Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is embroiled in yet another media firestorm following revelations that reports about her private meeting with Pope Francis during his recent visit to the U.S. may have been grossly misrepresented by her and the legal group representing her, Liberty Counsel. But the controversy should come as no surprise to those familiar with Liberty Counsel, which has a reputation for lying in order to elevate its profile and further demonize LGBT people.
Florida-based Liberty Counsel was founded in 1989 by its now-chairman, Mat Staver. For years, the organization has distinguished itself as one of the anti-gay right's most extreme and blundering legal groups, taking on doomed efforts to defend harmful "ex-gay" therapy and slow the inevitable advance of marriage equality.
Before it began representing Davis, Liberty Counsel was perhaps most notorious for representing Lisa Miller. After ending a same-sex relationship with her partner, Miller took their daughter and moved to another state, defying a court order and refusing to allow her former partner to see the child. Liberty Counsel rallied to Miller's defense, creating a public relations nightmare for itself when Miller subsequently kidnapped the child and fled the country.
In addition to Davis, the group is also defending Scott Lively, an American evangelist facing charges of "crimes against humanity" for his involvement in promoting Uganda's extreme anti-LGBT law, which threatens gay Ugandans with life in prison.
Apart from its ham-handed legal work, Liberty Counsel is a run-of-the-mill anti-gay group that regularly makes asinine and hateful proclamations about the LGBT community. Liberty's Staver has linked homosexuality to pedophilia and disease, and predicted that marriage equality could cause society to "cease to exist." In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) added Liberty Counsel to its list of anti-gay "hate groups."
The Kim Davis marriage-license story offered Liberty Counsel an opportunity to capitalize off of the national media spotlight trained on the law-breaking clerk - a chance for it to raise its visibility and carve out a niche for itself alongside more successful anti-LGBT legal organizations. Staver became a regular fixture in the media's coverage of Davis, cited in nearly every major mainstream media report about the controversy.
But that increased media attention also brought with it increased media scrutiny and vetting, especially as it become clear that Davis would face jail time for refusing to do her job. Commentators began openly wondering whether Liberty was cynically taking advantage of Davis to raise its profile. Others noted Liberty's penchant for pursuing dead-end, extreme anti-gay litigation. Even on Fox, media figures were suspicious of Staver's arguments and intentions. A panel of Fox commentators mocked Staver's "ridiculously stupid" suggestion that Kentucky isn't bound to follow the Supreme Court's orders. In an interview with Staver, Fox's Neil Cavuto seemed sincerely perplexed by Staver's legal reasoning, admitting he was "thoroughly confused" by the end of the segment.
That doubtfulness about Staver and Liberty Counsel's credibility turned out to be well-warranted. Since Davis' release from jail, Liberty Counsel has been embroiled in several PR controversies, almost exclusively attributable to Staver's own incompetence. During the September 17 edition of Liberty Counsel's Faith and Freedom broadcast, Staver claimed that the hosts of ABC's The View had called for Kim Davis to be killed, a blatant falsehood he was later forced to apologize for.
A few weeks later, while speaking at the conservative Values Voter Summit, Staver displayed a picture of what he claimed was a 100,000-person prayer rally in Lima, Peru for Davis. The photo was met with immediate suspicion from media commentators, who could find no evidence on social media that such a massive rally had taken place. After days of doubling down, attacking its critics, and revising its defense of the photo's authenticity, Liberty Counsel was forced to admit that the image actually came from a completely unrelated event in 2014, calling the mix-up "an honest mistake."
And then came Pope Francis' visit to the United States. On September 29, Liberty Counsel announced that the pope had met privately with Davis in Washington, DC to thank her for her "courage" and encourage her to "stay strong." In interviews with major media outlets, Liberty Counsel depicted the meeting as a de facto endorsement of Davis' case, telling CBS News that the meeting "sends a huge message worldwide that [the pope] stands for the inherent right of religious freedom." Staver also told CNN's Jake Tapper that the pope "did encourage [Davis] for standing."
