Reflecting on the defeat of Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance

Image: keepingtime_ca via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image: keepingtime_ca via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This past week, voters in Houston struck down Proposition 1, or HERO (the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), which would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and additional categories in non-religiously based organizations and institutions.

Several things come to mind in light of the vote.

HERO was drafted by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, certainly not the first female mayor or a major city but the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.  The bill’s opposition could be, in some way, opposition to an openly gay woman seen as “favoring her own,” a barrier many minority leaders face.  While it is rare for straight, white male leaders get accused of passing legislation that benefits other straight, white men, it turns out that women and minorities are deemed as “selfish” and disliked if they attempt to promote other minority groups.

But would HERO have passed if a straight, white man drafted it?  Maybe not because of the way HERO was framed by opponents.

Many vocal (and well financed) opponents of HERO called it the “bathroom ordinance” and adopted the slogan “No men in women’s bathrooms,” hinting that the passage of HERO would enable male sexual predators to dress up as women and enter women’s restrooms.  Suddenly Texans became worried about women’s safety.  This from a state that since the passage of state House Bill 2 (HB2) has reduced the number of facilities that provide abortion care from 41 to 18 making wait times for (safe) abortions long and forcing a rise in late-term (more medically dangerous) abortions.

Concern over women’s bathroom safety is also misplaced.  Texas ranks almost last (47th out of 50 states) in terms of women’s equality on a recent ranking and 30th  (out of 50 states) in terms of the sex pay gap.  In Texas, 41% of female headed families live in poverty.

Texans could make a bigger impact on women’s health and safety if they could fixate less on bathrooms and more on access to healthcare, anti-poverty programs, increasing women’s political participation, and passing legislation to promote equal pay.

Finally, some opponents insist there is no evidence of job discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Work scholars know this is not the case, especially in Texas.  Sociologist Andras Tilcsik (whose interview you can read on Work in Progress) found much lower callback rates in response to job applications sent by openly gay versus seemingly straight men.  A key point here: The callback rate was significantly lower in Texas compared to rates found in CA, NV, PA, and NY.   Dr. Tilcsik is not the only one to empirically investigate and eventually uncover evidence of job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  There is also clear and convincing evidence of wage discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation

What’s next for Houston, Texas, and the U.S?  Locally, we might see economic mobilization and boycotts of the city or state. And this worries some Houston business owners—the Super Bowl is scheduled to be in Houston in 2017.

Nationally, I hope the recent events in Houston bring greater attention to the issue of equal rights at work into the presidential debates.   Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear more of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates speaking about their views on anti-discrimination legislation?


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