For a nano-sec, it seemed as if our moment had finally arrived. With celebs officiating same-sex weddings, out LGBT people raising families and Laverne Cox slated to star in a Fox “Rocky Horror Picture Show” remake, it was easy to believe there had been a sea change in cultural attitudes toward our community.
On Nov. 3, voters in Houston, our nation’s fourth largest city, shattered our starry-eyed delusions when they repealed, by a wide margin, an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) prohibited discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation against 15 classes including sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, disability, religion, national origin and military status. Its rejection is a wake-up call to everyone who cares about treating people fairly or who lets their guard down in the struggle for civil rights. This is especially true for the LGBT community.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality and increased queer visibility in the media, homophobia and, more intensely, transphobia, are all alive and well. An ordinance that would have made one of our country’s most diverse cities more inclusive for many was defeated by fear-mongering “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” signs. “It was about protecting our grandmoms and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters,” Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, said of the campaign to repeal the ordinance.
As the New York Times noted, Gov. Grey Abbott of Texas, a paraplegic, opposed HERO even though it would have helped to protect disabled people against employment or housing discrimination. It’s sadly ironic, but, unfortunately, not surprising, that a member of one marginalized group would oppose inclusion for another oppressed group. The lack of federal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations makes this irony even more heartbreaking.
As someone who’s queer and has a disability, I have the dignity of having and the pain of lacking federal civil rights protection. If I’m asked to leave a restaurant because I’m legally blind, I have legal redress. But, with no federal non-discrimination protection, I could be fired from a job or asked to leave an eatery because I’m lesbian in more than half of our country’s 50 states.
As someone who’s cisgender, I won’t pretend to, despite how much I try, viscerally understand what it’s like to be transgender or to live with transphobia. No matter how much I read or how many people I interview, I don’t think I can begin to truly imagine what it would be like to endure the violence, harassment and bias that so many transgender people encounter daily.
But I get what it feels like to be excluded – to be rejected – because of a characteristic that’s different from the white, male, able-bodied, hetero norm. From this perspective, it’s inexplicable to me that voters would reject a civil rights ordinance over a bogus, irrational, undocumented fear that sexual predators would enter women’s restrooms.
I’d be lying if I said I was instantly comfortable with transgender people. Why was I uncomfortable? Because, I’d never met any transgender people before: I didn’t want to say or do the wrong thing. Over time, as I got to know transgender people, my discomfort waned. At a poetry workshop, I bonded with several transmen over metaphors and rhyme.
It’s hard work to counteract fear. Because if you’re afraid, your fear is real to you no matter how irrational or removed from reality. I wonder if the pro-LGBT campaign took this into account.
“All you heard on the news about HERO was bathrooms and sexual predators,” my friend George, who lives in Texas, told me over the phone. “You heard nothing about anything else.”
If we don’t want the Houston debacle to extinguish all hope of getting a federal LGBT non-discrimination bill passed, we must overcome this unfounded fear.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.