The wounds are particularly deep for transgender people, who are feeling not only rejected by Houston voters, but rejected by some members of the LGBT movement itself, who tried to play down their existence in an attempt to win voter approval from an electorate far more comfortable with the idea of gay and lesbian neighbors than with transgender people. “Transphobia within the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community exists,” says Monica Roberts, the author of the TransGriot blog.
But Roberts pushes back at the argument that an incremental approach to securing LGBT rights makes sense, citing a 2011 Massachusetts bill that secured housing and employment protections for transgender people but made exceptions for public spaces, such as restaurants and stores. A 2015 bill that would have added those protections failed to make it to a vote, in part because the state elected a Republican governor who said he would oppose such an expansion, and it was not clear that the legislature would have the support to override a veto. If they’d fought harder for a comprehensive approach from the start, she argues, transgender people in Massachusetts might not be in this position.
Overcoming divisions within the larger group will be crucial to securing antidiscrimination measures in the future. If the LGBT network in Houston cannot present a single front, they cannot hope to overcome right-wing opponents who have successfully waged a united campaign with clear, simple messaging to halt such measures. That message comes from state leaders, such as Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and Texas is one of more than 25 states that does not have a statewide discrimination ban based on sexual orientation and gender identity in place, something that’s unlikely to materialize anytime soon given the conservative Republican makeup of the legislature.
“We weren’t doing a good job of talking about this issue,” says Burke. “We didn’t put transgender people out there, front and center.”
Introducing Houstonians to transgender folks would combat some of the stigma that still exists, argues Lou Weaver, a transgender man. A CBS News poll back in 2010 found that 77 percent of Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian. But, Weaver points out, far fewer people know someone who is transgender. There is a sense of confusion around what exactly it means to be transgender, and opponents have become particularly adept at capitalizing on that confusion to spread fearsome messages like “No men in women’s bathrooms.” What looked in some ways like the swift legalization nationwide of same-sex marriage was really the result of decades of integration into workplaces and parent-teacher organizations. That hasn’t happened with the transgender community in Houston (or, frankly, the United States more broadly).
Robison thinks, and most of the people I spoke with for this story agree, that for an antidiscrimination measure to be successful in the future, it will need to come from Houston residents. The Houston city council passed the equal-rights ordinance in May 2014, but, they learned too late, they didn’t have the support of enough Houston residents to withstand the legal challenges conservatives would launch, and, ultimately, the referendum vote they would force caught advocates off guard. “The whole community thought it was not going to end up on the ballot,” Weaver says. “We were bargaining on the court doing the right thing.”