Smear Campaign Distracts Voters from Focus of Prop 1

Photo Courtesy of Daniel 2986, Wikipedia

This Tuesday, citizens of Houston, Texas voted to reject Proposition 1, an ordinance that would have created a range of anti-discrimination protections in public accommodations, employment, housing, city contracting and other Houston city services. Under the proposed legislation, also known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, fines would have been imposed for discriminating against anyone on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, marital status, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, among other protected categories, with exceptions of religious institutions. About 60 percent of Houston voters cast their ballots against the proposition, despite the fact that it received widespread support from dozens of celebrities and politicians — including President Barack Obama — and the fact that similar ordinances have been passed in hundreds of other cities across the country.

Many on both sides of the issue have credited the failure of HERO to pass with a single opposing argument: that the ordinance would allow men disguised as women to legally enter women’s bathrooms and potentially invade their privacy, harass them or even assault them.

Without any prior knowledge of the proposition, few would be able to gather this just by reading the ballot question, which stated: “Are you in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530, which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment and housing based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy?”

However, conservatives in Houston managed to twist the purpose of the ordinance and its potential consequences so far away from reality that they had people convinced that measures made to combat the very real inequality faced by women, people of color, disabled people and members of the LGBT community would somehow result in a bizarre, hypothetical crisis that is in no way supported by fact and has, in fact, been disproven by all available data on the subject.

“This was a campaign of fear-mongering and deliberate lies,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker about the anti-HERO campaign, which used the slogan “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” Parker continued, “This is about a small group of people who want to preserve their ability to discriminate.”

The flaws in the logic used by those who opposed HERO are bafflingly many. The first and most offensive problem with their argument is the suggestion that transgender women are men, and that it is at all likely that one’s motivation for identifying as transgender would be to peep on women and gain access to women’s spaces in order to harass and attack them.

There are no reported cases of transgender women ever committing any kind of assault or sexual misconduct in a public restroom, according to the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, in interviews with Media Matters, public figures, police officers and sexual assault survivors advocate in Austin, Dallas and El Paso – three other Texas cities which have passed anti-discrimination ordinances – stated that they have seen no increases in restroom sexual assault, and in some cases, no such incidents at all.

“I have never heard of any cases in which a suspect entered a public restroom while being dressed as a woman, (or claiming to be transgender), and sexually assaulted a female victim,” Mike Crumrine, an Austin Police Department Detective, said in an email to Media Matters.

In addition, according to a 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 26 percent of transgender respondents said they were physically assaulted due to anti-transgender bias, and one in 10 said they had been sexually assaulted due to this bias. Why would anyone fake an identity and drastically increase their risk of being physically and/or sexually assaulted simply to gain the opportunity to abuse women, which men have already done for decades in this country without legal access to women’s restrooms?

The ordinance, which only slightly suggests anything about restrooms when it refers to “public accommodations,” would not make sexual misconduct, harassment or assault legal, but HERO opponents insist that giving “men” access to women’s spaces would cause these crimes. This is ironic, considering the same conservatives who fought the ordinance would be unlikely to assert that giving people access to guns causes shootings, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who spoke out against HERO but signed bills this year which allowed licensed gun holders to carry guns in plain sight and to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.

The anti-HERO campaign also marks one of the only times conservatives will be seen supposedly fighting for women’s rights. In the past, Abbott has voted against measures that would make it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination, stated that he believes abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and threat to a mother’s life and has even ruled against young women attempting to sue organizations that did not do proper employee background checks on sexual predators, giving those predators access to rape them. Now, however, the safety of women and scrutiny over who has access to them are suddenly a priority.

Similarly, the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, has spoken out against Prop. 1, citing a concern for women and young girls, but has lobbied against Planned Parenthood, which provides essential health services to millions of women, and has even spoken out in support of Todd Akin’s statement that a person cannot become pregnant from a “legitimate rape.” All of this contradictory evidence supports Parker’s assertion that the anti-HERO campaign was one of lies and had less to do with women’s rights and more with a broader conservative agenda to block anti-discrimination efforts and deprive race, gender and sexual minorities, and other marginalized groups, of their rights.

This idea is further supported by the fact that these dissenters zeroed in on the bathroom issue — which was never specifically mentioned by the proposition — and failed to either support or oppose any other part of the ordinance, or offer an alternative to the ordinance’s goal. This campaign sought to distract voters from what the ordinance actually was, and use fear-mongering tactics to drive the votes in their direction — the direction of supremacy, discrimination and hatred.