John Nova Lomax asks why Houston has not suffered the same backlash as North Carolina after the repeal of HERO last November.
In the aftermath of the repeal of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance in November, the bill’s proponents predicted dire economic consequences. Then-Mayor Annise Parker predicted a “direct, economic backlash” for the Bayou City. A #boycotthouston campaign erupted on Twitter. Greater Houston Partnership President Bob Harvey fretted about possible consequences for the city’s convention and tourism business, plus the future of corporate relocations. Some HERO supporters hoped that one or both of the organizers of the men’s 2016 Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl would choose to move those events in retaliation.
None of that has happened. To be sure, by the time the polls closed, it was probably too late for the NCAA or Roger Goodell to take such a drastic step. Yanking a Final Four or a Super Bowl from one city and dropping it the lap of another on such short notice is a recipe for logistical chaos and red ink. But thus far, Houston has suffered no other consequences—nothing, nada, zilch—thus emboldening the Houston anti-HERO leadership to lend both their support and their tactics to legislators in Mississippi and North Carolina.
Earlier this month, Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastors Council, wrote an open letter to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant claiming that threats of economic consequences stemming from anti-HERO-type legislation were hollow:
As you know, the Final Four of the NCAA was just held in Houston and the radical LGBT movement’s threat to get this event, the Super Bowl, conferences and corporate bases out of Houston was shown to be a paper tiger and the raw use of intimidation. The churches and concerned citizens by the thousands refused to bow to the god of political correctness, the terrible ordinance was defeated overwhelmingly by the people and Houston continues to grow.
In other words, “We got away with it, and you can too.”
Or maybe not. At least not in North Carolina, where last month the state legislature enacted a law banning cities and counties from establishing their own anti-discriminatory policies based on gender identity, thus nullifying a recently-approved HERO-type ordinance in Charlotte and others elsewhere in the state.
The fact that HERO was defeated in a referendum rather than the legislature is one reason Houston has not been subjected to the same ire as North Carolina, according to Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a group advocating LGBT equality on business grounds.
“In Georgia the business response was to prompt a veto from Nathan Deal,” she tells Texas Monthly. “There was a recourse. And in North Carolina there is pressure on the governor and the legislature to rethink and repeal, but in Houston, it wasn’t the decision of a governor, mayor or state legislature or city council. It was the voice of voters. And that’s a very different decision for businesses, having to punish voters.”
Southall believes that the Houston vote was an anomaly, one that took place in an odd “bubble in time” just a few months ago, when public awareness about transgender people—whose bathroom privileges formed the crux of the Houston vote—was still very low.
“We have all been going to the bathroom with transgender people this whole time and nothing has happened,” Southall says. “This is a solution in search of a problem. I think the calculation on their part was, ‘This is an easy wedge issue, because nobody’s gonna stand for transgender people. Nobody even knows a transgender person.’ And that’s turning out not to be true anymore.”
Netflix hit Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and Orange Is The New Black‘s Laverne Cox are all raising awareness about transgender issues, Southall believes, and the process is taking mere months rather than years. “People got to know gay people through popular culture,” she says. “Will & Grace mattered. Glee mattered. Maybe they didn’t know a gay person up to then, but then they start to know gay people in their lives and then that person is not the ‘other’ anymore, it’s my friend or my relative or whatever. And now that’s happening with transgender people too, and it’s happening so fast, I think people on both sides of the issue are surprised.”
Even so, the fact that Houston skated away from any kind of meaningful backlash is surprising. Residents of Charlotte are being punished because of the actions of their governor and state legislature, but the people of Houston are not being singled out for their own vote.
And where was the Houston business community on this score? Yes, pro-business groups like the Greater Houston Partnership (Houston’s chamber of commerce) spoke out in favor of HERO, but the actual components of Houston’s business community were silent in both the run-up to and the aftermath of HERO’s defeat.
Of the 26 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Bayou City, all but three are in oil and gas. That industry has thus far been content to maintain a stony silence on LGBT equality, at least in Texas. According to their web site, exactly none of the Houston-based O&G behemoths have signed on as Texas Competes supporters, though 34 Fortune 500 companies (and scores of smaller ones) have. Houston voters were neither advised how to vote by the CEOs of Phillips 66, Halliburton and Baker Hughes nor did those same captains of industry urge voters to reconsider or express regret after last year’s referendum.
