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Why Houston’s gay rights ordinance failed: Fear of men in women’s bathrooms

Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), designed to protect the rights of gay citizens and others, has failed by a wide margin — after a hard-fought campaign in which opponents warned it would give male sexual predators access to women’s bathrooms.

On Tuesday, Houston voters were presented with this question: “Are you in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530, which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy?”

While the final results were not in as of early Wednesday, it seems almost two-thirds of voters said “No.” At 12:30 a.m. EST, the tally was 61 percent opposed, 39 percent in favor with 95 percent of precincts reporting, as ABC13 noted.

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“This was a campaign of fear-mongering and deliberate lies,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker (D) — the city’s first lesbian mayor who said HERO was “personal” — said, as KHOU reported. “No one’s rights should be subject to a popular vote.”

“We are disappointed with today’s outcome, but our work to secure nondiscrimination protections for all hard-working Houstonians will continue,” Houston Unites, a coalition of groups supporting HERO that includes the ACLU of Texas and Houston’s NAACP chapter, said in a statement. “No one should have to live with the specter of discrimination hanging over them. Everyone should have the freedom to work hard, earn a decent living and provide for themselves and their families.”

But as much as HERO’s proponents decried the vote, the proposition was rejected by a decisive majority of the citizens of the nation’s fourth-largest city. Turnout was strong among white conservatives and African Americans — demographics likely to oppose the measure, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out.

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“I just hope that cities across the nation are watching,” Pastor Steve Riggle of Houston’s Grace Community Church said after the vote, as Fox 26 reported. “And that leaders … will step up and stand up and stand against this thing that’s encroaching across the nation with intimidation and fear and telling people who just believe in common moral decency that they have no voice.”

The fight over what became known as the “bathroom ordinance” began last year when Houston’s city council passed the anti-discrimination measure. After it was in effect for just three months, a lawsuit demanding the city either repeal the ordinance or have residents vote on it prevailed.

“It has been shown and demonstrated that the people of the city do not want this ordinance,” the Rev. Max Miller of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity, said in July. “We simply say: Allow the people to vote on this ordinance.” He added: “We’re standing up to protect our women and our children.”

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Miller was talking about protecting bathrooms — and the ensuing campaign, which pitted gay-rights advocates against Houston’s religious community, got ugly. Though Mayor Parker said HERO was meant to show “Houston does not discriminate,” its opponents — many conservative Christians — said HERO made women’s bathrooms around the city fair game for sexual predators and/or transgender women. Indeed, it became known as the “Sexual Predator Protection Act.”

Former Houston Astros star Lance Berkman, stoking fears on the bathroom issue, was one big name who weighed in against HERO. In a radio ad, he had few positive things to say about transgender women, calling them “troubled men.”

“No men in women’s bathrooms, no boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms,” Berkman said in the ad. “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.”

Campaign for Houston aired an ad featuring former Houston Astros star Lance Berkman speaking out against Houston's gay rights ordinance. (Video: YouTube/Campaign for Houston)

“Anybody with a penis, I don’t want them in the ladies’ restroom,” Loyce Johnson, 70, a retiree who volunteered for a campaign against HERO, told The Washington Post’s Sandhya Somashekhar.

Parker decried the purported connection between HERO and sex crimes, calling it a “strange obsession.”

“It is illegal today to go into a place of public accommodation for the intent of committing a crime,” she said. “It was illegal before, it’s going to be illegal after.”

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Opponents countered that Parker — an elected official in Houston for most of the past two decades — was proof that Houston does not discriminate, and does not need an ordinance like HERO.

“There’s not this vast problem of discrimination in Houston,” Paul Simpson, chairman of the surrounding county’s Republican Party, told the Los Angeles Times. “… No one worried about her orientation when she was first elected.”

As the debate raged in Houston, HERO made its mark nationwide.

“HOUSTON: Vote Texas values, not Hillary Clinton values,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted on Monday. “Vote NO on City of Houston Proposition 1. No men in women’s bathrooms.”

“Greg Abbott is right about one thing: equality is one of Hillary’s values,” Clinton responded Tuesday, encouraging citizens to vote “yes.”

The White House also supported HERO.

“While the Administration generally does not take a formal position on specific proposals or initiatives, the President and Vice President have been strong supporters of state and local efforts to protect Americans from being discriminated against based on who they are and who they love,” White House spokesman Jeff Tiller said in a statement last week. “We’re confident that the citizens of Houston will vote in favor of fairness and equality.”

Across the country, 17 states and more than 200 municipalities bar discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to Freedom for All Americans, a gay rights group that was active in the pro-HERO campaign.

Those who oppose such measures said the tide may yet turn.

“If we win here,” Jared Woodfill, a HERO opponent who sued to get the measure on the ballot, said, “I think it will be an opportunity to defeat these types of ordinances when they pop up.”

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