Despite Houston’s history of voting against legislation that protects LGBTQ folks, the advocacy group Transform Houston is working to give Space City a new nondiscrimination ordinance.
The repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in 2015, along with similar pro-equality losses in 1985 and 2001, has inspired members of Transform Houston to strategize for a future Houston nondiscrimination ordinance (NDO). The organization will host monthly community events through June to inform voters about the need for a law that would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In the past, we didn’t start talking about nondiscrimination laws until we were about to vote on them,” Transform Houston organizer Brad Pritchett says. “We didn’t get the chance to talk to folks who might be susceptible to misinformation about the LGBTQ community, and how these laws are bigger than us. Transform Houston has launched its newest initiative because when the next fight for an NDO happens, voters will already be aware of who this legislation impacts.”
On February 16, Transform Houston will host a town-hall meeting at the Houston Public Library’s Freed-Montrose branch to explore the timeline for putting an NDO on the ballot.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has no plans for a public vote on an NDO in 2019, according to his communication director Alan Bernstein. However, a citizen-led petition initiative with at least 20,000 qualified voter signatures could still place an NDO on the ballot.
Transform Houston will not push for an NDO in 2019, but will instead use the year to expand conversations about anti-discrimination laws. Pritchett believes that a general lack of knowledge about NDO legislation is the reason that Houston voters have rejected LGBTQ protections in the past.
HERO, which prohibited discrimination based on gender identity and expression (in addition to more than a dozen other characteristics), was approved by City Council in 2014. However, anti-LGBTQ groups used misleading anti-transgender attack ads to convince voters to repeal the ordinance in November 2015.
After HERO was repealed, Pritchett met several folks who were unaware that the ordinance would have protected them. A Houston man’s undocumented wife from Guatemala was wrongfully fired after she told her employers that she was pregnant. When Pritchett asked the man if he believed his wife would have benefitted from HERO, the man responded “No, because she is not gay or trans.” Pritchett informed the man that the ordinance would have protected his wife because of her sex, national origin, and pregnancy.
“HERO would have helped many non-LGBTQ folks, but its opponents seized on one aspect of it and publicized it that way,” Pritchett says. “Transform Houston’s current goal is to diffuse myths about NDOs and show folks that they protect everyone.”
Mayor pro tem Ellen Cohen, a longtime ally who has worked to defeat several anti-LGBTQ referendums, believes that Transform Houston’s plan to educate voters about NDOs will increase the chances of one finally passing in Houston.
“Houston voters should be informed that anti-LGBTQ activitsts used lies to derail protections for a marginalized community,” Cohen says. “Everyone deserves to be protected, and I believe that Houston will one day have a nondiscrimination law.”
Following Transform Houston’s February 16 town-hall meeting, the group will perform community outreach through canvassing, fundraising, and affiliating itself with religious groups. A full list of Transform Houston events can be found at facebook.com/transformhouston.
Transform Houston (formerly HOUequality) launched in 2014 after Pritchett and Houston activists Fran Watson, Brandon Mack, and Ashton Woods attended a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force summit. At the conference, the group learned about the Leadership LAB’s non-discrimination canvass model that helped Miami pass an NDO, and made plans to replicate the canvass in Houston.
Members of Transform Houston, who advocated for HERO when that NDO was approved by Houston City Council, were unable to organize a non-discrimination canvass before the NDO was repealed in 2015. The organization ran a transgender prejudice-reduction canvass in 2017 to familiarize Houstonians with trans and gender-nonconforming folks.
With the launch of Transform Houston’s newest outreach plan, the group’s organizers are in search of folks from all backgrounds to create a community council that would lead conversations about the city’s next NDO.
“A diverse steering committee would assist us to drive the work that we want to accomplish,” Pritchett says. “We want to bring together all communities who would be impacted by an NDO so that they feel included in the ordinance from the get-go.”
This article appears in the February 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.