Perhaps they feared a backlash from their customers or their employees. O&G is not known as the most socially liberal of fields. But neither is pro-sports, but that has not stood in the way of teams outside of Texas. Each of Atlanta’s four pro-sports teams urged Deal to veto the Georgia measure. That was not the case in Houston, where the Astros and Rockets made no statement on the vote, and Texans owner Bob McNair actually went the other way, for a time, at least, pledging (and then quickly rescinding) a $10,000 donation to opponents of HERO. Of the eight “Big Four” pro-sports teams in Texas, only the Dallas Mavericks are supporters of Texas Competes.
So there are two claims that Lomax examines, and two more that I can think of that I’ll discuss after those.
1. Lack of advocacy from the business community. Businesses have been heavily involved in the fight in North Carolina (and in Georgia, and in Mississippi), but were johnny-come-latelys in Houston. There’s been a lot of focus on the businesses that have canceled planned expansions or other future work, like the filming of a movie. Some of this, I think, is just fortunate timing: These projects had to be in the queue, but not so far along that canceling them would be logistically difficult or expensive. If there was anything like this in Houston similar to the PayPal and Deutsche Bank projects, I don’t know what they were. People here fixated mostly on the Super Bowl and Final Four, but these were never likely to be in doubt – they would have been prohibitively costly to relocate, and there was a serious risk that any substitute city could not provide the same level of experience. You will note that despite the calls to the NBA to take next year’s All Star Game out of Charlotte, they have declined to do so. Maybe if there had been a PayPal or a Deutsche Bank for Houston at the time, and a credible threat to not go through with it, things would be different.
2. The “bubble in time” theory, which says that Houston’s repeal occurred at a time when people hadn’t yet given much thought about transgender people or issues. There may be something to that, but remember that Houston was not the first city to repeal a civil rights ordinance, and like Houston those cities suffered no blowback. Again, something to this, and something to #1, but I think there are other reasons why Houston was different.
3. I believe a basic difference between North Carolina (and other states that have taken or come close to taking similar action) and Houston is that NC represents a step backwards, while Houston was a return to a previously existing status quo. It’s not a good status quo, of course – it’s one that absolutely needed changing, a long time ago – but it’s how things were as recently as 2014. North Carolina didn’t just undo Charlotte’s version of HERO. They took away the right of any other city to pass their own HERO, and they took away the remedy of suing in state court for any LGBT person who wanted to pursue a claim of discrimination, among other things. It was these extra, punitive steps, as well as the clear singling out of the LGBT community, that made what North Carolina did worse, at least in the public eye.
4. Elections matter. The biggest difference between Houston and North Carolina, in my opinion, was briefly touched on but not explored in Lomax’s article. HERO was repealed by a vote of the people. HERO’s supporters deplored this vote and the lies and hatred that led to it, but we accepted it as legitimate and moved on with a vow to try again, learn from our mistakes, and win the next fight. (Having the pro-HERO Mayoral candidate win the December runoff against his anti-HERO opponent probably helped mitigate things a little, too.) By contrast, North Carolina’s law was passed in a one-day special session of their legislature, called hastily after Charlotte passed its non-discrimination ordinance. There were no hearings or testimony on the bill – most legislators never even had a chance to see it before they voted on it – and in the end Democrats in North Carolina’s State Senate walked out on the vote to protest its non-legitimacy. The game was rigged from the beginning, and a part of the protest has been about the scurrilous way the law was passed, with the process being entirely about haste and avoiding scrutiny. The surprise of what happened in North Carolina, especially when no one had a chance to put up a fight about it, has magnified the pernicious and discriminatory effect of the law, and thus produced a louder and more visible outcry.
So yes, I do believe there were substantial differences between Houston’s HERO repeal and North Carolina’s broadside on LGBT equality, and that these differences contribute to why Houston escaped any significant loss of business post-HERO. I suspect that a part of Lomax’s point in this article is to suggest that Houston should have suffered more for repealing HERO, and on that I agree. I believe it’s clear that the lack of consequences to that vote have emboldened the bad guys and led to laws like those that were passed in North Carolina and Mississippi and vetoed in Georgia. Perhaps that will change now that we have seen what NC and MS have gone through, but don’t be too optimistic about that. I’m afraid the fight is once again just beginning.