Stella Maxwell
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Anatomy of a Losing HERO Campaign

Actress Sally Field with Houston area women leaders speaks at a Human Rights Campaign press conference in Houston.

One of the proudest moments of my activist life was on May 28, 2014 when the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance passed on a 11-6 vote after a month of contentious City Council meetings. So I was justifiably angry when HERO went down last week by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.

Now that I've had time to do hard, solid thinking about the issue and read commentary from people who don't live inside Beltway 8, it's time to talk about the political train wreck I watched happen.

After the city was forced by a partisan Texas Supreme Court ruling to either kill the HERO or place it on the ballot, City Council set about the task of making the ballot language for Prop 1 crystal clear:

"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?"

The Houston Unites coalition featured lead partners such as the ACLU, ACLU Texas. Equality Texas, Freedom For All Americans, NAACP Houston, Texas Freedom Network, Freedom For All Americans and HRC. While we worried about the looming November 3 election, we were cautiously confident the HERO vote would go our way.

The first warning sign came during the opening August 12 Houston Unites press conference. A question was asked by a black female reporter whether the HERO allowed men to enter women's restrooms. The Latina spokesperson for Houston Unites paused for a moment before she committed the unforced error of saying, “Yes.”

My anger over that mistake — about starting off a campaign by validating at your press conference your opponent's main talking point — was audible to everyone in that room.

I left the Hilton Americas Hotel that day with a sense of dread that became even more pronounced with the anti-trans attack ads the NO side ran ad nauseum on Majic 102.1, a top-rated Houston black radio station we called out concerning their transphobic HERO coverage last year. 

They were joined by ads placed on another black station — KCOH-AM — as I and other black LGBT community advocates pleaded with Houston Unites to immediately run pro-HERO commercials to counter the lies and let us aggressively take on the lying ministers.

The majority of the referendum petitions last year were signed by people living in four council districts, the predominately black Districts B and D, and predominately Latino Districts H and I. With two African-American and a Latino candidate running for mayor, we knew turnout would be elevated for this election and could probably be decided in non-white neighborhoods where we had a serious messaging problem.

It didn't help that FOX26 was mirroring the national network by using the "bathroom bill" framing of our civil rights oppressors, and other Houston TV stations were lazily reporting the framing of the HERO as an "LGBT rights bill." Even when ABC13, NBC2 and KHOU-TV11 weren't openly doing so in their HERO coverage, they would still send subliminal messages reinforcing the opposition talking points by showing rainbow flag or bathroom entrance graphics. LGBT media and organizations also made the same mistake in their coverage.

The Houston Chronicle published a September 2 editorial belatedly attacking the bathroom predator meme, and subsequent articles calling for the passage of Prop 1.  

The Houston Unites coalition got larger, their monetary coffers got fat, but the opposition had already gotten the jump on them and framed the debate. The initial radio and TV commercials that rolled out on August 28 and September 24 didn't do enough to aggressively tackle the messaging problem with Houston communities of color, who make up 65 percent of the electorate — and the start of early voting was looming on October 19. The canvassing efforts, despite the earlier warnings of black LGBT activists, were still focused in the Montrose gayborhood and the hipster-skewing The Heights.

I wrote this about the unfolding campaign on my TransGriot blog on September 21:

"My problem with Houston Unites not only is the lack of will to utterly destroy the trans predator myth, but the problematic lack of consistent pushback in the Houston Black community in the face of negative anti-HERO ads aimed at the Black community being played unchecked on Majic 102 and Ben Hall owned KCOH.

I also have a problem with the failure so far to go on offense concerning the opposition lies that a HERO that covers 15 categories is a 'LGBT ordinance', Federal law already covers everyone (no it doesn't) and HERO isn't necessary, and we need to repeal it so we can 'rewrite it to cover everyone.'

I have also been scratching my head at the ongoing human rights malpractice as to why Houston Unites hasn't pointed out the consequences of what WILL happen to Houston economically if Prop 1 isn't approved." 

The other thing that exasperated me as I watched this campaign develop was the déjà vu regarding the erasure of the Houston trans community, and especially trans people of color. We were erased in the 1985 Houston civil rights ordinance fight that included sexual orientation language and lost by a 4-1 margin, and that mistake was repeated 30 years later.

Houston has some outstanding trans leaders who should have been given the job of talking about our trans lives. Trans people of color should have been used to blow up anti-trans lies and could have made a difference in our respective communities had we been turned loose in local media. But the only interview I got to conduct during that entire fight that I wasn't edited out of, like I was with the KIAH39 one, was with local political blogger Charles Kuffner, Jr., in which I called the campaign ''Prop. 8 2.0.' 

In addition to myself and LGBT activist Dee Dee Watters, trans Latina leader Ana Andrea Molina of the Organization Latina de Trans in Texas was ready to challenge the black and Latino ministers the other side was deploying to make their anti-HERO coalition "more diverse." The anti-HERO opposition not only included the Texas and Harris County GOP, it also involved longtime gay baiters like Steven Hotze, Dave Welch, Dave Wilson and newbies like Jonathan Saenz,  none of who live inside the Houston city limits. 

You know the rest of the story. HERO lost as the opposition gleefully celebrated a win they had to lie incessantly to get. My hometown, which has a a liberal-progressive rep, a lesbian mayor, and was the home of Congressmembers Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland, is being savaged in the press. We'll discover the other ripple effects in this post-HERO period as time moves on.

The "demonize the t------s" tactics the wingers used either through overt or dog whistle means are coming to a civil rights fight near you and y'all better be prepared from the outset to come out swinging against them.

HERO 2.0 will be coming up again in 2016, and Houston will pass a human rights law. Bottom line is I'm going to fight any attempt to pass that law without it covering the trans community, and any HERO without strong public accommodations language or that doesn't include us is a non-starter.

I, and those of us in Houston who want discrimination's time in H-town to expire, are even more resolved to carry the day.

MONICA ROBERTS
Monica Roberts is a speaker, writer, thought leader and the founding editor of the GLAAD Media Award nominated blog TransGriot.  She is a trailblazing award winning unapologetically Black trans feminine human rights advocate and 'angelic troublemaker' who recently became the first African-American trans person to be honored with the Virginia Prince Transgender Pioneer Award. Monica works diligently to encourage trans people to stand up for their humanity and human rights while educating people about our lives.

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