The nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy group indicated this week it is unlikely to help defend a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano due to exemptions affecting the transgender community.
The announcement from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign could amount to a costly setback for supporters of the ordinance, as the organization recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a similar fight in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Opponents of the ordinance say they turned in petitions Tuesday with over 7,000 signatures—almost double the number needed to force the City Council to overturn the measure or place it on the ballot in May. Plano officials expect to complete the process of verifying the signatures by the end of this month.
Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy, told the Observer on Thursday that the organization hasn’t made a final decision about its role if the ordinance appears on the ballot. However, Oakley also made clear that HRC would be reluctant to join the fight due to exemptions including one that appears to bar people from using public restrooms according to their gender identity—a provision which she called “transphobic.”
“The language in Plano is very problematic and in terms of investing a lot of resources in an ordinance that has a lot of problems, it’s difficult to see why that’s necessarily the best use of resources,” Oakley said. “If we had been consulted in the drafting of this bill, we would have withdrawn our support, and given that, it’s hard to justify defending it as valid.”
After being approved in a 5-3 council vote on Dec. 8, the Plano ordinance immediately became the target of a repeal effort led by Texas Values, the Texas Pastor Council, the Liberty Institute and Prestonwood Baptist Church. Republican state lawmakers from Plano also say they’re drafting legislation to prohibit Texas cities from adopting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances and nullify those already in place.
But the Plano ordinance also quickly came under intense fire from transgender activists. Nell Gaither, president of Dallas-based Trans Pride Initiative, has posted blistering attacks on social media saying exemptions in the ordinance amount to bigotry and accusing other LGBT groups of signing off on them.
“This is not a Plano issue. This is a Texas issue, and more,” Gaither wrote recently. “If they get away with the lie that this is an LGBT equality policy it will set a dangerous precedent that will be very difficult to overcome for many, many years.”
This week, Trans Pride Initiative released an eight-page position paper criticizing exemptions in the ordinance related to not only restrooms, but also nonprofits and schools. The position paper says the exemptions run counter to federal laws and may ultimately promote violence and harassment against transgender people, suggesting it would be better to simply allow the ordinance to be repealed and start from scratch.
Representatives from Equality Texas and a Plano-based LGBT group, GALA North Texas, denied any role in drafting the ordinance. Plano spokesman Steve Stoler maintained this week that the ordinance was written exclusively by the city attorney’s office.
“We felt it was important to balance privacy interests and what best fit our city,” City Attorney Paige Mims said in a statement provided by Stoler. “We wanted to pave our own way, so we wrote our own ordinance. In balancing privacy interests with business interests, we felt the exemption was right for the City of Plano.”
Although adamant they didn’t sign off on the exemptions, both Equality Texas and GALA North Texas indicated they plan to defend the ordinance if it appears on the ballot.
“While the ordinance is not perfect, it is a fact that it includes protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations for LGBT residents and veterans in Plano that did not previously exist,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a statement to the Observer. “While criticisms expressed by leaders in the transgender community are valid, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that this ordinance is not repealed in the short term and is improved in the long term.”
Jeanne Rubin, a spokeswoman for GALA North Texas, called HRC’s likely decision to sit out the ballot fight disappointing.
“In politics, as much of a bummer as it is, everything is incremental, and I know that’s sort of a dirty word for our community,” said Rubin, who’s also an Equality Texas board member. “If this ordinance goes down, not only will Plano not touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, but no other suburban city out here will, and that doesn’t do L, G, B or T any good.”
Rubin and others said they believe the exemptions were included because officials hoped to head off attacks seen in other cities over transgender protections in public accommodations.
But if that’s the case, the strategy hasn’t worked. Despite the exemptions, opponents have repeatedly and publicly asserted that the ordinance would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and prey on children.
It’s a baseless, fear-mongering tactic, according to LGBT advocates, but it’s arguably still effective among conservative voters. And not only has the exemption failed to prevent such attacks, it has backfired, dividing the LGBT community along all-too-familiar lines over transgender inclusion and now threatening to undermine defense of the ordinance.
“I think the story coming out of Plano is about a city that really wanted to do the right thing, and I wish that this had unfolded differently, because I think that there were good intentions, but things fell apart,” HRC’s Oakley said. “I think incremental process is important, I think municipal work is incredibly important, but incremental doesn’t mean leaving part of the community behind. That’s not an acceptable version of incremental.”