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Former Houston Mayor Says There’s Political History To ‘Bathroom Bills’

Watching North Carolina fight the federal government on its bathroom law, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker reflects on Houston’s own battle over an equal-rights ordinance.


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Mayor Annise Parker addresses the pro-HERO crowd
Florian Martin
Mayor Annise Parker addresses the pro-HERO crowd after voters rejected the ordinance by a wide margin.

North Carolina's controversial “bathroom bill” is already entangled in four lawsuits, and has brought national attention to the disagreement over bathroom access for transgender people.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker says the disappointment she felt when voters repealed her signature anti-discrimination ordinance is still fresh. The vote took place last November, just six months ago.

“It was a very comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance,” she said. “So when Houstonians voted it down, it meant that the black guys that get denied access to the hot night clubs in the Washington strip, have to file a federal case. There is no way for us to locally investigate that."

The HERO ordinance protected many classes of people, forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and other categories. Access to restrooms in restaurants and other spaces was just a small part of the law, but it became the focal point for critics.

Opponents claimed the law would allow men into women’s restrooms, creating unsafe situations. They offered no evidence of crime related to transgender women causing problems in restrooms. Parker feels that the Houston law was attacked in part because social conservatives were angry about the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, which had occurred just a few months earlier.

"A lot of right-wing organizations from across the United States focused on Houston as a way to vent their ire,” said Parker. “Now they're taking the lessons they used in Houston and spreading it around the United States to whip up sentiment."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently criticized the Fort Worth school district for its bathroom policy for transgender kids. Patrick says it's about keeping men out of women's bathrooms, a matter of common sense and decency.

Parker disagrees, saying disruptions in bathrooms are already illegal.

"Can you spell political pandering? That is exactly what our Lt. Governor is doing,” she said. “That is exactly what Senator Cruz was doing on the campaign trail."

The new mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, says he's too busy with other things to revisit the issue.

"Budget, pot holes, recycling, Uber, SafeClear, pensions — there are a number of issues that I think that we have to deal with,” Turner said Wednesday.

A few Texas Republicans, including Patrick, have floated the idea of passing a state law similar to North Carolina's.

Parker, who is just back in Houston after a semester teaching at Harvard, pointed out there is a long, sordid history of politicians using social anxieties about bathrooms to fight the expansion of civil rights.

"Racists were talking about white women would get diseases from sharing restrooms with black women,” she said.

“The equal rights amendment, the ERA, failed largely because of fears raised – exactly that (which) they're using today – that it would cause unisex bathrooms. Unisex bathrooms! Like the ones I used on the plane when I flew back from L.A. yesterday," she said.

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