But on October 2, the Vatican released an official statement clarifying that the meeting was not an endorsement of Davis' case:
Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope's characteristic kindness and availability.
The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.
One official said there was "a sense of regret" at the Vatican over the meeting, while an advisor close to Pope Francis tweeted that the pope was "exploited" by a "meeting that never should have taken place." Liberty Counsel has responded by disputing the Vatican's description of the event, effectively throwing more fuel on the media fire.
Liberty Counsel's recent PR crises aren't anomalies -- they're characteristic of an organization run by a man whose only real claim to fame is spewing vitriol and championing fringe, losing legal battles against LGBT equality. LGBT activists who have followed Liberty Counsel's work for the past several years probably aren't surprised that the group is again embarrassing itself in the national media's spotlight. But major news outlets, which have largely been reluctant to dig in to Liberty Counsel's history of extremism, are less likely to treat the group with the skepticism and hesitance that it deserves.
To be fair, this problem isn't unique to Liberty Counsel -- a number of extreme anti-LGBT hate groups have duped the media into taking them seriously. As LGBT equality becomes less and less controversial, media outlets have a shrinking number of radical anti-gay charlatans to rely on as representing the voice of the opposition. And in the case of Kim Davis, Liberty Counsel has cast itself as a central character in the drama.
Staver's repeated missteps and embarrassments are a worthwhile reminder of why these kinds of organizations are labeled "hate groups" in the first place. They're not just ideologically extreme - dishonesty, exaggeration, and propaganda are core components of their brands. Given how frequently hate groups like Liberty Counsel lie about LGBT people on a daily basis, media outlets should anticipate that same level of dishonesty when they're the subject of major news stories, and treat them accordingly.
Tony Perkins is the head of one of the most extreme anti-gay hate groups in the country, yet media outlets continue to give him a platform that enables him to play a major role in mainstream conservative politics.
In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labeled Perkins' group, the Family Research Council (FRC), an anti-gay hate group, due in part to Perkins' history of making inflammatory comments about the LGBT community. Perkins has called pedophilia "a homosexual problem," accused gay people of recruiting children, and compared gay advocates to terrorists.
Despite FRC's extremism, mainstream media outlets have treated Perkins as a credible and legitimate conservative commentator, regularly inviting him to speak on behalf of Christians without identifying him as a hate monger.
The media's forgiving treatment of Perkins has allowed him to establish himself as a powerful force in Republican politics, using his national platform to pressure politicians who don't act in lockstep with FRC's extremism. Perkins' influence is especially evident at FRC's annual Values Voter Summit, a conservative political conference that has become a must-attend event for rising GOP politicians. This week, Republican presidential candidates will attend FRC's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. to vie for social conservatives' support. And they'll likely do so without worrying that major media outlets will scrutinize them for cozying up to a known hate group.
Failing to hold Perkins and FRC accountable for their anti-LGBT extremism isn't just bad journalism -- it proactively lends credibility to an organization that works tirelessly to attack and dehumanize LGBT people. As SPLC's Heidi Beirich explained, "If people were better informed about what FRC has said in the past... they'd be much less likely to be snowed by anything that comes out of Perkins' mouth or comes out of FRC."
It's long past time for media outlets to stop giving Perkins a pass and start giving their audiences the full story behind who's leading the fight against LGBT equality.
Video created by Leanne Naramore.
Fox News hosts have used the controversy surrounding Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis to repeatedly hawk the new book from a man considered one of America's most extreme and prominent anti-gay hate-group leaders.
Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council (FRC), an organization that has been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for spreading damaging lies about gay people, including the myth that they are more likely to engage in pedophilia.
Perkins' latest book, No Fear, was published on September 8 and tells the stories of "young people who have taken a stand for Biblical truth," including Aaaron and Melissa Klein, the Oregon bakers who were fined after refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The book is a collection of misleading culture war stories aimed at depicting conservative Christians as the victims of religious persecution by liberals.
