- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Houston has emerged as ground zero for national gay rights groups seeking a key victory on red state soil as they mobilize behind a sweeping equal rights ballot measure expanding transgender access to public restrooms.

The Human Rights Campaign, Gill Action and the American Unity Fund are among those pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race over Proposition 1, which would position Houston as a national leader on transgender rights by making it illegal to deny entry to public restrooms based on gender identity.

In fact, the HRC describes itself as a founding partner, along with the ACLU of Texas and state gay rights groups, of the campaign in favor of Proposition 1, Houston Unites.

“Make a plan to cast your YES vote in support of Houston’s Proposition 1 — the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance,” the HRC urged on Facebook as early voting began Monday.

Jared Woodfill, spokesman for the Campaign for Houston, which opposes the measure, said a win in Houston allowing opposite-sex restroom use would build momentum for similar measures in other conservative states.

“What they’re trying to do is if they can win here, they want to take this ordinance to every county and city not just in the state of Texas, but across the country,” Mr. Woodfill said.

He cited the HRC’s year-old Project One America, which seeks to expand gay and transgender rights in traditionally conservative Southern states, including Texas.

“The Human Rights Campaign has committed a half-billion dollars as part of their Southern strategy to get these types of ordinances passed,” said Mr. Woodfill. “And that’s why Houston is so important to them, because they realize that the eyes of the country are watching Houston right now.”

On paper, the homegrown opposition is badly outmatched, relying heavily on state and local donors and trailing badly on the fundraising front. The latest campaign finance reports released Oct. 5 showed the Campaign for Houston raising just $275,000 compared with $1.2 million for Houston Unites.

Not that the campaign hasn’t received some national support. The Faith Family Freedom Fund, an arm of Family Research Council Action, posted a video Tuesday showing money being flushed down a toilet and warning that Proposition 1 could result in fines for those “objecting to a man using a woman’s bathroom.”

While proponents have the fundraising advantage, FRC president Tony Perkins said it “may not be enough to counter the backlash from pastors and local citizens who refuse to be steamrolled by the national forces of political correctness.”

Not just about bathrooms

Richard Carlbom, head of Houston Unites, disputes the perception that the measure centers on the transgender bathroom issue, stressing that the goal of Proposition 1 is to offer, for the first time, municipal protections based on a broad array of characteristics.

Proposition 1 would enact the hotly debated Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which bars discrimination based on 15 categories, including race, gender, religion, ethnicity, veteran status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I think there are a lot of different groups paying attention to it,” Mr. Carlbom said Monday. “Just today, VoteVets released a statement really calling out the funders behind the anti-equal rights ordinance [campaign], saying that if you’re against the equal rights ordinance, you’re against veterans.”

He said the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance offers “historic and most significant local protections against discrimination. … So many people are going to be relying on this local tool, and folks who want to repeal it are really putting these folks into some danger.”

Still, it’s the transgender portion that has drawn the most attention. The ordinance, which was passed by the city council last year before foes placed it on the Nov. 3 ballot, includes fines of up to $5,000 for preventing someone from using public accommodations, such as business-owned bathrooms open to the public, based on gender identity.

Seventeen states and about 200 localities have banned discrimination based on gender identity, according to the ACLU, but many of those laws and ordinances stick to less controversial protections, such as prohibiting discrimination in hiring and housing.

Some of those that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations specifically exclude public restrooms — such as Fort Worth and Plano, Texas — or limit their ordinances to government buildings.

Other cities, including Austin, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well as universities and businesses, have attempted to compromise by requiring businesses to convert single-stall public restrooms from gender-specific to gender-neutral.

The ACLU describes the move toward gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms as “useful” but not ideal, saying the organization “believes that transgender people should have the right to use restrooms that match their gender identity rather than being restricted to only using gender-neutral ones.”

Ad battle on public safety

Opponents of Proposition 1 have scored with highly charged ads raising the specter of male sexual predators trolling women’s rooms. The latest campaign television spot doesn’t pull any punches, showing a man trapping a little girl in a restroom stall.

“Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day,” says the ad. “No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom, and if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick paid for his own television ad urging a no vote, in which he says, “City of Houston Prop 1 is not about equality. That’s already the law. It’s about allowing men in women’s locker rooms and bathrooms.”

Foes have blasted such arguments as “scare tactics.” In a fundraising email, Mr. Carlbom described the Patrick ad as “his latest underhanded attempt to paint Proposition 1 as dangerous and to frighten Houstonians into voting NO now that early voting has begun.”

In an ad in favor of Proposition 1, city Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a retired police officer, notes that, “It’s already illegal for men to go into a women’s bathroom to harm and harass someone. Proposition 1 won’t change that.”

In response, the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Erik Stanley argues in a legal analysis that the Houston ordinance makes it impossible to prevent such crimes.

“Previously, if a man was seen going into the women’s restroom, store personnel would stop him and notify the police,” said Mr. Stanley in the Oct. 12 document. “But the Proposed Ordinance would remove a barrier of protection that has always existed, and make it easier for sexual predators to commit these types of crimes.”

Houston Unites has also responded with ads diverting attention from the transgender debate, such as one showing an Air Force vet, Noel Freeman, describing how he faced discrimination in hiring over his veteran status.

While federal law prohibits such discrimination, “there was no local protection,” Mr. Freeman says. “My only choice was to make a federal case out of it. I was unemployed. Where am I going to find the money to hire a lawyer?”

The Yes on Prop 1 campaign may also benefit from ballot confusion: A Republican-backed state measure that would raise the homestead tax exemption is also named Proposition 1.

Locally, Houston Unites touts support from the Greater Houston Black Chamber and the NAACP, although the black community is split on the measure, said Richard Murray, political science professor at the University of Houston.

“You have a sort of unusual lineup here,” said Mr. Murray. “You’ve got some white, older conservatives that are strongly ‘no,’ but you’ve also got a number of African-American ministers, whose congregations usually vote differently from the white conservatives, on the same side urging a ‘no’ vote.”

While Texas is conservative, Mr. Murray noted that Houston, like other big cities, is more liberal than the state as a whole. Houston voters three times elected Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major city and the driving force behind the ordinance.

If voters defeat the measure, Ms. Parker and business interests warn that Houston could lose the Super Bowl in 2017. Last week, however, the No on Prop 1 camp announced it had received a donation from the owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans.

“One of their big scare tactics is, ‘Oh, we’re going to lose the Super Bowl,’” said Mr. Woodfill. “Then Bob McNair, who owns the Texans, committed $10,000 to our campaign. So that argument kind of went by the wayside.”

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