On Monday, Houston Mayor Annise Parker's Office announced that opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) had failed to gather the necessary signatures to put the bill on the ballot as a referendum. While the implementation of the legislation is being put on hold pending potential litigation, this effectively ends any chance HERO will end up on the ballot this fall.
Lost in the afterglow, however, is that this represents the third straight high-profile defeat for social conservatives who latched onto transgender people as their bogeyman of choice to try and rally the base.
In February, a well-funded coalition of certified hate groups failed to put AB1266, a California law passed to protect transgender students, up for a referendum. The bar was set fairly high: opponents needed 504,706 valid signatures to put it up to a vote. They came close, with 487,484.
The campaign featured particularly vicious attacks against innocent transgender children in other states and outright fabrications in order to whip up the base and convince people that transgender students are sexual predators. Still, social conservatives consoled themselves with the fact that California is a deep blue state and the requirements were steep.
In March, Maryland passed a comprehensive law protecting transgender individuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Social conservatives again leapt on it, breaking out the "transgender people are rapists" meme again, and Fox News threw its weight behind their lies in support of collecting signatures to put the law to a referendum. Unlike California, the bar was set much lower, and the signatures could be collected online.
Still, social conservatives failed to get people motivated about transgender people. In fact, they failed miserably.
Despite the ease of signing petitions online, and the low number (55,737) needed to qualify, they still only managed to collect a third of the total required. Social conservatives pushing for repeal consoled themselves with the fact that Maryland is a blue state, and "we know that it was only through this effort that people became aware of the effects of this bill."
But surely in Houston -- a city in a deep red state with a population of over 2 million people -- opponents of transgender equality could muster a measly 17,269 signatures to put HERO to a vote. They had coalitions of religious leaders and pastors, a website (already taken down), and big turnouts at city council hearings. They had media outlets driving home their anti-transgender talking points, and national organizations like the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Yet efforts to put HERO to a referendum went even more disastrously awry than efforts to repeal the Maryland bill. A local reporter commented,
"I've heard the petition effort was incredibly sloppy. I mean, go back and look at those memos - you've got page after page of petitions being invalidated for not being signed by the circulator, or having only an illegible signature with no corresponding printed name by a circulator. How amateur night is that?"
Besides the above, there was outright fraud: deliberately getting signatures from people who weren't registered voters, faked signatures, and people who signed their names as "Houston, TX." The vast array of lies, irregularities, and blatant fraud can only be described as a complete clusterf**k.
That's three right-wing trial balloons using transgender issues as a dog whistle to mobilize the base and the middle, and each attempt failed more dismally than the last. The messaging is getting less traction with each attempt. Ironically, social conservatives are just now learning the same lesson that LGBT organizations figured out years ago: it's hard to fundraise or mobilize around transgender issues.
The question remains: why aren't social conservatives managing to get the traction on transgender issues that they thought they would? Though there isn't a lot of polling data out there on this, the answer seems pretty simple: people got 99 problems, but marauding hordes of transgender people in bathrooms ain't one of them.