A new campaign in Texas is making voters look discrimination straight in the eye.
Last May, the Houston City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which protects 15 different marginalized groups from discrimination. But after a long legal battle the courts ruled the policy should be put up for a vote before it goes into effect.
Critics like Mike Huckabee have attacked HERO for extending rights to LGBT people. But with a tight vote looming next month and low turnout expected, supporters are getting out the message that HERO is a much broader law.
“If you’re a human being in Houston, you’re protected from discrimination by HERO,” said Chris Valdez, a marketing and branding expert behind the campaign, dubbed We Are HERO.
Before it was suspended, HERO prohibited discrimination against Houston's 2.2 million residents on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity and pregnancy.
The statute would protect these groups from discrimination when applying to housing, employment, city services and public accommodations.
“The campaign is really about bringing the human element—the faces of these people—in order to make a stronger connection between the 15 different categories of Houston residents that HERO protects,” said Valdez, whose Houston-based agency Primer Grey launched the campaign with photographer Lauren Marek.
The latest portrait features Pastor Rudy Rasmus, also sometimes known to be Beyonce's pastor, explaining why he supports HERO.
"This is my city. I love it. However, when I was growing up, Houston had two water fountains; one marked ‘colored only’ and one marked ‘whites only.’ When I was a little kid, I decided that if there was one thing I could do, it would be to create a place where there was only one water fountain: which meant there was fairness for everyone; equal access for everyone,” Rasmus is quoted saying in a caption accompanying his portrait on the Wearehero.us website.
A number of coalitions have come together to support the passage of HERO, including national civil rights groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. A group of college students have also called on Beyoncé Knowles, who was raised in Houston, to speak out in support of HERO. The students are still hoping Knowles will speak out and compel voters to vote next month.
Despite the fact that HERO protects more than a dozen diverse group of people, critics of the ordinance have spoken out against it because it extends rights to the LGBT community.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and now a Republican presidential candidate, took to Facebook last year and argued HERO would “take away your rights to live what you believe” and “will be unsafe for women and children.” Huckabee called for those who believe in “God’s definition of human sexuality” to speak up against HERO.
After it passed HERO, the Texas legislature introduced more than 20 anti-LGBT bills, according to an analysis by Equality Texas, an LGBT rights group. None of the proposals succeeded in passing.
Valdez said he hopes the We Are Hero campaign can share photo representations of every group protected by HERO in order to show the full scope of the law.
“We recognized this as a message that was becoming really convoluted in mainstream media and the full breadth of the ordinance wasn’t very well articulated,” Valdez told Fusion in a telephone interview.
“We took it upon ourselves to spread the message that the city needed to hear in order to motivate people to vote on November 3rd or in early voting,” Valdez said.
If voters don’t approve HERO, Houston will be the largest city in the nation without anti-discrimination laws.
Houston has 950,000 eligible voters in the city, but turnout for citywide races historically has been low. According to the Houston Chronicle, city officials expect 20% (190,000) of eligible voters to make it to the polls next month.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, won her re-election in 2013 by 50,337 votes.
“To submit to a popular vote anti-discrimination protections for vulnerable minority populations is inherently unfair and contrary to our shared sense of justice,” said community educator Omar Narvaéz, in a blog post published on the website for Lambda Legal, an LGBT civil rights organization.
Between May 28, 2014 and January 15, 2015, 54% of the discrimination complaints lodged with the Office of the Inspector General in the city of Houston related to race, 17% to gender, 15% to age, and 4% to sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the ACLU of Texas.
Supporters of HERO say every single vote will count.
“This really becomes a civil rights issue. If [voters don’t approve] HERO we send a very bad message about the way Houston views discrimination,” said Valdez.