Opponents of LGBTQ rights in Houston used a big, ugly myth to take down a law that would simply ban discrimination in certain settings.
On Tuesday, November 3, Houston voted on whether LGBTQ people should be legally protected from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations. According to the Associated Press, the measure lost.
But opponents of the ordinance fell back on age-old, desperate tactics to try to combat the law, using what's widely known as the bathroom myth. You can see it in the advertisement above by Texas Values Action, which shows a trans woman using the locker room that corresponds to her gender identity — and posing some sort of danger to other women in the facilities.
This is a tactic that has been used time and time again — not just against LGBTQ efforts, but against the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have established equal rights for women. The idea is that men will somehow take advantage of equal rights laws to disguise themselves as women and attack women in bathrooms.
But there's no evidence equal rights laws could be or would be exploited by sexual predators, and the Houston law in fact did nothing to weaken penalties on sexual crimes.
The Houston ordinance filled a gap in Texas's laws
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) would have prohibited discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, and other places that serve the public) against people based on a variety of traits, particularly sexual orientation and gender identity. The local law was meant to fill a gap in Texas's — and most states' — laws: LGBTQ people aren't currently included in nondiscrimination statutes.
Houston City Council passed HERO in 2014. But conservative opponents, arguing that businesses should be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people, managed to get a referendum on HERO on the ballot after lengthy legal battles stretching back to last year. And in November, voters rejected the law.
Early on, the campaign took a very dark turn. As Katherine Driessen of the Houston Chronicle reported, "Opponents of the ordinance, largely conservative Christians, have flooded radio and TV with ads saying the law gives men dressed in women's clothing, including sexual predators, the ability to enter a woman's restroom. On Tuesday, the group released a TV spot that closes with a man bursting into a stall occupied by a young girl."
The bathroom myth is, well, a myth
HERO would not have protected people who commit crimes in bathrooms — they could still be prosecuted. And business owners would have been able to deny a customer they believe to be a man entrance to a women's bathroom. What business owners wouldn't have been able to do under HERO is deny trans people entrance to a bathroom in a way that's clearly discriminatory — by, for example, using a slur or insulting a person's gender identity.
There's also no evidence that people try to take advantage of LGBTQ civil rights laws when they pass to commit crimes. Experts from 12 states with LGBTQ protections told Carlos Maza of Media Matters that they don't know of a single reported instance of sexual assaults in bathrooms stemming from the laws.
In another investigation, Media Matters also found that 17 school districts around the country with protections for trans people, which collectively cover more than 600,000 students, had no problems with harassment after implementing their policies.
Still, the myth has been successful in taking down previous equal rights proposals — including the Equal Rights Amendment, which once had a good chance of ratification. And it was enough to take down a civil rights law in Houston that had nothing to do with bathrooms.