In the fight for LGBTQ rights in Houston, local advocates are trying to recruit a big potential ally: Beyoncé.
With the hashtag #BeyBeAHERO spreading across social media, LGBTQ advocates are begging the Queen of Pop to support a local ordinance that prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ people in her hometown.
The effort is, to some degree, a flash of desperation for LGBTQ advocates who have been backed into a corner after conservative opponents got a measure that would allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination on the 2015 ballot. But the plead for Beyoncé's help also signals advocates' attempts to launch the next frontier of LGBTQ rights now that the same-sex marriage battle is over: nondiscrimination laws that protect people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
What is #BeyBeAHERO?
#BeyBeAHERO is a hashtag launched by LGBTQ advocates asking Beyoncé to throw her support behind HERO, a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston. Local activist Ismael Melendez started the hashtag earlier this month after Carlos Maza, the LGBTQ program director of Media Matters, wrote an article in the Huffington Post asking Beyoncé to rally behind the cause.
HERO is short for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which the Houston City Council passed in 2014 to prohibit discrimination against people in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, and other places that serve the public) based on their sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy. That's a long list, but the focus for advocates is to protect LGBTQ people by banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in particular. The local law is meant to fill a gap in Texas — and most states' — laws: LGBTQ people aren't currently included in nondiscrimination measures.
But conservative opponents, arguing businesses should be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people, managed to get a referendum on HERO on the ballot after lengthy legal battles spanning back to last year. So in November, Houston voters will decide if they want to keep the law.
What does Beyoncé have to do with any of this?
The Queen of Pop is from Houston, has voiced support for LGBTQ rights before, and is ridiculously famous, so her support could give some international prominence to the Houston campaign.
"Given the amount of attention that Beyoncé's support for the LGBT community has gotten in the past, it's not hard to imagine the kind of positive impact her support for HERO might have on a local election," Maza wrote.
So wait, discrimination against LGBTQ people is legal in Texas?
Not just Texas. In most parts of the country, discrimination against LGBTQ people is legal under state law: 31 states don't ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations.
As a result, more than half of LGBTQ Americans, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group Movement Advancement Project, live in a state where under state law an employer can legally fire someone because he's gay, a landlord can legally evict someone because she's lesbian, and a hotel manager can legally deny service to someone who's transgender — for no reason other than the person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Currently, 19 states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while three additional states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Some other states protect public but not private employees from discrimination. Many municipalities have nondiscrimination laws that only apply within their local borders, even in states that don't have such laws. And some companies prohibit discrimination in their own policies.
The protections can further vary from state to state. Massachusetts's protections for gender identity and Utah's protections for sexual orientation and gender identity don't apply to public accommodations. Some states also include exemptions for discrimination based on religious grounds. Enforcement varies, as well: Depending on the state, private lawsuits, fines, and jail time are all possible forms of punishment for discrimination.
Nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people build on existing federal and state laws — most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act, which protect people from discrimination based on their race, color, national origin, religion, and sex.
"The whole point was to say that black people ought to be able to drive to Mississippi from New York and have a place to stay, or get a meal at a restaurant," Robin Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois who helped write Utah's nondiscrimination law, said in April. "Over time, we added protected classes to that — people with disabilities in some states, for example."
Some LGBTQ advocates argue that legal prohibitions against sex discrimination already protect LGBTQ people. But that interpretation hasn't been affirmed by higher courts, casting uncertainty over whether it would hold up in a legal dispute. The uncertainty is why advocates want explicit legal protections for LGBTQ people: New state or federal laws that add sexual orientation and gender identity to nondiscrimination protections would remove any doubt about the reach of laws like the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Title IX, and state statutes that prohibit sex discrimination in their public accommodations protections. (Federal public accommodations laws don't currently shield against sex discrimination — only discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and religion.)
"There's no substitute for being explicitly listed in the law," Ian Thompson, the LGBTQ legislative director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in April. "I also think it's a very powerful statement to see that it is the law of the land that discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong and illegal."
Do most Americans support these types of measures?
Yes. Surveys show that most Americans widely support nondiscrimination protections, but a major hurdle to getting the laws passed may be that Americans already think they're in place.
In a 2014 poll from YouGov and the Huffington Post, 62 percent of respondents said it was already illegal under federal law to fire someone for being gay or lesbian, 14 percent said it was legal, and 25 percent weren't sure. The same poll found most Americans — 76 percent — said it should be illegal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian, while just 12 percent said it should be legal.
The YouGov and Huffington Post poll isn't the first to find strong support for civil rights protections for LGBTQ people. A 2014 survey commissioned by HRC, an LGBTQ advocacy group, found 63 percent of US voters favored a federal law that protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, while just 25 percent opposed it.
Another poll from Reuters, conducted in April 2015, found 54 percent of Americans said it's wrong for businesses to refuse service to people based on religious beliefs, while 28 percent said businesses should have that right — suggesting that most Americans would disapprove of businesses discriminating against LGBTQ people on such grounds.
For LGBTQ advocates, the overall results present a tricky situation: Most Americans support nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but they don't appear to know that these protections aren't currently explicit under the law.
"When people already think these protections are in place," Thompson of the ACLU said in April, "it can be difficult to work up the motivation that's necessary to push for them."
Plus, support in the polls doesn't always translate to votes. Since there's no national election this year, voter turnout in Houston is expected to be quite low. So LGBTQ advocates are very concerned that the type of people who would normally support protections for LGBTQ people — younger, more liberal voters — just won't show up to vote. But that's exactly the kind of voter Beyoncé could invigorate by giving the issue some national attention.
Would Beyoncé really make a difference — and does she even want to?
Since Beyoncé hasn't publicly spoken about HERO, it's impossible to say whether she would support a vote to uphold it. But she has shown support for LGBTQ rights — like when she danced in exotic rainbow attires for her Instagram followers following the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the US.
This kind of Instagram post is really all LGBTQ advocates are asking for: just one tweet or social media post showing support to her millions of followers.
"With a single post to her over forty million Instagram followers," Maza of Media Matters wrote in the Huffington Post, "Beyoncé could change the debate over Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance and mobilize support for protecting LGBT Houstonians from discrimination."
Studies suggest that Maza's sentiment likely overstates Beyoncé's — and celebrities' — influence in elections. But one should never doubt the Queen.