in Analysis and Commentary

November’s general election day has come and gone. For two cities in particular — Charlotte and Houston — a lot was riding on this year’s general election for LGBT voters on the municipal level.

Houston voters stunningly rejected common-sense non-discrimination protections that would have added race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, among a total of 13 characteristics, to public accommodations, housing and employment ordinances in America’s fourth-largest city.

In Charlotte, where we’ve faced our own challenges passing LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances, voters elected a solid pro-LGBT majority to City Council. Advocates have been hopeful that such new leadership will finally be able to pass the proposals.

Tuesday’s election results offer us a unique context now for tackling the challenges and opportunities Charlotte’s LGBT community will face in the weeks, months and years to come. At the forefront, we need to immediately ramp up our efforts to ensure new leaders make good on the pledges they made during the campaign, and we need to heed the lessons learned in our earlier Charlotte efforts — lessons reinforced by the defeated campaign in Houston.

Charlotte elects pro-LGBT majority

Tuesday’s election saw the end of a months-long campaign by local, state and national LGBT groups to elect a new pro-LGBT majority to Charlotte City Council.

Along with most other local observers, I’d predicted a near-sweep for Democrats in the Council’s at-large races. I got only one race slightly wrong. I’d predicted Republican John Powell would win the fourth at-large seat. It, instead, went to Democrat James “Smuggie” Mitchell (another possibility I’d considered), who won by only 252 votes over Powell.

The at-large Democratic sweep — with LGBT-friendly candidates Julie Eiselt, Vi Lyles and Mitchell joining the not-so-friendly Claire Fallon — complements the election of Democratic mayoral candidate Jennifer Roberts, along with the re-election of friendly Democratic allies Patsy Kinsey (D-Dist. 1) and John Autry (D-Dist. 5) and openly lesbian and gay Councilmembers LaWana Mayfield (D-Dist. 3) and Al Austin (D-Dist. 2).

These victories were hard fought, with resources expended by MeckPAC, Equality North Carolina and the Human Rights Campaign to push support toward a mutual slate of endorsed candidates who’d each pledged their support to pass LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination proposals initially rejected by City Council in March. The proposals would add sexual orientation and gender identity, among other characteristics, to a set of ordinances prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, city contracting and passenger vehicles for hire, as well as updating the oversight powers of the city’s human relations committee to track and mediate complaints of discrimination.

In Charlotte, it’s game time

With the election or re-election of Eiselt, Lyles, Mitchell, Kinsey, Autry, Mayfield and Austin, Charlotte has secured seven votes — one more than is necessary — to finally pass the proposed non-discrimination ordinances.

These victorious candidates must do everything in their power to bring the ordinances back up to a vote as soon as possible.

There should be no excuse-making or dillydallying. Each of these seven candidate have firmly pledged to support the ordinances and bring them back up for a successful, passing vote. I expect to see these candidates honor their word and will look to see the ordinances proposals placed on the very first business agenda after these new or returning leaders are sworn in.

I also expect Mayor-elect Roberts to use the same kind of public presence, hobnobbing and glad-handing she participated in at LGBT events during her campaign to publicly, strongly, finally and decisively push forward this important LGBT-inclusive measure for the city. And, I expect to see local, state and national LGBT leaders immediately begin to lobby the incoming municipal leadership and receive from them a definitive date upon which these measures will be finally and fully considered.

These efforts must begin to happen simultaneously, even as we learn important lessons from Houston’s defeat and put those into immediate action, as well.

Lessons from Houston: Trans inclusion and visibility

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), forced into a referendum by anti-LGBT religious leaders there, lost the support of voters on Tuesday. It failed with 61 percent of voters casting a ballot against the measure.

Luckily, Charlotte has no similar referendum process, so there’s no worry that Council’s immediate decision to pass these proposed ordinances will lead to a referendum campaign here. (The only threat we have is our state legislature, one we successfully fought off in the fall.)

Regardless of the differences in the two cities processes, there are plenty of lessons still to be learned from Houston’s experiences. The similarities are remarkable between the rhetorical devices and ploys used by anti-LGBT extremists in Houston and those in Charlotte.

In both cities, extremists — many tied to far-right anti-LGBT hate groups — rallied, first, longstanding anti-LGBT support and, then, more general animosity toward transgender people. Their go-to scare tactic was to make the use of public restrooms by transgender people the key focus of their efforts to stop the LGBT-inclusive ordinances. In Charlotte, it was enough to convince some Democrats — including outgoing Councilmembers David Howard and Michael Barnes, along with at-large member Claire Fallon — to jump ship. In Houston, extremists’ ploys focused entirely on the restroom issue as well, using the campaign slogan “No Men in Women’s Restrooms” to garner nearly two-thirds opposition from the general voting public against the non-discrimination protections.

It’s abundantly clear our opponents have a winning message. As an early on-the-ground report from BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden points out, our community has evidently found no effective way to counter such damaging, but highly effective political messaging:

Even if HERO passes, the size of the operation required to hold on to a nondiscrimination law in Houston raises an obvious question about whether it’s feasible to do this across the entire country. The opposition’s message is so potent that beating it through sheer force is expensive — and the LGBT movement appears largely at a loss for how to best combat it.

