Houston residents head to the polls on Tuesday to vote on a ballot measure that would grant minorities, including transgender people, protections from discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas of the city. The initiative, known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, has prompted a backlash from opponents who say it would allow sexual predators to use women's bathrooms.
HERO would ban discrimination based on 15 classifications, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, military status and age. The measure has won the support of several high-profile figures, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, actresses Eva Longoria and Sally Field and companies such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard.
HERO opponents have formed the Campaign for Houston, a group whose members have dubbed the initiative a "bathroom ordinance" and say the law should not protect sexual orientation and gender identity. Campaign for Houston says the measure would force women to share bathrooms and dressing rooms with male sexual predators dressing up in female clothing to assault their victims, actions that are already considered crimes in Houston and the rest of the country.
"I'm sorry. If he's transgender, he should stay home until the process is complete," Loyce Johnson, a 70-year-old retiree who is volunteering for the Campaign for Houston, told the Washington Post. "Anybody with a penis, I don't want them in the ladies' restroom."
Sally Field, the Academy Award-winning actress and vocal supporter of HERO, said the claims by opponents that the ordinance will facilitate sex crimes in bathrooms are "evil lies."
"Not a single case of this," Field said last Thursday at an event in Houston with other supporters of HERO. "Not one single case has ever been reported. And believe me, if it had happened, it would have been reported."
Houston's Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian and longtime advocate for LGBT rights, was the driver behind the measure, which became law last year. But opponents quickly fought its passage and pushed to put it on the ballot for Houston residents to vote on.
The Family Research Council, a conservative anti-LGBT group, has been running ads urging people to vote against the proposition because, "No person should be punished by the government because of their beliefs." Tony Perkins, the head of FRC, says the measure "punishes people who refuse to celebrate transgenderism and homosexuality with massive fines."
At least 225 cities and counties across in the US have ordinances prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity, including four in Texas, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Seventeen states that have laws explicitly protecting people from housing or employment discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender identity, although Texas is not one of them.
HERO has won the support from several other prominent national advocacy groups in recent weeks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have its weight behind the measure, citing the statistic that 56 percent of all discrimination claims filed in Houston were cases of racial discrimination.
Business leaders in Houston have also expressed their support for HERO from an economic standpoint, fearing that if the city is seen as being anti-gay, it could lose business or ability to host the 2017 Super Bowl, reported the Washington Post. HERO "is a statement of who we are as Houstonians," Bob Harvey, president of Houston's Chamber of Commerce said at a press conference last week. "Let's make a positive statement to the country and the world. It is important for business."
Despite the high profile support for the measure, including from the White House last week, opinion remains sharply divided in Houston. Pollsters who have been following the election told the Texas Observer on Friday that the election still remains "too close to call" and there is still a large chance the measure could fail.
Opponents to the ordinance "established early on the narrative about this being about public safety as opposed to being about discrimination, and that took hold and was difficult to undo," Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston told the Observer.
A poll earlier this month by Houston Public Media's KHOU showed that 43 percent of people polled supported HERO, 37 percent opposed it and 18 percent were undecided.