The rejection of Houston’s HERO ordinance on Nov. 3 now makes the fourth-largest city in the U.S. the only major city without a non-discriminative ordinance. HERO would have protected 15 different groups, such as pregnant women, transgender people and people of color, from discrimination on a city government level.
While 13 of these groups are protected under federal law, federal civil courts are often so backed up that a case will not be heard. The defeat of the ordinance proves the power of protest, paranoia and groupthink in the election cycle.
The slogan “no men in women’s bathrooms” was coined during protests of the ordinance. Many Houstonians were worried that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with would allow men who do not actually identify as transgender to dress up as women and use the women’s bathroom to rape young girls. While the argument may be fueled by paranoia, many who argue this sincerely believe they are looking out for the entire population of women and girls in the city.
Yet some Houstonians voiced opposition to the bill strictly because they disagree with protecting transgender people. Former Houston Astros player Lance Berkman said it worried him because it allowed “troubled men who claim to be women to enter women’s bathrooms, showers and locker rooms.” By hinting that transgender people are “troubled,” Berkman is highlighting the intolerance the bill was trying to prevent and is corrupting the slogan “no men in women’s bathrooms” into a statement of hate.
Elizabeth Picherit, assistant instructor in the rhetoric and writing department, said the campaign slogan used by anti-HERO activists contributed to the success of the campaign. She pointed out a similar bill passed this summer in California that guaranteed rights to transgender people. The opposition used the hashtag #privacyforall, which “is vague language that does not point out specific genders or people.” Picherit said this is what set the Houston group apart; by pointing out specific genders in regards to the bathroom, it appeals to more people.
“Public bathrooms have been a point of contention for gender rights for a very long time,” Picherit said. “Gender segregation in America dates back to the 19th century, when plumbing was modernized as well as Victorian ideas that women need to be protected and have their own bathroom.”
Thatcher Combs, a transgender man and sociology doctoral candidate, said he also attributes the popularity of the slogan to societal gender roles and expectations.
“These fears are not about perpetrators,” Combs said. “They are about the gender norms we have in our society.”
Combs said the rejection of the ordinance is an indicator that the LGBT community should not stop rallying for equality. While gay marriage is now legal under federal law, he recognized that more progress is needed in terms of acceptance.
“I think that it is extremely troubling that we have to put rights up for vote,” Combs said.
The lack of an anti-discrimination ordinance in such a large city is unacceptable. Everyone should be protected from discrimination, regardless of any personal characteristic.
Vernon is a PACE freshman from Houston. Follow her on Twitter @_emilyvernon_.