If HERO, the Houston anti-discrimination measure that was defeated in a referendum on Tuesday, wasn’t a national story yet, late-night TV just made it so. On Wednesday, both Seth Meyers (Late Night on NBC) and Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show) covered the ordinance, which lost at the polls by a large margin in the wake of a transphobic smear campaign that reduced the law’s standard coverage of 15 different categories of people to the willfully misleading slogan “No men in women’s bathrooms.” (For more on this, read my look at voter confusion leading up to Election Day and Mark Joseph Stern’s analysis of where HERO supporters went wrong, as well as a history of the bathroom panic strategy.) While both segments rightfully bemoan the results, the treatments are not equally helpful.
Meyers did an outstanding job, spending more than six minutes lampooning the faulty logic and outright lies of the anti-HERO campaign. After explaining what the law actually covered, he took on the bathroom myth directly, pointing out that there is no evidence trans people use access to the correct facility for anything other than to relieve themselves. Quoting an interviewee from Dominic Holden’s on-the-ground BuzzFeed report who said he thought creepy men would use the law to scope out “booty,” Meyers cracked wise: “You know, I've never been in a woman's restroom, but I'm guessing the booties aren't just out for everyone to look at. And if they are, I'm pretty sure you're doing something wrong.” Most helpfully, Meyers expanded his focus to a larger consideration of bathroom baiting, roping in Mike Huckabee’s unsettling comments from earlier this year about wanting to go into a women’s shower and a failed Fox News stunt to get people on the street upset about gender-neutral facilities. Taken together, the segment went a long way toward showing how hysterical—and fundamentally prejudiced—this rhetoric really is.
Though his heart was in the right place, Larry Wilmore left something to be desired, mainly in terms of being clear about the motivations behind the HERO opposition. While he, too, criticized the reduction of the law to the bathroom myth, his segment (with participation from correspondent Grace Parra) devolved into a series of potty jokes about men watching women poop, and he never even once used the word transgender. Indeed, if you weren’t already familiar with the basics of the HERO controversy, you would probably leave this segment confused about what exactly happened. Were men really trying to get into ladies’ rooms? And if not, why did that meme find so much purchase? Wilmore was so vague, in fact, that the segment could be read (ungenerously) as tacitly supporting the erroneous notion that trans women are men.
Wilmore has been called out for troubling jokes and language around trans issues before, and though this segment wasn’t actively hostile, it didn’t help the situation much. A huge part of the problem with HERO was that advocates failed to fight the anti-trans bathroom demagogy directly, shying away from the offensive claims in a manner not unlike Wilmore did. Going forward, we should look to Meyers’ candor on the issue as a model. The only way to fight this stuff—whether through activism or comedy—is to counter the lies with unapologetic truth.