Houston is split on gay rights. So why did its equal rights ordinance fail spectacularly?


Ryan Holeywell | November 4, 2015Houston elected an openly gay mayor three times. But it couldn't pass an equal rights ordinance that exists in many other cities.

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston elected an openly gay mayor three times. But it couldn't pass an equal rights ordinance that exists in many other cities.

By Wednesday morning, people across the nation saw the news: voters in Houston had rejected its proposed equal rights ordinance, designed to protect discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity and a slew of other categories.

Residents of the nation's fourth-largest city -- who had had previously elected the openly gay Annise Parker mayor three times -- didn't just say "no" to the proposal. They shot down the HERO ordinance in spectacular fashion, with 61 percent of voters opposing it.

The results are intriguing, since the Kinder Houston Area Survey shows that Houston is a place where residents aren't overwhelming opposed to rights for gay people. In fact, they're roughly split on the issue.

The above figures are based on the Kinder Institute's annual Houston Area Survey. We filtered out the results to show the responses of just city of Houston residents, rather than those of the entire Harris County area, since HERO was a city-wide vote. The data includes responses over the course of 2013-2015.

About 44 percent of Houston residents oppose giving same-sex marriages the same legal standing as opposite-sex marriages. About 50 percent of Houston residents support that right, and 5 percent didn't answer.

Those figures suggest that overall, Houstonians favor same-sex marriage rights by a slight margin. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, about 55 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, and 39 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. That's slightly more support nationally than in Houston.

To be clear, the HERO ordinance rejected Tuesday wasn't about same-sex marriage. But it may make sense to use that question as a proxy to examine Houstonians' attitudes about gender and sexual identity issues. After all, though the HERO ordinance includes provisions designed to protect many classes of people, gay and transgender residents likely would have benefited from its passage the most because Texas lacks anti-discrimination protections for those people.

So why did Houston voters shoot down HERO? With Houstonians roughly split on the issue of same-sex marriage, the success of HERO was always a toss-up to be decided by whichever side's supporters showed up at the polls, argues Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

And by that measure, HERO faced several obstacles.

Klineberg said many of those who opposed HERO were likely conservative, single-issue voters who cared more about that ballot item than anything else happening during the election. Those types of voters are especially driven to turn up at the polls.

Moreover, the election featured a popular black Democrat, State Rep. Sylvester Turner, running for mayor.

Turner garnered more than 81,000 votes, about a third of the total cast in the city election and enough to catapult him into a runoff. His success is attributed in part to turnout by the city's African-American community, where he has a base of support.

Though Turner supports HERO, African-Americans tend to have more conservative views on some social issues, including same-sex marriage. Nationally, only about 39 percent of African-Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 58 percent of whites, according to Pew. The same black voters who might have propelled Turner into a runoff may have also contributed to HERO's defeat, Klineberg said.

Finally, the fight over HERO became deeply interwoven with religious issues -- especially when Parker's administration last year chose to subpoena area pastors' sermons as part of the litigation surrounding the ordinance. The move invited national controversy, and ultimately, the political firestorm forced Parker to withdraw the subpoenas.

That debacle made the HERO ordinance deeply intertwined with church and religion in a part of the country where religion has an important role. About 68 percent of Houston-area residents consider religion "very important," according to our survey data. If HERO opponents viewed the proposed ordinance as an affront to their faith, and they view religion as a critical part of their identity, then it's no surprise they'd flock to the polls, Klineberg said.

Of course, other factors likely contributed to HERO's defeat. Opponents were successful in their efforts to frame the dialogue surrounding the ordinance. As a result, the HERO discourse focused on whether the proposed law would allow child molesters to easily access women's restrooms. That, in turn, derailed discussion about the actual equal rights protections contained in the legislation.

Demographics and voting patterns can't explain away the importance of messaging. But the influence of single-issue voters, religious voters and African-American voters all likely played a role in Tuesday's outcome.

Ryan Holeywell


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