Houston, Texas is not exactly a hotbed of Democratic ideas, and so when a new city ordinance outlawing discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation and race was passed last April, it did not happen without a lot of smoke and fire on both sides of the issue. Annise D. Parker, the very popular three-term Mayor of Houston is openly gay, a fact that helped get the ordinance through. On the other side, a lot of conservatives, religious leaders and Republicans were left licking their wounds. The ordinance would apply to housing, city contracting, bars, hotels, restaurants and private employment.
The opponents were down, but not out. A petition went out as soon as the ordinance was signed into law, demanding that it be repealed. The city accepted it. A vote would take place in November and the ordinance would not go into effect until the results were known. The city agreed to that, too.
And thus there began a big campaign to see this through. Someone, somewhere on the repeal-the-ordinance side told others about a clause that had been briefly put into the ordinance proposal when it was still a bill. It had been taken back out, but it had been there for a time, nevertheless. Transgender, bisexual and transsexual people would be allowed to use the bathroom that best reflected their gender identity, it said.
A lot of money—nearly $4 million—went into this battle of whether to repeal this ordinance or not. One well-to-do Texas billionaire, Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans football team, asked that his donation be returned when he found that his name was being bandied about with “unauthorized statements” about how he stood on the matter.
Another person drawn into the fray was Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League. He was drawn in whether he liked it or not. Houston is supposed to host the Super Bowl in 2017. A letter went out to him from ordinance supporters.
“Commissioner Goodell,” it said, “you have emphasized the NFL’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, respect and fairness. If the Super Bowl is to remain in Houston, these protections need to be in place to ensure the safety and well-being of all those participating.”
The NFL replied by stating that the Super Bowl agreement remained firmly in place.
Many think that this vote turned on a TV commercial written by a Republican political consultant named Jeff Norwood. It has come to be known as the Bathroom TV ad. It made reference to that clause about bathrooms that had been in the proposed ordinance but then got taken out.
At the beginning, the screen shows a woman’s bathroom with sinks, mirrors and stalls. A man enters. He goes into one of the stalls. Then a girl with a school backpack comes into the bathroom and goes into a stall. At the end, the man comes out of his stall and goes into the schoolgirl’s stall.
NO MEN IN WOMEN’S BATHROOMS became the rallying cry. This was printed on banners, T-shirts, signs and posters all over the city.
The New York Times, which ran this story, interviewed Norwood and a construction worker named Todd Ward.
“I got three daughters. You have too much child molestation going on. It’s equal rights, but there’s not an equal right for me to go into a women’s bathroom. That’s common sense,” said Ward.
“[This ad] framed the debate in a way that the other side could never get away from,” said Norwood at a victory party.
The city voted for repeal in a landslide, 61% to 39%.
Mayor Parker, visibly shaken, said, “I fear that this will stain Houston’s reputation as a tolerant, welcoming, global city. And I absolutely fear that there will be a direct economic backlash.”
The battle is lost, proponents of the ordinance said, but the war is not over. New ordinances will be proposed. Until then though, there will be no equal rights for men, women, transsexuals, transgenders, lesbians or gays in the bathrooms of Houston. I think.
However, when you gotta go, you gotta go.