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Wednesday, April 17, 2024 — Houston, TX

Equality only matters because we don’t have it

10/29/15 7:50am

Of the most populous 200 cities in the United States, Houston is the only without a non-discrimination ordinance, despite being the fourth largest. That means millions go unprotected in America’s fastest-growing economic hub. This is why the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was enacted by the City Council with the support of Mayor Annise Parker in 2014. It was reversed by the City Council and put on the ballot this August due to a Texas Supreme Court decision giving the option of full repeal or referendum. However, I see this as a chance for Houston to prove it affirms the rights and protections of its residents. HERO protects 15 characteristics of every Houstonian: sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity and pregnancy status. Each of us falls into one of those categories and knows others who do too.

But why does equality actually matter? The question is rarely asked and often assumed; everyone should just be equal. We know it is a fundamental human right to be equal under the law and in society, but why? It could very well be due to empathy, the equal nature of a democracy and societal progression, the constitution itself, or, perhaps, simply because we are better than this. In a country embedding “the golden rule” of “treat others how you want to be treated” within every elementary schooler, the message still rings hollow. The democratic ideal, emboldened by the 14th amendment of equality under the law, is pushed aside in favor of societal prejudice and the desire to get ahead of others based on inherent traits and abilities. Anyone can be discriminated against and that is why we need a hero. Specifically, Houston needs HERO.

While this ordinance protects virtually everyone in Houston, some Houstonians still vehemently fight against their own protections. In the most recent KHOU 11 News/ KUHF Houston Public Radio poll released Oct. 11, 37 percent of Houstonians are against HERO on the ballot as Proposition One, with only 43 percent in favor and 19 percent unsure. This is a tight battle for equality. But why is it a fight when every Houstonian would gain the ability to seek swift, free and local legal action against discrimination? The answer is bathrooms. There are many campaigning against HERO with no facts, but with fear of the unknown in the form of transgender protections, a tactic used when there is little else to say in an argument. Some argue that such an ordinance would allow men to enter women’s bathrooms, pretend to be transgender and then commit assault. Rice alumnus and former Houston Astro player Lance Berkman even used this argument in his recent ad against HERO. The problem with this argument is that bathrooms aren’t mentioned in the Ordinance at all. A separate ordinance passed in June of 1972 states, “[it] shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person's sex without the permission of the owner, tenant, manager, lessee or other person in charge of the premises, in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.” In other words, it is already illegal to enter the bathroom of the opposite sex with the purpose of causing a disturbance. Allowing transgender as well as cisgender people to express their gender identity via the corresponding restroom does not detract from the 1972 ordinance. Assault is and will remain illegal, but transgender people will have protection from conforming to bathrooms that don’t apply to their actual gender. As proven by news sources such as Mic and the Advocate, and as outlined by the Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Center for Transgender Equality, there has not been one known occurrence in America of an assault in a bathroom by a person pretending to be transgender. There have been, however, many incidents of transgender people being assaulted in restrooms they were forced to go into despite looking, feeling and, most importantly, being of another gender. That is discrimination, and such assault would liable to prosecution as such under the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.



HERO isn’t an issue of bathrooms; it’s an issue of equality for all at no social or monetary cost. While characteristics protected at the federal level would cost the defendant the time and money to hire a lawyer for federal court, HERO is a local solution that would cover all costs and usually register and solve claims of discrimination in a matter of weeks. Those who wouldn’t have the time or money to file federal-level complaints would still be protected, as well as those not covered under federal law.  Additionally, while HERO was the law of Houston, it worked: it protected all Houstonians, with 56 percent of the discrimination complaints based on racial discrimination, 17 percent based on gender, 13 percent on familial status and five percent on sexual orientation and gender identity. The fact that it is no longer in effect could cause founded fear — fear due to the legalization of discrimination, not from false myths about issues not in the ordinance.

So, again, I ask, why does equality matter? It shouldn’t. It’s self-evident, a provided after-effect of a democratic and just society that has progressed and socially transformed itself in the name of freedom and justice. Equality only matters because we don’t have it. It matters because there are people trying extinguish it and people who want nothing more than to preserve the right to discriminate. Houston is at the forefront of the battle for equality in America, and I am proud to be here to vote Yes on Proposition One to preserve such equality. As Nov. 3 approaches, remember that voting is easy. At Rice, we can vote in the Rice Memorial Center if registered and have a Texas driver license, Texas Election Identification Certificate issued, Texas handgun license, a citizenship certificate or a passport.

So take a few moments to think about the state of America, the state of Houston and yourself. Protect yourself and every Houstonian from discrimination and show America that Houston stands for equality. We have a HERO in Houston, but that HERO is under attack. Every single vote in this tight election will determine the equality of millions. Vote Yes on Proposition One this Nov. 3 in support of every Houstonian that you know, each person that walks by you on the street, that says hello to you at work, that prays with you and plays with you — in support of every single person. Remember equality this Nov. 3, and remember to vote Yes on One.

David Cirillo is a Sid Richardson College sophomore.

 



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