The Houston Equal Rights ordinance, known as HERO, would have offered legal protection for 15 classes including age, religion and pregnancy, but it was largely defeated over the question of new protections for transgender individuals.
“The opposition campaign boiled down to five words: ‘No men in women’s bathrooms,’” said Mike Meno, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
A similar ordinance that aimed to protect people in the Charlotte LGBT community was defeated in March. But the Charlotte bill’s portion for transgender individuals using their bathroom of choice was removed after much opposition — and the bill still failed.
Meno said there was a similar rhetoric in Charlotte, where the opposition was determined to play on people’s fears and misconceptions of transgender individuals in order to create a false narrative surrounding the content of the ordinance.
Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director at the N.C. Values Coalition, which opposed the Charlotte ordinance, said the Houston policy would have been dangerous.
“We think that it was a common sense defeat,” she said. “People used their brains and decided that they don’t want to encounter people of the opposite sex in their own bathrooms.”
Fitzgerald said the coalition is glad the referendum failed, and the vote accurately reflects Houston’s values. The coalition encourages any city in North Carolina considering implementing similar laws to think twice, she said.
“We will fight them like we did in Charlotte, and we expect to defeat them,” she said.
But in Houston, the vote against the policy could mean economic repercussions.
UNC law professor Victor Flatt said the failure to pass the ordinance will hurt the city’s image as a welcoming place to work.
“Many people who are well-educated or progressive and are looking for places to live or settle down or start companies don’t want to be in a location that they think is backward or discriminatory,” he said.
Flatt said there have already been calls to remove the Final Four basketball tournament and Super Bowl LI from Houston.
He said he does not believe this vote was a reflection of most citizens’ attitudes because the opposition focused only on the bathroom issue.
“Almost none of the debate was about employment protection,” Flatt said. “The vote wasn’t even really about what the ordinance was about.”
Meno said there are a lot of ways to protect people against discrimination in the workplace, but the best way to protect people is to pass a nondiscrimination bill through the U.S. congress.
“Unfortunately, that legislation has stalled in Washington, D.C., and that’s why you now see the fight going to local municipalities in places like Houston and Charlotte,” he said.