Opinion
5 min

Houston’s failed LGBT bill sounds a lot like Canada

LGBT activists need a better story to counter transphobic opponents

(Bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms: the transphobic narrative won again in Houston, Texas on Nov 3, 2015. Remind anyone of Bill C-279 and the Canadian Senate?/Niko Bell and Wikimedia Commons photo)

Houston, Texas is a long way from Canada. Last week, it felt even farther.

Watching Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) crushed in the polls Nov 3, 2015, Texas seemed like the moon. Who were these sword-wielding, gay-smiting, “drive them back to San Francisco,” Texan separatists who convinced two thirds of a city to follow their lead?

HERO’s demise was everything that makes American politics feel alien to Canadians — over the top, hyper-religious and driven by a small group of breathtakingly homophobic bigots. It’s easy for Canadians to shake our heads at Houston, breathe an “oh dear,” and thank the LGBT-friendly heavens for the 2,000 kilometres that separate us.

But we shouldn’t breathe so easily. HERO died in Houston for exactly the same reason transgender rights are struggling in Canada.

LGBT activists in Houston lacked a compelling story to counter the transphobic claims of their opponents, and so they lost.

Even if we face less virulent bigotry in Canada, our lack of a good story is also costing us progress, whether in the failed Bill C-279 or the exhausting struggle over the Vancouver School Board transgender policy.

The American LGBT movement’s soul-searching over HERO should be our soul-searching too. We all need better stories.

HERO was a collection of common-sense legal protections, meant to fill in civil rights holes left by Texas’ lack of a statewide civil rights law. The ordinance would have banned discrimination in employment and city services based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as other grounds such as sex and disability. Houston’s openly gay mayor Annise Parker introduced the bill, leading to a messy public and legal battle between her and hardline Christian groups. The ordinance came to a veto ballot on Nov 3, 2015, and was soundly defeated 61 percent to 39 percent.

The opposition to HERO won through superior organization and superior funding, but also through a tried, tested and brutally effective strategy: bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms.

The anti-HERO campaign hammered Houston voters with the idea that if the ordinance passed, “any man at any time” could walk into a woman’s washroom unimpeded. One ad ends with a bathroom stall door slamming shut as a hairy, faceless sex offender locks himself in with a terrified pre-teen girl. The message is simple, intuitive, and flies straight to the gut.

To Canadians, this argument ought to be familiar. In 2012, Conservative MP Rob Anders hit the bathroom button when he launched a petition to block Bill C-279, a law that would have extended the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and expression (and which the new Liberal government now says it will reintroduce).

Anders dismissively referred to trans women as “transgender men” and said “it is the duty of the House of Commons to protect and safeguard our children from any exposure and harm that would come from giving a man access to women’s public washroom facilities.”

While C-279 reached the Senate, an amendment that would have excluded bathrooms gutted the bill and brought it to a deadlock halt.

Consider the difference a good counter-narrative might have made. As Montreal Gazette LGBT writer Jillian Page suggests, Conservative Senator Don Plett, who added the amendment that killed C-279, was not openly antagonistic to transgender people. He didn’t seem to believe, like some in Houston, that transgender people equated to “perverts and the mentally ill.”

Plett said he just didn’t understand how it was going to work. He professed to be genuinely confused about how the manager of a sex-segregated facility would tell the difference between a “real” trans person and someone pretending to be a trans person. In a speech to the Senate, he practically pleads not to be seen as transphobic.

It’s plausible that Plett holds the same deep-seated beliefs as Anders, but it’s just as plausible that Plett meant what he said. In one hand, Plett held the visceral image of “a large biological male” forcing his way into a women’s bathroom. In the other, he held the abstract demands of transgender rights. As in Houston, the most compelling imagery won. If that’s true, Bill C-279 died because nobody could tell Senator Plett a good enough story.

While the Vancouver School Board’s transgender policy succeeded in 2014, unlike HERO or C-279, it’s worth noting another failure of storytelling that Houston and Vancouver share. Nearly half of Houston’s population is Hispanic or Latino, of which a majority swing Democrat. If HERO lost, it lost because the city failed to persuade Hispanic voters, who are often balanced between progressive and religious motives, to get on board. In Vancouver, the fiercest resistance to trans protections in schools has come from a small, conservative Chinese minority, including a lawsuit that still threatens the policy in court.

Like Senator Plett, the opponents to the school board policy are not unpersuadable. Following my work on the Burnaby “gay serum rumour” story, I exchanged a dozen emails with one Chinese Christian mother who attended the protest I covered. She never came around entirely on the idea that kids could be gay, but when I told her about the history of anti-LGBT abuse and discrimination in Canada, she quickly softened her position on school board policy. It was that simple. Nobody had ever told her a good story in her own language before.

There are, of course, some great stories being told. One of the most delightful is the ridiculousness of trans people in the wrong bathroom, as shown by Brae Carnes in Canada and Michael Hughes in the United States.

(Brae Carnes/Facebook) 

(Michael C Hughes/Twitter)

The “we obviously belong in this bathroom” story is good, but not enough. It doesn’t help for trans people who don’t pass as well as Carnes and Hughes, and it doesn’t help to relieve the fear of cisgender men using trans rights as an excuse to stalk and abuse women.

Of course it’s well established that there is absolutely no evidence the latter kind of abuse ever takes place. But that’s not a story; it’s a fact. In politics, stories beat the pants off facts.

If we want to stop losing and start winning, we need stories that are warmer, brighter and fuzzier than theirs are horrifying, disgusting and unnerving. Get writing.