When the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance failed at the ballot box last November, it didn’t just kill short-lived protections for LGBT Houstonians (as well as for 14 other protected classes of people vulnerable to discrimination in employment, housing and public spaces). Within Houston’s transgender community, there’s lingering pain from the way hard-right conservatives defeated the non-discrimination ordinance – with TV spots of little girls being stalked in public restrooms, the lie that “bathroom predators” could use the ordinance as a cover for criminal acts, and the rallying cry “No Men in Women’s Restrooms.”
“The message was clear: Transgender women, in particular, are dangerous,” said Dana Hinton, who runs a local transgender support group. “Since HERO, I’ve had this heightened sense of situational awareness,” Hinton said. “I’m much more worried I’ll walk out of the bathroom and straight into the fist of an angry husband or boyfriend.”
Transgender Houstonians like Hinton are caught in an unenviable position. In one sense, they feel their voices are critical to the public discussion around equal rights, particularly as non-discrimination ordinances, like the one defeated in Houston last year, become the punching bag of a religious right deeply offended by last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
But the raucous debate over HERO last year made coming out an even more gut-wrenching process for transgender Houstonians, who now confront fears and misconceptions ginned up by the campaign to defeat the ordinance.
“We’re aware that, for some people, those hateful [anti-HERO] ads are all they know about what it means to be transgender,” Allie Heart, who attends Hinton’s support group, told the Houston Press. “We’re not just upset that HERO didn’t pass. Some of us feel more vulnerable because of how people look at us now.”
Going to the restroom, while never exactly risk-free for transgender people in many parts of Texas, has become a more harrowing ordeal since the HERO debate, Hinton says. There's more staring, more angry men waiting outside to interrogate her. While Hinton says for her it's never escalated into a physical confrontation, she says others in her support group haven't been so lucky.
All of which takes a toll on an already marginalized community, says Ann J. Robison, executive director of the Montrose Center. Robison says the number of people coming to the center for mental health services started to go up as the dust settled after the HERO vote. “It’s demoralizing when you realize two out of three voters believed all the vicious things the opposition said about you,” she told the Press. “It’s hard not to take that personally.”
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But it’s the transgender community that is in many ways at the heart of a debate now reverberating across the country. Late last month, lawmakers in North Carolina called a special session on the heels of Charlotte's passing a non-discrimination law that, as in Houston, came under conservative fire largely because it allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that best fits them (i.e., the bathroom that corresponds to the gender with which they identify). The North Carolina General Assembly ultimately passed a sweeping measure voiding any local non-discrimination ordinances. On Tuesday, Mississippi lawmakers passed a measure allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny service to gay couples.
So perhaps it's good the Texas Legislature only meets every two years. In February, a group of clergy, religious organizations and right-wing “family values” conservatives started pushing for the Lege to ban any ordinances that infringe upon their right to discriminate against the LGBT community. North Carolina-style bills were filed throughout the last legislative session, but they all failed. There are lawmakers here itching for that same napalm-the-jungle approach to local equal rights ordinances in Texas – some of which, as in Dallas, have been on the books for more than a decade.
That’s in part why Lou Weaver is encouraging transgender Texans like himself to become more vocal and visible as the legislature approaches the 2017 session. “Something like 80 to 90 percent of Americans know an out gay or lesbian person now, and that’s led to a dramatically different discussion on issues like same-sex marriage,” Weaver told the Press. Surveys show only about 10 percent of Americans know an out transgender person, Weaver said.
Last week Weaver, transgender programs coordinator with Equality Texas, helped launch what the organization is calling its “Transvisible” project. The idea, Weaver says, is to reduce violence and prejudice against transgender people by introducing Houstonians to their transgender neighbors. “If you don’t know trans folks, it’s easy to be mystified and to believe the lies and stories that are spread about us,” Weaver said. “It’s much harder to do that when you realize we’re your neighbors, your co-workers, just everyday Houstonians.”