Houston, We Have an LGBT Problem

The community advocates must unite before they can convince residents to pass an antidiscrimination measure.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

HOUSTON—Perhaps nowhere is this city’s dual identity as a left-leaning metropolis in a conservative state more evident than in the debate over LGBT rights.

Last November, voters here rejected an equal-rights ordinance—the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO—that would have prevented employers and landlords from discriminating against people for a number of reasons, sexual orientation and gender identity among them. Yet Houston has an established LGBT community, it elected an openly gay mayor, and it is one of the youngest and most diverse cities in the United States. The defeat left LGBT advocates reeling.

So what happened? A number of factors came into play, including high turnout among black voters (one of just a few demographics where support for gay marriage has not reached 50 percent), an opposition campaign that successfully employed fear tactics with the message that the law would allow men to prey on girls in women’s restrooms, and a weak effort by supporters of the proposal to coordinate their message.

“I think there is an awareness in the city now,” says Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, which supported the proposal. “You know, Houston, we have a problem.” While it’s certainly worth examining what led to the measure’s failure, the more pressing question for Houston’s LGBT community is: How does it move forward? “In the short term, we’re just trying to help people heal,” says Ann Robison, the executive director of the Montrose Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental-health care to LGBT patients. “It was traumatizing.”

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.”

In addition to overcoming internal divisions and educating Houstonians about what it means to be transgender (an admittedly difficult task when voters have just handed down what many transgender people see as an attack on them), LGBT advocates will need to step forward as voices for other groups, as well. “There’s a tendency among the gay community to not work intersectionally,” says Roberts, “to only come when they need something.” Roberts, who is black, says she has also heard resentment from African Americans about “gay folks hijacking our civil-rights movement.” Some of that pushback comes, she says, from the fact that the gay community remains distanced from issues like officer-involved shootings of young black men or the closure of inner-city schools that serve mostly black students. “That’s noticed.”

Fran Watson, the head of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, agrees: “Going forward, we have to make sure as an LGBT community that we’re recognizing that intersectionality plays a role.” Despite Houston’s diversity, there seems to be a tendency for groups to stay in their silos. But Watson thinks that the defeat has served as something of a wakeup call for advocates. “Even though there was a defeat, folks on the ground are coming together to educate the community at large,” she says. Different organizations that had worked independently are talking, and there is a campaign to train transgender leaders to speak with the media and share their stories.

Putting LGBT-friendly lawmakers in office in local and state elections this November will be critical, advocates say, and the equal-rights ordinance vote showed just how far from “blue” Texas is as a state. Every two years, Robison says, “we have to hold our breath.” She and other advocates are hopeful that, because it’s a presidential election year, younger, more liberal voters will turn out. But Burke worries that the high levels of turnout among religious right-wing voters that helped defeat the proposal last November will be a factor this November, too. “If the worst-case scenario happens,” she says, “then I think there’s a long legislative road on these issues.”

There could also be a long public-relations road ahead of the city. Houston garnered national attention when it defeated the antidiscrimination measure, and several companies made overtures that they would not consider the city for future conventions and conferences (although any real economic impact so far seems negligible). For a young LGBT person looking at where to put down roots, Houston might now give them pause. But across the board, people interviewed for this story say they do largely feel welcome in this city on a day-to-day basis, at restaurants and in its public spaces. Now, they face the long task of convincing residents that making that welcome official with an antidiscrimination law is the right thing to do.