Right-Wingers in Texas Petrified of Bathroom Bogeyman

There are moments in the home of the brave when it seems there is no greater fear than that of the public restroom.

On Tuesday night in Texas, the bathroom bogeyman poured the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Houstonians down the drain.

At issue was a nondiscrimination ordinance passed by the city council in May 2014 written to protect people from all manner of discrimination—in housing, employment, public access—on the basis of some 15 “characteristics,” including religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It was on that last one that anti-gay leaders pounced.

“The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality—that is already the law,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said of the ordinance’s defeat by ballot measure on Tuesday. “It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms—defying common sense and common decency.” 

Predictably, opposition to the ordinance, led by evangelical right-wing pastors, sprang to life almost immediately upon passage. Long-time opponents of gay and lesbian rights, evangelical leaders have more recently turned their gaze to transgender people, arguably the most vulnerable people in the LGBT coalition. (One need only look at the statistics for the murders of transgender women to see that.)

But instead of directly attacking trans people for being trans, savvy right-wing leaders in Houston—the nation’s fourth-largest city—ginned up fears that, should the ordinance be allowed to stand, men of ill intent would be empowered to follow women into public lavatories by simply claiming to be transgender women. (As if a violent criminal intent on raping a stranger in a public facility would consult the text of a municipal ordinance while plotting his assault.)

Outside of polling places, opponents to the ordinance known as HERO (for Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) posted signs that read: “NO Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

The ruse worked: 61 percent of voters, according to the Texas Tribune, voted to override the ordinance.

While not the most nuanced approach, the right-wing bathroom barrage was ingenious in using fear to obscure the range of hatreds it represented.

In addition to the obvious appeal to the vulnerability women typically feel outside their homes, there was the not-so-subtle insult to transgender women, whose gender identity right-wing evangelicals reject. But the opposition wasn’t about contempt for trans people alone; the campaign was a clever ruse to turn back an ordinance that sought to ensure equality in housing and employment for people other than white, cis-gendered heterosexual men.

But you can’t win a ballot vote without the support of women, who comprise more than 50 percent of the population, and who tend to vote in greater numbers than men.

So how do you get them to vote against their own interests? Convince them that a measure crafted to advance them is actually a Trojan horse designed to harm them.

It’s the same game Phyllis Schlafly played in the 1970s and 1980s while leading the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have amended the U.S. Constitution to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex.

Such an amendment, right-wing leaders asserted, would not only lead to a loss of benefits to stay-at-home wives, it would also lead to turning public restrooms into “unisex” facilities. It was the collective gasp heard at that last assertion that likely defeated the ERA on its path to ratification.

Yet, in America, the bathroom trope hits deeper than even women’s fears of sexual victimization. It cuts right to the heart of the nation’s weirdness about sex and control.

In the wake of the right-wing uproar over President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern, a letter from Australia, which was founded as a penal colony, was quoted in The New York Times: “Thank God we got the convicts and they got the Puritans.”

That Puritan strain runs deep in the American psyche, always seeking a witch to burn in the name of morality. Today, the witches burned are the people of Houston most likely to face discrimination—women, LGBT people, and anybody who isn’t white.

Just ask Pastor Ed Young of the Second Baptist Church, a leader of HERO’s opposition, who deemed the repeal of the ordinance to be a “moral issue,” according to the Tribune.

“This is beyond politics,” Young said at an election watch party covered by the website. “Someone asked earlier if Houston would be perceived by the national press, and other cities, as a place that discriminates. You know this great city. That’s not who we are." 

Could’ve fooled me.

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