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Houston Voters Reject Measure Barring LGBT Discrimination

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Amanda Terkel
ATHENA IMAGE © Pat Sullivan/Associated Press ATHENA IMAGE

Houston voters struck down a non-discrimination ballot measure Tuesday, delivering a blow to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement that had campaigned heavily for passage.

Prop. 1, known as Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability and 11 other categories in a variety of areas. (Religious organizations and institutions would be exempt from the requirements.) 

It was HERO's protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, however, that attracted the most attention and made the ballot measure the center of the LGBT community's efforts this election. 

The Houston City Council narrowly approved the equal rights ordinance last year, but after a petition drive by anti-gay activists, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the city in July to either repeal it or put it on the November ballot. 

A long list of local and national figures publicly came out in support of Prop. 1, including President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The measure also had the backing of companies like Apple and GE, as well as local businesses that wanted to avoid a backlash similar to what Indiana experienced when Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed an anti-gay "religious freedom" law earlier this year.

But these heavy hitters weren't able to get past the catchy, fear-mongering slogans and images of their opponents. 

Conservative activists -- who were heavily outspent by LGBT advocates -- dubbed Prop. 1 the "bathroom ordinance" and adopted the slogan "No men in women's bathrooms," playing up fears that passage could lead to male sexual predators dressing up as women and entering women's restrooms. 

This message proved to be incredibly effective: Many Houston voters seemed to think the measure was solely about access to restrooms and were unaware of the broader nondiscrimination protections in the measure.

The most recent TV spot released by the anti-Prop. 1 coalition Campaign for Houston, for example, showed a man entering a bathroom stall with a young girl. 

"Any man at any time could enter a woman's bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day," the narrator warned.

Prop. 1 never specifically mentioned bathrooms. It did, however, encompass barring discrimination in public accommodations, which includes public restrooms. 

Houston Unites, the pro-Prop. 1 coalition, responded to these sorts of claims by pointing out that "it is -- and always will be -- illegal to enter a restroom to harm or harass other people." Other Texas cities that have adopted LGBT protections have also said they haven't seen an increase in sexual assaults in women's restrooms.

Those facts, however, never caught on. 

The writing was on the wall even before the fully tally came in Tuesday night. Early voting results showed that 62.5 voters backed repealing the ordinance, compared to 37.5 supporting it. 

"Our message worked," cheered Jared Woodfill, a spokesman for Campaign Houston, at a party Tuesday evening. 

Advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas contributed the most on HERO's behalf, according to the Houston Chronicle, spending more than $619,000 and $562,000, respectively. 

Major funders of the efforts to sink HERO were Houston real estate executive Allen Hartman, who donated more than $206,000, and GOP donor Steve Hotze, who contributed more than $146,000. 

There is no federal law protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination, although a group of lawmakers introduced a bill in July that would provide comprehensive protections. 

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