“No Men in Women’s Bathrooms”: The Message That Won in Houston

(photo: Register Files)

Yesterday, a controversial Houston, Tex. ordinance that secured protections for LGBT people was defeated by a starkly simple message:  "No men in women's bathrooms."

As I read the news, I wondered if there was a lesson here that deserved wider attention. 

The steady advance of sexual rights has prompted legal experts, Catholic bishops and moral theologians to construct natural-law arguments and issue dire warnings to the public.  We have been told that religious freedom, a child's right to be raised by his biological mother and father, and the legal rights of natural parents are endangered when legislatures and courts put the desires of individual adults ahead of the common good.

As the American public loses its taste for reasoned political discourse, these arguments have met with limited success. Thus, when Houston's city council passed the anti-discrimination measure earlier this year, there was every reason to expect that the controversy it sparked would subside and the naysayers would fall into line.

Instead, opponents of the measure—which barred discrimination in housing, employment, and business services based on gender identity and sexual orientation, among other protected classes—honed a message that cut through all the charges and counter-charges coming from both sides of the debate. The New York Times reported today:

"Opponents said the measure would allow men claiming to be women to enter women’s bathrooms and inflict harm, and that simple message — “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” — was plastered on signs and emphasized in television and radio ads, turning the debate from one about equal rights to one about protecting women and girls from sexual predators."

The bill's supporters, as the Times' noted, cried foul.

"In Houston, the ordinance’s proponents — including Mayor Annise D. Parker, local and national gay rights and civil rights groups and the actress Sally Field — accused opponents of using fearmongering against gay people, and far-fetched talk of bathroom attacks, to generate support for a repeal. The ordinance, they noted, says nothing specifically about whether men can use women’s restrooms."


How about LGBT activists' attempts to frame Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a "denial of service" bill that singled out gays and lesbians—even though similar bills in other states have never been used for that purpose? 

As for the argument that the bill "says nothing specifically about whether men can use women's restrooms," opponents of the measure have surely taken note of the White House's recent effort to force an Illinois high school to allow a transgender student—who is taking hormones, but has not yet received gender reassignment surgery—to use the girls' locker room. If teenage girls must adapt to the new regime, why not adult women?  

"The Education Department and the Justice Department both have issued decisions arguing that transgender students must be given full access to bathrooms and locker rooms," the Washington Post confirmed yesterday. 

"The rulings are in line with the administration’s broader backing of transgender rights, including its recent decision to allow transgender members to serve openly in the military."

Dr. Daniel Cates, the superintendent of Township High School District 211 in Illinois, has opposed the administration's efforts to force a high school in his district to give a transgender student full access to the girls' locker room. But during an interview on Fox news last night, Cates had trouble explaining why he took the position that has drawn broad support in his district.

When Megyn Kelly, the show's anchor, asked him to state his concerns, Cates said he "wanted to protect the privacy and rights of all students, not just one."

Kelly pressed him further: "What are you worried will happen?" 

Cates wouldn't spell out his objections, rightly concluding that he was entering a minefield with no clear exit.  With no common values or language, school leaders like Cates can easily make a wrong move. Ditto political leaders who oppose such policies—though on NRO's Bench Memos, Ed Whelan suggests that yesterday's victory can also provide lessons for  the 2016 election year.

Now, school superintendents with a commonsense approach might look to Texas for further inspiration on messaging. 

"Houston... had a problem..." But  yesterday's political victory offers valuable lessons. Keep it simple. Cut to the heart of the problem. Then, hopefully, find a way to begin a deeper conversation about human dignity and the natural law.