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No Evidence Yet Of Backlash To Houston HERO Nondiscrimination Vote

Shelby Knowles
Texas Tribune
Prop 1 signs posted along the Adaptive Sports and Recreation facility on West Grey in Houston for the November 2015 election.

Just hours after it became clear that Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance, HERO, would be trounced at the polls last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker predicted a “direct, economic backlash” for the city, akin to criticism and boycott threats in Arizona and Indiana following similar controversies.

But so far, any visible backlash has yet to materialize, and Houston appears at no risk of losing two upcoming major sporting events.

Tagged by opponents as “the bathroom ordinance,” HERO would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics” — including sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents’ ad campaigns targeted “gender identity” in particular and featured ominous, hulking men stalking little girls into bathroom stalls. That tactic proved largely successful, and the ordinance was defeated by roughly 61 percent of voters.

In the days after the vote, a petition asking National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to revoke Houston’s status as host for the 2017 Super Bowl garnered roughly 3,500 signatures, and Chad Griffin, president of the national Human Rights Campaign, wrote Goodell seeking an “emergency meeting” to discuss pulling out.

But the NFL said its plans aren’t going to change.

“We will work closely with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee to make sure all fans feel welcomed at our events,” a statement released by the NFL said. “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness.”

Similarly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said it will proceed with plans to hold the Final Four portion of next year’s March Madness basketball tournament in Houston. HoweverDan Gavitt, vice president of men’s basketball championships, conceded that the HERO vote “could impact the NCAA returning to Houston” in the future.

HERO opponents dismissed concerns of economic backlash from the beginning. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went one step further, telling The New York Times that even if HERO’s defeat did come at a cost, it would be worth it. If organizations like the NFL “would even suggest that the Super Bowl not be played here because we don’t want men in ladies’ bathrooms, then we need a new commissioner,” he said.

If anything, the ordinance's defeat has invigorated Patrick and other opponents of non-discrimination measures that include sexual orientation and gender identity. On Wednesday, Patrick criticized the Dallas City Council for reaffirming a similar ordinance that the city has had in place for more than a decade.

The response to Houston's vote, relatively quiet outside the LGBT advocacy community, stands in contrast to larger controversies sparked by similar bills in recent years.

Before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a version of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, several major companies — including the NFL, Delta Air Lines, and Major League Baseball — issued statements of concern, and many groups threatened boycotts. The bill would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers for religious reasons.

Indiana faced a similar backlash earlier this year, when Gov. Mike Pence signed a version of the same bill. The NCAA described itself as “especially concerned,” executives at Apple, PayPal and Yelp expressed opposition, and at least one convention threatened to relocate.

HERO advocates say they aren’t sure why the latest developments in Houston aren’t attracting as much attention. Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes — a coalition of businesses that lobbies for pro-LGBT policies they say will keep Texas economically competitive — said it’s hard to know what, if any, backlash there will be.

“It’s impossible to predict to what extent the business community will react to what has happened in Houston,” Shortall said.

Still, she said, cities can take economic hits in many forms — some more subtle than boycotts.

“On a broader scale, there’s a talent issue to think about,” Shortall said. “Especially when we’re looking at millennials, the brand of a place is something that people who care about attracting talent to a state or region think about.”

Shortall cited Fort Worth as an example — earlier this year, city officials told the Fort WorthStar-Telegram that Facebook examined the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, similar in language to HERO, before announcing it would build a new $1 billion data center.

The effect of a given policy — or lack thereof, in HERO’s case — isn’t always quantifiable, she said.

“It’s the cumulative effect of many individual decisions,” Shortall said.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.