September 16, 2015 at 8:28 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Houston is next battle in LGBT non-discrimination fight
Annise Parker, Houston, Beyonce, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo of Annise Parker by Michael Key; photo of the Houston skyline by eflon, courtesy Flickr; photo of Beyonce by Nat Ch Villa, courtesy Flickr)

The next major battle in the fight for LGBT non-discrimination protections is the campaign to pass the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO.

Thanks to opponents of the measure, who collected nearly 18,000 petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot, and the Texas Supreme Court’s green light of the referendum, the ordinance will go before Houston voters on Nov. 3 at the same time they elect their next mayor.

If passed, the referendum, known as Proposition 1, would establish comprehensive non-discrimination protections in Houston in employment, public accommodations and housing based on many characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

With an estimated population of 2.2 million, Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city. LGBT advocates see the upcoming ballot fight as a key moment in achieving the long-pursued dream of enacting non-discrimination protections throughout the country.

Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Freedom for All Americans, said the Houston ballot fight is “extremely important” in the big picture for the LGBT movement.

“It has the potential to really show our continued momentum in the fourth largest city in the country, or potentially present a real hurdle for us as we look for more proactive non-discrimination efforts in states that are largely in the South, the Midwest, where we’re looking for places to advance non-discrimination ordinances like what was at the city level in Houston.” McTighe said.

The ordinance was initially approved by the Houston City Council in May 2014 and signed into law by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian. Although opponents of the measure collected signatures to place the measure on the ballot, they initially were thought to have an insufficient amount based on a count from the city attorney — a decision upheld by lower courts reviewing the matter.

But on July 24, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the number of signatures exceeded the necessary 17,269 names based on a different count by the city secretary. The justices suspended the measure and ordered the Houston City Council to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot. The city took the latter option.

After the City Council initially produced an initiative framing the question to voters as whether they would want to repeal the existing ordinance, the Texas Supreme Court weighed in once more, saying the referendum should be framed in terms of “yes” or “no” on whether to pass the ordinance. The City Council complied last month, producing new language for the question posed to voters.

With less than four months from the Texas Supreme Court ruling to the time the measure would appear on the ballot, LGBT advocates say they took action as soon as it became apparent the measure would appear on the ballot this fall. After a conference call with national allies as well as LGBT advocates in Texas, an initial campaign and steering committee was formed to ensure the measure is passed.

Known as Houston Unites, the campaign to pass the ordinance is led by a combination local and national LGBT advocates, including the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, Freedom For All Americans, Human Rights Campaign, NAACP Houston Branch and Texas Freedom Network.

Heading the effort is Richard Carlbom, who in 2012 successfully led the campaign to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment at the ballot in Minnesota.

“We’re doing our best to pull together a really talented campaign team that can help us make sure that Houston voters understand what’s at stake, which is their city is a city that doesn’t discriminate,” Carlbom said.

A successful campaign would cost a couple million dollars, Carlbom estimated, but he wouldn’t put a firm price tag on the cost, or say how much was already in the bank for the effort.

“We essentially need to raise a lot of money in a short period of time to make sure that we can build out a massive grassroots effort, and then back up our message door-to-door with TV commercials, radio commercials,” he said.

McTighe said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about success, but warned the national LGBT community and its allies seem unaware of the campaign amid the post-marriage equality euphoria.

“I talk to people all the time that are kind of surprised,” McTighe said. “They’re not even aware of what’s going on down there, so really quickly mobilizing the LGBT community, donors all over the country who care about maintaining momentum, especially right now in the wake of the historic victory on marriage, but knowing that the fight’s not over yet, reminding people of that is so important.”

Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the No. 1 priority for the campaign is mobilizing supporters to ensure they turn out to vote in an off-year.

“We will only win and protect HERO if LGBT Houstonians and their families, friends and other allies get actively engaged in this campaign,” Rouse said. “On Nov. 3, there’s expected to be less than 25 percent voter turnout. We need to make sure that supporters of HERO turn out in record numbers on Nov. 3.”

Opponents of the measure have already aired a one-minute radio ad against the measure drawing on an issue that may be misconstrued by Houston voters: Allowing transgender women to use a public restroom consistent with their gender identity.

“This ordinance will allow men to freely go into women’s bathrooms, locker rooms and showers,” a young woman says in the ad. “That is filthy, that is disgusting and that is unsafe.”

In response to the ad, Houston Unites aired its own radio spot featuring Rev. Will Reed, pastor at Servants of Christ United Methodist Church, who disputes the bathroom argument.

“As Christians, my wife and I believe in treating others the way we want to be treated, that’s what we’ve taught our children,” Reed says. “We’re hearing about HERO – Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, and concerns some have raised about privacy in public bathrooms. What’s being lost is that it’s already illegal to go into a bathroom to harm or harass someone. This law won’t change that.”

One opponent of the measure organizing efforts against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is conservative activist Jared Woodfill, who didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment for this article.

On the agenda for the campaign to pass the measure is obtaining endorsements. Among the entities LGBT advocates are calling on to voice support for the ordinance are members of sports, business and faith communities.

Parker, a high-profile openly gay municipal leader, has declared support for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and said she expects it to succeed at the ballot, but said during a news conference last month she’s “not going to be the poster child” because that would play into efforts of opponents.

Carlos Maza, LGBT program director for Media Matters, wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post calling on singer and gay icon Beyonce, a Houston native, to come out in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

“By speaking out in defense of HERO and opposing the effort to repeal the law, she could dramatically change the outcome of the vote in November,” Maza writes. “She could help make sure that LGBT Houstonians aren’t fired, kicked out of their homes or refused service at restaurants because of who they are. And she could reaffirm that her support for the LGBT community isn’t just talk — it’s a real commitment to the equal treatment of all Americans.”

Already a social media campaign is underway to convince Beyonce to speak out. Supporters of the ordinance are using the hashtag #BeyBeAHERO, using the singer’s nickname and the acronym of the measure.

Beyonce, who is from Houston, couldn’t be reached for comment on whether she’d lend her support to the initiative.

Another potential voice in the fight to pass the ordinance is the National Football League, which is set to host Super Bowl LI in Houston in 2017. The league for weeks hasn’t responded to multiple requests from the Blade to comment on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

Carlbom half-jokingly said “we want to hear” from Beyonce when asked about potential endorsements for the initiative.

“At the end of the day, we need to make sure that people who support equal rights and oppose discrimination show up at the ballot box,” Carlbom said. “Anybody who we can get to speak out on that, we’re going to.”

Houston isn’t the only city with a non-discrimination ordinance on the ballot this year. Just this month, measures prohibiting anti-LGBT bias in Fayetteville, Ark., and Sedona, Ariz., passed at the ballot, and the city council for Columbia, Ind., passed another LGBT ordinance. But most observers agree the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is unique among them because of its potential.

Rouse said passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is one piece of the larger campaign to extend non-discrimination protections in every place in the country.

“Houston, clearly being our nation’s fourth largest city, will impact anything that happens in America, but there is a larger campaign going on all across the country at the local and state level to pass non-discrimination, and then will be on to the federal efforts,” Rouse said. “It’s all connected. Houston is a key piece of it. But this is happening in places besides Houston.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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