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How Opponents of LGBT Rights Are Exploiting the Politics of Disgust

The rejection of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston marks the return of an old culture war tactic


The gay marriage movement succeeded by convincing people that gay men and women just wanted to be normal. Having lost that battle, the opponents of LGBT rights have made a partial comeback by turning their focus to transgender discrimination, bringing old fears of the abnormal and the deviant back to the forefront.  

On Tuesday, voters in Houston overwhelmingly rejected a broad anti-discrimination ordinance by a whopping 62 percent to 38 percent margin after its opponents shamelessly pitched the measure as a vehicle for sexual predators to victimize young women. “Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day. … Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom,” warned one TV ad depicting a faceless man following a young uniformed school girl in into a bathroom stall and shutting the door. “It would allowed troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms,” former Houston Astros baseball star Lance Berkman said in a radio ad against the ordinance.

That message preyed on all kinds of base fears and stereotypes—that trans people are disturbed freaks; that the world is crawling with sexual predators; and that women and girls must be shielded from men’s private parts. The reality is that 17 states and more than 200 towns and cities broadly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, including at public bathrooms. And there's no evidence that these laws are enabling sexual assault by sexual predators pretending to be transgendered. Violence against transgender people, on the other hand, is still distressingly real and on the rise.  

The Houston officials supporting the law—including Annise Parker, the city’s openly lesbian mayor—never intended the fight to be reduced to bathrooms in the first place. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was intended to protect an extremely broad range of groups, barring discrimination against individuals based on “sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.” In the brief period last year when HERO was in effect—before the Texas Supreme Court intervened and forced the measure to be put on the ballot—five of the complaints filed under the ordinance were about racial discrimination, five were about LGBT discrimination, and one was about gender discrimination. 

Supporters of HERO tried to unite behind the broad message of anti-discrimination, garnering the support of everyone from Hillary Clinton to actress Sally Field. “In the most diverse city in America, we believe that everyone should be treated fairly and equally under the law, no matter who they are,” proclaimed Houston Unites, a local coalition that supported ordinance. The website featured minority business owners, disability rights advocates, and faith leaders who supported the anti-discrimination measure. But that generic message of “diversity” ultimately didn’t seem to be enough to cut through the opposition’s message about sexual deviants on the prowl. 

Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, says the fight should never have been reduced to the queston of bathroom access. At the same time, she believes that trans people themselves should have played a bigger role in the campaign. “Trans people were very supportive of this ordinance in the one sense. I don’t know they were engaged sufficiently by the campaign. I’m not blaming the campaign—we weren’t that engaged either,” says Keisling, a trans-identified woman. But Keisling believes that the bigger problem was voters’ lack of education and familiarity with trans people in their day-to-day lives. “Trans visibility wasn’t sufficient, and folks in Houston don’t know us well enough to just know that this was a fear-mongering campaign about lies run by the same folks that just lost the marriage battle.”

Lou Weaver, a transgender activist at the forefront of the Houston fight, points out that the campaign did try to tell ordinary people’s stories. Equality Texas, for example, released a video featuring a local Houston plumber talking to his coworker about coming out as a transgender man. But Weaver agrees that more needs to be done to bring transgender people into the mainstream. “It’s easy to demonize people we don’t know, and not everyone has the privilege of knowing a transgender person,” he says. “We’ve got to bring it home.”

Without a countervailing argument, the opposition was free not only to demonize transgender individuals, but also to focus on the parts that still tend to make people the most uncomfortable—namely, the private parts. Access to public accommodations—including bathrooms in restaurants and stores—is a real concern for trans people, who’ve regularly experienced harassment and assault when they’ve tried using gendered facilities. LGBT activists are currently fighting for those protections in Massachusetts. The state passed a law in 2011 that bans employer or housing discrimination based on gender identity, among other protected classes, but didn’t extend that protection to public accommodations. Utah passed an LGBT anti-discrimination law in March that similarly excludes public accommodations. On the local level, transgender students have fought for the right to use school bathrooms and locker rooms. The larger problem is that there is still no federal law explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, though Democrats are currently pushing to add such protections. 

The opposition has responded by applying the old tactics they used against gay men and women to another class of people who still haven’t been normalized in the broader public eye. It’s no longer socially or politically acceptable to speak of the horrors of gay sex, as anti-gay activists had done for decades. In fact, the fight for gay marriage succeed in large part by taking sex out of the equation, replacing it with images of loving parents and doting old couples. “It was old-lady lesbians who we found were the best messengers,” one advocate told The Atlantic. “Nobody thought about sex when they saw them.” But despite the emergence of celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, transgender people remain marginalized, and it is still socially and politically acceptable to portray them as dangerous, pathological deviants.

The moral panic isn’t likely to go away any time soon, especially as the fight has spread to bathrooms in schools. The Obama administration has ordered an Illinois school to make accommodations for a transgender girl who wants to change in the girls’ locker room; the feds have intervened in similar cases in California. A handful of states have already passed laws requiring schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity. At the same time, conservatives in states like Wisconsin are trying to pass laws explicitly prohibiting such accommodations; similar measures have surfaced in Minnesota, Nevada, and Kentucky. And the pearl-clutching that was prevalent in Houston can be seen in those states, too. “Girls should not have to risk being exposed to boys in locker rooms, changing rooms, and restrooms,” an analyst for Focus on the Family told The New York Times.  

As with the gay marriage fight, the antidote to such fear-mongering seems to be normalcy. “I think the most important work for any trans person is the education we’re doing with our families and our classmates and our coworkers—when they know us, they understand that we’re human beings,” says Keisling. The community is finding new ways to deliver that message: On Twitter, transgender activists have embraced a tongue-in-cheek hashtag to defuse the bathroom fight: #wejustneedtopee. They just want to do their business in peace and move on with their lives, like everyone else.