Editor's note: Clifford Pugh's column on the invalidation of petitions to place the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance on the November ballot was published Tuesday. Columnist L. Wayne Ashley offers a different view.
One must admit that “Let the people vote” is a nice-sounding argument. Voting, at least in contemporary democracy, is the way we choose our representatives in government, and it is often the way we choose how to allocate public money for certain uses. In recent years Houstonians have weighed in on the fate of the Astrodome, the usefulness of red light cameras, funds to rebuild city infrastructure and whole host of other topics.
These are issues that deserve a vote.
But the Astrodome, beloved or hated as it may be, is not a person. It wasn’t guaranteed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel, and it doesn’t become disenfranchised. These are experiences that belong solely to people, and under the Constitution of the United States of America, people have rights above and beyond subjection of public opinion. As President Thomas Jefferson said in his inaugural address:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.”
In the centuries since President Jefferson’s words, this sacred principle has been advanced through our nation’s courtrooms, battle fields, protests and press conferences. With almost every instance, the disenfranchised have had to rely not on majority vote, but on the actions of a few courageous leaders to assert their cause. Have we forgotten that the slaves in this country were not freed by the ballot box, but by executive order?
The reality of Houston in 2014 is all of these discriminatory practices are still happening, and citizens have painfully few methods of recourse to combat them.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance wasn’t something that area lawmakers dreamed up. It is a set of protections meant to enable rights which already exist, but haven’t been fully realized under an oppressive status quo.
If pregnant women were not being shown discrimination in the workplace, the law wouldn’t need to protect them.
If veterans or LGBT people were not excluded unfairly for job opportunities, the law wouldn’t need to protect them.
If African-Americans weren’t being refused entry into business establishments simply because of their race, we wouldn’t need the law to protect them.
But the reality of Houston in 2014 is all of these discriminatory practices are still happening, and citizens have painfully few methods of recourse to combat them.
Proof of atrocities
For proof of these atrocities, look no further than the HERO public sessions. Hundreds of speeches were given by Houston residents that were unfairly fired from a job, refused service or rejected for housing due to discrimination.
No matter how much national press coverage it may generate, Houstonians do not deserve to have their constitutional rights subjected to a ballot.
People like Jenifer Rene Pool, a one-time victim of housing discrimination, testified that had the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance been around when she first moved to the city, she may not have been forced into temporary homelessness. Our leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the rights of all Houstonians are protected, and municipal law was not getting the job done.
When asked, most in the opposition seem to agree that everyone deserves equal rights and protections. Speaking against the ordinance, they never cite that they want to discriminate against people in the workplace, or in a place of business. Their arguments boil down to one thing and one thing only… bathrooms. Time and again, they justify defeat of the law based on an imaginary narrative of some "man in a dress" that lurks in a restroom to harm women and children. This narrative is one of absolute fiction, and has been discredited by medical organizations across the globe.
As speaker Cassandra Thomas of the Houston Area Women’s Center stated in her speech to Council…
I’ve spent the last thirty years of my career in this city working with sexual assault survivors. I’ve spoken all over the country on this issue. 90 percent of the time, women and children are sexually assaulted by men that they know and trust… fathers, uncles, family friends, clergy, teachers… not ‘the boogey man’. These are the folks that they have been told to trust and to follow. If you really want to stop sexual assaults, then let’s cut out the scare tactics and speak the truth.”
Without the truth on their side, HERO opponents must construct their arguments against the law on falsehoods. If given the forum of a referendum, they would spend all of their time spreading lies about the LGBT community in the hopes of continuing city-sanctioned discrimination.
Few would doubt that the opinions of Houston voters have changed dramatically since the '90s. We were the first city in the country to elect, and then re-elect an openly gay mayor after all. But no matter how much national press coverage it may generate, Houstonians do not deserve to have their constitutional rights subjected to a ballot.
Houston musician and college advisor L. Wayne Ashley is founder and editor of Texasleftist.com.