areas,” Turner said. “So whether we’re talking about nondiscrimination, whether we’re talking about income inequality or educational initiatives, all of those things are important, but until we have met the challenges that are being presented by the infrastructure, and the financial challenges, I really don’t think at this point in time that Houstonians have an appetite for too much more than that.”

Some LGBT advocates have suggested Turner would be well-positioned to rally support for a new HERO, given his strong support in African-American precincts where voters sided heavily against the ordinance. But the new mayor said he doesn’t think that type of discussion achieves positive results. “I don’t even like talking [in terms of] that kind of group analysis, because even if you take African-Americans out of the loop, HERO’s passage was questionable,” Turner said. “I think most Houstonians do not support discrimination, and I think the vote was more pertaining to fear-mongering than people saying yes to discrimination.”

In the wake of HERO’s defeat, Houston received a score of 48 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index (MEI), which rates cities according to LGBT inclusion. That was the lowest score among the nation’s 10 largest cities.

In addition to lacking a nondiscrimination ordinance, Houston lost points on the MEI for not having LGBT liaisons in the police department or mayor’s office, and not offering transgender-inclusive healthcare to employees. Turner said he had not heard about the city’s MEI score. “You’re providing with me some information that I’m not aware of, and I certainly will take a look at that,” he said.

Turner added that he would be reluctant to support a nondiscrimination ordinance that only covers employment and housing while leaving out the more controversial provisions related to public accommodations. “If you narrow the focus, I think you play into the fear-mongering that took place,” he said.

Burke said few people who attended the community debriefing expressed support for removing public accommodations or transgender protections from a new HERO.

Some participants complained about a lack of diversity on the pro-HERO campaign, she said, while others said it was “too nice” and didn’t make a strong enough case that discrimination is a problem in Houston.

Although she agreed with some of the criticisms, Burke said they can be partly attributed to having only 82 days to organize, after the Texas Supreme Court ordered the City Council to repeal HERO or place it on the ballot.

“We’re not giving up, we’re not throwing in the towel, but now that we’re not under the gun of an election, we can start thinking this through very carefully and do it right,” Burke said. “I think it is urgent that we address this issue, but I don’t think we have to rush.”

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John Wright

John Wright is the editor of OutSmart magazine. He has spent two decades in the mainstream and LGBTQ media. Most recently, he served as senior editor of Dallas Voice, and covered LGBTQ issues in the state Legislature for The Texas Observer. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wright earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He resides in the EaDo area of Houston, where he is currently remodeling a 1930s row house.
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