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After Houston Defeat, Transgender Rights Activists Look to What’s Next

Leaders of top LGBT organizations are sounding the alarm on the campaign trail, demanding that presidential candidates propose nondiscrimination protections for the transgender community after Houston voters rejected an equal rights ordinance earlier this month.

With transgender people facing elevated risks of discrimination and violence, advocates said candidates’ support for both federal and state protections will be crucial to the LGBT movement going forward.

“We need to get beyond generalized statements of support for the LGBT community and hear a real discussion and demonstrated understanding of issues that uniquely impact transgender people,” said Ian Thompson, legislative representative at the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

The failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (or HERO), which would have established nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people, was a major blow to LGBT rights advocates.

Opponents defeated the Houston ballot initiative in part by branding it the “Bathroom Ordinance” and arguing that the measure would make public restrooms less safe.

Some LGBT activists worry that those tactics mirror Anita Bryant’s effort in 1977 to repeal a Miami-Dade County ordinance that would have banned employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bryant’s successful campaign against the ordinance in Miami led to the failure of anti-discrimination efforts in other cities and dealt a significant setback to the LGBT movement in its early stages.

Advocates today are hoping the HERO vote will not have the same chilling effect.

"The question right now is not just how do we move forward, but how do we prevent moving backward?” said Heather Cronk, co-director at GetEQUAL. “I think it remains to be seen what the community demands as the next steps and whether this will stoke the political imagination of movement leaders to respond to those demands."

Activists in the LGBT community also fear that the failed ordinance will pose particular consequences for transgender women of color, who are most vulnerable to violence.

Reports on the issues facing LGBT individuals show that transgender women of color experience a greater risk of violence than LGBT people as a whole. According to the Human Rights Campaign, of the 21 transgender people who have been killed in the United States during 2015, all but one was identified as either black or Latina.

Transgender rights have always been a significant component of the LGBT movement, but with Houston failing to join the 17 states and 200 municipalities already banning discrimination of transgender Americans under several categories, the issue has been propelled to center stage.

LGBT organizations are now calling on the presidential candidates, especially Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, to support federal legislation that will extend anti-discrimination protections to transgender people nationally.

Both Clinton and Sanders have pointed toward the Equality Act as the most significant step towards rectifying discrimination.

The Equality Act, which was introduced to Congress in July after the Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage a constitutional right nationwide, is the first bill to explicitly call for an end to discrimination against LGBT people. Supporters have called the bill “visionary,” and it has received the backing of corporate sponsors like Google and major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign.

The bill faces opposition from GOP lawmakers, who say that it would threaten religious freedom, and it has yet to receive a single Republican co-sponsor. But activists remain optimistic that the bill will eventually pass, claiming that lack of initial support from the right on LGBT legislation is part of a larger historical pattern dating back to the 90s.

“If anything, it’s made the movement more committed and we’re redoubling our effort on educating the public about transgender people and transgender issues,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center of Lesbian Rights.

Activists note that the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy began with just one Republican cosponsor and eventually passed the Senate with 63 votes – eight of which came from Republicans. A number of Republican members of Congress have also announced their support for same-sex marriage, something that advocates argue can be a far more complicated issue for many people than non-discrimination protections.

Still, LGBT activists say they aren’t waiting around for Congress to take action, pushing instead to redouble their efforts at the grassroots level.

"We’re not focused on the Equality Act right now," Cronk said. "We’re focused more on mobilizing, agitating, educating and organizing people on the ground who can create a different kind of energy for a bolder and more urgent agenda."