That's a popular narrative on Fox News, so it's not surprising that the network has promoted the book repeatedly during its news programming, playing off the controversy surrounding Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples:
Fox's knee-jerk endorsement of Perkin's book is also self-serving: Perkins himself admitted that many of the stories in No Fear were pulled from Fox's reporting.
Perkins and the Family Research Council have long benefited from their relationship with Fox News. Todd Starnes, the network's serially misinformed culture war reporter, regularly turns FRC press releases into national news stories, while FRC touts the network's reporting to reinforce its Christian persecution narratives about LGBT equality.
Perkins has also found a close ally in Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who has hosted the hate group leader more frequently on her show than any other Fox News program has, regularly giving his anti-gay extremism a veneer of mainstream credibility.
With Fox News giving Perkins free airtime to promote his book, the network has become both a political and financial asset to one of the country's most extreme anti-gay hate groups.
In its reporting on the fatal shooting of two journalists in Virginia, CNN repeatedly and needlessly mentioned the shooter's history of registering gay porn websites as evidence that he was unstable and disturbed.
On August 27, CNN reported that Vester Flanagan II, the man who shot and killed two journalists on live television in Virginia, had set up domain names for several gay porn websites between 2007 and 2008.
CNN made no attempt to explain how the domain names could even be related to the shooting. The domain names were purchased years before Flanagan began working at WDBJ, the station that also employed the journalists he killed. And Flanagan openly identified as gay, so his sexual orientation was already public knowledge.
But throughout the day on August 27, CNN repeated its report about the websites Flanagan registered. During The Lead with Jake Tapper, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin called the report "just another disturbing twist" in the story of the shooting:
At the start of The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer teased the report while on-screen text blared the headline, "HISTORY OF INSTABILITY."
It was CNN's Don Lemon who finally challenged his network's report during an interview with Blitzer, saying, "I don't really see the relevance of it." He added, "I don't want to gay shame him. There's nothing wrong with being gay":
Injecting details about Flanagan's unrelated sexual history in reports about the shooting has the effect of associating homosexuality with deviancy, mental instability, and violence in the minds of viewers.
The practice of linking gay sexuality with violent or murderous acts isn't new or accidental. American media have a long, dark history of depicting gay sexuality as intrinsically violent and dangerous, especially when it comes to stories about brutal killings. And associating homosexuality with mental instability is a favorite right-wing tactic.
It's not surprising that fringe conservatives are suggesting that Flanagan's homosexuality is somehow linked to his decision to murder two people.
Without an explanation of how Flanagan's sexual interests are relevant to this week's brutal shooting, CNN reinforced a right-wing trope about homosexuality and violence without adding to its substantive reporting on the shooting.
When you hear of a media outlet peddling debunked and misleading research in order to argue against providing transgender people with important medical care, you probably don't think of The New York Times.
But that's exactly what happened in the August 23 Sunday edition of the paper. In an op-ed titled, "How Changeable Is Gender?" Richard Friedman, a Times contributing opinion writer and professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, grossly misrepresented empirical research in order to raise doubts about gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender people, including transgender youth.
The post was quickly debunked by Think Progress' Zack Ford and Vox's German Lopez, who criticized -- among other things -- Friedman's conflation of gender identity and gender expression, his misreading of empirical data, and his dismissal of evidence showing the benefits of gender-affirming treatment.
The errors in Friedman's research aren't minor -- his op-ed is based on a series of blatant oversights that undermine his conclusions. But as of Wednesday morning, The New York Times has failed to issue a correction or clarification to the op-ed. As Lopez noted, the New York Times' decision to publish "error-ridden articles like Friedman's" will likely make it harder for trans people to find supportive home and medical environments.
The Times declined to comment on criticism of Friedman's op-ed.
Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident for the Times, which has come under increased scrutiny in recent months for its willingness to publish misleading and harmful commentary about the transgender community.
