After yesterday’s referendum vote, Houston has become the largest city in the United States not to protect LGBT people from discrimination. The Texas city of 2.2 million is the fourth most populous in the nation, after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — three cities that all include gay and transgender people in their laws banning discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
In fact, of the nation’s largest 30 cities, only eight — including Houston — currently lack protections in one or more of these areas. Those cities are highlighted in the chart below.
- San Antonio, Texas (pop. 1.4 million) protects gay and transgender residents from discrimination in housing and public accommodations. It also protects city employees and contractors from employment discrimination. But people who don’t work for the city can still be fired for being gay or transgender.
- Jacksonville, Florida (pop. 853,000) offers no protections.
- Charlotte, North Carolina (pop. 810,00) only protects LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. It is legal to evict LGBT people or refuse to serve them.
- El Paso, Texas (pop. 680,000) has outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, but not in housing. City workers and contractors are protected from employment discrimination, but not private employees.
- Memphis (pop. 657,000) and Nashville (pop 644,000) protect city employees from employment discrimination, but a state law prohibits them from having any other non-discrimination laws. It is legal anywhere in Tennessee to evict or refuse to serve someone for being gay or transgender, and cities can't do anything about it. Arkansas passed a copycat law this year.
- Oklahoma City (pop. 621,000) protects gay city employees from employment discrimination — but not transgender employees. It has no other LGBT anti-discrimination provisions.
In 2014, Houston passed a comprehensive city ordinance protecting gay and transgender people in all three of these key categories. Voters repealed that law on Tuesday — partly, it appears, out of fear that it gave men carte blanche to enter women’s bathrooms.
“Anybody with a penis, I don’t want them in the ladies’ restroom,” one volunteer told the Washington Post’s Sandhya Somashekhar.
For those who oppose protections for LGBT people, making the issue salient has been an ongoing challenge. An October poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 72 percent of Americans want laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination — including 70 percent of Texans.
But the movement to allow discrimination against LGBT people has found success with two kinds of stories.
First, there was the concern that religious business owners would be forced to do business with gay people if anti-discrimination laws proliferate. Motivated by accounts of bakers and wedding photographers in other states getting sued for refusing gay clients, legislators in Indiana and Arkansas passed laws this spring allowing people of faith to abstain from such encounters. (Backlash caused Indiana Governor Mike Pence to amend Indiana’s law soon after he signed it.)
In Houston, opponents of Houston’s anti-discrimination law called it the “bathroom bill” and printed banners that said “NO Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” The law, of course, did much more than address the right of transgender people to use gender-appropriate facilities — this ordinance protected people in Houston from getting fired or evicted or turned away from stores on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But focusing on the trans-bathroom issue was wildly successful: In the end, voters rejected the anti-discrimination law 61 percent to 39 percent.
Transgender Americans and their rights are a sensitive topic for many in the LGBT rights movement. Even in gay-friendly places like New York and New Hampshire, the statewide laws ban discrimination against gay people, but not transgender people. This chart from the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBT advocacy group, shows that as recently as 2011, states like Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut did not have statewide protections for transgender people.
Disagreement over transgender rights torpedoed an LGBT anti-discrimination initiative earlier this year in Charlotte, N.C, where residents lack LGBT protections in housing, public accommodations, and private employment. The city council was on track to instate such protections — but a last-minute amendment cut out the section of the law that allowed people to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to the gender they identified with.
In protest, two Democrats voted against the ordinance, which failed 6-5. "I will not and I cannot support an amendment that does not protect all of our citizens,” one of them told the Charlotte Observer in March.