Now that the dust has started to settle from Election Day, it's time to start asking the questions about what comes next in Houston for nondiscrimination protections?
To begin, after any campaign there will always be questions about what could have been done differently. By and large campaigns make decisions based on polling, focus groups, tested messages and strategies to reach as many voters as possible - Houston's campaign to protect HERO was no different. Every campaign makes mistakes and is limited by money, volunteers and time. No doubt people will give their opinions about what was done wrong, more than they will focus on what was done right.
But quickly a couple of points as to what was done right: the Houston Unites campaign built a coalition of unprecedented size, folding in more than 150 organizations and businesses, something that has never been done in Houston. It was a campaign that focused on the best parts of Houston, and the people who worked as part of that campaign, whether as staff or volunteers gave everything they had up until the polls closed on November 3rd. Everyone should be proud of the work that was done.
Now, onto next steps.
There was never a chance that any of us would accept a Houston where discrimination is legalized - not gonna happen. So where do we go from here now that HERO has been repealed?
First, let's remember that when the City of Houston rejected the petitions of the anti-HERO opponents, there was a state district court battle. A jury of Houstonians found in favor of the city and agreed that the petitions contained too many errors and forgeries to be certified as valid. Our opponents appealed that decision to the state's Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals wouldn't expedite the case to accommodate the November election which led opposition to the Texas Supreme Court, which ordered the city to repeal the law or put it up for a vote - but the Texas Supreme Court specifically did not rule on the validity of the petitions themselves.
What this means is that the appeal at the state Court of Appeals is still pending. There is a chance that the Court of Appeals could agree with that jury of Houstonians and rule that the petitions were never valid to begin with, meaning that the election results could be invalidated - putting HERO back into effect.
When you think about it, if the foundation for the battle that was lost on November 3rd are the forged petitions, ruling them invalid brings the oppositions' entire effort tumbling down.
The important thing to remember about this option is that we need to elect a Mayor in the December runoff election who will continue to pursue that appeal. The only candidate in the race that is pro-HERO is State Representative Sylvester Turner. If this legal option is to be fully explored, Representative Turner needs to be Houston's next Mayor.
The next option we have is to borrow a page out of anti-LGBT activist Dave Wilson's book and try to change our City's Charter (the governing document of our City) to include nondiscrimination protections for all Houstonians, including LGBT people. What this requires is 20,000 signed petitions from valid City of Houston voters in favor of including these protections. Once the petition drive is started, we would have 6 months to gather the signatures necessary to place it on the ballot - meaning we would, once again, have to wage another campaign to educate and motivate people to get out to the polls.
Over 100,000 Houstonians voted in support of HERO, so finding the 20,000 signatures should be easy enough.
In addition, hundreds of Houstonians gave their time as volunteers and staff for the campaign and now they have the skills and experience as organizers to know what works and how to organize effectively.
The problem with this, besides having to build and wage another campaign, is the fact that in the November election Houstonians voted to change term limits for our City Council - which was a change to the charter.
In Houston, you can only make a change to the City Charter every 2-years. So we could gather our 20,000 signatures and submit them to the City of Houston, but the ballot that change would be on would be 2-years away. That's 2-years with no protections for any Houstonian.
The plus side of that is that it is also 2-years to do the kind of public education we never had the opportunity to do this last time around. The danger is that since term limits for Council members have now changed, we could have an election with ONLY the charter change on the ballot which could motivate our opposition to get out in large numbers. There are still questions pending with the City to figure out what effect the change of term limits would have on a charter election.
Another option is that the current City Council could try to pass another version of a nondiscrimination ordinance. If they water it down to remove either public accommodation protections or to exclude the transgender community we should not be supportive of the effort. A little discrimination is still too much discrimination and we have to stand unified to make sure any new legislation is as comprehensive as HERO was. We know that transgender people are not the predators, they are the prey when it comes to violence.
The problem with this option is our opponents will oppose it again, and will likely continue to push the bathroom myth.
Additionally, the next Mayor and City Council could try to pass a nondiscrimination law, but it's unclear if the new makeup of City Council would support such an effort or if the next Mayor would be willing to expend their early political capital on a measure that many would call "controversial" even though it isn't.
We have already begun to see the early results of the HERO vote throughout the city of Houston, so we know where support came from and where opposition was heaviest. No single community cost us HERO. Much like California's Prop 8, the work we have to do next is going to be long and difficult.
We have to go to the places where we lost and figure out why. We know that direct one-on-one conversations are the best way to change hearts and minds - those conversations also take time.
And we have to remember that fights like the one we all just lived through have real, negative effects on LGBT people. Studies have shown that anti-LGBT rhetoric surrounding ballot measures can cause mental and emotional harm and that people can experience shock, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, alienation and even PTSD as a result of these fights. Those facts make it all the more important for proponents of HERO to continue to support one another as we move into the next phase of this fight.
The fact of the matter is that while ballot fights like HERO can cause stress on a community, they can also serve to build resilience. If there is anything about Houstonians that we all know, it is how resilient we can be.
We are not finished.