In July, the Times published an op-ed titled "What Makes A Woman?" in response to Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover photo. The piece, written by journalist Elinor Burkett, was a trainwreck of harmful and offensive stereotypes about transgender women and essentially suggested that trans women haven't earned the right to be seen as 'real' women. The op-ed, which also framed trans equality as a threat to feminist politics, was condemned for peddling offensive and outdated tropes about transgender women.
Despite the criticism, the Times rejected a rebuttal column by Meredith Talusan, a transgender writer and advocate. Talusan self-published her response, writing, "I find the way The Times keeps centering white cisgender women's perspectives on Jenner deeply disturbing."
"[A]rguing for my existence feels par for the course this week as The New York Times has already sparked a situation where I and other trans women have been constantly put in the position of having to debate our humanity," she added.
And then there's the Times' bizarre defense of research suggesting that some transgender women are actually just men who are sexually aroused by the idea of being a woman, sometimes referred to as "autogynephilia."
In April, the Times published a glowing review of Galileo's Middle Finger, a book written by bioethicist Alice Dreger. Dreger is notorious for defending the widely disputed and controversial research of psychologist J. Michael Bailey, who helped popularize the idea that many trans women are actually men acting out sexual fetishes. But rather than lay out the criticisms of "autogynephilia" research, the Times' David Dobbs lauded Bailey and Dreger's work, describing them as truth-tellers facing down "enraged" transgender activists.
This notion enraged advocates who insisted that transsexuality came invariably from an unavoidable mind-body mismatch -- a mistake of nature -- and never from a variation in taste, which some might consider an indulgence. These advocates sought not only to refute Bailey but to ruin him. When Dreger defended him, they targeted her too.
In the end, as Dreger tells it, she and Bailey won a rough victory. When Dreger's book-length paper on the issue was written up warmly in The Times, formerly gun-shy allies were encouraged to speak out.
The Dreger fiasco reveals why the Times' missteps in transgender coverage are so potentially devastating: when the paper publishes something about the transgender community, people pay attention.
That's because, unlike the fringe right-wing media outlets that publish transphobic pseudoscience on a regular basis, the Times has a reputation for positive and affirming coverage of the transgender community. The paper has worked to avoid misgendering transgender news subjects, elevated the issue of violence against transgender women, published thoughtful editorials about the fight for transgender equality, and given transgender people an opportunity to tell and share their own stories. This week, a reader viewing Burkett's "What Makes A Woman?" on the paper's website likely saw an ad for a TimesTalk event featuring transgender actress Laverne Cox at the top of the page.
It's that juxtaposition -- positive transgender coverage alongside damaging and misleading commentary -- that troubles advocates for the transgender community. When The New York Times publishes content that suggests trans children shouldn't be affirmed, trans women aren't 'real' women, or trans people are secretly sexual fetishists, it has more of an impact than any extreme right-wing media outlet could hope to have. It lends the paper's tremendous credibility to discredited and problematic myths about trans people. Harmful content makes up a fraction of the Times' total transgender coverage, but it's that rarity that makes the misinformation so pernicious.
And, in the case of Friedman's most recent op-ed, it could end up doing real damage to the most vulnerable members of the transgender community.
Image at top via Flickr user Alec Perkins using a Creative Commons License.
A disturbing spike in the number of documented murders of transgender women of color has garnered attention from national media outlets, but cable news networks continue to ignore the epidemic of violence facing the transgender community.
2015 has seen a disturbing spike in the number of recorded murders of transgender people, and especially transgender women of color, in the U.S. Though the trans community has historically been disproportionately targeted by violence, the murders of seven trans women of color in just the first two months of 2015 alarmed groups like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which warned of an "epidemic of violence" against trans women.
That epidemic accelerated in July and August: at least five transgender women were killed between July 27 and August 15 alone. The murders got the attention of major national news outlets, including The New York Times and Time magazine. On ABC's Good Morning America, transgender actress Laverne Cox declared a "state of emergency" in the transgender community.
