In 1977, when gospel singer and Orange Juice pitchperson Anita Bryant took aim at the Miami-Dade gay rights ordinance, she didn’t opt for subtlety. The group she founded to mount a repeal effort at the ballot box she called Save Our Children. Her claim was that in sanctioning legal rights for gay and lesbian people, her right to instill Christian values in her children was compromised.
Protecting the ability of children to be raised with the proper morality was perhaps Bryant’s effort to create what she thought of as a high-minded cover for the more insidious implications of the group’s name: that children are not safe around homosexuals, particularly those emboldened when society acknowledges their equal rights.
Within a year, voters in St. Paul, Minnesota, Eugene, Oregon, and Wichita, Kansas followed Miami’s lead in turning back civil rights ordinances. Fortunately, the “protect the kids” hysteria was beaten back in November 1978 when California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have required public schools to fire gay and lesbian teachers.
Fifteen years after Bryant stirred the pot in Miami, right-wing groups pushing to enact anti-gay initiatives in Oregon and Colorado, among other places, grabbed on to a scurrilous “documentary” called “The Gay Agenda: The Report,” which purported to show the dangers of according gays “special rights,” but in fact was an almost pornographic exploitation of mainstream society’s anxieties about gay male sexual practices at the height of the nation’s AIDS crisis.
Opposition to gay rights and equal treatment has not disappeared, even though attitudes have changed considerably over the past generation. Even fervent opponents of advances like marriage equality have, in recent years, adopted a far more moderate, reasonable tone –– one in which they are typically at pains to emphasize they have nothing against gay and lesbian people, they simply want to preserve what they say are important traditions as well as principals of religious liberty.
That “moderate, reasonable” tone was absent from last week’s successful drive to overturn Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, dubbed HERO. A fairly standard nondiscrimination measure that provided protections from housing, employment, and public accommodations discrimination based on 15 characteristics –– including sexual orientation and gender identity, but also race, age, sex, and religion –– HERO was rejected by more than 60 percent of the voters in Texas’ largest city.
The message the ordinance’s opposition used was simple and ugly: “No men in women’s bathrooms.” Lest anyone miss the point, TV ads showed a young girl in a bathroom confronted by a faceless yet clearly menacing man in a plaid shirt.
This crowd makes Anita Bryant look like a master of nuance. The implication is clear: transgender women are really nothing more than male perverts in dresses. The willingness of the HERO opposition (including Texas’ two top elected officials –– on the eve of the election GOP Governor Greg Abbott tweeted “No men in women’s bathrooms,” and his lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, play a leading role in the campaign) to engage in the dehumanization of a portion of the community already struggling with unemployment, poverty, homelessness, violence, and serious healthcare challenges staggers the imagination.
As gay, lesbian, and bisexual cisgender Americans, we still face plenty of challenges, resistance, bigotry, and ugliness, but many of us may have forgotten the worst of it. The worst of it is what our transgender brothers and sisters in Houston lived through over the past several months.
We we have seen some pushback against the shame witnessed in Houston –– most notably in the decision this week by the Dallas City Council to provide protections based on gender identity and expression in its civil rights ordinance that essentially matches the provisions of HERO. But what happened in Houston must remind each of us to be vigilant in the face of any attempt we witness in our daily lives to dehumanize transgender people. We have to name it and call it out, and in so doing work to make it wholly unacceptable in our society and our nation.