In March 2013, Alexis Hollada, better known by her stage name, Doomstress Alexis, is on her way back from Austin with her drummer, Raymond Matthews, in tow. The pair have just rocked a gig during SXSW with their doom metal act, Project Armageddon, and now just want to get back to Houston after picking up a bite to eat at a diner on U.S. 290. There isn't much on the bass player and vocalist's mind aside from food and a chance to use the bathroom before the long drive home, and she's still high on the adrenaline from performing.
She and Matthews seat themselves and order coffee, which arrives a minute later while they look at their menus and wait for the server to take their order. And wait. And wait.
Time crawls along in the diner, which doesn't look particularly busy. Repeated attempts by the pair to make eye contact with or flag down a server are ignored. Even polite calls for help and service elicit either a dead stare or no response at all. Hollada finally realizes what's happening.
She is silently being told that as a transgender woman, she isn't welcome in the restaurant.
Photos from any Project Armageddon gig will show that Hollada is a woman-and-a-half in every direction. Though she and Matthews are dressed in plain, nondescript clothes for the road instead of their stage gear involving skintight leather and spikes, the outfit does little to hide either her height or large, somewhat masculine muscles that are the result of her heavy workload as a motorcycle mechanic during the day. She's buxom, and her face is pretty by any standard, but there's a cast to her bone structure that subtly tips off people that Hollada's birth gender is male despite her legal status as female.
Hollada started transitioning in 2008, and though she's become sort of accustomed to incidents like this, they still hurt.
"Now I find it almost amusing, but when I first began going out fully as a woman, I worried about my passability and my safety," she says. "If I was at a restaurant or something, I would always go to the restroom with a friend so that way I was safe. There would be less suspicion. Still, you were always worried that someone would create a fuss, raise a stink with security, or worse."
Though it was nothing new to Hollada, her drummer sat at the table dumbfounded by this open discrimination. Hollada's transgender status is no secret to the Houston metal scene. "It wasn't a big place, and you start to feel everyone's eyes on you," says Hollada. "You learn to recognize it, feel the sidelong looks, but Raymond didn't really know that this sort of thing goes on for people like me."
Nearly an hour later, with drained cups and no food in sight, the pair quietly leave money for their coffee and walk out the door.
Things like the diner's hostile refusal of service to a transgender person aren't supposed to happen, and in Houston that is a fact of law beyond just sheer common courtesy. In May, Mayor Annise Parker signed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO. Passed after an 11-6 vote by City Council, the ordinance prohibits discrimination based on "sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy." Violation of the ordinance carries a fine of up to $5,000.
The law applies to city employers, housing, city contractors and private employers with more than 50 employees. Only 7 percent of businesses in the Houston area fall under that categorization, and many people feel that because of that fact, 50 is too high a threshold. Religious institutions are exempt.
Opposition to the bill, which includes a gender identity provision, comes mostly from the conservative and religious right, including former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Earlier drafts contained a paragraph mentioning specifically that businesses would not be allowed to refuse entry to any public restroom that was consistent with a person's gender identity.
Most of the opposition has been based on the notion that the ordinance made all bathrooms gender-neutral and that transsexual and transvestite men would now be able to easily and legally stalk women and female children in the stalls. Opponents call it the Sexual Predator Protection Act.
In June, a coalition called No Unequal Rights started running radio ads (featuring "Nadia's Theme" from The Young and the Restless as background music) on Majic 102.1 FM KMJQ claiming that all over Houston, "from Macy's to McDonald's," young girls were being exposed to men in wigs with pubic hair sticking out from under their short skirts.
And an analysis by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a large Christian nonprofit, claimed that the ordinance "places women and girls at risk of voyeurism, assault, and worse." In its report, the organization cited nearly a dozen news stories involving men videotaping or exposing themselves to women and girls under the guise of being transgender and therefore free to do so under nondiscrimination laws.
Ultimately, the bathroom clause was removed from the final draft of HERO, a move applauded by the LGBT community as well because it also took out wording indicating that a business could refuse the use of a restroom if it felt someone's claim to be transgender was disingenuous.
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"To my trans sisters/brothers: you're still fully protected in Equal Rights Ordinance. We're simply removing language that singled you out.-A" said the mayor in a tweet.
Still, a great deal of fear continues to dominate the debate as the far right claims danger lurks behind HERO's expansion of protections.
Such fear is a little strange because two of the largest areas of life in Houston, the Houston Independent School District and law enforcement under the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Office, have had similar protections for the trans community for years with great success and none of the vitriolic, bitter opposition shown to HERO.
Contrary to the remarks by Pastor Kendall Baker to City Council in May during the hearings, such protections do not appear to have caused the End Times as of yet.