Back in May 2014, the Houston City Council passed an anti-discrimination measure. Before it could go into effect, opponents succeeded in getting a court order to put the fair treatment of all people to a popular vote.
The measure failed Tuesday by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.
The opposition message was a simplistic one: “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” They plastered it on signs and repeated it in television and radio ads, turning the debate from one about equal rights to one about protecting women and girls from sexual predators (with no sense of irony that those were the same arguments used by proponents of school segregation).
The Governor of Texas even got on board with it:
Trouble is, that isn’t what the ordinance was about.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was similar to measures that have been approved in more than 200 other cities and 17 states. It would prohibit bias in housing, employment, city contracting and business services for 15 protected classes, including race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.
This law would not require that people who identify as men be let into women’s restrooms (or, conversely, that women be allowed into men’s). Instead, it would ban discrimination against those whose gender identity does not perfectly match societal expectations or is different from what was assigned to them at birth as well as discrimination based on based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, and pregnancy. Sexual orientation protection extends to both real and perceived sexual orientation.
Neither HERO nor any of those other non-discrimination ordinances would lead to assault on women. There is no evidence that allowing transgender people to have safe access to facilities in accordance with their gender identities will increase the incidence of sexual assault.
In reality, 70% of transgender people have faced physical harm, harassment and humiliation when they try to use the restroom. They are frequently unwelcome or uncomfortable in either the restroom of the sex assigned to them at birth or the restroom appropriate to their gender identity.
We can’t let the anti-LGBTQ activists derail efforts for equality with their campaigns of fear and distraction. Of course, it doesn’t help that they were aided and abetted by lazy journalism which gave airtime to the worst of the arguments of the measure’s opponents. As Houston Mayor Annise Parker said:
This was a campaign of fear mongering and deliberate lies. Deliberate lies. This isn’t misinformation, this is a calculated campaign of lies designed to demonize a little-understood minority, and to use that to take down an ordinance that 200 other cities across America, and 17 states have successfully passed, and operated under.
Anti-discrimination laws are commonplace and have been implemented successfully all over the United States. These laws and ordinances provide critical protections for LGBTQ people in employment, housing and public accommodations and to others who face discrimination based on who they are.
Strong majorities of Americans believe that when it comes to employment, housing and public accommodations, everyone should be treated fairly and equally.
Unfortunately, strong majorities are also swayed by fear mongering from those who oppose expanding non-discrimination protections. We can’t ignore their smear tactics and hope their listeners will know better than believe them. The anti-LGBTQ activists know only too well that their misinformation campaigns have a history of success and they are not likely to abandon them unless they are directly confronted by the truth.
The truth is too many people in this country are denied their rights to self-determination, dignity and freedom from violence.
The truth is equal access to public accommodations, housing and employment doesn’t take away anyone else’s rights.
The truth is that non-discrimination measures protect more than gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
The truth is that equal bathroom access is vital to a trans person’s ability to live with dignity.
Consider for a moment:
- What if you had to think twice when trying to relieve your most basic bodily function because you or someone you knew had been physically attacked for doing the same?
- What if you entered a bathroom most appropriate for your gender identity and then were escorted out by security?
- What if you had an accident because no one would let you use a toilet in either the men’s or women’s room because they were convinced they were allowed to police your gender presentation?
It is only too common. In the Williams-Institute study, 68% trans people were told they were in the wrong facility, told to leave the facility, questioned about their gender, ridiculed or made fun of, verbally threatened, or stared at and given strange looks. For 9 percent of respondents, actual physical assault occurred, including being forcibly removed from the restroom, hit, kicked, slapped, intimidated or cornered. Additionally, 18% of respondents reported they were denied access to a restroom altogether.
Everyone is allowed to have their personal beliefs, but our society is a nation of laws. It is a sad fact that legal protections for LGBTQ Americans facing discrimination are lacking and leave them with virtually no legal recourse.
Non-discrimination measures enjoy broad support across the ideological spectrum because they’re fundamentally about codifying our most important values and ensuring others are treated the way we’d like to be treated.
And that includes in the restroom.