Houston Mayor on How an Equality Bill Became a Political Flashpoint
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).