Opponents of the beleaguered Houston Equal Rights Ordinance have dropped all pretense of defending so-called religious liberty, laying bare their transphobic scare tactics in a new one-minute radio ad.
The ad is slated to appear on several radio stations in the greater Houston area for the next two weeks at a cost of $100,000, according to the Houston Chronicle. Paid for by the right-wing Campaign for Houston, the ad falsely claims that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance will allow men into women's bathrooms, playing on a repeatedly debunked (but often recycled) myth that implies transgender women are sexual predators or that men will "pretend" to be transgender to gain access to women's spaces.
"No men in women's bathrooms," an unidentified, youthful-sounding woman says at the ad's onset. "One day, I hope to be pregnant, and deliver my beautiful baby right here in Houston. But I'm concerned because the city of Houston is proposing an ordinance that would allow men to use the women's bathrooms and locker rooms."
After highlighting that federal law already protects against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy (and failing to mention that there are no federal employment or housing protections for LGBT Americans), the ad drops a vicious, and false, non sequitur:
"This ordinance will allow men to — freely — go into women's bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers. That is filthy, that is disgusting, and that is unsafe."
Supporters of the embattled ordinance, known colloquially as HERO, were quick to respond. "The ad is vulgar and grossly misleading," said a statement from the pro-ordinance campaign Houston Unites issued Monday. "Nothing in the equal rights ordinance changes the fact that it is — and always will be — illegal to enter a restroom to harm or harass other people. And the ad leaves out the fact that the law protects tens of thousands of Houstonians from job discrimination based their race, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability."
To be clear, HERO would provide Houstonians with protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodation (including restrooms). It also adheres to current federal laws that prohibit discrimination because of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, and family, marital, or military status, in addition to prohibiting discrimination against individuals based on pregnancy or genetic information.
The laser-like focus and dedication to painting HERO as a "bathroom bill" (a phrase defined as derogatory by LGBT advocacy group GLAAD) is a tried-and-true red herring that seeks to derail conversations about equal accommodation into transphobic fear-mongering. Despite the allegations in the ad and others like it, there has never been a verified instance of a transgender woman — or, for that matter, a man — using such an ordinance as cover to enter gender-segregated spaces and harass women. Likewise, a June study by progressive watchdog group Media Matters discovered that trans-inclusive restroom policies in the 17 largest school districts in the U.S. have resulted in zero incidents of boys "pretending" to be girls, reports of harassment, or any other "negative consequence" of the inclusive policies.
Of course, were someone to enter a restroom indenting to assault women, such an aggressor could still be prosecuted and punished under local, state, and federal laws prohibiting such harassment. No citywide ordinance could change that — and HERO isn't looking to do so.
In reality, transgender people are much more likely than their cisgender (nontrans) counterparts to be the victims of harassment and violence in restrooms and other gender-segregated spaces. A 2013 study from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law found that a staggering 70 percent of transgender respondents in the Washington, D.C., area had experienced some sort of negative reaction to them using the restroom.
This harsh reality, along with a litany of transphobic bills introduced around the country this year, prompted the creation of the social media hashtag #WeJustNeedtoPee, initiated by Minnesota trans man Michael Hughes. The campaign went viral as Hughes posted (staged) selfies that showed the bearded, burly man standing in a women's restroom alongside female friends.
"Regardless of my genitalia — since they like to take it to that level — I don't think I'm quite what they pictured when they were thinking up this legislation," Hughes told The Advocate in March.
The Houston ordinance, which mimics policies in more than 200 other municipalities nationwide, overwhelmingly passed its initial vote in the City Council in May 2014. By June, outraged citizens led by religious and political conservatives had launched a ballot initiative that sought to overturn the ordinance. They claimed to have the 17, 269 valid signatures necessary to put the ordinance on the ballot, but city officials said many signatures were forged. In a subsequent lawsuit challenging the city's findings, a judge determined that the petitioners failed to obtain enough valid signatures to force a referendum. During the course of that lawsuit, Mayor Annise Parker and other city officials issued — then withdrew — subpoenas to several local antigay pastors who had campaigned against HERO from the pulpit.
Late last month, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Houston officials either had to repeal HERO or put it to a public vote. That ruling came in a lawsuit filed by several conservative activists, including former Harris County Republican Party Chief Jared Woodfill — the same man behind the transphobic radio ad, according to LGBT blog The New Civil Rights Movement.
In November, Houston residents will have an opportunity to vote "yes" to keep HERO intact or "no" to rescind the nondiscrimination ordinance.