It’s Legal Again to Discriminate Against Houston’s LGBTQ Community

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It’s Legal Again to Discriminate Against Houston’s LGBTQ Community

Teddy Wilson

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which banned discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, was rejected by the city’s residents by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.

A Houston ordinance that outlawed discrimination against the LGBTQ community was defeated Tuesday after a controversial campaign waged by anti-gay activists and promoted by Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which banned discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, was rejected by the city’s residents by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker promised supporters that the defeat of the ordinance would not be the end of the fight to provide protections for LGBTQ people in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“I guarantee that justice in Houston will prevail. This ordinance, you have not seen the last of. We’re united. We will prevail,” Parker said, reported the Associated Press.

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However, Parker is finishing her final term as the city’s mayor and it is unclear if the city’s next mayor will offer the same support to the LGBTQ community. Parker was first elected in 2009, making Houston the largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor. 

The two mayoral candidates who received the most votes Tuesday, Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner and former Kemah Mayor Bill King, a Republican, will face each other in a runoff election on December 12.

“We need a city that represents every single person that exists in this city,” Turner said, reported the Texas Tribune. “If you want to be mayor of this city, you have to appeal to the diversity of this city.”

Along with banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which are not protected classes under state or federal law, the HERO ordinance would have also prohibited discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information, and pregnancy.

HERO, which was on the city’s books for three months before Tuesday’s vote, applied to any business that served the public and included city government or services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing. The ordinance allowed the city’s residents to file complaints for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

After the ordinance was approved with an 11-6 vote by the city council in May 2014, a lawsuit was filed by opponents of the ordinance, and the Texas Supreme Court ruled in July that the city had to either repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot for voter approval.

A coalition of conservative activists and Christian clergy opposed the ordinance on the grounds that it infringed on religious liberties.

Religious institutions were specifically exempt from abiding by the ordinance.

The opposition focused particular attention on the protections for transgender people, and referred to the protections as “the bathroom ordinance” to stoke the widely disproven fears of sexual predators entering women’s bathrooms.

Nine Texas cities with populations of more than 100,000, including Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth, have passed some form of nondiscrimination ordinance that includes protections for members of the LGBTQ community.

The experiences of city officials, law enforcement, and advocates for sexual assault survivors in cities that have passed similar nondiscrimination laws conflict with the claims made by the opponents of the HERO ordinance.

Sergeant Enrique Carrillo of the El Paso Police Department told Media Matters in a statement that since the city passed a similar nondiscrimination ordinance in 2003, there have not been the types of incidents that anti-LGBTQ activists have claimed Houston would experience.

“We haven’t seen these types of incidents here. Not an issue,” Carrillo said.

Pastor Ed Young of Houston’s Second Baptist Church watched the election results at the anti-ordinance Campaign for Houston watch party and told the Texas Tribune that HERO was a “moral issue” and not a political issue.

“This is beyond politics. Someone asked earlier if Houston would be perceived by the national press, and other cities, as a place that discriminates. You know this great city. That’s not who we are,” Young said.

Prominent Texas Republicans, including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, voiced opposition to the ordinance, and Patrick cited the fears of men entering women’s bathrooms as reason for Tuesday’s defeat.

“The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality—that is already the law,” Patrick said, reported the Texas Tribune. “It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms—defying common sense and common decency.”

Houston Unites campaigned in support of the HERO ordinance, and was formed by a coalition of progressive organizations including the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, and the Human Rights Campaign.

Chuck Smith, executive director for Equality Texas, in a statement thanked HERO’s supporters who worked to confront the “fear-mongering and misleading information” used by opponents of the ordinance. “As an organization we are truly humbled by the efforts of everyone who made up the Houston Unites coalition,” Smith said.

Kristen Capps, a Houston attorney and supporter of the ordinance, told the Associated Press that LGBTQ activists would continue to push for anti-discrimination laws in the city.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Houston is the largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor.