Houston We Have a Real Problem (And it is not about bathrooms)

| Nov 16, 2015
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Albert Einstein is credited with saying that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

I am aghast and amazed, but unfortunately not surprised that on November 3, 2015 in America’s 4th largest city, the largest city in America with an out LGBT person as Mayor, a comprehensive nondiscrimination law that included LGBT people among over a dozen categories was soundly repealed in a public referendum by 61-39, 22 points! In a city of 2.2 million people, only 100 thousand people voted in favor of the ordinance

This should have been a no brainer in 2015, discrimination on the basis of sex, race color, disability, religion . . . military status?

Spending in favor of the ordinance ran 3 to 1 against.

We knew what was coming. The Anti-Gay (LGBT) Industry (AGI), a consortium of right wing religious fundamentalists recognized and focused on the least understood and targeted, the transgender community by exploiting the one issue that has been used for the last century over and over again to defeat civil rights laws and societal advancement affecting race and gender issues and anyone perceived as “different”— the bathroom issue. These religious fundamentalists, in my perception these religious fascists have become, The Potty Police!  From Anchorage, Alaska to Charlotte North Carolina, nondiscrimination ordinances were defeated by the well organized ruthless Potty Police who spread fear and hate and ignore any vestige of honesty and truth. They lied and continue to lie! And they have now set their sights on attacking Dallas!

It has been a little over 10 years since I took a leadership position in amending New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination to include “gender identity or gender expression” in categories such as employment, housing and public accommodations. We had a stand alone “trans” bill introduced in the Assembly in January 2005 and for several months, neither Garden State Equality Chair Steven Goldstein nor I could find a state senator, among many who were sympathetic, to sponsor our bill. The ACLU-NJ would not support it. Why? Prevailing thought by the senators was that we would fail and in failure some transgender people might lose some rights that we were perceived to have in an appellate court decision. Failure was not an option!

Yes, Houston 2015 is not New Jersey 2005. A state legislature is not a public referendum. New Jersey had a  governor who resigned under a cloud after admitting that he was gay, while Houston has a popular out lesbian mayor. We invested mere thousands of direct dollars, where Houston spent several million. But there are things that we did in New Jersey that were different, outside the box and based on lessons learned from failures in other jurisdictions. Oh yes, by late March in 2005 we found a freshman senator to ignore conventional wisdom and sponsor the bill, and in December 2006, we passed our bill 102-8.


Kate Clinton observed that no major civil rights movement has been without its bathroom issues. The Disabilities Rights Movement? . . . Bathroom accessibility. The Black Civil Rights Movement? . . . Bathroom sharing. The Equal Rights Movement? . . . “Anti-ERA forces said that if the amendment were passed there would be unisex bathrooms.”

We were proactive in framing the bathrooms in perspective. Black people certainly understood the relevance and meaning of access to public facilities. People with disabilities and women were too. The word “discrimination” was very powerful. I was Vice-chair of Garden State Equality and we had well over 10% representation on their board we worked hand in hand for Transgender Equality as well as Marriage Equality.

Transgender people were all over the State House, we brought our children to speak for full LGBT equality at the Capital in Trenton and at massive town halls that received press. I was even outed in New Jersey’s largest daily when my daughter got up to speak in front of several hundred people and her picture was featured prominently in an article. Yes, we were real people and we used the public facilities!


In Houston, Kerry Eleveld reported that transgender people were not included in the HERO leadership.

“What struck me most . . . is the fact that our side spent that much money and still failed to produce a cohesive message that resonated. That’s partly because even as activists on the ground like native Houstonian Monica Roberts and other advocates tried to elevate the conversation about transgender discrimination, the organization running the effort — the Human Rights Campaign — continually tried to quash it . . . listless the campaign’s message was on our side.”

Uniting LGBT Activists Against the Bathroom Myth, The Daily Kos

A comment that I heard from a local insider was that “no ads by LGBT rights proponents held the equal punch that the nasty hate ads embodied. Instead, they overwhelmingly ran nicey-nice ads about good neighbors and equality and human dignity.”

Our trans group, Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ received a $5000 grant from HRC and $1000 from The Task force plus the priceless legal mind and resources of their Transgender Rights Attorney, Lisa Mottet. Mara Keisling of NCTE offered her organizations full resources as well as speaking at one of our transgender town hall meetings sponsored in part by the local Pride organization. With Garden State Equality, we leveraged every single Marriage Equality event to speak not only for marriage equality, often in a way that it uniquely effected transgender people as well as speaking for transgender equality. We made people think!

In a Zogby poll commissioned by Garden State Equality designed for marriage equality, we piggybacked questions about transgender discrimination and equality. GSE Chair Steven Goldstein is a communications expert and we learned some of the subtleties of framing questions. Analyzing the results by demographics were helpful to us in framing our issue to some of these communities. The African American community responded to different words than the Hispanic community. I saw what kind of language worked with different demographics. There is science and yes, getting this done was an art as well.