During the August 23 edition of MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, guest host Janet Mock dedicated the end of the program to reading the names and telling the stories of the 17 trans women murder this year:
It's the second time Mock, herself a trans woman, has used her platform at MSNBC to elevate the issue of transphobic violence.
But beyond Mock's powerful MHP segments, and despite growing national attention, national cable news outlets have largely ignored the alarming spike in murders of trans women of color. Between July 27 and August 21, neither CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC aired a segment drawing attention to the murders:
The only real mentions of the murder of transgender women came in August on CNN and MSNBC, from guests like Alicia Garza and Elle Hearns, Black Lives Matter activists who have elevated and centered violence against transgender women of color as part of their work.
Cable news' silence on the murder of trans women mirrors the findings of a report in April that found that cable, broadcast, and Spanish-language national news networks had similarly ignored the murders of trans women of color.
The sidelining of violence against trans women of color isn't a symptom of cable news networks' broader unwillingness to discuss transgender issues. In the same time period, CNN and MSNBC covered Caitlyn Jenner's documentary series, the Obama administration's appointment of the first transgender White House staffer, and charges brought against Chelsea Manning in military prison. Even Fox News (disparagingly) covered stories about a transgender prison inmate and newly expanded gender identification options at the University of California.
Ignoring these murders has a real impact on the way that viewers come to know and understand the basic realities of what it means to live as a transgender woman of color in America today. It sends a message about which lives are newsworthy - Caitlyn Jenner's, Chelsea Manning's - and which lives aren't worth mourning. Coupled with the problem of media misgendering in local news reports about the deaths of trans women, this kind of erasure deeply distorts the public's understanding of the problem of transphobic violence.
Media Matters used Nexis and IQMedia to search CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC between July 27 and August 21, 2015 for the terms "transgender," "trans," "transsexual," "cross-dress!," "transphob!," "gender identity," "Tamara AND Dominguez," "Elisha AND Walker," "Kandis AND Capri," "Amber AND Monroe," "Schade AND Schuler."
Media Matters tracked significant discussions of the recent murders of transgender women. "Significant discussion" was defined as at least two speakers in the segment talking about the topic to one another. Reruns, passing mentions, and teases for upcoming segments were excluded. Discussions after midnight but before the beginning of the next day's news cycle were excluded.
Transgender homicide victims are frequently misgendered in local media reports about their deaths. Though some news outlets may be motivated by transphobia and bias, others -- like The Kansas City Star -- have justified the practice of misgendering transgender people by using shoddy appeals to journalistic integrity.
On August 15, Tamara Dominguez became one of the latest transgender woman of color to be murdered in the United States when she was repeatedly run over by an SUV. According to local reports, the Kansas City Police Department identified Dominguez using both her birth name and her preferred name, Tamara.
The Kansas City Star identified Dominguez as a "man" in its initial report on the murder - violating GLAAD and Associated Press guidelines and contributing to the widespread problem of misgendering transgender victims of violence in local news reports. In response to criticism from the LGBT community, The Kansas City Star eventually removed the problematic language from its report.
On August 18, Kansas City Star's Public Editor Derek Donovan published a defense of his paper's initial report, which exemplifies the problematic ways that local media outlets can justify the practice of misgendering transgender victims of violence.
Central to Donovan's defense is his argument that news outlets can't know with certainty if a victim of violence is transgender, especially when the victim is deceased:
Police directly told the reporter they did not know whether Dominguez identified as male or female. And as the victim is deceased, it's now impossible to get a firsthand answer to that question.
KCTV interviewed the victim's friend, who used female pronouns. The Star didn't have that (as of this writing at least). I've spoken to the newsroom, and they're following through on the story.
But as Donovan notes, other local media outlets, including KSHB and KCTV, reached out to Dominguez's social circle, including her roommate, to confirm her identity. Other reporters have used social media to confirm victims' gender identities. In other words, when faced with a question about how a subject identified, they did actual reporting rather than just making a snap judgment about Dominguez's gender identity.