The anti-trans messaging is so powerful, so packed with viral potential and so good at swinging votes that anti-LGBT Houston campaigners spent less than a quarter of what HERO advocates spent. Holden notes that anti-LGBT forces in Houston spent only $900,000, with pro-LGBT groups spending nearly $4 million to buy their loss at the polls.

Even with all that money spent, LGBT campaigners in Houston spent little time or effort to combat the anti-transgender messaging from our opponents. Instead, Holden notes, their public messaging and ads focused on general diversity messages.

Again, from Holden:

[Houston Unites campaign manager Richard] Carlbom said his campaigns ads “give the voters something to really chew on and to really commit themselves to emotionally in support of this ordinance. One example is our ad that just finished running, which highlights the fact that this impacts veterans. That is a very effective ad. If they see a veteran can be impacted by this, then maybe as a Latina woman, or maybe as an African-American man, or maybe as Muslim or Jew or pregnant woman, they find their own reason and their own understanding of why this is important.”

Carlbom said his internal polls show that voters are “working through their anxiety and understanding what’s really at stake.” As the election approaches, he said, “they are coming back to us.”

Those messages didn’t work. Voters never “came back” around to vote for the ordinance.

The future of this movement is now, clearly more than ever, dependent upon and centered on the success of transgender rights. This is our new playing field. Our opponents have placed transgender people and their rights squarely at the center of their campaigns. We have to do the same, uplifting the stories, leadership, visibility and voices of our transgender siblings.

After marriage equality and as our movement transitions toward broader non-discrimination protections efforts, our LGBT groups will have to spend real time, effort, energy and money on coming up with ways to immediately begin combating politically powerful and damaging anti-trans prejudices and messages. This can no longer be an afterthought; it needs to be a primary programmatic, service and outreach focus of every LGBT community and advocacy organization.

Whether in Charlotte, Houston or any other city, LGBT organizational leaders will have to begin to center transgender visibility and education efforts in their larger strategies. They will have to begin to center transgender people in their leadership. The privilege and power and influence gained by LGB cisgender people will have to pave the way for transgender people. And that might just mean some cisgender people sacrificing their seat at the table or their 15 minutes of community spotlight to let a transgender person take leadership and tell their own story. Our movement has been successful so far because average Americans have been able to come to know and love their LGB cisgender children, siblings, parents, co-workers and friends. We need the same movement for transgender people now, and we need sustained efforts at building, encouraging, uplifting and strengthening the leadership of transgender people.

Charlotte’s pro-LGBT Council majority has pledged to pass our proposed ordinances unchanged and unamended. I hope these new leaders keep their promises; our LGBT leaders will have to fight to ensure transgender people are not stripped out of the protections. Meanwhile we’ll still face opposition and backlash (though, thankfully, no referendum). That opposition here will be chock full of the same kind of dangerous and harmful anti-trans rhetoric Charlotte got a snippet of in March and which Houston saw on full display these past few weeks and months. Defending Charlotte’s ordinances and creating longterm, lasting change for LGB, but in particular T, people will take a refocusing of our movement to combat these messages and highlight the real lives and stories of transgender people.

Transgender people have been telling their LGB cisgender siblings this for years. Though it sounds harsh, the HERO defeat is the victim of a longtime and intentional ignoring of transgender voices. After Charlotte’s loss in March and especially now after Houston’s HERO defeat, it’s time we admit that we should have listened to our transgender siblings all along. The time for transgender inclusion and visibility has passed and it’s high time mainstream LGBT organizations and leaders take heed. It’s the only way we’ll move our full community forward. If we continue to ignore or downplay the importance of intentional transgender inclusion, leadership and visibility, we’ll do so at our own collective peril.

Update (Nov. 4, 2015, 1:05 p.m.): Zack Ford weighs in at ThinkProgress on the HERO defeat, discussing some of the same issues on transgender visibility and education. A snippet:

The Houston Unites campaign, which advocated for HERO’s passage with support from national groups like the Human Rights Campaign, admitted Tuesday night, “We’ve learned some important lessons.” By “sharing our stories” and “speaking up with one voice,” the campaign feels it could have done more to combat the “ugliest of smear campaigns.”

Indeed, Houston Unites did very little to respond to the bathroom fearmongering, running only one ad that actually introduced a transgender person, and he didn’t discuss bathrooms at all. The other ads all emphasized the many non-LGBT groups that HERO would have protected. Some LGBT activists are already clamoring for change in future campaigns.

Brynn Tanehill, director of advocacy for the LGBT military organization SPARTA, wrote of HERO’s defeat that the LGBT movement’s traditional tactics simply cannot prevail over the myths about bathrooms in a single campaign. “Trying to convince the general public is an (expensive) fool’s errand,” she wrote Tuesday night. “The three million dollars in Houston could have been used to fund studies that would counter right wing talking points about transgender people, and continue to build the consensus of people who are experts in the field. Alternately that money could have been used to hire a transgender policy experts and advocates dedicated to working transgender issues full time in half the states in the US.”

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