HOUSTON — The noisy debate over this city’s Proposition 1 has centered on whether it would allow men to use women’s public restrooms, which boils down to how you define “men” and “women.”
In a battle that has ranged from bathroom etiquette to gender rights to constitutional debates over religious freedom, a key skirmish broke out after former Houston Astros baseball all-star Lance Berkman appeared in an ad saying that the Nov. 3 ballot measure would “allow troubled men who claim to be women to enter women’s bathrooms, showers and locker rooms,” and the Yes on 1 campaign fired back.
“Prop. 1 will NOT allow men to enter women’s restrooms,” says a post on the website Houston Unites, the group supporting Proposition 1.
By “men,” however, the campaign is excluding biological men who identify as women. Proposition 1 would ban discrimination in public accommodations such as restrooms based on 15 characteristics, including gender identity.
In other words, anyone who tries to stop a biological man who identifies as a woman from using a women’s room would be in violation and could face fines of up to $5,000, if the measure succeeds.
“Obviously, when somebody identifies as transgender, it’s a transitioning process that we don’t really know where people are at in that,” said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Houston Unites. “Ultimately, people who live and work in society as women should be using the women’s restroom, and people who live and work in society as men should use the men’s restroom.”
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Proposition 1 allows voters to decide the fate of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, the hotly contested law pushed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a Democrat, and passed by the Houston City Council last year. The law was moved to the Nov. 3 ballot after a signature-gathering campaign that went to the Texas Supreme Court.
Before the ordinance, Houston relied on Texas and federal law, which do not include gender identity.
Framing the debate
By refusing to exclude access to public restrooms based on gender identity, as some other Texas jurisdictions have done, the mayor and City Council triggered a public outcry against the ordinance led by local pastors and backed by social conservatives. The hotly contested ballot measure also has overshadowed a lively mayor’s race and other citywide elections with a media blitz as both sides battle to define the debate.
The Houston Unites campaign has fought to move the discussion away from restrooms and into the realm of discrimination prevention, noting that Proposition 1 also protects against discrimination based on traits such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.
The campaign’s first television ad featured two local clergy in support of the measure.
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“As Christians, we believe in treating others as we want to be treated,” one of them said.
Houston Unites has also touted the support of business groups such as the Greater Houston Partnership and Visit Houston. A full-page ad published last weekend in the Houston Chronicle signed by 36 businesses argued that Proposition 1 is needed to preserve “Houston’s reputation as a friendly, welcoming place.”
But the Campaign for Houston, which opposes Proposition 1, has countered with hard-hitting videos and posts charging that the measure will make women and girls vulnerable to attacks in public restrooms by men.
“A man who goes into women’s bathrooms, showers and restrooms is not a hero, he is a pervert,” says one online ad by the Campaign for Houston, whose slogan is “No men in women’s bathrooms.”
Campaign for Houston spokesman Jared Woodfill noted that the law doesn’t say that men who identify as women have to dress like women, making it nearly impossible for business owners to figure out whether biological men entering women’s rooms are transgender or not.
“The language for gender identity under the ordinance doesn’t say you have to dress like a female. You only have to identify as a female,” Mr. Woodfill said.
Supporters of Proposition 1 insist that such arguments amount to scare tactics. They point out that it will remain illegal to enter a public restroom to “harm or harass” others.
The Yes on Prop 1 campaign also has the clear financial advantage, raising $1.2 million since Aug. 12, more than twice as much as the Campaign for Houston, according to campaign finance reports submitted Monday.
Another plus for supporters is that the ballot language never mentions public restrooms, but rather asks voters whether they are in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, “which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing” based on the 15 characteristics.
No recent polling on the issue has been released, but Mr. Carlbom said, “When people look at the question as it is on the ballot and are asked the question, ‘Do they support an equal rights ordinance?’ we do very, very well.”
As long as voters understand the connection between Proposition 1 and the public restroom issue, however, Mr. Woodfill is confident the nays will prevail.
“Once folks are educated about what this ordinance means to them in terms of public safety and males being able to enter female restrooms, they overwhelmingly reject it,” Mr. Woodfill said.