I’ve always understood in any campaign that you need a “poster” person for any cause. You want a person to represent the cause to connect with the public in order to create a public empathy with that person or that “cause”! When Steven came to me with an offer of making a 30 second TV ad to back our legislation, it was like manna from heaven! I believe that it was the first TV ad of its kind and although we had a limited budget it was more than our total GRAANJ budget! We targeted our audience for 21 times, and the popular statewide Cable station ran it many more times as a filler.

“Garden State Equality also leveraged considerable resources on behalf of the campaign to pass the legislation. In 2006 the organization aired a television commercial featuring a transgender woman named Carol Barlow talking about being told during a job interview that she was unemployable because she is transsexual. The outreach to lawmakers and public education paid off: The non-discrimination bill passed by an overwhelming 102-8, and hate crimes passed 100-10.” — Edge Media Network

Jumping back to the subject of bathrooms, imagine a TV commercial with a bearded trans man being forced by the “Potty Police” to go to the women’s bathroom! Did no one think of that? Of course LGBT people did, but no one in charge acted! Go right at them, attack them with their own message! How about this, “If you want to prevent these “men” in women’s bathrooms, vote YES!”

Zack Ford reported that, “Indeed, Houston Unites did very little to respond to the bathroom fear mongering, running only one ad that actually introduced a transgender person, and he didn’t discuss bathrooms at all.”

Houston has a famous out transgender judge, Phyllis Frye. There are no “out” trans judges in New Jersey, but Garden state Equality stressed out trans board member Leslie Farber as its legal advisor when related to trans issues.

“Garden State Equality’s legal adviser, Leslie Ann Farber, 49, was born a male but started living as a female more than a year ago.” A quote from a New Jersey media piece.


Reading from various blogs and lists, I got the distinct impression that political strategists warned LGBT activists in the days ahead of the vote as there was little Spanish-language outreach, no big ad buy in Spanish-language media in a city that is 44% Hispanic countering the lies of the opposition, who’d certainly been doing their own outreach. Monica Roberts, a long-time African-American transgender activist, warned of little outreach in the black community, which makes up 24% of the city.

It was observed that none of the ads by HERO proponents held the equal punch that the nasty hate ads embodied.

There is no one size all that makes a winning strategy and execution of that strategy. There is a science to this and an art in making it happen. We have to be proactive and we have to adjust when conditions require. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

Granted that our victory in New Jersey in 2006 was in the legislature where we had Republicans vote for it on a 3.5 to 1 basis, there was no referendum possible and that perhaps the other side feared gay marriage more than they did transgender rights, it would seem . . .  BUT we executed a well framed multi-level, multi-pronged creative strategy that engaged and hit the right notes for all cultural and religious demographics including some evangelicals and worked in full partnership with our LGB and an eclectic group of straight allies, we were one with them and they were us! We were seen, we and our families were all over. We made 2 look like 20, we made a hand full look like 100, and 20 look like 1000.


As LGBT people what is our goal with all of this? What is the end game? We are all different, so different in many ways, but I think that we all seek the same thing, societal respect. Laws are a tool, albeit a powerful tool to achieve that respect. We have a common enemy who plays by no rules and does not quit. Will they “divide and conquer” us to slow or stop our movement? Do they find strength from our enemy from within, whether it be the closeted self-hating gay, lesbian and transgender people, or those men or women whether gay or not, who I believe are insecure about their own gender identity. What about our general ambivalence as reflected by the low turnout in the off year election? We have to fight harder and smarter for our rights than those who fight to keep them from us.

I live in several different worlds — a straight world, a gay world and a trans world — and I try an integrate them whenever possible. I try and tear down the walls of ignorance and build upon basic human values. I don’t expect 100%, but why not try for 100 — maybe you will get a simple majority.

Let us learn from and not repeat our failures of the past, but let us also learn from our successes. I’ve touched on just some of the things that we did right in New Jersey in the hope that it will help in the next battle — tomorrow!

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Category: Transgender Community News, Transgender Opinion, Transgender Politics


About the Author ()

“Babs” is a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee, Deputy Vice Chair of the NJ Democratic State Committee and Political Director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ. For the current campaign she serves on the Executive Committee of Trans United 4 Obama. She has served as Vice Chair of the DNC Eastern Caucus, President of NJ Stonewall Democrats, Co-Chair of National Stonewall Democrats Federal PAC Board, Vice-Chair of Garden State Equality, Executive Board member of National Stonewall Democrats as Chair of the DNC Relations Committee and a member of the NJ Civil Unions Review Commission.

Comments (2)

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  1. j2emily j2emily says:

    on this topic–(if you reside in Florida)
    Last year the bathroom bill in Fla did not make it out of committee (as there was not a companion bill in the Senate) but the committee did approve it. The jerk who introduced the bill in the House vowed to try again.
    The entire Legislature is up for election in 2016. Suggest you take no chances and contact your Senator and Rep now and try to head this off.The need to know that we vote too.

  2. JosyC JosyC says:

    Well done. We do need to get our act together. Our haters sure have their act together.


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