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Dispatches: How the Cynics Won, as Houston Rights Measure is Defeated

The campaign was nasty, mean-spirited, and misleading. It was also, for the opponents of a Houston measure aimed at fighting discrimination, very successful.

Campaign for Houston supporters check election results at a watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, in Houston. © 2015 AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

On Tuesday, voters defeated the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, by a wide margin, coming on the heels of an astonishingly dishonest campaign that distorted the ordinance and demonized transgender people.

Opponents persistently and inaccurately suggested that protections for gender identity in public places would permit sexually predatory men and boys’ access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms, putting them at serious risk. With t-shirts and placards reading “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms: Vote NO on Houston’s Prop #1,” they convinced 61 percent of Houston’s voters to reject the ordinance.

The campaign was misleading. Seventeen states and over 200 municipalities prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. For all the fear mongering, there is no evidence linking these provisions to crimes, like assault. To the contrary, nondiscrimination provisions ensure that transgender people, who regularly experience discrimination and violence in restrooms and elsewhere, are able to access public spaces safely and free from harassment.

All Houstonians are worse off as a result of this cynical campaign. Lost in the narrow focus of the opposition to HERO was the protection the ordinance offered against discrimination by sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, and pregnancy, as well as gender identity. It also painted HERO as an ordinance about bathrooms alone, when it addressed discrimination in employment, housing, city services, and other public accommodations.

The defeat of HERO is a setback, but the ability to access public accommodations free from discrimination remains crucial. In the aftermath of the vote, supporters of HERO have set to work affirming the importance of equality for all and debunking the falsehoods and stereotypes peddled by opponents. In the long run, making that honest case for fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections is a winning strategy, both in Houston and nationally. 

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