Dallas won't follow Houston on equal rights

Photo by Jason Pier

2015 has been a landmark year for marriage equality in the United States, but that's small comfort for the man who was robbed, beaten with a baseball bat and called homophobic slurs by four men in Dallas in September.

That's why equal rights laws such as Dallas' are more important than ever.

The defeat of Houston’s equal rights ordinance last month was stunning. As we continue an after-action assessment about what supporters of the ordinance could have done better it's clear that Proposition 1's opponents defined the narrative early and often. They had one simple job the entire year: to repeat the bald-faced lie over and over that Proposition 1 was about men going into women’s restrooms. They succeeded.

With the predator premonition, anti-gay leaders such as former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill tapped into people’s lizard brains to stoke unfounded and irrational fears. The tactic packed a prehistoric but powerful punch.

Even the media wasn't immune. Knowingly or not, TV newsrooms in Houston took sides by airing nonstop video footage of bathrooms. Nightly newscasts hyped the bathroom message while dramatically downplaying what the ordinance actually did for tens of thousands of residents.

Now Woodfill is taking his show on the road up I-45 to gut Dallas' 13-year old equal rights law. The law is a commonsense approach to dealing with employers, landlords and others who discriminate against gay and transgender residents. To this day, it hasn’t changed since its passage with regard to who is protected, and it has never and will never allow anyone to enter a women’s restroom to cause harm.

The overwhelming majority of voters — 77 percent — approved a similar charter amendment for city employees last year. Democrats and Republicans alike believe everyone should have the freedom to make a living and find a home without fear of discrimination.

Big business agrees. More than 400 businesses, including a number of Fortune 500 companies based in Dallas, have signed the Texas Competes pledge to show their support for gay and transgender Texans. They care about the pro-business brand that must continue to be conducive to entrepreneurship, talent recruitment and economic vibrancy. Even in Texas, “Big Business is now at odds with the social conservative faction of the Republican Party over gay and transgender equality — and Big Business is winning," wrote former George W. Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon in Politico earlier this year.

None of this has stopped equal rights opponents like Woodfill from issuing the same ominous predator warnings through the Dallas media as what killed Houston's equal rights ordinance.

Why does Woodfill care so much about Dallas’ equal rights law? Simple: He's running to be the chairman of Republican Party of Texas and is using bathrooms as his platform.

In fact, Woodfill made an unsuccessful bid last month to have the 2016 GOP convention moved from Dallas to Houston because of the equal rights law. The move raised eyebrows even within his party; Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Wade Emmert called Woodfill’s stunt a “political ploy by somebody who is trying to get some recognition.”

Repealing Dallas' popular equal rights measure will be difficult, whether this coming May or later. Taking away freedom and opportunity doesn’t usually go over too well, but we take nothing for granted. Right now, what matters is stopping the bathroom myth before it spreads. Dallas TV stations, both on the news and advertising side, should take a step back and look at what they’re putting on the air.

Because this goes beyond scoring political points. The man who was beaten was one of more than a dozen gay men who have been attacked in Dallas in the past three months. The divisive rhetoric around the equal rights law only makes the climate more hostile and dangerous for Dallas’ LGBT community and begins to tarnish the city's welcoming, pro-business reputation.

Now that's something to actually fear.

Chuck Smith

Executive director, Equality Texas