Misinformation, fear mongering led to HERO defeat

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Misinformation, fear mongering led to HERO defeat

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Everything’s bigger in Texas. And, apparently, so is the bigotry.

As someone who lived in Houston for most of my life, I am deeply saddened and ashamed by my hometown’s repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO Act, on Nov. 3.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the HERO Act was a city ordinance designed to combat discrimination in housing, employment and business services by extending legal protection to 15 different classes, including sex, race, sexual orientation, pregnancy, military service and gender identity.

However, the proposition was overwhelmingly rejected by approximately two-thirds of Houston voters.

How did this happen? How can one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the country — one which has elected its first openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, three times — refuse to join 200 other cities around the country by offering basic rights and protections to its citizens?

There are several answers to that question — revealing a few lessons we can take away from this unfortunate turn of events in the Bayou City.

The first is that prejudice and intolerance are alive and well. Many people — admittedly, myself included — fell under the impression that after the Supreme Court extended marriage equality to same-sex couples this year, we were on an easy path to true LGBT equality. The battle was won; everything else would eventually work itself out.

But, the fight is far from over. 28 states, including Texas, do not have statewide nondiscrimination laws, meaning it is still perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay or transgender in many parts of the country.

In other news, Ben Carson compared homosexuality to bestiality and is still leading the GOP polls; meanwhile, Kim Davis supporter Matt Bevin was just elected the new governor of Kentucky.

As these examples illustrate, the battle for equal rights doesn’t end with same-sex marriage. Supporters of LGBT rights must continue to support, advocate and — most importantly — vote.

It was this last factor that spelled doom for the ‘Yes’ campaign. Which brings us to our second lesson of the day: turnout matters.

Although higher than typical mayoral elections, voter turnout in Houston was much more pronounced among groups that were likely to oppose the proposition, such as African-Americans and white conservatives. Almost half of the voters were over 65, while less than 10% were young people.

HERO had many notable supporters, including Hollywood celebrities, presidential candidates and even the White House. However, in the end, they simply just couldn’t compete with the ‘No’ campaign’s ability to mobilize voters.

Christian organizations, many of which that had sued to put the ordinance up for repeal in the first place, flooded the airwaves with radio and television ads, urging Houstonians to defeat the measure. Even former Astros star Lance Berkman appeared in ads as a vocal opponent of the proposition.

However, it was not the nature of the campaign, but  rather its message, that is most disturbing.

Under the banner of “No men in women’s bathrooms,” the opposition perpetuated the — entirely false — notion that the HERO Act would somehow protect men who entered women’s bathrooms and locker rooms with the intent of harassing or harming women.

“It was about protecting our grandmoms, and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, after the vote. “I’m glad Houston led tonight to end this constant political-correctness attack on what we know in our heart and our gut as Americans is not right.”

Or, as another opponent so eloquently told the Washington Post, “Anybody with a penis, I don’t want them in the ladies’ restroom.”

Never mind that nowhere in the 36-page document does the word “bathroom” appear.

Never mind that a 1972 Houston law specifically prohibits entering an opposite-sex bathroom with the intent of harming someone.

Never mind that gender identity is just one of the 15 classes mentioned in the ordinance, meaning there is virtually no one in Houston it doesn’t protect.

Our third and final lesson? Fear trumps facts.

The failure of the HERO Act is a sad testament to the current state of American politics, where misinformation and fear mongering are more powerful motivators than sensible policies. Whether its illegal immigrants, ISIS terrorists or bathroom-dwelling predators, there’s no shortage of boogeymen out there to scare people to the voting booths.