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The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Has Been Repealed After a Year of Conservative 'Rebranding'

Bigots won big in Houston last night.

by Brian McManus
Nov 4 2015, 9:40pm

Sally Field speaking in support of HERO in Houston on October 29. Photo via Associated Press

As VICE reported on Friday, for the past year there has been a large effort underway by conservatives in Houston to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The ordinance offered protection for 15 different categories of Houstonian from discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual's [deep breath] sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, and pregnancy. The saga, which pitted the city's gay mayor Annise Parker against local conservatives and pastors, ended last night when the ordinance was repealed with a depressing 62 percent of voters casting a ballot in opposition of HERO.

Opponents of the ordinance were effective in their rebranding of it, and boiled it down to a statute it didn't even contain in its final draft, that men posing as women would be allowed entry into women's bathrooms. Opponents called HERO "The Bathroom Bill," and brandished signs that read "No Men In Women's Restrooms." Commercials aired showing men following little girls into women's rooms. Ex-Astro star Lance Berkman came out against it.

After the vote, the New York Times reports Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told an anti-HERO crowd, "It was about protecting our grandmoms, and our mothers, and our wives, and our sisters, and our daughters, and our granddaughters. 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."

"Hats off to the bigots on this one," Ryan Clark told VICE. Clark is the owner of a downtown bar in the city called Houston Watch Company. "Their messaging in this campaign was as effective as it was deceptive. Convincing folks that a law intended to protect families from housing discrimination was actually an ordinance that allowed the molestation of little girls in bathrooms is some Willie Horton-level chicanery."

Clark, like many Houstonians, believed HERO would stand, if by a slim margin. A whopping $3 million was raised in the campaign to see it stand, and national publicity about the fight largely sided with those in support of HERO. Hollywood even got involved, and actors like Sally Field appeared at rallies for the ordinance. The White House supported it. Hillary Clinton tweeted about it, even getting into a minor tussle with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and his opposition of the ordinance along the way.

But when early voting returns were reported, it was clear HERO had a giant gap to close (63% against, 37% for). When they started rolling in, Clark (who has been a volunteer deputy voter registrar for Harris County the last two election cycles) says reality started to seep in. "I'll admit that when I saw the demographics for the early voting, I started to have real concerns—the irony of my using race and age to prejudge election results on a non-discrimination law is not lost on me," he said.

"While we might pause to take a minute to accept the blow to civil rights that Houston experienced last night, we know that this fight is not over," Chris Valdez told VICE Wednesday morning. Valdez headed up the WEareHERO project, which aimed to show the full scope of those who would be most affected if the provision failed, and point its focus away from the bathroom. "Last night there were maybe some tears and some anger, but this morning there's still a lot of fight in us. There's gotta be," Valdez said, citing upcoming runoff elections between pro- and anti-HERO candidates.

VICE has reached out to Mayor Annise Parker, a staunch advocate of HERO who told us last week the fight for it was "very personal" for comment. She plans on releasing a statement via Houston's website later today.

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