That kind of reporting is important beyond merely respecting the victim. Ignoring a victim's gender identity can hamper police investigations, and it makes it harder for the public to understand the nature and frequency of violence against transgender people.
Donovan also argues that gender identity isn't always clearly defined, so journalists' attempts to define a victim's gender identity would require them to make a "journalistically unsound" assumption:
[T]here are also people who fall somewhere else along a continuum. Some identify as both genders simultaneously -- or even neither. Some identify as female but have male alter-aliases, and vice versa. Some continue to identify as their birth gender while cross-dressing. Sometimes even those closest to these people don't know exactly how to answer the intensely personal questions of gender identiy. [sic]
The police report was succinct, identifying the victim as Jesus -- the only legal name known, according to police, and noting the alias. It would have been premature, and ultimately journalistically unsound to make any assumption.
It's important that Donovan acknowledges the fluidity of gender expression and identity, especially for people who identify as non-binary. But that isn't an excuse for intentionally ignoring a news subject's gender presentation and preemptively choosing "male" over "female." According to Donovan, the police could not tell his paper "whether Dominguez identified as male or female," so when the Kansas City Star called Dominguez a "man," it made a "journalistically unsound" assumption about her gender identity, too. Rather than respecting gender fluidity as Donovan suggested they should have, they failed to determine how the victim would want to be identified, substituting a news subject's chosen identity with a reporter's own assumptions and biases, based apparently on nothing more than the name "Jesus."
Donovan claims that identifying Dominguez as a woman would ignore "basic reality," distinguishing her gender identity from her "legal identity":
And it's wrong to ignore a basic reality: This issue is inherently confusing and tricky. Legal identities do matter, both in trans people's lives and in reporting the news. Despite what one may glean from the always black/white world of Twitter, trans activists speak at great length about the murky details of names, passports, and birth certificates that are serious issues trans people deal with -- financial and social barriers to changing one's legal identification, for example. Pretending they don't exist is absurd.
It is true that it's often difficult for transgender people to have their gender identities legally recognized.
But that isn't an argument for refusing to acknowledge the way they prefer to be identified, especially after their deaths. The legitimacy of a transgender person's identity isn't contingent on a passport or birth certificate.
News outlets don't ask for legal documents when they talk about cisgender people. Reporters don't ask for passports or birth certificates to verify the names and identities of cisgender news subjects. Forcing transgender people to legally prove their identities before being taken seriously isn't tied to a widely-accepted journalistic norm, and it trivializes trans people by reinforcing the idea that trans identities shouldn't be taken seriously.
Donovan concludes by explaining that properly identifying transgender victims of violence can be difficult, even for reporters who make an effort to reach out to the victim's loved ones:
You could argue the story shouldn't have run at all until this detail was known, via an interview with a family member or someone who can be verified as a friend of Dominguez. And no, self-proclaimed "friends" in social media don't count. Dominguez does not appear to have had a public social media presence under the name Tamara or Jesus -- both rather common names, complicating matters.
[A]ctivism is too often hijacked by loud, irresponsible voices, even from people who mean well. I've heard from some today criticizing The Star for being behind on this story, yet ironically using terminology that transgender people generally consider offensive. It's impossible for everyone to be on the same page.
It's a sentiment that's been echoed by other journalists -- determining someone's gender identity can be burdensome, especially when law enforcement misgenders a victim in initial press releases. In local news environments that prioritize quick, breaking news reports, stopping to investigate a victim's gender identity is a lot to ask. And journalists don't want to incorrectly identify someone as transgender if they aren't sure.
In those cases, the solution is to avoid using gendered terminology to describe the victim, as several outlets did in their reports of Dominguez's death. Using gender-neutral descriptors, and then amending reports once the victim's gender identity is confirmed, allows local media outlets to avoid making harmful or lazy assumptions in their coverage.
2015's unprecedented streak of homicides of transgender women has brought renewed attention to the problem of misgendering in news media. But journalists have been grappling with how to identify trans people, and specially trans victims of violence, for years. As the trans community continues to gain visibility, ethical journalism will require that reporters let go of their excuses and do the necessary work of figuring out how to accurately and responsibly identify trans people from the very first draft of any article.
An LGBT activist in Houston, Texas shut down a local TV news host's misleading questions about the city's non-discrimination ordinance, dismantling a right-wing lie about non-discrimination protections that has infected local and national media coverage of the fight for LGBT equality.
In July, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) - which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and a host of other factors - must be repealed or put on the ballot for a vote in November. Opponents of the ordinance have spent months falsely claiming that HERO would allow sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender - a myth that local media outlets have been all too willing to run with.
But during the August 2 edition of Houston's ABC 13 Eyewitness News' "City View," local LGBT activist Noel Freeman shattered the transgender bathroom myth:
FREEMAN: Non-discrimination ordinances that are LGBT-inclusive have existed in the United States for more than 40 years. And in those 40 years across the entire country, zero, zero times has somebody committed an act in a bathroom and claimed a non-discrimination law as a defense.
It's simply not true. The fact of the matter is it has never happened across the entire country in 40 years. It's never happened. Plano went through this about a year ago. They said it was going to happen, it didn't happen. San Antonio, two years ago, didn't happen. Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, 10, 15 years ago - didn't happen. It's just not true.
Somebody who's intent on breaking the law doesn't care what the law is. But the reality is that Houston has laws that makes that illegal. And so the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance isn't anything about this lie and this bathroom myth that's being presented by opponents of the issue.
Freeman is right: in state after state and city after city with LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances, conservative horror stories about public restrooms have never come true.
But Houston media outlets continue to take the right-wing "bathroom lie" seriously, uncritically repeating it in their coverage of the HERO debate despite the fact that it's been proven false in every other Texas city that's adopted a similar non-discrimination law.
So while it's great that Freeman was able to debunk that lie so effectively, he shouldn't have had to.
The Daily Show lampooned conservative attacks on an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in a small town in Arkansas, setting a powerful example for how mainstream media outlets should treat bogus right-wing "horror stories" about affording legal protections to LGBT people.
During the July 29 edition of The Daily Show, correspondent Jordan Klepper traveled to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which voted overwhelmingly in May to retain the town's non-discrimination ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Daily Show segment mocked and dismantled some of the most popular conservative arguments against LGBT non-discrimination laws with the unwitting help of an opponent of the ordinance, who agreed to be interviewed and warned that the law infringed on the rights of Christians and allowed men to enter women's restrooms:
The myth that male sexual predators use non-discrimination laws to sneak into women's restrooms has been repeatedly debunked by experts, but it remains a tremendously popular conservative attack on legal protections for LGBT people.
Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets tend to treat the "bathroom" myth as if it were true, uncritically repeating it in their coverage of LGBT non-discrimination laws.
Fears that non-discrimination laws will punish Christians or let men sneak into women's restrooms are as ridiculous as they are pervasive. Media outlets would serve their audiences better by following The Daily Show's lead and treating right-wing attacks on LGBT non-discrimination laws as the jokes they really are.
Houston looks set to become ground zero for the country's next major LGBT civil rights battle. How national and local media cover that fight could help determine how the rest of the country thinks about the next stage of the struggle for full LGBT equality.
For the past 15 months, the city of Houston has been embroiled in a drawn-out battle over its non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, military status, marital status, religion, disability, national origin, age, familial status, genetic information, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The Houston City Council adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in May 2014, in the face of fierce opposition from anti-LGBT groups who immediately launched a signature-collection effort to put the ordinance on the ballot for possible repeal. Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman disqualified their effort after determining that many of the signatures collected were invalid. The result was a protracted and messy legal battle that has drawn the attention of Fox News and national conservative figures.
