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A new advertisement running on radio stations throughout Houston, Texas — described as “vulgar” and “misleading” — could be a harbinger of what LGBT advocates in Michigan could face as the community gears up to finalize a strategy to amend the state’s non-discrimination law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
Houston passed a non-discrimination law in May 2014 after hearing testimony from over 200 people. It’s a basic non-discrimination law, like ones seen throughout Michigan. But some citizens were deeply displeased with the law and sought a ballot initiative to repeal it. Repeal supporters collected signatures — they said it was enough — but supporters of the ordinance challenged the signatures. That led to a troubling legal battle, which was ultimately resolved by the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year. The court ruled that the problems with the signatures were not enough to exclude the issue from being on the ballot, and ordered it on the November ballot.
Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city, Texas’ largest and the only one of the top four without legal protections for the LGBT community, The Houston Chronicle reported.
Two weeks ago, empowered by the ruling and geared up for the fight, the anti-ordinance team — Campaign for Houston PAC — put out the radio ad. The one-minute ad features a woman speaking to the audience. In the ad she refers to the ordinance as Mayor Annise Parker’s “bathroom ordinance.” Parker supported the ordinance and is openly lesbian.
“This ordinance will allow men to freely go into women’s bathrooms, locker rooms and showers,” the woman says in the ad. “That is filthy; that is disgusting; and that is unsafe.”
The implication being, of course, that somehow transgender women are not actually women, but actually men in dresses. And, of course, the ad implies that men are intending to rape women and molest children, particularly in bathrooms.
The sad reality, however, is that it’s fear mongering at a base level, and ignores a reality. Transmen and women are significantly likely to be attacked in a bathroom. In fact, the implication is that “men” will enter the bathroom — the folks at Campaign for Houston don’t even bother with identifying transwomen (there is no mention of transmen in the advertisement) as women. They are always men.
Michigan has seen similar hysteria related to local non-discrimination laws. In Hamtramck, ordinance opponents distributed campaign literature with a cartoon character clearly of a “man in a dress.” In Kalamazoo, opponents distributed hanging political literature with images of Dr. Julie Nemecek — a transgender woman who sued Spring Arbor University when that organization fired her for being transgender.
The ordinance lost in Hamtramck, but won in Kalamazoo — a sample that could indicate a ballot battle is not a slam-dunk when put before the voters.
A move by the state Legislature in 2014 to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act failed in large part because GOP leadership refused to include gender identity as a protected status. That forced the LGBT community to fight against a partially inclusive bill. A similar rift could happen in Michigan if there is another attempt to legislatively amend the law, or a decision is made to move the issue to the ballot statewide.
That is something Amy Hunter, coordinator of the ACLU’s Trans Advocacy Project, is more than a little aware of. The issue, she said, is educating the general public before the anti-trans rhetoric begins.
“The trans community has always been an easy target,” she notes. Why is that? Because most Americans say they don’t know a transgender person.
In December 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute polled 4,509 adults and found that 9 percent said they knew someone transgender, while 89 percent said they did not know anyone who was transgender. Interestingly, despite not knowing a transgender person, 71 percent of the respondents said the transgender community faces “a lot of discrimination.”
“The most effective way to counter this is to get trans people out there telling their stories,” Hunter said. “It allows people to understand what being transgender is about.”
That education, she said, will undermine any negative advertising campaigns like Houston’s.
“It’s pretty hard to be afraid of something you know,” she said.
Hunter and the ACLU have launched an initiative to train transgender people to deliver effective messages and tell their stories. Trainings are currently being planned.
As for the specifics of the ad, Hunter declined to discuss its misleading presentation.
“The problem with deconstructing that ad is that it could backfire,” she said. She noted that recent studies have found that in counter negative narratives in politics, the opposite happens. The myths are reinforced, not diminished.
“A more reasonable response is to be proactive. We’ve got to get people to know who we are,” she said. “Ultimately, when people know the trans community, that undermines those blatant lies.”