One of Houston's leading sexual assault experts has dismantled the right-wing “bathroom predator” myth about LGBT non-discrimination protections, calling out local media outlets for helping misrepresent the reality of sexual assault.
For the past year and a half, Houston has been mired in a tense debate over the city's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that prohibits discrimination in areas like housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of fifteen characteristics -- including race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Opponents of HERO have falsely claimed that the ordinance would open the door to sexual predators who might pretend to be transgender in order to sneak into women's public restrooms and commit sexual assault. The “bathroom predator” myth has been thoroughly debunked by experts from cities and states across the country with similar laws on the books, including several cities in Texas with similar ordinances.
The talking point continues to be one of the most popular right-wing attacks on LGBT non-discrimination laws, and HERO's opponents have used it relentlessly to weaken support for the measure among women and parents.
But in May 2014, during a public hearing before the Houston city council, HERO supporters gained a powerful voice in their fight against the “bathroom predator” talking point: Cassandra Thomas.
Thomas has spent thirty-one years at the Houston Area's Women Center (HAWC), an organization dedicated to helping individuals affected by domestic and sexual violence. Aside from serving as HAWC's Chief Compliance Officer, Thomas is also a member of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center Board and sits on the editorial board of the Sexual Assault Report of the Civic Research Center. She's won numerous awards for her work on domestic and sexual violence, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.
Testifying before the city council, Thomas drew on her decades of experience to dismiss opponents' fearmongering. “If you really want to stop sexual assault,” Thomas said, “then let's cut out the scare tactics, and let's speak the truth.”
With less than a month before Houston voters decide the fate of the ordinance at the ballot box, HAWC continues to play an important role in the debate over HERO. The group appeared at the launch of the pro-HERO “Houston Unites” campaign in August and has worked to debunk opponents' onslaught of bathroom-focused television and radio ads.
In an interview with Media Matters, Thomas described why HAWC got involved in the debate over HERO.
The problem with the “bathroom predator” talking point, she explained, is that it fundamentally misunderstands how and why sexual assault occurs.
“Transgender people are not my bogeyman in the closet. My bogeyman in the closet is the man who is a rapist who has a position of power, that everyone thinks, because he has power or because he's nice or because he's white or because any of those stupid reasons, that 'I'm safe from him.' That is my biggest fear.”
Thomas' position has been echoed by sexual assault experts in states and cities with similar LGBT non-discrimination policies, and it's supported by research. Sexual assault is overwhelmingly carried out by people victims know and trust -- family members or friends, religious and community leaders, etc. -- and not random predators who pretend to be transgender.
“It puts a bogeyman face on a group of people who don't deserve it at all, who are, by no account, through what we know, are dangers,” she added.
Stereotypical images of shady-looking men sneaking into women's restrooms -- which have become a centerpiece of the anti-HERO campaign -- give women a “false sense of security,” Thomas explained. “It makes women think that there are only certain places and certain people that I have to be afraid of and that's not true. We don't know what rapists look like. There's no big R on their forehead. And that misinformation sets women up to be injured.”
When asked about why opponents of HERO had latched on to the “bathroom predator” talking point, Thomas dismissed the idea that HERO's opponents were seriously motivated by a concern for women's safety. “If it was about women's safety then these same people would be involved in the anti-violence movement from the start,” she said.
“If these same people were concerned about the safety of women, they would have come out against any number of issues that have come up about sexual violence over the years, but they have been remarkably silent. So all of a sudden women are in danger because of transgender people? No. They're not.”
Thomas also took aim at the media's coverage of the debate over HERO, which has been dominated by discussion of the “bathroom predator” myth while downplaying HERO's broad prohibition on discrimination. A recent Media Matters study found that local television media outlets rarely mentioned that HERO prohibits discrimination on fifteen characteristics including race, gender, and familial status -- characteristics that are statistically more likely to need HERO's protections:
“All people know about this bill is that it will allow men to go into women's restrooms and our poor girls and our poor women are in danger. But that's not what the bill is about at all,” Thomas explained.
“What they've not done is told us what it is about. And they've not talked about the fact that every single day, people of color, women, veterans, pregnant women are facing discrimination, and this particular ordinance is about making sure they have equal access and equal opportunity under local law.”
It's that discrimination, and a commitment to fair and equal treatment for Houstonians, that helped motivate HAWC's involvement in the HERO fight. “Equality is a right that everyone should have. All of us should be treated equally, should be able to equally access services and equally have protection under the law,” Thomas said. “None of that should be based on the color of my skin or my gender or my sexual orientation or none of that. It should be because I'm human.”
In the weeks leading up to the final vote on HERO, Houston voters will likely continue to be inundated by ads centered on the “bathroom predator” myth -- ads that will continue to shape and dominate the way the media talks about the ordinance.
The ginned-up controversy surrounding HERO's impact on public restrooms continues to make for sensational and enticing local news coverage. But it grossly misrepresents the reality of sexual violence and existing evidence about the real impact of LGBT non-discrimination laws. The sooner that Houston media outlets stops taking the “bathroom predator” talking point seriously, the better equipped their audiences will be to make informed decisions about HERO.
“Let's talk about real safety,” Thomas urged. “Let's talk about protecting women from rapists. Protecting women from sex offenders who are out of jail and now walking the street again. Let's talk about those things that are real versus something that has absolutely no bearing on whether women are safe from sexual predators.”