On July 24, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a district court decision and ordered the city to either repeal HERO or put the measure up for a public vote in the November 2015 election.
That decision has set the stage for an even more heated and expensive battle over the fate of the ordinance - one that will likely serve as a test case for how the media, and Americans at large, talk about LGBT equality in the new era of marriage equality.
HERO has been the target of conservative misinformation since it was unveiled in April of 2014. Local and national anti-LGBT groups, including the Houston Area Pastor Council, Texas Values, and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), rallied against the ordinance.
Opponents attacked HERO by lying about the ordinance; claiming it would undermine religious liberty, trigger costly and frivolous lawsuits, and allow sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender - predictions that have proven false in other Texas cities with similar laws in place. Horror stories about public restrooms became a central sticking point in the city council's debate over HERO, with opponents even labeling the ordinance the "Sexual Predator Protection Act."
The "sexual predator" talking point has been thoroughly debunked by law enforcement experts, government officials, and advocates for sexual assault victims in states and cities that have had laws like HERO on their books for years. Non-discrimination laws don't make sexual assault legal, and sexual predators don't decide to act based on whether a local non-discrimination ordinance exists.
But that didn't stop local media outlets in Houston from uncritically repeating the "bathroom" myth in their reporting on HERO. Opponents' talking points permeated local news coverage of the ordinance, resulting in a public debate that focused on conservative fearmongering rather than anti-LGBT discrimination:
That kind of irresponsible coverage continued after HERO's passage, as the push to put the ordinance on the ballot gave way to an intense legal battle. Houston's Fox affiliate continued to uncritically repeat the bogus "bathroom" myth, and before long, Fox News' national network took notice. Led by Mike Huckabee, the network turned the fight in Houston into a national conservative rallying cry, peddling myths about HERO and misrepresenting legal proceedings to stoke outrage. Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) joined Huckabee in using the controversy to establish his social conservative bona fides. By November of 2014, thousands of activists were descending on Houston to rally against HERO and demand a public vote.
Following the Texas Supreme Court's decision last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker expressed confidence that voters will approve HERO if it's put up for a vote. If that happens, Houston voters will almost certainly be bombarded with ads and mailers peddling the same misinformation that has defined conservatives' opposition to the ordinance thus far. Scare tactics that invoke bathroom attacks and religious freedom are incredibly effective in getting people to vote against legal protections for LGBT people. And if local media outlets don't do the vital work of separating fact from fiction, HERO could become the first major LGBT defeat in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark marriage equality ruling.
The fight over Houston's non-discrimination ordinance foreshadows the emerging national LGBT civil rights battle in America: the push for comprehensive non-discrimination protections. On July 23, Democrats in Congress introduced the "Equality Act," which would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other areas. Major national LGBT groups have thrown their support behind the bill, signaling their shift in priorities now that the marriage fight has largely ended. Opponents have already begun attacking the Equality Act with the same talking points they used in their fight against HERO: horror stories about religious freedom, special rights, and bathroom predators.
It remains to be seen how effective conservatives will be at influencing the media narrative around non-discrimination protections. Since losing their fight against marriage equality, anti-LGBT activists have made controlling media depictions of non-discrimination efforts a central part of their fight against LGBT equality. By characterizing non-discrimination laws as a threat to religious freedom and personal safety, conservatives are hoping to hijack the conversation about even the most basic legal protections for LGBT people.
As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston could be a test case for how successful anti-LGBT conservatives will be at injecting their bogus talking points into media coverage of major non-discrimination fights. If anti-gay conservatives there can use misinformation and fearmongering to defeat HERO, it will set a powerful example for national anti-LGBT groups looking to shape the broader debate around laws like the federal Equality Act. If, on the other hand, local media outlets debunk and correct misinformation about the measure, they'll be setting a positive precedent for national media outlets and helping set the tone for how Americans view the continuing struggle for LGBT equality.