Potty Politics Divides Houston as Rights Law Faces Repeal

As the openly gay mayor of the fourth-biggest U.S. city, Annise Parker has been defending Houston’s equal-rights law against those who say it will let men in dresses invade women’s restrooms.

Opponents of the rule -- which ensures that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals share equal protection in employment and housing -- have gathered 50,000 signatures to ask voters to repeal it in November. Even though officials removed language that would have let people select toilets befitting their gender identity, religious groups still are raising the specter of unwelcome restroom visits.

“Houstonians are wise enough to see through the misinformation and exaggerations,” Parker, a 58-year-old Democrat, said in an e-mail. “The Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life.”

Houston finds itself in a battle between those who promote it as a progressive international city and fundamentalist religious leaders who've opposed the mayor’s efforts to extend rights to homosexuals. Business leaders say the repeal effort threatens Houston’s $15.5 billion travel industry, including $350 million that the Texas city is projected to gain by hosting the 2017 Super Bowl.

Mayor’s ‘Lifestyle’

The debate has divided black residents at a time when a 2012 Rice University study showed the city has become the most racially and ethnically diverse among U.S. population centers. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorsed the mandate in May, when it was passed, just as some black church leaders teamed up with other religious opponents to try to undo it.

“The consensus that most of us in the African-American community have is that this is primarily an issue because of Mayor Parker and her lifestyle,” said Willie R. Davis, pastor of the MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church, one of a number of black congregation leaders who are campaigning against the ordinance. “It’s an act primarily for special rights rather than equal rights.”

Eighteen states and about 200 municipalities have passed laws to protect the rights of residents no matter what their sexual orientation, said Cathryn Oakley, legislative council for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington group the advocates for those with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender orientations. In three cities -- Salina and Hutchinson, Kansas, and Anchorage, Alaska -- residents reversed the laws, she said.

Arizona Veto

Houston’s city secretary may determine as soon as this week whether the opponents obtained the 17,269 valid signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.

Local officials say the recall effort could blackball Houston. That almost happened in Arizona this year when the legislature passed a law that would have let businesses refuse service based on the owner’s religious beliefs. Phoenix officials raised concerns the measure would put its scheduled hosting of the 2015 Super Bowl at risk. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the law after Apple Inc., American Airlines Group Inc. and Intel Corp. pushed for rejection.

The lack of an equal-rights ordinance never hurt Houston in the past, said Ric Campo, chairman of the city’s Super Bowl bid committee. Even so, a highly publicized vote to repeal the measure may cause the National Football League to reconsider its choice for the host of the annual championship game.

Unwelcome Spotlight

“It’s an issue because people are talking about it,” said Campo, chief executive officer of Camden Property Trust, a developer of apartment buildings. “The more bright light you put on something negative when it comes to equal rights, the worse it seems.”

Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Houston hosted 263 conventions in 2013, drawing more than 500,000 visitors and generating $462 million of spending, according to the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Tourism as a whole generated $15.5 billion of travel spending in the city in 2012, according to state data.

Since Parker took office in 2010, the convention bureau has been one of only a few in the U.S. that offer a website targeted to gay visitors, including information on certified gay-friendly hotels and bars in the city’s Montrose neighborhood.

“Any time a particular group is discriminated against, there is the potential for lost business,” said Sonia Garza-Monarchi, chairwoman of the bureau.

‘Negative Message’

J. Kent Friedman, chairman of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which operates the city’s major venues, agreed. If voters reject the ordinance, it could “cost the city a lot of money,” he said. “It would send a negative message to the rest of the country about Houston.”

Those who might dismiss the possibility of repeal, given that voters have elected the openly gay Parker three times, may be in for a surprise, said Keir Murray, a Democratic political consultant.

In past Houston elections, blacks accounted for as much as 30 percent of the vote, and the city is close to having a Hispanic majority. Those two groups have shown a propensity to vote against gay rights, Murray said.

Not all black residents agree. Even though Houston’s black clergy have been among the most vocal opponents, that won’t necessarily translate into votes, said the Reverend William Lawson, among the most senior of Houston’s civil-rights leaders.

“I think the congregations generally have respect for the clergy, and while they may not be vocal in their support for the ordinance, I don’t think they’ll vote against it.”

Recall Effort

Opponents include Houstonians for Family Values, which helped gather the 50,000 signatures and also is putting together petition drives to recall Parker and 10 council members. The group also wants to change the city charter so a similar law can’t ever be passed again, said Dave Wilson, a business owner who described himself as the leader of the recall movement.

The opposition is driven by religious beliefs and fear that the ordinance would make it illegal and impose fines for businesses that deny people the right to use the restroom of their choice, said Wilson, who is on the board of Houston Community College.

“It criminalizes it if you own a business and won’t allow a man to go in the women’s restroom,” he said. “Everyone wants equal rights, but being forced to tolerate someone else’s behavior is not acceptable.”

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