(David Bro/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Fear-mongering from Anita Bryant to Houston’s Proposition 1

This post was originally published on February 1, 2016, during Nursing Clio’s Undergraduate Week, when we brought you amazing work written by students at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY. Students wrote their essays as part a “Transgender Issues” course taught by Elizabeth Reis.

A man approaches a public women’s restroom. He pushes his way inside, locking himself in one of the stalls. Soon thereafter, a young girl enters the restroom and heads into the adjacent stall. The man then emerges and catches her door before she can latch it. As he enters her stall, she lifts her chin to see the intruder. She does not know what we know: It is too late.

Voters in Houston, Texas, did not have to imagine this terrifying scene; it was repeatedly broadcast as a 40 second television ad over the course of several weeks. The scene was accompanied by a voice-over urging Houstonians to “protect women’s privacy” and “prevent danger” by voting against Houston’s Proposition 1 “Bathroom Ordinance.” Voters responded in kind: In record numbers (27.45% voter turnout, the first time since the 2003 mayoral election that the city would see turnout exceed 20%), Houstonians voted unequivocally — approximately 61%-39% — in favor of repealing the ordinance.1

Still frame from Campaign For Houston's Proposition 1 support ad. (YouTube)
Still frame from Campaign For Houston’s Proposition 1 support ad. (YouTube)

When Proposition 1 is framed in this way — couched in cautionary language warning of an inevitable menace that would victimize women should the ordinance be approved — these results are unsurprising. What some may find surprising, however, is that this so-called “Bathroom Bill” or “Sexual Predator Protection Act” was actually anything but.2

Here are the facts: On November 3, 2015, Houston voters were presented with a veto-referendum targeting a piece of legislation known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. The ordinance would have officially established in Houston’s law protections against discrimination on the basis of fifteen characteristics: “Sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.”3 After various protracted campaigns and legal battles, the original ordinance was passed by the city council on May 28, 2014 — only to face intensified opposition in the months that followed. In response to a petition urging HERO’s repeal, the Texas Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the ordinance either be rescinded by the city council or else be revoked via popular vote through a measure to be placed on the November 2015 ballot.4 The city council then voted to put the issue to the public.5

As the pro-HERO groups tried to make clear, the ordinance was not a “Bathroom Bill;” it rather explicitly incorporated protections against discrimination on the basis of multiple criteria into municipal law.6 Federal anti-discrimination laws already cover most of these “Protected Characteristics” — with the notable exceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity. It was this last criterion upon which the anti-HERO campaigners seized, arguing that the ordinance would have punished organizations that attempted to stop men who “claim[ed] to be a woman that day” from entering women’s restrooms (and ostensibly terrorizing their helpless female victims).7

Given the legal and social realities of the ordinance, how did the two political action committees comprising the “No on 1” campaigns manage to provoke such a definitively negative response from the voting public? The answer is shockingly simple: Those opposing HERO circulated exaggerated, myopic, and misleading propaganda, almost exclusively in the form of overly reductive prescriptions such as, “No men in women’s bathrooms,” that were plastered across oversimplified graphics exhibiting both literal and figurative caricatures of trans women.

James M. Foster, “Save our children from homosexuality!” Pamphlet. (ca. 1977). James M. Foster Papers, #7439. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
James M. Foster, “Save our children from homosexuality!” Pamphlet. (ca. 1977). James M. Foster Papers, #7439. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

The use of these types of visual and rhetorical calumnies to denigrate and marginalize the LGBT community is nothing new. For example: In a situation strikingly similar to the legal and political drama playing out over HERO, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children, Inc.” organization was created in 1977 as part of an effort to repeal a recently-ratified ordinance that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Miami-Dade County, Florida. As with the case in Houston just last month, Bryant shored up support from local religious groups and gathered over 60,000 signatures in favor of repealing the ordinance, ultimately forcing a public vote (also with record-setting turnout) in which voters opted to repeal the ordinance, 69% to 31%.8 The pamphlets distributed to Miami voters urged the reader to “Save Our Children From Homosexuality” by “[Voting] for Repeal of Metro’s ‘Gay’ Blunder.”9 The inside folds listed a litany of grievances:

“It endangers our children. If… a male teacher, for example, were to show up in the classroom wearing a dress, that transvestite sexual behavior could not even be reprimanded by the school principal — because such a reprimand would violate the teacher’s ‘sexual or affectational preference’!”
“It threatens your home.”
“It attacks free enterprise. As an employer or owner of a business, no matter how small, you have no choice under Metro’s ordinance… Freedom of choice — to protect your normal employees, your customers or clients or patients… or yourself — is destroyed by Metro’s homosexual special-privileges ordinance. And failure to hire homosexuals may bring 60 days’ imprisonment and/or a $500 fine!”

In videos recorded in the late 1970s, Bryant can be heard warning her audience of the encroaching threat of losing their rights to intimidate, castigate, and isolate the LGB community: “There are many evil things that would claim — under the disguise of discrimination and under civil rights — the civil rights of our children.” In one exchange, Bryant defends her position to a critical interviewer: “This county ordinance is asking us in essence to go against the law of Florida and to go against, even more important, what we believe is above the law of the land — God’s law — whether you believe in it or not. Why should our civil rights be taken away from us?”10

In this way, Bryant and her crusaders achieved success by reframing the issue through the lens of a now-familiar trope: Not only were the deceptive, conniving homosexuals bent on depravity and recruitment, posing a very real threat to the children of Miami-Dade County, but also to the civil rights of the adults — the parents, the shopkeepers, the school principals, etc. — who would fight the ordinance and protect their children by refusing to hire or support these “deviants.” By shifting the nexus of discrimination from the LGB community to individuals who would seek to actively disenfranchise this already considerably persecuted community, those campaigning to repeal the ordinance successfully reconfigured the rights-based discourse.

Last month, Houstonians were presented propaganda with a near-identical tone: Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and a slew of like-minded religious groups based in Texas presented trans individuals as “troubled” rapists and sexual deviants.

As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is now the largest American city not to have anti-discrimination laws in its books. Because so much was made of the “bathroom” issue at the expense of the other issues at stake addressed by the referendum, the dialogue surrounding Proposition 1 largely failed to address the several other protections HERO afforded. Furthermore, those against the ordinance swathed Houston in propaganda that was chillingly similar to tactics used in the past, portraying the transgender community as one steeped in miscreancy and practiced in mendacity.

Further Reading

Ambrosino, Brandon. “Houston Mayor Scales Back Controversial Subpoena of Local Pastors’ Sermons.” Vox October 16, 2014.

Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. “Houston Subpoenas Pastors’ Sermons in Gay Rights Ordinance Case.” Washington Post October 15, 2014.

Bianco, Marcie. “Statistics Show Exactly How Many Times Trans People Have Attacked You in Bathrooms.” Identities.Mic April 2, 2015.

Brinker, Luke, and Carlos Maza. “15 Experts Debunk Right-Wing Transgender Bathroom Myth.” Media Matters for America March 20, 2014.

City Council: Campaign Finance Reports 2015.” The City of Houston 2015.

“Cruz: ‘Government Has No Business Asking Pastors To Turn Over Sermons.'” CBS Houston October 16, 2014.

“History of the Anti-Gay Movement Since 1977.” Southern Poverty Law Center April 28, 2005.

Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternative Deathstyle (1986).” Comics with Problems. Ed. Ethan Persoff.

Maza, Carlos. “An Expert Explains Why the Right-Wing ‘Bathroom Predator’ Myth Is Wrong and Dangerous.” Media Matters for America October 15, 2015.

McKinley, James C. “Houston Is Largest City to Elect Openly Gay Mayor.” The New York Times December 12, 2009.

Texas Values Action. “Protect Freedom, Preserve Safety in Houston.” YouTube. October 19, 2015.

Notes

  1. Matt Dempsey, “Voter Turnout Highest Since 2003,” Houston Chronicle November 4, 2015. Return to text.
  2. Mike Morris, “Equal Rights Law Opponents Deliver Signatures Seeking Repeal,” Houston Chronicle July 3, 2014. Return to text.
  3. City of Houston, Texas, Ordinance No. 2014-530 [PDF].Return to text.
  4. Olivia Pulsinelli, “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Suspended,” Houston Business Journal July 24, 2015. Return to text.
  5. Florian Martin, “Update: City Council Votes; Houston Equal Rights Ordinance On Ballot In November,” Houston Public Media September 8, 2015. Return to text.
  6. Ironically, the word “bathroom” appears only twice in the ordinance; both instances are included in the section clarifying the “features of adaptive design” that must be constructed into housing complexes in order for “an individual in a wheelchair [to] maneuver about the space” (Ordinance No. 2014-530, Article IV, Section 17-112). Return to text.
  7. Interestingly, “No on 1” organizations only elucidated the specific threat that trans women (or, as it were, scheming cisgender men) pose to cisgender women and girls; the discourse surrounding the ordinance conspicuously lacked almost any mention of trans men. This is never more clearly exemplified than in Lieutenat Governor Dan Patrick’s assessment of the ordinance’s purpose: “It was about protecting our grandmoms and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters. I’m glad Houston led tonight to end this constant political-correctness attack on what we know in our heart and our gut as Americans is not right.” Manny Fernandez and Mitch Smith, “Houston Voters Reject Broad Anti-Discrimination Ordinance,” The New York Times November 3, 2015. Return to text.
  8. Christen Boas Hayes, ” Florida Gay Rights Activists Boycott Orange Juice, 1977-1980,” Global Nonviolent Action Database September 22, 2013; Josh Sides, “Taking Back the Streets of San Francisco,” in Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 155.Return to text.
  9. James M. Foster, “Save our children from homosexuality!” Pamphlet. (ca. 1977). James M. Foster Papers, #7439. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.Return to text.
  10. Anita Bryant Confronted In 1977 (Who’s Who) Interview,” YouTube Ed. SuchIsLifeVideos (August 7, 2014). Web. 15 Dec. 2015.Return to text.

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