Houston, We Have a Problem

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ACLU Blog Speak Freely

Houston, We Have a Problem

If we are looking for answers to the epidemic of violence against transgender women this year, we should start in Houston with the campaign that legitimized the lie that transgender people are less than human. (Photo: Shutterstock/Ashley Van Dyck)

“No men in women’s bathrooms.”

Those five words animated a campaign based in fear and deception that used anti-trans rhetoric to take down an equal rights ordinance in Houston, Texas, which protected 15 classes of people from discrimination.

After this week's vote on Proposition 1, Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was repealed by the voters. The vote not only strips away protections for LGBT Houstonians, veterans, pregnant people, people of color (whom 53 percent of the discrimination claims impacted) and others, it also sends a very clear message to Houston and the country that when it comes to understanding and supporting transgender people, we have a long way to go.

Everyone loses in Houston, but the trans community, in particular, is reeling from months of vitriol that undermined the very core of their humanity. 

The factually dishonest message that HERO would permit men to enter women’s restrooms relied on a core belief that transgender women are not women. The opposition used fear about and misconception of transgender people to spin lies that the ordinance would make it legal for someone to claim to be transgender in order to enter a restroom and commit a crime — something that has never actually happened in the 17 states and 200 cities that already have protections for trans people. To be clear, the repealed ordinance did not even mention the word “bathroom,” let alone authorize violence. And when it comes to violence and harassment, trans people are far more likely to get harassed while trying to use the bathroom than anyone else.

All that HERO’s repeal actually does with respect to bathrooms is force more men, trans men, into women’s restrooms and place all transgender people in less safe and more precarious positions in all aspects of our lives.

Though Houston is the latest battleground for this anti-transgender crusade by opponents of LGBT equality, this story is by no means a new one. We see efforts to undermine and demean the humanity of transgender people, particularly transgender women, everywhere from the pages of the New York Times to the stage of presidential debates

In a year that has witnessed an epidemic of anti-transgender murders, it should be no secret that the messages these campaigns advance directly create the climate in which transgender people — mostly transgender women of color — are murdered. Sending the message that transgender people are deceitful predators who deserve no rights or respect cultivates a sense that we are disposable, unlovable, and shameful. It is this narrative that leads to violence.

If we are looking for answers to the epidemic of violence against transgender women this year, we should start in Houston with the campaign that legitimized the lie that transgender people are less than human.

Despite this devastating loss and the many losses of life and legal protections we have seen this year, the community is full of strength and resilience. The story won’t end here. Fighting the vicious and dishonest bathroom panic argument is key to winning equal rights across the board.

We have a serious problem. But we have long-shown that there are answers in investing in and mobilizing the most vulnerable and despised among us.

Let’s invest in trans people, trans communities, and trans resistance. We are fabulous and transformative.

Chase Strangio

Chase Strangio is a staff attorney at the ACLU.

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