When Annise Parker was elected to the office of mayor in Houston in 2009 it was a loud message that the old, conservative oil and gas town was finally beginning to reflect the place many of its residents already knew it to be: a forward thinking, world-class city with thriving LGBTQ and arts communities and a long resume of innovations in medicine and tech which long ago outgrew its dusty, Urban Cowboy roots. She was, after all, the country's first openly gay mayor, and was now in charge of one of the most diverse cities in the US. It's ironic, then, that upon taking office, Parker learned that Houston was the only large city in Texas—and one of the only ones in the country, in fact—that didn't have on its books an Equal Rights Ordinance, one that adds an extra layer to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to offer protection against discrimination in public and private sectors.
It took many years and a couple terms, but Parker finally got an Equal Rights Ordinance passed for Houston in May of last year. Known as HERO, it grants citizens "an environment that is free of any type of discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy."
Pretty straightforward stuff. But the ensuing fight to keep the Ordinance on the books, which has been raging since May, has been ugly. And, as Texas Monthly executive editor Mimi Swartz wrote in an essay titled "What Houston's Reaction to the Equal Rights Ordinance Says About My City," the tactics being used in an effort to defeat it are reminiscent "of an older Texas, the one I wanted to get the hell out of when I was growing up—the one that was a center of backwardness and bigotry I told myself Houston had left behind."
At the heart of the controversy over the Ordinance is a small section contained within it when first introduced, and since removed, that would allow people to use whichever restroom or locker room best fits their gender identity. Though it is no longer explicitly stated in the Ordinance, that sentiment is still implied, and it has become the entire focus of those who oppose HERO, which they've craftily rebranded "The Bathroom Ordinance." Almost immediately after it was voted in, five pastors, along with help from a conservative Christian group known as Alliance Defending Freedom, started gathering signatures in an effort to get HERO repealed.
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They gathered the required number of signatories, though there were allegations of forgery, and long story short, after a bitter back and forth court battle between pro- and anti-HERO forces, the conservative Texas Supreme court decided that the Ordinance either be repealed or put to a vote.
HERO will appear on the November 3 ballot. The war being waged over it is for nothing short of Houston's soul, its perceived image to the rest of the globe.
"Those leading the anti-HERO campaign have been at this for 40 years," Mayor Parker wrote VICE in an email. "Their entire pitch is based on whipping up fear about a misunderstood minority."
The "misunderstood minority" she refers to are transgender folk, and Parker believes HERO's opponents are trying to sell the public "a flat out lie": that a vote for HERO means men will be able to walk into women's restrooms indiscriminately.
As Swartz put it in her essay, anti-HERO forces are using "the bathroom tactic to mask its very real and very deep loathing of people who identify as gay or transgender." And anti-HERO ads offer ample evidence to support Swartz's point—one sees a grown man following a young girl into a bathroom, another stars former Astros' outfielder Lance "Fat Elvis" Berkman, who worries what the Ordinance and the "troubled men" it would benefit could mean for his wife and four daughters. (As a result, Mayor Parker pwnd Berkman via Twitter when she reminded him that he'd played baseball for other major cities that had an ERO in place, and the women in his life came out the other side unscathed. "Can you say hypocrite?" she wrote.)
Pastors in Houston have added to the hysterics, and heated up the rhetoric. Ed Young of the 63,000-member Second Baptist church told his flock during a recent sermon that HERO "opened up our city to something I think is absolutely Godless."
Dr. Steven Hotze, a conservative and proprietor of the Hotze Health and Wellness Centerin Houston was very blunt in his opposition. "I'm not going to fight homosexuals with sweet words," he said from stage on a speaking event he'd billed as "Faith, Family Tour." "I'm going to fight them with God's word." He went on to compare gays to Nazis, saying both were "wicked."
Mike Huckabee, a resident of Florida and presidential nominee running on the platform of being unelectable, got involved too, imploring his Facebook followers to march on the steps of Houston's City Hall.
Unfortunately, the tactics of HERO's opposition, though crude and inaccurate, seem to be working. The latest polls see opposition and support of HERO running neck and neck, giving HERO a slight edge of 45% in support and 39% opposed, with 20% still undecided.
That 20% are who those "Bathroom Ordinance" commercials are designed to influence.
"Most Houstonians, like most Americans, have gay and lesbian friends, family, and coworkers. Yet most people don't personally know a transgender person—at least that they know of," Mayor Parker told VICE via email in an attempt to explain the oppositions' effectiveness. "That lack of familiarity means that it can be easy for people to have questions, or concerns, or made to be afraid. People often respond that way to something they haven't experienced before. The fact that they are facing this attack affirms the need for this ordinance."
To help counter the opposition, supporters are widening the focus of HERO, and reminding Houstonians that the fight for it is more than just about who can pee where. The Ordinance protects 15 groups from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, and pregnancy.
Chris Valdez is the co-founder of Primer Grey, a Houston-based design and marketing company that has joined the fight in support of HERO. Along with photographer Lauren Marek, Valdez is tapping social media with a powerful, image-heavy project called we are HERO. The project's goal is to shine a light on a diverse array of Houstonians who would be protected under HERO. They've seen much success since the website's October 1 launch. "Facebook has spread this project further than we could have ever imagined," Valdez says from his Houston office.
Valdez says the idea for Primer Grey to add its voice to the chorus of those in support of HERO was a no-brainer. "The main reason was that we had a stance as a company on this, and we knew that as communicators—and often times visual communicators—we had the tools in our toolbox to correct the story. We wanted to talk about the 15 different categories of people that are protected by HERO and what was at stake for them," he says. "We wanted to put faces to those stories and have them look people in the eye and tell them who and what was in jeopardy. It's a lot harder to tell people to their face that you're not interested in protecting them from discrimination. More specifically, we wanted to point out that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is a civil rights conversation; not about one group."
That last point is an important one, and something the mayor recognizes as well: "I don't believe the public is aware that half of the complaints filed during the time HERO was in effect were for racial discrimination," she told us.
During a much publicized fight about HERO in City Council in late May an exasperated Mayor Parker at one point nearly broke down, saying "It is my life that is being discussed. This debate is about me." Her foes seized upon the comment, pointing to it as proof of a supposed "gay agenda."
"That comment was taken out of context," she told us. "It is personal because I am a mother with an African American son and bi-racial daughters. I don't want them or any other Houstonian to be discriminated against. You don't have to like everybody, but there is a certain amount of dignity and tolerance that is owed every human being."
"We'll win this," says Valdez. "It's a shame that we're putting equal rights on the ballot, but I know that Houston will come out on the right side of this, because that's the kind of city this is."
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An earlier version of this article stated that Mayor Parker was seeking re-election. That is incorrect. She is currently serving her third and final term.