Voters in Houston just repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance opposed by conservative activists. It was designed to protect minority groups including gays, transgender people, people of color, veterans, and people with disabilities.
The ordinance would have outlawed bias in housing, employment, and city contracts. Yet if you had asked voters what it was about, many would have told you it boiled down to one thing—restrooms.
Opponents rallied support using a time-tested scare campaign that dates back at least as far as the 1970s, during the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment: They suggested that the ordinance's protections for transgender people would enable predators to assault young women in public bathrooms.
The leading anti-ordinance group, Campaign for Houston, describes itself on its website as citizens "of all races, creeds and political beliefs who feel there should be NO MEN IN WOMEN'S BATHROOMS.”
Yard signs throughout Houston carried the same line, and a campaign ad by the group warned about “registered sex offenders” entering a bathroom by “claiming to be a woman that day.”
Though the campaign came at a time of increasing visibility for transgender Americans, it roots go back at least four decades.
In 1972, the House and Senate passed the ERA, which would have added three simple sentences to the Constitution to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex and to give women legal recourse against sexism.
The amendment seemed inevitable as it moved to statehouses across the country for ratification. That was, until an enterprising conservative activist named Phyllis Schlafly mounted a successful campaign to kill the amendment, in part, by stoking fears about men in women’s bathrooms.
Schlafly, who had been involved in conservative politics for years and still is, framed her Stop ERA campaign around the notion that society needed to "protect" women from violence by segregating them from men. The campaign argued that the ERA would lead to mandatory military conscription for women, integrated prisons, and, of course, sex-neutral bathrooms.
These arguments were particularly effective with citizens and legislators who wanted to counter accusations of being anti-women by couching their opposition in the paternal language of protection. At a rally outside the White House in 1977, women held signs with phrases like “Maternity Ward: Women Only,” with an X through the word “Women.”
Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a Democrat who led opposition to the ERA and was close to Schlafly, had tried to stymie its passage in the Senate by adding his own language to protect existing laws that “exempt women for military service … or secure privacy to men or women or boys or girls.” He later played a role in his home state's rejection of the amendment.
Activists in Houston are determined not to let their city's ordinance continue down the same path as the ERA. Mayor Annise Parker, who is herself a member of the LGBTQ community, told a crowd that she would continue the fight against discrimination.