Houston, widely lauded as the most diverse city in America, earned a more unfortunate distinction Tuesday when voters struck down the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, a law aimed at protecting a wide range of citizens from discrimination in the workplace, in housing and at public businesses. Religious and hard-right conservative leaders opposed to HERO, as it's commonly known, rode the wave of unfounded fears they helped provoke to defeat the ordinance at the ballot box, making Houston the only major American city without a non-discrimination ordinance.
The defeat is particularly stunning for a city that just six years ago ushered in Mayor Annise Parker, the country's first openly gay mayor of a major metropolitan area. It was Parker who first introduced the ordinance to City Council banning discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. HERO opponents seized on that last part, claiming, without evidence, that equal rights for transgender Houstonians could endanger women and young girls in public restrooms.
Former Harris County GOP chair Jared Woodfill, who helped spearhead the challenge against HERO, crowed about the victory from a sparsely attended Election Day party at the Marriott on Westheimer. "This was a long battle, it was a long journey just to earn the right to vote," Woodfill said. "Houston has spoken loudly and clearly that we don't want women in men's restrooms."
Across town, Parker lamented HERO's defeat at the polls. "I've been an activist for more than 40 years. I have stood here in Houston four times when people were given the opportunity to vote on my rights. No one's rights should be subject to a popular vote. It's just wrong," she said.
Parker also spoke of the bitter battle that presaged the HERO vote, calling the anti-HERO effort "a campaign of fearmongering and deliberate lies."
"This is a calculated campaign of lies designed to demonize a little-understood minority, and to use that to take down an ordinance that 200 other cities across America and 17 states have successfully passed and operated under." (See more of our photos from election night here.)
After HERO passed City Council last year, opponents launched a failed petition drive to put the ordinance up for a public vote. Opponents ultimately filed a lawsuit against the city, and this summer the Texas Supreme Court stunned observers when it unexpectedly ordered officials to put HERO on the November 3 ballot.
The fearmongering over bathrooms reached a fever pitch in the final months before the election as the opposition, organized under the Campaign for Houston, ran TV ads depicting little girls being cornered by grown men in public restroom stalls. The campaign even got former Houston Astros star Lance Berkman to go on TV and say that HERO's passage made him fear for his daughters' safety.
For much of the public, HERO had simply become "the bathroom bill." The opposition's rallying cry: "No Men in Women's Restrooms."
The weird logic among the roughly 40 attendees of the anti-HERO watch party was stunning – Pastor Ed Young told the crowd, “We're a city that has a foundation of God and that is accepting. You have to look hard to find discrimination here. This isn't about discrimination, it's about discrimination against us.”
At least Dan Patrick put a refreshing spin on Campaign for Houston's warnings about little girls being targeted by restroom predators, saying, “This was about protecting our grandmas.”
When an interview with Mayor Annise Parker popped up on the hotel ballroom's giant projection screen, the crowd hushed long enough to hear her say, “No one's rights should be subject to a popular vote. It's insulting, demeaning and wrong,” and then promptly broke into sarcastic “awwwwws.”
“This is Texas!” one man shouted. “That's how we do here!”
Inside Jackson Street BBQ, where HERO supporters had gathered Tuesday night, most knew the game was over by the time Mayor Parker made her way to the podium.
“It's disappointing that a city that is diverse and inclusive as we are can't do the right thing — not only the right thing for people, but a good thing for businesses,” said native Houstonian Kim Frederick, who, standing at the bar, watched on TV as the polling numbers plummeted. “I'm embarrassed as a Houstonian. I'm angry as a woman. This city is a majority-minority city, so the fact that [the opposition] has somehow managed to get people to vote against our own rights — that says a lot about the people here. I'm embarrassed at what this is going to look like on the national stage.”
On Twitter, #BoycottHouston was trending within an hour of the final count.
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For many reeling from Tuesday's loss, HERO's failure may have real, personal consequences. One transgender man told the Press the HERO poll outcome would determine whether he came out to his employer. Another transgender man, Dylan Forbis, publicly came out to all of the state in an earlier video by Equality Texas, hoping his story would make a difference. “I'm beyond appalled at the outcome of this,” he said.
Before the defeating poll numbers started trickling in, pro-HERO volunteers had spent much of the day canvassing neighborhoods, reminding voters to cast a Yes on Proposition 1. Two women said they'd knocked on 565 doors between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, patiently explaining to residents what HERO was really about whenever they got confused or said, “I thought this was an ordinance about bathrooms.”
Another canvasser, Henry Darraugh, met a woman who had already voted no, heeding the anti-HERO TV ads and fearing for her granddaughter's safety in bathrooms. After Darraugh took a few minutes to explain the ordinance to her on her doorstep, he says, the woman told him, “I hope it passes.”
Updated 11:30 p.m.