As I watched the downfall of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) recently, it became obvious most people in Houston think it’s acceptable to discriminate against the transgender population, which already faces monumental daily challenges in access to health care, employment, housing, public accommodations and public services. I was appalled but not surprised by how opponents vilified transgender people and spread lies about our humanity to defeat the ordinance at the ballot box.
HERO, passed by the City Council, protected Houstonians from discrimination based on many characteristics, including race, age, religion, military status and others. It prohibited bias in employment, housing, public accommodations and city services. But opponents, who sued to get the ordinance on the ballot, made it strictly about bathroom access for transgender people, painting trans people as predators and ignoring reason and facts. This effort succeeded, as it has many times in the past.
The falsity of these arguments against equality are clearly shown by the experience of modern Sun Belt cities like Atlanta. Atlanta is in the vanguard of cities protecting transgender people. In 2009, the U.S. District Court here ruled that Vandy Beth Glenn could bring a claim of discrimination after being fired from her legislative editing job at the Georgia General Assembly for being transgender; the ruling was later approved by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Glenn v. Brumby decision was one of the first appeals court rulings to protect transgender people from sex discrimination under federal law.
Atlanta itself amended its municipal code in 2013 to include gender identity in all its non-discrimination ordinances. The dire, over-the-top consequences prophesied by the Houston opponents of equality, about transgender people coming into bathrooms to wreak havoc, have not come to pass in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta is more prosperous than ever, with rising wages, falling unemployment, low property taxes and the third-highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S.
Houston, by contrast, is experiencing challenging economic conditions. Atlanta’s tolerance of diversity predicts its increasing success, as business theorists like Richard Florida teach, because the creative class attracted by tolerance is a necessary precondition for 21st-century success.
As an attorney who fights against discrimination in transgender employment and health care in federal courts around the country, including Georgia, I recently argued the case of Chavez v. Credit Nation Auto Sales before the 11th Circuit. The case involves a Georgia auto mechanic allegedly harassed on the job and ultimately fired for being transgender. There was not a single question from the bench about whether transgender people are deserving of protection from sex discrimination, as both sides and the judges understood the legal proposition that transgender people are protected from sex discrimination is now well established here.
Having handled about 30 such cases all over the U.S. in the past several years, I can say with confidence that the dire consequences predicted by the Houston opponents of equality have not come to pass in any U.S. jurisdiction. Likewise, Atlanta’s embrace of diversity has created success, not problems.
We are at a time in our civil rights movement when many still doubt the essential humanity of trans people, regarding us as mentally disordered sexual predators. We are clearly not that, but if prejudice could be dispelled by reason and facts, there would be no need for civil rights law. Atlanta embraced equality, including transgender equality, with open arms, and it is prospering; while Houston, effectively bamboozled by the loudest, meanest, most deceptive voices, is experiencing challenging times.
Sun Belt cities would do well to look to Atlanta for lessons on tolerance and prosperity and the link between the two.
Jillian T. Weiss is Professor of Law and Society at Ramapo College of New Jersey and the founder of a law firm that represents transgender people who have experienced employment and health care discrimination.
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