What the Anti-HERO Backlash Has Done to Transgender Houstonians

Anti-HERO protestors
Anti-HERO protestors
Aaron Reiss

All Celeste could do was roll her eyes when the woman she had just seen in the bathroom stood at the podium before City Council and described her as a sexual predator. Earlier, she had waited as long as she could to get up and pee, waiting until she was certain no one protesting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO as it's commonly known, would be policing the bathroom door like a high school hall monitor. But when Celeste got out of the stall to wash her hands, one of those protesters looked at her horrified, saying, “You shouldn’t be in here.”

A half hour later, that woman was telling City Council she feared for her safety, as if Celeste, a transgender woman just washing her hands at a bathroom sink, was somehow a threatening presence. Celeste (who, fearing backlash from anti-HERO protestors, asked that the Houston Press not use her real name) thought, Are you kidding me?

Celeste says that she'd already been spit on by protesters as she walked into City Hall earlier that day. Told she’s going to hell. Called a “he-she” and a “she-male.” She had come to City Hall to share her story with Mayor Annise Parker and council members as they prepared to vote on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. To Celeste, the ordinance promised protection from the kind of discrimination she had already faced in the workplace and job market, protection from the kind of people who would actually spit on her because of who she is. The kind of people who would tell city leaders she's a public safety threat.

For other Houstonians, HERO would mean protection from discrimination in employment and housing and at public businesses on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information or pregnancy. But somehow, everything had become about bathrooms. Even after City Council passed HERO in May 2014, the opposition never stopped talking about how HERO would, in their minds, make bathrooms dangerous for women, and especially young girls.

By July 2015, a legal challenge by HERO opponents, including a number of religious leaders, had landed at the Texas Supreme Court, which ordered Houston to repeal the law or put it to the voters this November. All the while, the opposition somehow turned an equal rights ordinance into an argument about whether HERO would open the door for male predators, dressed as women, to enter women’s restrooms and sexually assault young girls. One woman said in the first anti-HERO radio ad that she might have to move away from Houston if she wanted to have a baby girl here, fearing the child could one day be assaulted in a bathroom.

The opposition, the Campaign for Houston, has clung tightly to this idea even though it's already against the law to assault people in bathrooms and HERO would not change that, and in spite of the fact that it has never happened in the more than 200 other cities that have passed non-discrimination ordinances (in fact, Houston is the only major city without a non-discrimination ordinance on the books). HERO opponents have also clung tightly to their beliefs that transgender people are somehow not entitled to equal rights, even though many have either legally had their genders affirmed by judges or have been authorized by doctors to use the bathroom of their gender during their transition, as Celeste was for a few years.

Celeste says she made the decision to transition in 2010, in a hospital bed after a failed suicide attempt, after 36 years of having to pretend to be someone she felt she wasn’t: a man. She wouldn’t find out until that night, from her father, that she was born intersex, and that doctors surgically removed the uterus and fallopian tubes from her when she was three days old. Those doctors, in the early ’70s, assured her parents that if they just took away all the dolls she wanted to play with and replaced them with fire trucks, she would grow up to be a completely normal man.

And from what everyone else could tell, she was. Celeste spent six years in the Navy and did two CIA-classified deployments on nuclear submarines, wearing women’s undergarments beneath her sailor suit. She obtained an electrical engineering degree while with the Navy, traveled the world for 12 years afterward working for one oil and gas company and then moved on to another, making six figures. She was married and had a daughter with her first wife — but even in their family Christmas photos, Celeste was not smiling.

So after the suicide attempt in 2010, the doctors told her the only treatment that made sense would be to make the gender transition. The first thing her therapist told her to do was go home and burn every male thing she owned. Within a few months of hormone therapy, she was, for the first time in her life, happy.

But the new identity came with baggage, too — mostly in the form of discrimination and prejudice from others.

Last year, Celeste had to go back to therapy after advocating for HERO's passage at City Council, when she saw her basic fight for human rights turn ugly. It took her six sessions to put behind her the things people yelled at her on the steps of City Hall.

“You’re a man!”

“You’re demented!”

“You’re sick!”

“What the opposition doesn’t understand,” Celeste told the Press, “is that saying we’re perverts and driving that into the media, into the general public — it makes our life a living hell.”

Celeste endured it, she says, because she needed HERO to pass, badly. By the time HERO went before council, she had been out of work for two years.

In 2012, halfway through her transition, Celeste was laid off from a company where she'd worked for four years—even though there were four other openings within that company for which she was highly qualified. Since 2012, Celeste says, she has applied for more than 20 positions ranging from six-figure electrical engineering management positions to flipping burgers at a fast-food joint. She has not been offered a single one. “Twenty years’ management experience,” says 42-year-old Celeste, who has lived in Houston since she was a kid, “and I can’t find a standard McJob.”

The hiring managers never outwardly tell her what they’re thinking, but two interviews she scored were through referrals, and so she later learned why she'd been turned down. Back in 2012, her partner tried to help her get a job selling trade magazines for the oil and gas publishing company where she worked. The interviewers told her they would love to see her in the position; they just needed to get the green light from their head boss. Her partner came home later that day with some bad news: “The head boss only wants a female in that role," she told Celeste. 

Two weeks ago, a friend got her in for an interview for a seasonal management position at another company. Great interview. Answered all the tough questions. Celeste was feeling good. The news: “They don’t have anything against you personally. But they think you might offend the customers in the office.”

So now Celeste is just being her own boss, working as a chauffeur for an elderly woman who can’t drive. The woman is accepting, and never had any problems with Celeste’s gender identity. She makes about $1,000 a month.

She is generally happy — much happier than she had ever been in her first 36 years — and her partner keeps them afloat. Her daughter lives in Utah with her mother, but has always been supportive of her decision, still calling her Dad whenever they’re in private, but Celeste doesn’t mind.

Over the past few months, Celeste says, she has tried to stay under the radar, hoping to be as invisible as possible. As the vote for HERO on November 3 has edged closer, as the conservative mega-church pastors, anti-HERO moms with bullhorns, and even Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and baseball hall-of-famer Lance Berkman have labeled transgender rights a public safety threat, Celeste says she couldn’t bring herself to fight for HERO like she used to, or even to try to calmly explain herself, her identity, to the opposition or to the media anymore.

She’s sick of explaining herself, of being the bogeyman in the bathroom. She says she can feel the desperation in the pro-HERO campaign’s fundraising emails, the subject lines reading, “we could lose,” “get us there,” “Our opponents just tripled their TV ad buy.” And she’s no longer convinced a non-discrimination, equal-rights ordinance has a good chance of passing in a city where the debate has devolved into this.

Celeste says she will keep her fingers crossed anyway, hoping voters will come out to the polls and affirm the rights of all those 16 classes of people protected by HERO. She even hopes the anti-HERO crowd will realize that HERO protects their bigoted beliefs, and that perhaps they might change their minds at the last minute, too.

But even if HERO does pass, it will matter little to Celeste. She and her partner have already planned to move to Seattle.

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