In the last few days since the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance failed to pass approval by popular vote, many pieces have been written analyzing everything from the campaign structure to voter turnout to the impact the loss of this ordinance will have on Houston’s most vulnerable populations. One clear takeaway seems to be that the opponents of HERO were very skilled in harnessing fear to motivate turnout. Specifically: they were able to distill the comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance into one, unrelated, scare tactic: the women you love will not be safe in public restrooms if HERO stays on the books. And it worked.
The explicit messaging was everywhere, including in television ads that suggested that any man who felt like a woman “that day” could use a women’s restroom and prey on unsuspecting victims, as reported by Slate. By suggesting that men who feel like women, or dress like women, are inherently dangerous to gendered public spaces, the campaign successfully turned transgender Houstonians into a predatory evil.
Speaking to opponents of HERO at a victory party in Houston, Dan Patrick summed it up: “It was about protecting our grandmoms and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters.”
If elements of this campaign sound familiar to you, you’re right. The history of inequality in America is full of examples of this predator myth being used to argue against expanding rights or protections, and that’s because it works.
As Slate reported this week, this entire strategy was copied almost verbatim from the playbook that killed the Equal Rights Amendment three decades ago.
Similar to HERO, the ERA was passed by Congress in the early seventies to fanfare and support for its potential to increase gender equality. Unlike HERO, opponents did not have to petition to put the language to popular vote, as amendments to the constitution must be voted on before they can pass.
The language of the ERA was simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Opponents to the law (and feminism in general), led by Phyllis Schlafly, effectively inserted the fear of men entering women’s bathrooms for the purpose of attacking them into the fight to achieve ratification through the states. In their propoganda, they called the ERA the “Common Toilet Law.” The ERA failed to pass.
This narrative of the need to protect women against a threat is also deeply embedded in our country’s history of systemic racism. In this case, that protection, of course, extends only to white women.
In her anti-lynching pamphlet, Southern Horrors, activist Ida B. Wells explained the connection between this narrative and the justification of lynching in the American south: “…the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.”
As Slate reported in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, this narrative’s long history is far from over. It was reported that the shooter, a young white man, explained himself by pointing specifically to the rape of white women by black men before he opened fire.
Emmett Till, the fourteen year old boy whose open casket at his funeral helped galvanize the civil rights movement, was beaten to death by white men for flirting with a white woman in 1955. The list goes on and on.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, Dr. Lisa Lindquist-Dorr called the narrative of the black sexual predator a “racial red herring” that has no basis in reality. “It’s a trope that’s trotted out to justify oppression,” she explained.
Like the trope of the predatory black man, the threat of which was so potent as to fuel centuries of systemic racism and terrifying violence that continues to impact the lived experiences of black people in America to this day, the specter of the predator in women’s bathrooms is nothing more than bigotry and prejudice using the supposed vulnerability of women as a shield for its true purpose.
Like black men, who faced torture and death justified by their portrayal as sexual predators, transgender individuals who have been made the face of the predator in the Anti-HERO campaign are far more likely to face violence and death at the hands of strangers in public than the cisgender women the opposition claimed to seek to protect.
While the incidence of hate crimes targeting gay people has started to fall in recent years, acts of violence against transgender individuals are on the rise. Transgender people – and especially transgender women of color – are more likely to be killed for who they are, more likely to experience violence at the hands of police, and more likely to face discrimination in housing and employment due to their identity leading to higher rates of poverty and homelessness in the transgender community.
If it had been approved by voters, HERO would have provided a local avenue for addressing this inequity in the fourth largest city in the country. Instead, transgender Houstonians were made the scapegoat and the boogeyman – a new predatory specter for a new era of civil rights.