Houston Mayor on How an Equality Bill Became a Political Flashpoint

The first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city discusses the controversy swirling around the city's inaccurately dubbed "bathroom bill"

Houston Mayor Annise Parker is the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. Credit: Erich Schlegel/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Houstonians are heading to the ballot box Tuesday to cast their votes on Proposition 1, or HERO (the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), a relatively innocuous anti-discrimination bill that conservative critics have reframed as the "bathroom bill," inaccurately claiming it provides legal protection for sexual predators. 

Houston Mayor Annise Parker — the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city — recently spoke to Rolling Stone about how a question that effectively boils down to "Are you for or against extending basic human dignity to all people?" not only ended up on the ballot in the city, but became the most controversial and hotly contested issue of the 2015 election.

"I will give full credit to the pastors and the anti-gay organizers here in Houston – they played it masterfully," Parker says.

HERO first came about two years ago, after Mayor Parker asked an aide to pull the city's existing equal rights ordinance for review, only to realize the city had no such ordinance. That made Houston an anomaly not only in Texas, where every other city has one, but among all major cities in the country. (There are currently no federal protections for sexual orientation or gender identity. Any municipality that offers any kind of discrimination protection for gay or transgender individuals has done so by amending local law.)

Parker drafted HERO, and introduced it to the Houston City Council in May 2014. It passed 11 to 6.

But a group of local pastors latched onto language in the legislation – since stricken – allowing people to use the restroom that best suits their gender identity. Those critics have campaigned against the measure on a platform of "No men in women's bathrooms."

After HERO was passed by the city council, those pastors petitioned to have the ordinance put to a public vote. When the city rejected their bid on the grounds they had failed to secure the minimum requirements, the pastors sued. They lost before a local judge, but appealed to the State Supreme Court – "a right-wing reactionary body of elected Republicans," in Parker's words – which suspended the ordinance and ordered it on to the ballot.

"They're using the same playbook that they've used in virtually every city that's trying to pass some equal rights law for years," she tells Rolling Stone, of HERO's critics.

The difference between the campaign that's being waged in Houston and others that have taken place around the country is that, because there was no existing legislation, critics are not just campaigning against trans rights — they're essentially campaigning in favor of indiscriminate discrimination. 

"If you kill [HERO], you throw out all the local protection for the 13 other categories or characteristics out of the 15 enumerated," she says, referring to the classes that are protected by the bill: sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information and pregnancy, in addition to the two petitioners take particular issue with (sexual orientation and gender identity).

Vice Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Davis voted in favor of the measure when it came before the the City Council. When he did, Davis, who is black, spoke about being denied access to nightclubs because of a dress code that wasn't applied to white men at the same club. "He said, 'This has happened to me, and this happened to me since I've been in office, and it shouldn't happen to anybody,'" Parker recalls. 

Before HERO was suspended by the State Supreme Court, five of the 11 complaints received by the city were by individuals who were denied access to a club on the basis of their race. 

"I'm not in the club demographic," Parker, who is 59, says. "I haven't hung out in bars and nightclubs in a long, long time, but these same complaints were from the Seventies and Eighties when I was in that demographic. And I'm really a little bit saddened [by that fact]. But on the other hand, it's brought to light that these practices still exist, and how important it is to have these public conversations."

The conversation surrounding HERO in Houston became more heated when the national media caught wind of the fact that city's lawyer — as part of the lawsuit brought by the pastors — had subpoenaed all HERO-related communications, including any sermons that mentioned the ordinance. A discussion about civil rights suddenly turned into a debate over free speech. 

She first heard about the furor from her elderly mother. "My mom, who watches FOX News, I hate to admit, called me and said, 'Annise, what are you doing to the pastors?'" Parker recalls. "They implied was that we had subpoenaed sermons from every pastor in the city of Houston on everything they had ever said about homosexuality, which was just bunk."

After the ensuing media firestorm (featuring an appearance by presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee), Mayor Parker received hate mail from around the country, but — in what might be a hopeful indication for Tuesday's election — she says, "I didn't hear anything from Houstonians… They were more aware of what was going on."

On Tuesday, in addition to deciding the fate of HERO, Houston voters will decide who will take Parker's seat as mayor come January; after three terms in office, she's leaving office. Despite rumors to the contrary, she says she has no plans for what's next — or at least no immediate plans: "Any statewide offices, county-wide offices that I might be interested in, are not until 2018. So that's a long time in the future, light years, in terms of political timing," she says.

Right now, she's concentrating on solidifying her legacy as "the queen of infrastructure," a moniker she earned for her work shoring up the city's water and sewer department, fixing roads and extending the light-rail system. She says she'd much rather people remember her for those things — or for her work to reduce homelessness and expand the city's green space — than for drafting HERO.

"I've been asked this question directly — Is this the most important thing I've done as mayor? — and the answer is [it's] way far from the most important thing I've done as mayor," Parker says. "It may be the most personally meaningful thing, but I can name you a hundred things I've worked on that are more important to this city, to the future of Houston in the long term, and that I'm more proud of, than this ordinance."