Major media outlets declared the Houston ordinance defeated after 7 p.m., affirming the nation’s fourth largest city will continue to lack explicit prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of several categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to unofficial results from Harris County, the numbers for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which came to voters as Proposition 1, were 39 percent “yes” and 61 percent “no” with 100 percent of precincts reporting a low turnout election.
Houston Mayor Annise Paker, an out lesbian who backed the ordinance, sought to rally supporters of the measure after the defeat.
“I have stood here in Houston four times when people were given the opportunity to vote on my rights,” Parker said. “No one’s rights should be subject to a popular vote. It is insulting, it is demeaning and it is just wrong.”
Parker added anti-LGBT forces ran a campaign of “deliberate lies” intended to “demonize a little-understood minority,” likely referring to the attacks on transgender people using the restroom.
“They just kept spewing an ugly wad of lies from our TV screen and from pulpits,” Parker said. “This was a calculated campaign by a very small, but determined group of right-wing ideologues and the religionist-right, and they know only how to destroy, not how to build up.”
The campaign of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, who endorsed the ordinance last week, tweeted out a message the results indicate more work is necessary to advance LGBT rights.
Everyone deserves full and equal protection under the law. This is a reminder of the work still left to do. https://t.co/r68QAHxxPT
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 4, 2015
LGBT advocates who worked on the Houston Unites campaign aimed at passing the ordinance blamed the defeat on TV ads stoking fears about transgender people using the public restroom consistent with their gender identity.
Kathy Miller, president of the pro-LGBT Texas Freedom Network, chided Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for endorsing the idea the measure was about allowing men to use women’s restrooms.
“It was disturbing to see our state’s two highest elected leaders shamefully peddling lies and scare tactics,” Miller said. “Their political pandering has branded Texas as hostile to basic human rights and inclusiveness. In lending the prestige of their offices to such a shockingly deceitful campaign, Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick aligned themselves with some of this state’s most extreme and intolerant voices. That can only hurt the state’s reputation among anyone or any business that might want to move here.”
Ahead of the vote, LGBT advocates behind the ordinance insisted individuals who engage in inappropriate behavior or sexual assault in public restrooms would still face penalties even if the ordinance became law, but that message didn’t seem to take hold based on the results.
According to the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters, local media outlets in Houston perpetuated the idea the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was a “bathroom bill” instead of debunking those attacks.
In a blog post Wednesday, Rachel Percelay, a Media Matters research associate, said the media depicted the measure as a pro-LGBT measure and shied away from saying it would prohibit discrimination against a total of 15 characteristics of people.
“Instead of giving Houstonians the information they needed to make an informed decision about whether to keep or repeal HERO, media outlets contributed to the gross misinformation campaign surrounding Houston’s non-discrimination law,” Perclay wrote. “On Tuesday night, Houstonians voted to strip their LGBT neighbors of basic legal protections out of fear of the imaginary bathroom bogeymen they had heard so much about in the news.”
But outside observers say the problem was the lack of effective communication from the pro-LGBT campaign. After all, LGBT advocates raised nearly $3 million for the Houston Unites campaign, which was more than double the $1 million raised by Campaign for Houston.
Monica Roberts, a Houston-based transgender advocate, wrote in a blog post Wednesday “this debacle didn’t have to happen” and was the result of insufficient outreach to the black community in Houston, which comprises 25 percent of the city’s population.
“The Black LGBT community and our allies have been warning for months that action was needed in our community IMMEDIATELY or else HERO was going down to defeat,” Roberts wrote. “We pleaded for canvassing in our neighborhoods, pro-HERO ads on Houston Black radio stations and hard hitting attacks to destroy the only card our haters had to play in the bathroom meme.”
Michelangelo Signorile, a New York-based gay advocate and radio host, said on Twitter the defeat of HERO was the result of lack of outreach to racial minority communities and demonstrates the need for new leadership in the LGBT movement.
We make same mistakes, Prop 8 redux. City is 43% Latino, 24% black. LGBT had no big ad buy in black, Latino media, but haters did outreach. — Mike Signorile (@MSignorile) November 4, 2015
The Human Rights Campaign, Freedom for All Americans and Houston Unites didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview after the defeat of the Houston ordinance. In a joint statement, HRC along with ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, NAACP Houston Branch, Texas Freedom Network, Freedom for All Americans said the fight isn’t over.
“We have to continue sharing our stories so that more Houstonians know what HERO is really about and aren’t susceptible to the ugliest of smear campaigns run by the opposition,” the statement says. “And we must remember that all of us are stronger when we stand together, speaking up with one voice for protections like those in HERO, rather than allowing those who oppose fairness and equality to divide us.”
It remains to be seen whether the Houston City Council will take another shot at passing an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination measure — perhaps again with explicit language the measure doesn’t allow inappropriate behavior in restrooms.
Parker, whose term as mayor expires at the end of this year, said during a news conference Wednesday “there’s a strong desire” among city council members to try again.
“There are several council members who have talked to me about bringing it back up, perhaps bringing it back up in segments such as the non-discrimination in employment and housing and public accommodations separately, so that we can directly deal with those aspects of the ordinance,” Parker said. “There may be other ideas.”
Parker added she can’t support a measure that removes any of the 15 classes of people protected under the ordinance. That would include the transgender protections that inspired the fear-mongering ads.
Already there are calls for retaliation against Houston or a boycott much like what happened earlier this year in Indiana after Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a religious freedom measure seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.
Joe Jervis, a New York-based gay blogger, said on Twitter as the early returns didn’t look good for the ordinance that a boycott of Houston should begin the next day.
— JoeMyGod (@JoeMyGod) November 4, 2015
Brynn Tannehill, a transgender advocate and former member of the U.S. Navy, wrote in a blog post Wednesday for OutSports the has time come for the National Football League to move Super Bowl LI, which is set to take place in Houston in 2017.
“The only way to remain ethically consistent, and show that respect, is to move the 2017 Super Bowl to a location where people like me are not put in mortal danger every time we need to use the bathroom,” Tannehill said.
Brian McCathy, an NFL spokesperson, said in a statement to the Blade the defeat of the LGBT ordinance won’t impact the Super Bowl.
“This will not affect our plans for Super Bowl LI in 2017,” McCarthy said. “We will work closely with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee to make sure all fans feel welcomed at our events. Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard.”
During her news conference, Parker said she “fully expect[s]” there will be a “negative economic impact,” but she’s grateful the pro-LGBT campaign didn’t overtly threaten sanctions if the ordinance failed.
“I obviously couldn’t be part of any effort that threatened to cause boycotts or conferences or conferences to leave the City of Houston,” Parker said. “There was, as I know, discussion internally. The Greater Houston Partnership was extremely concerned, as was I.”
Questions also persist over whether the defeat of the Houston ordinance will negatively impact efforts to pass LGBT non-discrimination protections at the federal level, which is considered the next major goal of the LGBT rights movement.
Although movement on such legislation is challenging with the current Republican majorities in Congress, a victory in Houston might have helped set the stage for passage of federal legislation like the Equality Act.
Roddy Flynn, executive director of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said in a statement the loss in Houston “highlights the need” for a prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination at the federal law.
“The ever-changing patchwork of protections across the country destabilizes LGBT families,” Flynn said. “Whether an individual enjoys basic human rights should not depend on what city they live in. Congress must pass the Equality Act to bring LGBT Americans the protections they need and deserve.”