Was I surprised by the fear-mongering campaign waged by those against Houston’s equal rights ordinance? Unfortunately, no. I’m old enough to recall anti-LGBT vendettas playing out in state and local politics decade after decade, and, sadly, this kind of backlash can get ugly.
Last week, Houston voters overwhelmingly repealed the city’s law that guaranteed protections based on an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability and pregnancy.
The cruelty of the opposition to this fair-minded ordinance reminded me in particular of singer Anita Bryant’s effort in 1977 to repeal the Miami-Dade County, Fla., ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public services. Bryant, along with the organization she headed, Save Our Children, sought to depict “homosexuals” (as we were then referred to) as amoral, promiscuous and child predators. Infamously, Bryant said: “Some of the stories I could tell you of child recruitment and child abuse by homosexuals would turn your stomach.”
In the course of Bryant’s crusade, Save Our Children ran full-page newspaper ads in the Miami Herald that aggregated news headlines declaring gay teachers to be having sex with their students and as infiltrating youth organizations. The ads then asked: “Are all homosexuals nice? . . . There is no ‘human right’ to corrupt our children.”
Bryant’s tactics proved successful in a special election held in June 1977, and she told reporters: “All America and all the world will hear what the people have said, and with God’s continued help, we will prevail in our fight to repeal similar laws throughout the nation which attempt to legitimize a lifestyle that is both perverse and dangerous.”
Within weeks of the Miami-Dade County vote, other cities voted down antidiscrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation, including in Palm Beach, Gainesville, and Fort Lauderdale, in Florida, as well as in Austin.
With the antidiscrimination law repealed, then-Florida state Sen. Dempsey Barron led a successful effort to lobby the Florida legislature not to ratify the federal Equality Rights Amendment. Speaking against the ERA, Barron fed off Bryant’s fear-based rhetoric, claiming that it would legalize same-sex marriage and require unisex restrooms. Betty Friedan, a founder of the National Organization for Women, was quoted as saying: “Suddenly you have this red herring in Anita Bryant. Suddenly you have this wave of anti-gay hysteria.”
Fast forward to this year, when Houston’s equal rights law was scurrilously rebranded by opponents as the “Bathroom Bill” and the “Sexual Predator Act.” In a radio ad that played repeatedly, Lance Berkman, a former Houston Astros outfielder said:
“No men in women’s bathrooms, no boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms. I played professional baseball for 15 years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition 1, ‘the bathroom ordinance,’ would allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers and locker rooms. This would violate their privacy and put them in harm’s way.”
His reference to transgender women as predatory “troubled men” is a claim that has no scientific or medical basis but is certainly an incendiary call to action. Nor was there any evidence behind the campaign’s insinuation that transgender women have imperiled cisgender — individuals whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth — girls and women while using public restrooms.
As my colleague Janell Ross previously reported, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and others “insisted in commercials, on television and in newspaper stories that allowing transgender women (individuals born male who identify as women) would leave women and girls suddenly vulnerable to attacks by crafty and now legally enabled sexual predators.”
“It was a campaign of fear-mongering and deliberate lies,” Houston’s lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, told KHOU-TV after the ordinance’s repeal.
If history offers any lessons here, it’s these: The events in Houston will probably have ramifications elsewhere, especially because no federal antidiscrimination law is on the books to protect the rights of LGBT people. And no matter how vitriolic the scare-mongering is, fair-minded people eventually carry the day. In time, Miami-Dade County — and the state — passed a new nondiscrimination ordinance. And even greater strides were made when gay adoption was legalized and marriage equality became the law.
Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.