The Truth About Houston’s Equality Law
How the media botched the story about a law that would have protected the rights of everyone.
In their story on how voters in Houston had struck down the city’s “Equal Rights Ordinance” in Tuesday’s election, NPR said the ordinance would have “banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” This is true, but not the whole truth. The ordinance would have also barred discrimination based on race and pregnancy and veteran status and, in all, 15 categories that in one way or another include every single person in the city.
But the fact that the media—like Houston voters—thought the non-discrimination law would only help LGBT people and not everyone is a microcosm in which Americans often shoot their own self-interest in the foot because they buy into divisive fear mongering.
For full disclosure, I helped lead a media-training seminar for several of the key spokespeople supporting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Which means I’m well versed in what the ordinance would actually do (the message advocates tried to get out) as well as the misrepresentations and downright lies about the ordinance.
So let’s be very clear about the facts: The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance would have barred discrimination in housing, employment and so-called public accommodations like restaurants and movie theaters for pregnant women. And returning veterans. And immigrants. And black people. But also white people. Women, but also men. People with disabilities. The elderly. Single folks and married couples. In fact, the law would have also prevented discrimination against heterosexual people.
People often don’t realize that non-discrimination laws bar discrimination not just against “minorities” but everyone. Houston is a diverse, worldly and welcoming city. The Equal Rights Ordinance would have made the city’s laws match its values.
Who on God’s green earth would oppose such a law? Well, the same sorts of marginal but vocal right-wing forces who oppose the very notion of equal treatment. For the record, these are the same people who also oppose equal-pay laws and in some cases would even amend the Civil Rights Act. They want government telling poor women what they can do with their bodies, but they don’t want government telling corporations they can’t discriminate. Mind you, even the business sector supported the Equal Rights Ordinance in Houston but what do facts and logic matter when you have lies?
“No Men In Women’s Bathrooms” was the tagline of the pro-discrimination campaign to strike down the Equal Rights Ordinance. Their misleading message was that the non-discrimination law would allow male sexual predators to dress up as women and go into women’s restrooms. Speaking to a cheering crowd after the law’s defeat, Republican Lt. Gov. of Texas Dan Patrick said, “It was about protecting our grandmoms, and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters.” Nothing like using the sexist rationale of patriarchy to get voters to reinforce that patriarchy.
But again—not to dwell on pesky facts or anything—being a sexual predator, in a women’s room or a men’s room or anywhere else for that matter, was already illegal in Houston and would remain illegal if the Equal Rights Ordinance had passed. And implying that trans women who simply want to pee are akin to sexual predators masquerading as women to prey in bathrooms is deeply offensive. Opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance played into transphobia and the voters followed suit, defeating a law that was in their own best interest.
Here’s another fact: In Austin, Dallas, and El Paso—the three Texas cities that already had similar non-discrimination ordinances—there have not been any reported cases of sexual predators masquerading as women (or men) to enter public restrooms. That is a myth spread with the calculated goal of defeating a good law. But what is very real, and all too common, is discrimination based on gender or race or age or veteran status or sexual orientation or gender identity. Note to Houston voters: Next time, if you really want to help your women, pass a law that protects them from discrimination.
Whether it’s denying climate change or championing tax cuts for the rich or opposing non-discrimination laws, conservatives are increasingly willing to abandon basic facts and spread smears and lies to push their narrow agenda. It’s a shame voters keep falling for it. They’re only hurting themselves.