The city that elected a lesbian mayor with a city council that passed an equal rights ordinance, turned tail and rejected the ordinance in a referendum Tuesday. With the interjection of the Republican Lt. Governor into municipal politics and the outrageous ads predicting male sex offenders would invade women’s bathrooms, the appeals to ignorance and bigotry against transgender people was revealed for the nation to see. Even more ironic, progressive bond issues passed in the city, county, and surrounding communities. Clearly the ads were the deciding factor.

If you tell the big lie often enough people will come to believe it, is the political strategy that has been employed again and again, and in this case it worked. Some claim that the split was along racial lines or religious bias, but the detailed results still haven’t been reported yet. Without pointing fingers at any particular group, fear of transgender people was exploited for political advantage.

The vote was decisive: almost 2:1 for repeal of the ordinance. I would not presume to assume that the city is that divided or that the majority of its citizens are homophobic. It simply proves the old adage that advertising works, and when it’s used effectively it gets results. Even if it is a lie, a simple graphic message can grab attention. I didn’t follow the campaign that closely even though I contributed to our side so I don’t know enough about how the political strategies and tactics were employed on either side. In politics it’s called getting control of the narrative and putting your opponents on the defensive. Apparently the consequences of rejecting the ordinance didn’t come across in public opinion, and it remains to be seen what effect that may have on the national standing of Houston. It isn’t just a loss for the LGBT community who still can face discrimination; it is a loss for the city that has damaged its reputation.

When I lived there years ago, Houston was a friendly, open and progressive city. Sure there was an economic chasm between River Oaks and the East Side, and the Houston Police regularly harassed gays. But it didn’t have the snobbish, money-conscious attitude of Dallas. The lack of zoning and rapid growth created a rather haphazard pattern of development, and it took years for the infrastructure to catch up. But it was a world-class city in terms of cultural opportunities at a time when Dallas was still very provincial.

It still has an automobile-centered culture like Los Angeles, and its public transit is decades behind. The oil and gas industry still dominates the business community. This week the citizens of the city took a step backward, and it may take years to recover.