Patrick Smyth: Houston bathrooms are the latest battle ground for LGBT rights

Non discrimination law challenged over fears transgender women will use ladies toilets


The tale of how Barthélemy Piéchut erected a pissoir – a public urinal – opposite the church on Clochemerle’s main square is a deliciously entertaining, almost Rabelaisian story of rural, small-town France.

The mayor’s contribution to public health was far more than an attempt to provide an outlet for the copious quantities of Beaujolais enjoyed by the town’s men, as Gabriel Chevallier’s 1934 novel, named after the town, made clear. High politics and class struggle were involved, as was Piéchut’s desire to strike a blow for municipal socialism and secularism by annoying the local priest and the town’s stuffy middle class.

The wonderful Clochemerle and its allegorical pissoir came to mind the other day when I read accounts of the extraordinary referendum campaign under way in Houston, Texas. It’s not every day, after all, that the politics of public conveniences – lavatorial politics – takes centre stage. In Houston, the US’s fourth largest metropolis, the municipal pissoirs – mainly the women’s facilities – are assuming a central symbolic place in the city’s and the country’s culture wars.

What started in 2013 as a straightforward human rights nondiscrimination proposition, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (Hero), adopted by the council last year like similar measures in nine other Texas cities, has provoked a deratification referendum, bizarrely tagged the “bathroom ordinance”, which is to be voted on next week .

Opponents contend Hero’s provisions would infringe their religious beliefs against homosexuality, and Hero makes no reference to public conveniences.

But it has been interpreted by its opponents, in a grotesque demonisation of transgender people, to imply the right of transgender women to enter women’s toilets potentially traumatising girls and young women.

Or, worse still, allegedly, to allow a rapist impersonating a woman to skulk in and commit unspeakable crimes.


A Campaign for Houston ad depicts a young girl entering a cubicle followed by a man as a narrator solemnly intones the preposterous lines: “Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day. No one is exempt; even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom, and if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined. Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger. Vote ‘No’ on the Proposition 1 ‘bathroom ordinance’. It goes too far.”

Supporters of Hero, which now include celebrities such as Sally Fields and Hillary Clinton, with an implicit nod of support from US president Barack Obama, say there have never been any recorded cases of attacks in toilets by transgender women or by those posing as such on straight women or girls. On the contrary, there have been a number of well-documented attacks by women on trans people using the facilities.


Somewhat foolishly the city responded by also announcing subpoenas against the pastors, alleging abuse of their charitable tax status by supporting a political campaign from the pulpit. An equal-rights issue had become a free-speech issue until the city two days ago wisely retreated and withdrew the subpoenas.

The Houston battle has acquired a nationwide notoriety because, in the wake of the supreme court legalisation of same-sex marriage, nondiscrimination legislation has replaced the issue as the main priority for the LGBT rights movement. Texas is one of 28 states with no statewide protections, and LGBT rights supporters are waging a state-by-state, city-by-city campaign to extend antibias protections.

Polls show Houston divided and the repeal result uncertain. Mayor Annise Parker, its openly gay mayor and originator of Hero, is among those expressing exasperation.

“The fact there is so much misinformation and not just misinformation, just out-and-out ludicrous lies, is very frustrating,” she said. “I’m worried about the image of Houston around the world as a tolerant, welcoming place if this goes down.”

Truth, it seems, is stranger than fiction: Clochemerle and Piéchut reincarnated . . .