Defeat of LGBT-rights measure may have wide impact

DAVID CRARY and JUAN A. LOZANO | 11/16/2015, 8:25 a.m. | Updated on 11/17/2015, 1:26 p.m.
The landslide defeat of a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston has stunned LGBT-rights activists across the nation. They’re now bracing for ...
Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks to supporters of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance at a watch party, Nov. 3, in Houston. The ordinance that would have established nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people in Houston did not pass. Pat Sullivan

HOUSTON (AP) – The landslide defeat of a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston has stunned LGBT-rights activists across the nation. They’re now bracing for their opponents in other states to seize on the successful tactic of stoking fears over transgender people’s access to public restrooms.

By a 61-to-39-percent margin, voters in America’s fourth largest city on Tuesday rejected a broad equal-rights ordinance – extending protections in employment, housing and public spaces on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender identity and other categories. Opponents prevailed with a campaign that dubbed the measure “the bathroom ordinance” and raised the specter of male sexual predators invading women’s restrooms.

The outcome was “a devastating blow to equality,” said the Human Rights Campaign, a national group advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It’s almost unbelievable that this could happen in a city like Houston,” said the campaign’s president, Chad Griffin. “But make no mistake: If we don’t double down today, we’ll face the same thing again and again in cities across the nation.”

The ordinance lost despite strong support from many major businesses, and despite its supporters’ arguments that serious problems with bathroom access have been virtually nonexistent in the 17 states and scores of cities that have banned discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations.

“This is a national game-changer,” said Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values Action, which opposed the ordinance. He described the result as “a massive victory for common sense, safety and religious freedom.”

The outcome in Houston was swiftly seized upon by opposing sides in California, where the legislature passed a law in 2013 allowing transgender students to participate in activities and use facilities corresponding to their gender identity. Opponents are gathering signatures for a 2016 ballot measure that would overturn the law and require people to use facilities that correspond with their “biological sex.”

Karen England of Privacy for All, which is promoting the ballot measure, noted that in both Houston and California there were efforts to prevent a public vote on the nondiscrimination issue.

“Houston elites were afraid to let the voters vote, and they had good reason to be,” England said. “We think California elites have similar reason to be afraid.”

England’s group and its allies are seeking to collect 500,000 signatures by Nov. 20 to ensure they have enough valid signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.

A coalition of gay-rights supporters who back California’s 2013 law warned that the state may face a campaign echoing the one in Houston.

“We fully expect our opponents to use the same misinformation and scare tactics in California that they used in Houston,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. “Since they can no longer stop same-sex couples from getting married, this is the next page in their attempts to discriminate against the LGBT community.”

In Houston, there was some second-guessing on Wednesday as to whether supporters of the ordinance – including the lesbian mayor, Annise Parker – could have mounted a more effective campaign.

Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, said the campaign failed to counteract the “bathroom ordinance” message with arguments that might have better resonated with voters, particularly African Americans who turned out in large numbers.