Ahead of Tuesday's vote on an anti-discrimination law in Houston, supporters of the Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have protected gay and transgender people, among others, warned its repeal could cause the city to lose tourism and convention business if people saw the nation’s fourth largest city as being intolerant. But one day after the ordinance failed by a wide margin, the vote's result seemingly had no effect on the National Football League, which said Wednesday it still plans to hold the 51st Super Bowl in the southeastern Texas city February 2017.
Months of rallies, legal fights and national publicity were opposed by social conservatives who sought to challenge the law that would have prohibited discrimination against in businesses that serve the public, as well as in housing, city contracting and employment. Politicians, celebrities, companies and sports figures joined LGBT activists in campaigning for the proposition that they said was similar to those already in effect in 200 other cities around the country. While a potential economic backlash was not immediately evident in the hours after the vote and Houston’s business community said it remained prepared to welcome organizations that have concerns about the city, activists have vowed to keep fighting for gay and transgender rights.
In previous, similar situations, some cities have experienced significant economic blowback when they take actions viewed as discriminatory or intolerant. In perhaps the most recent example, the passage of a “religious freedom” bill in Indiana earlier this year led to the cancelation of several conferences and concerts. There, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act aimed to allow any individual or corporation to cite religious beliefs if they were accused of discrimination by a private party. The bill was denounced by liberal lawmakers and celebrities alike, but that did not prevent Indiana Gov. Mike Pence from signing it into law.
Members of Houston’s business community were particularly tuned into the legislative battle over the ordinance because of the Super Bowl coming to the city, with the NFL having a history of paying attention to host cities’ actions before the big game. As the website Out Sports pointed out, the league took the Super Bowl away from Phoenix in 1993 after Arizona failed to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as an official holiday. The NFL also threatened to move the Super Bowl in 2014 when Arizona passed a “License to Discriminate” law similar to Indiana’s -- although that bill was vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
Ric Campo, chairman of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, told the New York Times earlier this week that he had conversations with the NFL about Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance and how it might affect the city’s host status. However, the NFL told International Business Times Wednesday that Houston would still host the Super Bowl despite its new law.
“This will not affect our plans for Super Bowl LI in 2017. We will work closely with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee to make sure all fans feel welcomed at our events,” NFL Vice President for Communications Brian McCarthy said in an email. “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other improper standard.”
This could come as somewhat of a surprise to activists and proponents of the ordinance, who had warned about economic consequences ahead of Tuesday’s vote and who said Wednesday they might ask the NFL to move the Super Bowl, according to ABC News. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is openly gay, pushed hard for the ordinance and was among those who worried about the economic impact repealing it could have on her city.
"I fear that this will have stained Houston's reputation as a tolerant, welcoming, global city," Parker said to a crowd Tuesday night as she watched the election results come in, according to ABC News. "I absolutely fear that there will be a direct economic backlash as a result of this ordinance going into defeat, and that's sad for Houston."
The law was rejected by voters in a wide margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, showing the effect that strong opposition advertising had during the campaign. Opponents of the legislation focused on the use of public bathrooms by transgender men and women, claiming that the law would allow sexual predators to attack people in women’s restrooms. This strategy was widely denounced by LGBT activists as a scare tactic, but it appeared to work, as polling conducted before the election showed the measure at nearly a dead heat at 43 percent to 37 percent in favor of the ordinance.
— Matthew Morrison (@Matt_Morrison) October 27, 2015
Houston Unites, the organization pushing for the proposition, along with Houston American Civil Liberties Union, the national LGBT group the Human Rights Campaign and others issued a joint statement Tuesday after the results of the vote were announced.
“We are disappointed with today’s outcome, but our work to secure nondiscrimination protections for all hard-working Houstonians will continue. No one should have to live with the specter of discrimination hanging over them. Everyone should have the freedom to work hard, earn a decent living and provide for themselves and their families,” the statement read.
Business leaders in Houston reached by phone and email Wednesday said they had not heard of any conference or event cancellations as of yet, but that some organizations planning events in Houston had requested information about the ordinance’s failure.
“We’ve had two customers contact us for clarification more than for anything else, and we’ve addressed those concerns and they are still holding their events,” said Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston Conventions and Visitors Bureau. “Both contracts were for future years. There’s an implied understanding that by the time they arrive in Houston, it better have an equal rights ordinance.”
Houstonians who scoff at/minimize #BoycottHouston clearly have no idea how our economy works. Houston effed up big time, & it will hurt us.
— Pop Culture Mom (@popculturemom) November 4, 2015
Waterman added that there are “a couple events” coming up whose organizers he was speaking with prior to the vote to determine if the outcome would affect their business, but none had decided to change plans as of Wednesday.
“Houston is the most diverse city in the country and we will continue to hang our hat on that and not on the lack of passing on one ordinance,” Waterman said.
While events may not be canceled as of yet, there is a petition on change.org calling for the NFL to move the Super Bowl away from Houston, and the hashtag #BoycottHouston has drawn some attention on Twitter. Other business leaders felt similarly to Waterman and said they were committed to providing welcoming spaces to all participants. And for their part, activists said their work will continue in pushing for gay and transgender rights in the city moving forward.
“We will acknowledge that moving forward there is a lot of education that needs to be done in terms of what non-discrimination ordinances actually do and who they protect,” said Chuck Smith, the executive director of advocacy group Equality Texas. “We need to educate people in such a way that they have an accurate portrayal and understanding of what an equal rights ordinance actually does. And we know most voters in this election did not have that.”