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Fallen HERO: The Campaign That Couldn’t Save Houston

An equal rights ordinance would have offered protections for all Houstonians, but many groups say they weren’t represented by Houston Unites’ strategic leadership.

After the same-sex marriage victory, leaders in the LGBT movement decided that equal rights protections would be the next frontier for LGBT advocacy, and many called for the movement to focus on the right to live free from persecution in those places where LGBT people had little recourse against discrimination. Houston’s equal rights ordinance — HERO — was supposed to be a step in that direction.

But from the outset, conservative religious opponents to the ordinance, led by the Texas Pastor Council, controlled the conversation about HERO, banking on transphobia to get them through. It was a smart strategy from the opposition, who saw that support for the “LGB” part of “LGBT” is on the rise, but that grave and harmful misinformation about transgender people persists, even in progressive communities and blue cities, like Houston.

Houston mayor Annise Parker announced the original incarnation of the city's equal rights ordinance, HERO, in April 2014.
Greater Houston Partnership / Richard Carson
Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced the original incarnation of the city’s equal rights ordinance, HERO, in April 2014.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote to repeal HERO, many looked to Houston as a bellwether for what might come next. As Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-director of Southerners on New Ground, told the Observer in an e-mail, “Texas is so symbolic of the South and the Southwest, and what becomes possible in Texas feeds our imagination about the rest of the country.”

But HERO’s opponents succeeded in soundly defeating the ordinance — at the particular expense of one of the most persecuted groups of people in the state — and its supporters, in Houston and beyond, were crushed.

What went wrong?

The Houston Unites campaign — the coalition coordinating the effort to pass Proposition 1 and maintain HERO — never succeeded in redirecting the conversation away from the trans bathroom panic, which polling numbers show appeared to go over particularly well with white voters.

After the vote, many LGBT activists of color told the Observer that Houston Unites missed an opportunity to effectively counter the opposition’s transphobia and to integrate racial justice into their campaign messages in order to reach a broad base of constituents, despite the fact that a wide range of vulnerable communities in Houston stood to benefit from HERO.

While we can’t know with certainty whether a more diverse and better integrated campaign would have changed the ultimate outcome, one valuable lesson from Tuesday’s result is that, in Houston, it may not be possible to win without one.

“The bottom line is, you can no longer run rights campaigns by not having significant representation of people of color and trans people, speaking for themselves,” said Monica Roberts, a native Houstonian, award-winning transadvocate and founder of TransGriot. “Note that not a single ad run by the Houston Unites campaign had a trans person in it. Only one ad, run by Equality Texas, featured a transgender person at all.”

Fran Watson, an attorney and native Houstonian who organized faith communities for Houston Unites, told the Observer that the campaign attempted to promote a wide-ranging message, but more could have been done. 

Time, she said, wasn’t on their side. In 2014, she joined a group of black LGBT leaders who met at a local church to discuss sharing information about what HERO would offer the transgender community and communities of color, and even traveled to Miami with the group earlier this year for training in doing outreach on LGBT issues within communities of color.

“Then all of a sudden the campaign happened,” she said. In May, “the Texas Supreme Court told us to either repeal [HERO] or put it on the ballot. And so our grassroots initiative was dissolved and we got a full-scale electoral campaign.”

Roberts lamented that the campaign didn’t continue the work begun by African-American LGBT leaders about the benefits of the ordinance for their community. She helped organize a group under the name “African Americans for HERO” to do their own outreach.

“We needed ads run in communities of color, particularly African-American communities,” she said. “All of this should have been done before early voting started. And many of us told the campaign this. When we formed African Americans for HERO, it was out of frustration that Houston Unites wasn’t doing the job in our community.”

Brandon Mack, an LGBT activist and founder of the Houston Civil Rights Strategy Group, a group dedicated to an intersectional social justice strategy that ties race, class, gender and sexual orientation together, told the Observer that Houston Unites “did not leverage the campaign’s resources to do outreach in communities of color, even when we asked them to help us counter the opposition’s messages in our community.”

Tom Hargis, communications director for ACLU of Texas, strongly disagreed with criticisms of the campaign, noting that Houston Unites spent $150,000 in “specifically targeted” outreach to African-American communities, and that “the campaign’s most effective spokespersons were prominent Houstonians of color.” The week before the November 3 vote, Houston Unites announced that it had raised a total of nearly $3 million in the course of the campaign. 

Joseph Arroyo, the Houston Unites field director, told the Observer that the campaign “knocked on 16,169 doors of African-American voters, which was about 18 percent of total doors knocked,” and that 56 percent of their paid “door-knocking shifts” were filled by people of color.

Responding to those statistics, Monica Roberts expressed exasperation, saying that while it’s great to have door-knockers of color, it matters where they are knocking and who’s giving them their talking points. “My mother who lives in District D, one of Houston’s oldest black neighborhoods, got many phone calls from the opposition, and not one call or knock on the door from Houston Unites. There was an event at the University of Houston campus, but nothing at Texas Southern University [an historically black university] just down the street.”

Roberts feels the campaign had many missteps and missed opportunities, telling the Observer, “We needed people of color, particularly from Houston, making the strategic decisions. We could have told you our intimate knowledge of these communities because we have been fighting for this ordinance for several years, and for LGBT rights in Houston for decades.”

Mack, who was part of the campaign’s initial strategy discussions, told the Observer that his group was “fighting hard to protect HERO in and for our communities of color, and we looked to the campaign for support and they failed us.”

