Houston is just the beginning.
Having won a rare victory against the LGBT Equality movement in overturning the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, the religious right is bringing their toxic campaign of lies to other cities around the country. In other words, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
First, a little background. The reason laws like the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance exist(ed) is that cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City—and smaller ones like Fayetteville, Arkansas—are blue islands in red oceans. In Texas, I can be fired for being gay, denied medical care for being gay (yes, this has actually happened), and harassed for being gay—because, religious freedom.
Despite coastal misconceptions, however, not all of Texas (or Georgia, or Florida) is backward. Urban areas attract diverse populations, and living among diverse populations, it has been shown in numerous studies, dispels ignorance about them. So cities have often gone where conservative state legislatures fear to tread, protecting vulnerable populations like LGBTs.
In fact, this trend was behind one of the landmark LGBT Supreme Court cases, Romer v. Evans, decided in 1996. In that case, the City of Denver had passed an anti-discrimination ordinance just like the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), and the good people of Colorado passed Amendment 2 to expressly overturn it. The Supreme Court found Amendment 2 unconstitutional, because it singled out gay people to deny them equal rights.
So conservatives have gotten smarter. Earlier this year, for example, the state of Arkansas passed a law just like Amendment 2, except it didn’t mention gays specifically; it just says that no municipality can protect a group that the state, itself, doesn’t protect.
There’s only one such group: LGBTs, who had been protected from discrimination in Fayetteville. But since they’re not named directly, the law will likely survive judicial review.
Which brings us to Houston, the first major U.S. city to expressly repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance. Technically, HERO banned kinds of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status, disability, national origin, and gender identity. However, since state and federal already ban many of these forms of discrimination, it’s mainly the LGBT community that is now without protection.
To their great credit, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations still lined up to defend HERO, even though their core constituency didn’t stand to lose.
But HERO went down in a landslide, 62 percent to 38 percent. Why? Because of the same right-wing echo chamber that denies climate change and says Obamacare is a form of Nazism, and that has enough money to blanket the airwaves until the lies become consensus.
Indeed, the same “usual suspects” that gathered last week at the World Congress of Families in Utah were behind the Houston anti-gay initiative: Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, American Family Association, and National Organization for Marriage. They have been honing this messaging, and now they’ve got a winner.
Where is this fight headed next?
According to The Daily Beast’s review of data collected by the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, there are 227 local ordinances more protective than state ordinances, including cities like Alexandria, Anchorage, Atlanta, Austin, Boise, Cincinnati, Flagstaff, Gainesville, Indianapolis, Key West, Laramie, Milwaukee, Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh Sarasota, Sedona, Tampa, Tempe, Toledo, Tucson, and West Palm Beach.
If you’ll notice, they all fit the pattern of relatively blue areas in relatively red states. Expect all of them to be targeted by the big anti-gay outfits and their major funders like the Green Foundation (of Hobby Lobby fame), the National Christian Foundation, Coors, Heartland Foundation (also the leading bankrollers of climate denial), Bradley Foundation, and others..
And expect the same pattern of outright lies. Consider this post from conservative activist Erick Erickson, the founder of the hard-right website Red State:
Tonight, the people of Houston fought back and rejected the attempt to allow perverts, the mentally ill, liars, and others who want to get in to opposite sex bathrooms.Christians and common sense won. Perverts, the mentally ill, and the gay rights mob lost.It remains unscientific that men can be women and women can be men. But it has become an article of faith to the supposedly pro-science left—an article of faith rejected by the people of Texas.
Let’s enumerate the falsehoods in this bit of bilious vomit.
First, HERO was not about bathrooms. It was a comprehensive equal-rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, medical care, public accommodations, and education. The phrase “Bathroom Bill” is, like “Death Tax” and Obamacare’s “Death Panels” (say, where are those, anyway?) a piece of market-researched right-wing propaganda.
True, conceivably, one one-thousandth of its impact might be to allow transgender people to use gender-appropriate bathrooms. But consider the alternative: bearded, muscular men like this guy (transmale hunk Buck Angel) using the Ladies Room. Is that going to keep the chaste young ladies of Houston safe? Where, exactly, is Buck Angel supposed to pee—nowhere?
Second, even if we buy into the “Bathroom Bill” lie, there is not a single case, ever, anywhere, at all, of a “mentally ill” man trying to pass as a transgender woman to commit an act of sexual assault in a bathroom. Newsflash: “Perverts and liars” do not need to do so in order to rape women.
Third, the science of gender is, in fact, well-understood by all people who don’t have their heads up their asses. Tens of thousands of gender dysphoric people have received gender-confirmation treatments, and now lead happy, healthy lives according to their felt gender. This doesn’t require faith—only that know-nothings like Erickson open their eyes and ears and get to know some trans people. It’s not rocket science, but it is the kind of empiricism that the GOP’s flat-earthers (in Michael Tomasky’s felicitous phrase) can’t seem to manage.
And yet, this scare talk works very, very well. Reframing an anti-discrimination bill to make it about bathrooms evokes disgust, prudery, and shame. Raising the specter of sexual violence evokes fear, horror, and paternal instincts.
And that makes it very hard to say, wait a minute, we’re talking about a handful of trans people, most of whom you probably wouldn’t even know are trans, in the context of thousands of LGBT people who face very real discrimination every single day.
I don’t know whether the likes of Erickson eat their own proverbial dog food or not. Maybe they do, or maybe it’s all just be a cynical ploy to make the world safe for their rightist agenda of returning America to the good ol’ days of segregation, women’s subordination, and Saudi-style morality police.
Either way, the messaging was so powerful that many Houstonians had no idea that HERO was an anti-discrimination law at all. They sincerely believed it was some kind of social experiment, to let men use women’s restrooms. “If I understand, part is about picking the restroom you want,” one police officer told BuzzFeed before the vote.
And now, this blizzard of lies is the template moving forward.
The biggest loser in the battle, other than Houston’s trans population, is the often-deservedly-maligned pro-gay group, the Human Rights Campaign. It made the campaign a signature effort. HRC president Chad Griffin swooped into town to raise money, which is what his outfit does best, while 34 staff members were dispatched, reportedly, to do… something.
And yet they lost, badly—perhaps due to the out-of-state robo-callers, and the lack of outreach to communities of color and Hispanic communities, which after all, aren’t in HRC’s donor base.
Part of HRC’s strategy was not to take on the bathroom messaging. Instead of showcasing the LGBT community’s best stories—trans teenagers who are and look like cheerleaders being forced to pee in a boys’ room full of bullies—they sent in Sally Field to say namby-pamby things about love.
Fuck love. Activists should’ve told the truth: the truth about trans lives, the truth about what the bill does and doesn’t say, and the truth about the Religious Right and its network of funders. The truth about over 20 transgender women murdered this year.
Now the corporations which are happy to receive awards from HRC in exchange for large donations (looking at you, Goldman Sachs, Accenture, Qualcomm, AT&T, CA Technologies, Coca-Cola, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and Symantec) need to demand the NCAA move the 2016 Final Four to an arena that can’t bar gays from entering it, and demand that the NFL relocate Super Bowl 51. If HRC can’t win a propaganda war, it should at least be able to mobilize its stalwart corporate supporters. Right?
It’s tempting to dismiss the Republican retrograde caucus. Young-earth creationism, trickle-down economics, long-form birth certificates, liberal media bias—all just a huge cascade of bullshit.
But sometimes the mountain of lies covers the truth and smothers innocent people beneath them. The Bathroom Menace is fake. But the 21 murders of transgender women of color this year are all too real. And now a vulnerable community has just been made more vulnerable.
One down, 226 to go.