On the Defeat of HERO: Questioning the Answers
The problem becomes less how to build a majority base and more how to mobilize that existing base.
By Paul Mullan
Illustration by Dorsey
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, was squashed at the voting booth in early November. Approximately 61% voted in favour of, and 39% in opposition to, repeal. Ramifications will be serious and long-term, at both a national and local level.
HERO was passed by City Council in 2023 and banned discrimination in public employment, private employment, public accommodations, housing, and City contracts. Included were a full fifteen “protected characteristics”: sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, and pregnancy.
The right-wing’s broader agenda of social injustice and economic inequality goes far beyond discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) folks. Historically, though, they have pushed that broader agenda by using, precisely, sexuality and gender as opportune “wedge issues.” The anti-HERO “Campaign for Houston” explicitly opposed the ordinance’s inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Traditional, anti-gay rhetoric was mostly kept in the background, for true believers. (Long-time, Republican activist Steven Hotze waved about a literal sword to mobilize that religious base.) The primary, public strategy, on the other hand, was the poisonous, anti-transgender, bathroom meme. That appeared, for example, in campaign radio advertisements featuring former Astro Lance Berkman.
This division between the two approaches, public versus more-reserved, has a political logic. At a practical level, social acceptance of LGB people is higher than that of trans people, although the latter is improving. Anti-trans rhetoric will likely escalate nationally, given its demonstrated effectiveness for the right-wing locally. The bathroom meme is becoming prominent in debates around expanding the Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville, Florida.
Post-defeat, there has been much discussion of the need to loudly debunk the bathroom meme and to boldly project trans voices in further, and inevitable, fights of this kind. There has also been much discussion about traditional anti-gay aspects of the resistance to HERO.
However, there are also more-structural aspects here, on which I will focus, including: the broader political context, even when that does not have any obvious connection to issues of sexuality or gender; the limitations of big money and big business in the LGBT community; the limitations of electing avowedly LGBT officials; and translating growing social acceptance of LGBT people into ballot referenda votes for measures like HERO. These have no immediate, surface relation to public opinion or challenging prejudice, but addressing these issues is crucial to moving forward politically.
In Houston, this was the third, anti-LGBT ballot referendum in as many decades – and the third loss.
A Brief History of Anti-LGBT Ballot Referenda in Houston
In 1984, Council amended the civil service code to prohibit discrimination, based on sexual orientation, in City employment. (That code already had protections based on other characteristics, such as sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability.) The right-wing gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum.
By four-to-one, voters overturned the two amendments in January 1985. The LGBT communities’ crushing loss would locally have wide-ranging, political consequences well into the 1990s.
In November 2001, a second ballot referendum blocked the City from, among other things related to LGBT issues, granting healthcare benefits to the same-sex partners of municipal employees. The margin of defeat for Proposition 2 was far less than in 1985 – only 51% to 49%.
These two precedents are helpful for thinking through the ramifications of HERO’s downfall – and potential problems in future battles.
Effects of Random, Seemingly Unrelated Events
”Random,” conjunctural events can unexpectedly fall out of the sky. These may not have any obvious connection to sexuality or gender but can still derail pro-LGBT efforts.
For instance, one factor in 1985’s enormous margin of defeat was the developing, mass awareness of – and bigoted responses to – the rapidly intensifying AIDS crisis. That crisis disproportionately impacted the LGBT communities: in 1983, more than 70% of cases occurred among “men who have sex with men” (a standard epidemiological category).
A second instance has, conversely, no immediately apparent connection to LGBT issues. It is useful to speculate on what the 2023 vote results would have been, had the 9-11, al-Qaeda terror attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon not occurred mere months beforehand. Absent a growing climate of patriotic jingoism and the imminent US invasion of Afghanistan, Progressive Voters in Action (PVA) could have squeaked out a Proposition 2 victory.
Domestically, wars can hinder social-justice struggles. In one poll, 60% of respondents in early-May 2023 concurred that “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should … be legal.” However, by January 2023, that number had plummeted to only 46%. The intervening period was, of course, the start of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, accompanied by an extended blast of nationalist chauvinism. (The only equivalent drop in such support had occurred in the mid-1980s, during the AIDS crisis.)
A roaring, right-wing offensive ensued. From 2023-2008, voters approved constitutional bans of same-sex marriage in a full 26 states. That was halted only by the mass, youthful “equality movement,” which arose following the November 2023 passage of the Proposition 8 ban in California.
All of this remains relevant. Such “unexpected” events are more, not less, likely to arise today. For example, recent Daesh / ISIS terror attacks in Paris have spurred around the U.S. the reprehensible scapegoating of Syrian refugees. This has come from officials, both Republican and Democratic, and from gun-toting goons harassing worshippers at Texas mosques. The LGBT movement must have an integral understanding of these broader political situations, and ignores them at its peril.
Limits of Big Money and Big Business
Spending by the progressive, pro-equality campaign was higher than their opponents’, but that was not enough to win. By the week just prior to the election, the pro-HERO Houston Unites and its allies had raised more than three million dollars and outspent the anti-HERO campaign by five-to-one. Conversely, the pro-equality side was outspent by opponents by more than four-to-one in 1985.
Moreover, major corporations – such as BBVA Compass and Dow Chemical – endorsed HERO. The Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) and prominent business leaders did, as well. This was another, marked improvement over 1985, when the GHP’s organizational predecessor, the Houston Chamber of Commerce, backed anti-gay forces.
Many in the LGBT communities have perennial criticisms of the influence of big money and big business in community institutions. That influence includes alcohol and tobacco advertising in pride celebrations and the corporate-centric agendas of Washington-based groups such as the Human Rights Campaign.