And much of the campaign training and messaging, he said, came from groups outside Houston that aren’t familiar with the city and the strategies that have been effective — and ineffective — in the past.

Christina Gorczynski, another native Houstonian, LGBT leader and CEO of First Person, a strategic advisory firm to nonprofit organizations told the Observer via e-mail that the “fight for civil rights is not happening in a vacuum.” Referencing Black Lives Matter, she said, “There’s a larger conversation about race happening in this country that the campaign to protect HERO attempted to navigate without any people of color on staff in strategy level positions.”

So who called the shots? Who was responsible for the campaign’s strategic choices? Houston Unites’ 12-member executive committee, which, according to internal campaign documents shared with the Observer, was made up of representatives from state groups — ACLU of Texas (which is based in Houston), Equality Texas and the Texas Freedom Network (both based in Austin) — as well as national organizations, including Human Rights Campaign, Freedom for All Americans, American Unity Fund and Denver’s Gill Action Fund. All the executive committee representatives from those groups are white; two are women. And with the exception of the field director (who is Latino, but not from Houston), all director-level campaign staff are white. Seven of nine director-level staff positions, including the campaign manager, are held by men.

When contacted for comment about the executive committee’s lack of diversity, the ACLU’s Tom Hargis emphasized that the campaign’s “steering committee” included the NAACP Houston branch. The board for Houston Unites’ nonprofit arm, he said, was composed of the “leadership of all the organizations who were able to make significant financial contributions at the outset of the campaign.”

The NAACP, on the steering committee, which Hargis said was “listed at the bottom of every press release,” was the only organization in the campaign’s leadership dedicated to representing communities of color. The group was not represented on Houston Unites’ board or the executive committee, which was responsible for strategic planning.

Houston is also a city at the center of a national conversation about immigration. HERO would have protected Houstonians against discrimination based on race as well as national origin — the perfect opportunity to engage immigrant communities. On the Sunday before the election, over a hundred young DREAMERs gathered in front of the Harris County jail to protest the detention and deportation of their family members. Ricky Gonzalez, an LGBTQ immigrant, said during the protest, “The LGBTQ immigrant community is being criminalized every day simply for trying to survive in this country. I escaped violence, discrimination and abuse in Guatemala for being LGBT. I came to this country seeking freedom. …. In detention,  I was constantly abused because of my identity.” No one from the Houston Unites campaign was present.

HERO would have offered protections for all Houstonians, but those who live at the intersection of multiple points of marginalization simply weren’t reflected in Houston Unites’ executive and strategic leadership. And those who formed other, smaller and less well-funded coalitions to support HERO — like Monica Roberts — say their attempts at reaching out were not taken seriously.

In a city as diverse as Houston, how can such a campaign, with very little racial and gender diversity in its leadership, adequately reflect the needs of its communities? In so many fights for equality and justice, particularly those that are most effective, the people leading the charge are from the communities most affected by injustice. Think of the fights for a living wage, the rights of domestic workers, fair immigration policy and the battle against police brutality. Each of those campaigns has had recent successes while centering those most vulnerable and directly affected.

But Houston Unites was not that kind of campaign.

Kristen Capps, a Houston LGBT activist and attorney, told the Observer that often, white LGBT activists expect support from groups that represent communities of color, but don’t feel obligated to return the favor. This has the effect of making LGBT people of color invisible in mainstream LGBT organizing and advocacy and creates an imbalance of expectations when it comes to organizing.

“If we [white LGBT rights activists] don’t have memberships to the NAACP or support LULAC’s [League of United Latin American Citizens] policy agenda, these groups that always supported us,” she said, “we need to ask why we don’t do a better job of supporting the people that we expect to stand with us when we, the LGBT community, are the ones in need.”

Of course, mainstream LGBT advocacy has a long tradition of white-centrism.

During California’s Proposition 8 marriage ban ordeal in 2008, advice columnist Dan Savage, a gay white man, effectively pitted gay people against African Americans. Later, California organizer Lawrence Ellis shared his difficulties creating a racially diverse Prop 8 campaign with mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, telling Colorlines: “Any campaign has to make strategic choices, but not building a true coalition, where you get to leverage existing networks — that is a fatal flaw.”

In 2013, when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was making its ultimately doomed way through Congress, the Human Rights Campaign was willing to drop inclusion for trans people from the bill in order to get it passed. And recently, we saw the legacy of people of color being erased from the mainstream narrative in a film about the Stonewall riots in New York.

If the LGBT movement wants comprehensive non-discrimination protections to be its next advocacy arena, HERO’s failure at the polls offers an important lesson. As Houston activists told the Observer, ultimately, the movement’s leaders must shift toward a broader social justice strategy, and take cues from movements that are led by diverse voices in positions of power, and work in coalitions with organizations fighting for racial, economic and environmental justice, for immigrants’ rights, the rights of transgender people, women’s rights, and the rights of people living with disabilities. That kind of coalition, in the most diverse city in the country, could be a force unto itself. That kind of coalition could win anything.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a quote from Houston Unites’ field director concerning canvassing in communities of color and response from Monica Roberts, and corrected to reflect Tom Hargis’ title at the ACLU of Texas.

[featured image: telwink/flickr] 

Eesha Pandit is a longtime reproductive justice and anti-violence activist, having worked on local, state, national and international women's health policy efforts. She is a member of the Crunk Feminist Collective and regular contributor to Salon.

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