Houston human rights ordinance rejection a victory for fear

Arguably the most important item from election day, an ordinance barring discrimination based on race, religion and sexual orientation was repealed in Houston.

We know why: bathrooms. Conservatives across the city raised hell about text added to the ordinance (and later removed) that specified that transgender people could, with this law, use the bathroom that best aligns with their identity. As the New York Times reports, the bathroom item turned this ordinance into a public-safety issue.

In short, the argument was: “What can stop a man from entering a woman’s bathroom to molest and/or rape a woman?”

A bathroom – even a public one – is a private place in some ways. There is an expectation of privacy when at the stall or toilet, an expectation that nobody would approach you or threaten you. As well-developed human beings, we abide by this expectation, though there are exceptions in history.

But there are myriad “private” places in every day life: your home, your car, your workplace, even your supermarket, where you tend to business in private while being in public. My point: saying that men cannot enter a women’s bathroom won’t stop a mentally unstable man bent on assaulting a woman from entering the bathroom. Just as laws on home invasions, carjackings and public assaults don’t prevent these assault events.

Conservatives, however, were able to use that hook onto that line and ride it to the polls. All they needed was one slip in legislation, and they got it.

The controversy of this repeal, to the liberal audience, surrounds transgender people. Conservatives used the bathroom issue to camouflage another bigoted belief, they claim. Equality for the transgender community, whose fight has been in the spotlight recently, continues to be in the balance.

To me, though, the fascinating element of this story is the implementation of fear as a driving principle of action. Conservatives opposed to the ordinance sponsored ads that basically reenacted the beginnings of a sexual assault by a man inside a woman’s bathroom. With one bold stroke, they framed the debate with impeccable focus: “This is what will happen. End of story.”

Sexual assault is one of our society’s unanimous evils, and unfortunately, it’s something we can’t necessarily stop – mental illness will live in people within our population, and we will not be able to help all of these people. So we’re constantly in fear of the next assault. To position the story solely on that is to make any other argument impossible to even raise. Conservatives used that fear, forced it into the faces of Houston voters, and were very successful (61 percent voted to repeal).

Every day, all across the country, young people are confronted by stories of sexual assault and other domestic terror. Fear reigns in all of these stories. The rapist or abuser can be anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. It can happen in public, not just in the home late at night. And victims often don’t receive the help they need; sometimes they’re shamed by the public, dragged through the media and degraded to feel less than human. For anyone who could potentially be a victim of sexual assault, these thoughts will ultimately be considered when discussing anything with even indirect ties to assault, such as an ordinance barring discrimination based on race, religion and sexual orientation.

This is what happens when fear reigns. We negotiate our notion of “safety,” and measures that promote equality are repealed. We keep the “outsider” away from our comfortable, plastic lives. For the millennial generation, and future generations, this is more than dangerous.

We know that sexual assault is evil, and we think we can help prevent it by keeping bathrooms gender-specific, so we decide to strike down an ordinance that would ultimately open many more freedoms for people who aren’t currently equal to others in society. But will repealing this ordinance stop sexual assaults in public bathrooms? Of course not, sadly.

It will stop us, however, from opening our minds and leading with optimism for all humans.

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