August 26, 2015 4:22 pm ET - by Rachel Percelay
The Houston Chronicle thoroughly debunked a popular myth being peddled by opponents of the Houston Equal rights Ordinance (HERO). Other Houston news outlets, which have been uncritically repeating the false talking point for months, should follow the Chronicle's lead.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, is a broad non-discrimination ordinance that was passed by Houston's City Council in 2014. HERO prohibits discrimination in areas like housing, employment, and city contracts on the basis of 15 characteristics, including race, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Anti-LGBT conservatives in Houston have fought to repeal the ordinance, successfully lobbying to put HERO up for a public vote on Houston's November ballot.
Since the start of the debate over HERO, Houston media outlets have made a consistent habit of uncritically repeating right-wing misinformation about the ordinance, including peddling the widely-debunked myth that HERO would allow sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender - a bogus talking point championed by HERO's opponents.
In an August 25 column, The Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg did what other local news outlets have failed to do - investigated and debunked the bogus "bathroom bill" claim:
The so-called HERO ordinance, which will appear on the November ballot, really has little to do with potty time. It's about protecting people against discrimination in employment, housing and other sectors. It protects gay and transgender people, but also bans discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status. So why are we talking about bathrooms? Because one small aspect of it would let transgender people use the bathroom of their choice.
That means a transgender woman who may wear dresses and makeup can use the women's restroom, rather than turning heads at the urinals. A transgender man who may sport lumberjack attire and a burly beard can use the men's restroom. It's really quite simple. It's about reducing drama, not creating it. As one transgender activist explains in a popular Twitter hashtag, #wejustneedtopee.
This simple accommodation has become the bogeyman's best weapon. Critics suggest it will lead to men dressing up as women to assault women and girls in bathrooms.
As Richard Carlbom with the pro-ordinance Houston Unites campaign told the Chronicle: "Nothing in the equal rights ordinance changes the fact that it is - and always will be - illegal to enter a restroom to harm or harass other people."
If this ordinance posed a real danger, opponents wouldn't have to find some future parent to feign fear of becoming a victim "one day." They could surely find a real victim in one of the other cities that passed anti-discrimination ordinances decades ago.
In 1997, the city of Cambridge became one of the first jurisdictions in Massachusetts to amend its human rights ordinance to include gender identity and expression, police spokesman Jeremy Warnick said Tuesday.
He sent me the full testimony of police Superintendent Christopher Burke before the state House in 2011, advocating for a statewide bill for transgender equal rights.
Burke, speaking "as a member of the law enforcement community, husband, father and citizen," testified that the bill would not harm women and children. He said there had been no incidents or issues regarding people abusing the Cambridge ordinance.
Massachusetts passed the law. Houstonians should do the same.
Even if you insist on voting against it, pick another reason. Maybe you don't want to condone a transgender lifestyle. Maybe you believe protections for some groups are already extended by federal law, and you don't want a local ordinance that could offer relief more quickly and less expensively for your fellow Houstonians.
But don't vote against the ordinance because of urban myths about sexual predators in bathrooms. Sexual predators exist. But if they wanted to attack you in a public bathroom, they wouldn't need a city ordinance to do it.
With some basic investigative reporting, The Houston Chronicle effectively debunked the "bathroom bill" claim as a baseless myth meant to scare and mislead Houstonians. Other Houston news outlets should do the same and give Houstonians the facts about HERO.
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