Both sides say they'll need to spend $2 million on the November ballot fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, likely making it one of the most expensive battles over local LGBT protections in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, internal polls show Houston voters are evenly split on whether to repeal HERO, with almost one-third undecided.
Last week, a coalition of progressive groups launched a campaign to uphold the ordinance, which will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. The Houston Unites campaign is led by the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, Freedom For All Americans, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP Houston Branch and the Texas Freedom Network. In addition to sexual orientation and gender identity, the ordinance prohibits discrimination based on 13 other characteristics, including race.
“The NAACP has and will always be focused on the elimination of discrimination against all people,” NAACP Houston Branch President James M. Douglas said in a release. “As an organization, we have always been and will continue to be inclusive, not exclusive. HERO is not just about black, brown or red. HERO is also not just about male and female. Instead, HERO is about every one of us. Hopefully, we can continue to grow as a city by recognizing that we are all members of the human race and that the only way we can achieve our goal of becoming a great city is by accepting the rights of all of us to equally participate in this society we call Houston, Texas.”
HERO opponents informally kicked off their campaign to repeal the ordinance at an anti-LGBT rally last week that also marked the launch of an eight-city “Faith Family Freedom Tour.” Steven Hotze, lead sponsor of the tour, wielded a sword on stage, compared gay people to Nazis and pledged to drive “homofascists” and their “satanic cults” out of Houston and back to San Francisco. The rally, held in a half-full ballroom at the Hilton Post Oak at the Galleria, concluded with a money beg for Hotze's group, the Conservative Republicans of Texas. The Texas Observer reports:
Then things took a turn for the weirder. “Our strongest weapon in the fight,” he said, pulling out a sword from its sheath and brandishing it for the audience, “is the word of God. The word of God is like any two-edged sword.”
He pointed the sword at the audience. “For thousands of years, men fought with swords,” he said. “Can you imagine that piercing right through the enemy like this? That’s what the word of God does. I’ve decided, I’m not going to fight the homosexuals with sweet words. I’m going to fight them with God’s word.” …
Gays “want to make Houston another San Francisco,” and “want to make Texas a clone of California.” The next battle, now that the battle over gay marriage was lost, would be over transgender rights. Bumper stickers that read “No men in women’s bathrooms!” were available in the back of the room. “Bruce Jenner — I call him ‘Bruce Degenerate’ — he says he’s transgendered, but he’s gonna keep his male parts. Because he likes women! Now, is that deviant or am I wrong?” He continued: “Do you want your wife, daughter, or granddaughter exposed to his?
Not surprisingly, HERO opponents are expected to build their campaign to repeal the ordinance around the debunked myth that it allows men to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender. The transgender bathroom myth was articulately debunked by Noel Freeman, former president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, during a recent appearance on ABC 13's “City View” (watch above). But for the most part, local stations have been aiding and abetting HERO opponents. Media Matters reports that Houston TV news reports have repeatedly mentioned the transgender bathroom myth, without countering it, and often they've included B-roll of restrooms:
Pairing footage of bathrooms with stories on HERO is bad journalism, plain and simple. It reinforces the false implication that HERO is a “bathroom bill,” rather than a basic non-discrimination measure similar to laws that already exist in over 19 states and 180 cities and municipalities. This type of skewed coverage is essentially free advertising for HERO opponents, who have a record of successfully defeating non-discrimination protections for LGBT people by fearmongering about women's restrooms. …
Houstonians should be able to count on their local TV news stations to help them make an informed decision about whether to keep or repeal HERO this November. By uncritically repeating critics' talking points and omitting crucial information about who has actually benefitted the most from the protections HERO affords, these stations are failing their viewers. In the more than two months remaining before the vote, journalists at Houston's local TV stations still have a chance to balance out their coverage and give Houstonians the whole story about what's at stake.
The Chronicle has more on campaign strategies for both sides in the HERO fight:
Opponents will push a public safety campaign driven by the perceived threat that male sexual predators dressed in drag will use the law as cover to enter women's restrooms. Supporters, meanwhile, will seek to debunk that and warn that repealing the law would irreparably harm the city's image.
Both groups said they will need to spend at least $2 million to pepper voters with targeted direct mail and a few choice ads. …
The challenge for supporters is to fend off the public safety allegations without losing their own message, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. The business angle – that events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four could go elsewhere in the event of repeal – likely will factor into supporters' argument, he said.
Even as HERO supporters and opponents have launched their campaigns, it's still unclear how the measure will be worded on the ballot. According to language approved by the City Council, a “yes” vote would be in favor of repealing the ordinance, while a “no” vote would be to keep it. However, HERO opponents filed a lawsuit challenging that wording.
Mayor Annise Parker issued this statement in response to the ballot language lawsuit:
“The ballot language we chose came directly from the petition the pastors submitted to the City. It asks voters whether they want to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. If you want to repeal HERO you should vote yes. It is a very easy question to understand. It complies with the City Charter and a 1997 Texas Supreme Court ruling granting the City authority to select the ballot language for a referendum. This lawsuit isn't about whether the ballot language is easy to understand or complies with the law. The pastors group is opposed to a Houston free of discrimination for all and will do anything they can to try to confuse the voters.”
Also pending is a lawsuit that could determine whether another anti-LGBT measure, a proposal to enshrine a transgender bathroom ban in the City Charter, will appear alongside HERO on the November ballot. A state district judge ordered Houston officials to count signatures on the anti-trans petition from activist Dave Wilson, but the city appealed the decision.
Photo by Rob Martinez