Quit blaming Beyoncé for HERO’s failure

One of the biggest headlines from this Tuesday’s elections was the failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, to gain support from voters in America’s fourth largest city.

HERO is a city-wide law that (briefly) banned discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on a wide range of characteristics that included sexual orientation and gender identity.

Over the summer, a group of young organizers in Houston took to Twitter to amplify activist Carlos Maza’s call for Beyoncé — The Most Famous Houstonian™ — to use her powerful social media influence in support of the ordinance.

Now that HERO has failed, justifiably upset advocates have again taken to the web to air their frustration toward Beyoncé’s inaction. Maza has written a widely-circulated follow-up post in which he expressed his own disappointment with Bey. These feelings are understandable: How can a celebrity who takes millions of dollars from fawning gay fans and undoubtedly knew about Operation #BeyBeAHERO turn a blind eye to inequality in her home city when the request for a social media post was such an easy lift?

I, too, wish Beyoncé had spoken out. Mrs. Carter’s influence on young people has renewed energy on a range of important issues — from the empowerment of women to the effort to make Black lives matter. However, Beyoncé’s power lies partially in her fierce personal privacy and professional discretion. Not everything that the Queen touches turns to gold (remember TIDAL?). As someone who’s worked in marketing for six years, I’ve learned that you can’t simply promote whatever you want with no regard to frequency or volume and expect to retain the same level of support. This is especially true when promoting messages that are controversial, like HERO grew to be.

Beyoncé’s social media is calculated, concise, and always on-message. The result is a powerful brand that — when wielded strategically — can challenge her followers’ ideas and beliefs.

It’s clear that Bey’s team decided that HERO went too far off message, that the marginal boost Beyoncé could have provided the local ordinance didn’t outweigh the potential damage to her brand. For better or worse, the Queen was silent.

To Maza, Houston activists and the Internet commentariat who genuinely believe that a single social media post from Beyoncé could have “motivated young voters to the polls, focused national attention on the fight over HERO, and dramatically reframed the narrative away from the talking points of HERO’s opponents,” you’re dead wrong.

To blame Beyoncé for HERO’s failure fundamentally misunderstands local politics … and Queen Bey herself.

HERO was never going to pass.

And I say this as someone who really wanted HERO to pass.

But HERO opponents weren’t playing fair. They consistently lied about the intent and scope of the ordinance in ways meant to scare parents and grandparents over concern for children’s safety.

Specifically, they warned that HERO would empower adult men to enter women’s restrooms in order to prey on young girls.

Obviously this is ridiculous, and I won’t devote any space here to debunk this myth. (Many others have done a good job of destroying the myth, including Maza.)

But the scare tactics paid off: Houston voters turned out at the highest rate of any municipal election since 2003. The child predator panic was undoubtedly a leading motivator for voters, as it was the primary and consistently-sounded message from the anti-HERO campaign.

The child molester narrative — which didn’t dominate the original debate around the City Council’s passage of HERO — made the issue uniquely complicated for Beyoncé’s brand, which seeks to appeal to the masses. Before the vote, I saw Facebook comment threads with otherwise reasonable and equality-minded parents who were freaked out about the ordinance’s consequences. While Beyoncé commands a lot of authority, do Maza, et al. really believe her input would have compensated for child predator panic? Would this would-be Instagram photo of Beyoncé in a HERO shirt really educate voters and calm Houston parents’ fears?

Beyond HERO’s messaging challenges, I also question the efficacy celebrity endorsements have on actually getting people to show up to vote — even when that celebrity is Beyoncé.

HERO enjoyed broad support from celebrities. With varied levels of involvement with organizers, everyone from Sally Field to Barak Obama endorsed HERO’s passage. It’s clear that celebrity involvement alone wasn’t enough to bring home the victory.

I’ve been involved in electoral politics for a few years, running communications for a campaign, an advocacy group and now a political action committee. I know of zero cases in which a celebrity Instagram post has motivated a millennial voter to leave their home, job or school in order to cast a ballot when they hadn’t previously planned to do so.

HERO lost big time. More than 58,000 votes would have been needed to secure its passage. And in my electoral calculus, those votes would not have been earned by a Beyoncé post.

Of course, we’re dealing now in intangibles. No one really knows how much influence Beyoncé’s support could have earned. No exit polls measure the effectiveness of celebrity influence. Would the post gain 1,000 new voters for the ordinance? What about even 10,000?

But as the dust settles, and equality advocates try to learn lessons for the next battle, I call on Team #BeyBeAHERO to put passion aside when assessing the real consequences of Beyoncé’s inaction. I suspect that any reasonable person would reach the conclusion that celebrity endorsements hardly ever live up to their promised results of garnering wide-spread support for a cause.

I want to make another point, too, about the double standard of asking Beyoncé to show up for the LGBT community.

Where was the campaign to get Neil Patrick Harris to endorse #BlackLivesMatter? Why no calls for Ellen DeGeneres to #SayHerName? Beyoncé should not, and cannot, be expected to endorse every worthy cause for our community. This is especially true when we — the white LGBT community — continue to fail at being meaningful allies in the struggles against racialized state violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, an unfair immigration system, and the U.S.-led bombings of innocent civilians in too many places to name.

As we collectively move forward from this one lost battle, I encourage my fellow community to learn the vital lessons of HERO’s loss without needing to place blame. I hope we can all internalize the encouragement of the chorus of Destiny Child’s “Survivor,” with its self-declarations of not only not giving up, but also working harder.

We’ll do better next time.

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