- Sarah Flood-Baumann
That’s what LGBT rights advocates have nicknamed Texas’ 85th Legislative Session. In the legislature’s brief, five-month stretch, conservative state lawmakers pitched no less than two dozen different bills aimed at restricting the rights of LGBT Texans.
“This is the largest number of specifically anti-LGBT bills that we’ve ever faced,” said Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, who’s been advocating for LGBT rights at the capitol for over a decade. “It’s an all-out assault on LGBT people.” This barrage of anti-LGBT legislation has even forced lawmakers to return to the capitol in July for a special session.
Texas certainly isn’t alone. Already, state lawmakers have introduced over 130 anti-LGBT bills across the country in 2017. But, according to the Human Rights Campaign, Texas leads the nation in the sheer number of bills proposed this year to discriminate against LGBT people.
At the top of the list is the so-called “bathroom bill,” a measure that would prohibit transgender people from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity. It was a scorched-earth response to trans kids who felt uncomfortable using public school bathrooms that didn't match the gender they identify with.
During a late-night senate hearing, a 10-year-old trans girl named Rose told senators about a time she used the men's room at school and a boy had climbed up and peeked over her stall. "It did not feel right,” she said. “If I ever go into a boy's room again, it will bring up the same memory again and again.”
Perhaps thanks to Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick’s grandstanding about the dangers of allowing “grown men” in bathrooms with “little girls,” the number of conservatives who care about the bill increased 13 percentage points from February to June (and 31 points among Tea Party Republicans). To Patrick’s indignation, however, the senate bill stalled on the House floor in late May — and House Speaker John Strauss announced he would only allow his chamber to pass a watered-down version of the Senate's anti-trans bill. There were more important things to wrap up before the session's May 29th end, Strauss said. “It’s absurd that bathroom bills have taken on greater urgency than fixing our school finance system," he told reporters at a press conference.
In response, Patrick vowed to hold must-pass legislation hostage in the Senate until the Texas House budged on bathroom bills (and a property tax reform bill). The session ended in a stalemate. But since Patrick hadn't let the Senate vote on mandatory bills, ones that must pass to keep critical state agencies open, Gov. Greg Abbott had to step in.
On June 6, Abbott called a 30-day-long special session, meaning lawmakers would have to return to Austin on July 18 and hash out unresolved issues of Abbott’s choosing. Including bathroom rules for trans people. “At a minimum, we need a law that protects the privacy of our children in our public schools," Abbott said after announcing the session, a clear reference to public school bathrooms.
We already know there will be at least two bills filed in the coming special session to reignite the bathroom fight, both penned by House Republican Ron Simmons. Last week, Simmons told the Dallas Morning News he’ll file one bill to bar trans students from using the public school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, and another more sweeping bill to extend the ban to all public buildings and other places of “public accommodation” — like coffee shops, movie theaters and hotels.
Equality Texas’ Smith says this streamlined focus on anti-LGBT bills, both in Texas and the country, is a direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage.
“Lawmakers don’t want to recognize the law of the land,” said Smith. “So instead they are going to try and thwart the rights of LGBT community to limit other aspects in their lives.”
And it’s not just in bathrooms. In the recent regular session, Texas lawmakers proposed dozens of bills to maim LGBT rights, like legislation that would require school counselors to out LGBT students to their parents or bills to allow county clerks and other public officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples. One, which allows private religion-based adoption agencies to refuse service to LGBT parents because of their religious beliefs, was even signed into law.
It’s this tactic — using religious beliefs to legalize discrimination — that threatens to accelerate anti-LGBT bills to reach the governor’s desk. Smith said she doesn't see "religious refusal" bills slowing down anytime soon.
“Ultimately, I think there will have to be a national case regarding a religious refusal law,” he said. “The Supreme Court will have to decide the constitutionality of this kind of discrimination.”