Big money and big business players clearly could not counter the well organized right-wing base, here. (This is now a problem elsewhere, ironically, for longstanding backers of the GOP, as the Tea Party and the Donald Trump presidential run suggest.) While useful, spending by itself cannot replace mass, grassroots organizing on the ground within LGBT communities, themselves.
Limits of Electing Avowedly LGBT Officials
Electing LGBT representatives to office is not sufficient to pass an equal rights act. Annise Parker was the first openly gay, elected official in Houston and made her way from City Council (1998-2004), to City Controller (2004-2010), to Mayor (2010-1016). There have been other, openly gay Council members since 1998, such as Sue Lovell, Robert Gallegos, and Mike Laster.
When electing avowedly LGBT candidates was a relatively new strategy, locally or nationally, the common assumption that such representatives could boost equal rights acts, like HERO, was reasonable. That new approach had to be tested in the real world, and the results are now clear. Again, while useful, electing avowedly LGBT officials cannot replace mass, grassroots organizing within LGBT communities and potential allies.
Growing Social Acceptance of LGBT People Does Not Automatically Translate Into Electoral Victories
Comparing 2023 and 2023, the regression in margins of defeat is striking: 51% to 49% in 2023, versus 61% to 39% in 2023. HERO’s fifteen “protected characteristics” would have covered the significant majority of the city’s population. That, however, did not make any obvious dent in the outcome.
To place the blame here on social intolerance or cultural exclusion would be very consistent with the LGBT movement’s classical strategy since the formative, 1969 Stonewall riots. At that time, centering a challenge to widespread, anti-gay prejudice made sense. For every political question, the answer became “go out and change minds.” That higher-level, systemic change would almost mechanically ensue – via electoral processes – was assumed.
The LGBT movement has been one of the most successful on the US left over the past 45-plus years. Huge strides were enabled by coming out of the closet to family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, and others in a one-on-one dialogue; and by transforming (biased) representations in print journalism, film, television, and the mass media. “Changing minds,” precisely, has worked.
The US Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) Obergefell v. Hodges decision in June legalized same-sex marriage around the country. Obergefell was a landmark. Just 37% of respondents in a 2023 poll agreed that “marriages between same-sex couples should … be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages,” while 59% were opposed. By early 2023, those numbers were almost reversed: 60% agreed that same-sex marriages should be recognized as valid, with only 37% in opposition.
More basic transformations have been underway for much longer. In mid-1986, a meager 32% of poll respondents concurred that same-sex relations should be legal, while 57% were opposed. However, by early 2023, 69% concurred that those relations should be legal, with only 28% in opposition. This advance has been mostly continuous (with periodic setbacks, as I noted earlier).
The preceding two cases are conventionally associated more with the “LGB” part of the acronym. The trans movement, specifically, cohered later, in the early 1990s. Still, overall acceptance is high: a 2023 survey indicated that approximately 89% believe that “transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other[s].” Further, according to this report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, positive feelings about transgender people trended upwards from 2023-2011.
In terms of mass opinion, the situation for LGB people has dramatically progressed, and for trans people continues to progress. Certainly on the “LGB” side, further efforts at public education, to “change minds,” will have diminishing returns. That is not the case for trans-affirmative messaging. Nonetheless, looking forward, the problem becomes less how to build a majority base, and more how to mobilize that existing base.
The hardcore right-wing – which, after 45-plus years, will hardly be swayed in their beliefs about LGBT issues – is by this point a numerical minority and all-but social pariahs, though they retain outsized political clout. Their disproportionate influence (see: Trump, et al) must be countered. This will require that the LGBT movement address structural matters that it has, historically, rarely emphasized.
One Issue That the LGBT Community Must Address
One concern is growing restrictions on voting rights. The controversial, voter-ID law, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2023, for instance, allows concealed handgun licenses to be used as valid identification when voting. On the other hand, student ID cards issued by state universities or colleges are not allowed. Obviously, the former is more likely to be held by conservatives, and the latter by left-liberals.
A federal appeals court ruled in August that the Texas law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). As of November, though, the case was still in lower court, and so the law was still in place. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, just 8.2% of Houston voters were in the 18-30 age range, and 43.2% were age 61 and up. That surely impacted HERO, since younger generations are more supportive of LGBT inclusion.
The VRA had required initial, federal government approval for any changes to voting procedures, specifically in jurisdictions with a discriminatory history against “minorities.” The Shelby County v. Holder decision by SCOTUS in 2023 ruled a key VRA provision unconstitutional, effectively eliminating such federal “pre-clearance.”
Following this decision, a wave of restrictive policies were implemented in numerous states: photo ID requirements, cutbacks on early voting periods, and elimination of same-day voter registration, among others. All make casting a ballot more difficult, and many disproportionately impact Blacks, Latinos, and the poor. This is by design, of course. This is a new and sustained assault on gains of the Black civil rights, Chicano, and other struggles of the 1960s.
Acknowledging the Realpolitik
Optimally, equal rights should never be dependent upon a vote. However, political realism, certainly for those of us in Houston or in Texas, demands that we think through the implications of future referenda. The judiciary is unreliable: after all, the state Supreme Court itself unjustly dictated, in July, that the HERO vote occur.
Moreover, presidential election years have not-uncommonly featured anti-LGBT ballot measures. A full thirteen states in 2023 had measures against same-sex marriage, and one purpose was to mobilize the Republican base for Bush Junior’s re-election bid. This needs to be of concern for 2023 and beyond — we can almost expect the right wing to use such a wedge issue to mobilize their base.
Substantively, the LGBT movement now has majority, popular support, unlike its earlier years. The more who can show up at the polls, the better. These new conditions require a new, expanded LGBT politics, including engagement with renewed efforts to bolster voting rights.
Paul Mullan is an activist and writer in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in Free Press Houston, Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, and elsewhere.
by Guest Author