(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas Republicans Put Trans, Nonbinary Teachers in the Crosshairs

Trans educators speak out after the Texas GOP adopted a platform plank to ban them from the classroom.


On April 19, Governor Greg Abbott spoke at the Young Conservatives of Texas gala at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, voicing an opinion that would later become enshrined in the Texas Republican Party platform and spreading misinformation spawned by a far-right influencer whose posts have repeatedly incited threats against the subjects of her ire.

“Just up the street from where we are right now is Lewisville,” Abbott said. “They had a high school teacher who was a man who would go to school dressed as a woman in a dress, high heels, and makeup. Now, what do you think is going through the mind of the students in that classroom? Are they focusing on the subject this person is trying to teach? What I do know are these two things. This person, a man, dressing as a woman in a public high school in the State of Texas is trying to normalize the concept that this type of behavior is okay. This type of behavior is not okay, and this is the type of behavior that we want to make sure we stop in the State of Texas.”

Abbott was referring to Rachmad Tjachyadi, a Lewisville ISD public school teacher who resigned from his job in March amid social media outrage after a video circulated of him wearing a pink dress. Chaya Raichik, a right-wing social media personality known online as LibsOfTikTok, highlighted it in an inflammatory post that falsely claimed Tjachyadi has taught while “dressed in full drag and has a fetish for wearing women’s clothing.” Abbott promoted a post on X that featured the video shared by LibsOfTikTok.

In reality, Tjachyadi, a queer cisgender man, did not regularly dress as a woman or in drag while teaching. He was wearing a dress as a costume for a dress-up Spirit Day, something he had previously done without controversy. The school district’s investigation found Tjachyadi had not violated any of its policies. Tjachyadi confirmed these details to the Texas Observer but declined further comment. 

Nevertheless, Abbott made Tjachyadi out to be the prime example of why Texas needs to restrict transgender and gender-nonconforming people from serving as teachers—a talking point Abbott has linked to his push for school privatization.

“If you had a child in that classroom, would you want to be able to say, ‘Hey, wait a second. I’m not gonna send my child to that classroom’?” Abbott said. “Do you think you would have that right? You don’t in the State of Texas, because that right would mean that you would have school choice.”

A cartoon lawmaker standing behind a Lone Star podium tears a Progressive Pride flag in half.
A cartoon lawmaker standing behind a Lone Star podium tears a pride flag. (Drue Wagner for the Texas Observer)

After I originally reported Abbott’s comments at the gala on social media, several Republicans endorsed the governor’s call. “Perverts should not be teachers,” wrote Briscoe Cain, a GOP state representative from Deer Park, on X. In June, such a policy became part of the 2024 state GOP party platform: “We support the passage of legislation prohibiting school staff from engaging in sexualized drag activities, crossdressing, or transgenderism,” it reads.

These proposals come as Texas politicians are pushing back against a Biden administration effort to enhance Title IX civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ students. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his peers in other states are finding some success fighting this initiative in the courts

It’s unclear exactly how Texas GOP leaders might enact a ban on transgender and gender-nonconforming teachers. Abbott and the party did not respond to questions for this story. Public schools already have dress codes for teachers that require appropriate and undistracting attire, but the Observer could not identify any that address gender expression. 

One possible model is the transphobic dress code recently imposed at the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) that requires employees to dress “in a manner consistent with their biological gender.” Such a policy could violate a 2020 Supreme Court decision, which found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination based on a worker’s sexual orientation or gender identity. As of mid-June, the TDA dress code has gone unchallenged in court.

“I don’t believe there is a way to pass legislation on this issue that wouldn’t be blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional,” said Ash Hall, a strategist on LGBTQ+ Rights for the Texas ACLU. “They can try to pass legislation on this, but it would become a court battle pretty immediately, and I think it would go about as well for them as the drag ban has, which is to say, not well.”

What is clear is that some teachers’ lives would be upended should such legislation or policies be enacted. 

Danica Surman has been working as a middle social studies teacher in Galveston County for eight years. Now, she’s in the crosshairs of the state Republican Party. “I had an idea I was trans since I was in middle school, but I didn’t actually start transitioning until later life,” she told the Observer. “I didn’t actually come out at work until recently. This will be my second year as myself.”

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Surman was dismayed to hear about Abbott’s comments. Regardless, she remains determined to be herself. “I’m not going to dress in a way that changes who I am,” she said. “Rather than causing me to change how I dress, because I can’t change who I am any more than Abbott can … it would cause me to have to look at leaving Texas.”

Surman doesn’t see her identity or gender expression as a distraction to her students. 

“I don’t think it’s very relevant for my job,” Surman said. “It helps to be empathetic to kids who might be dealing with feeling ostracized … but for the nuts and bolts of teaching, it really doesn’t have any relevance. I’m most interested in how do I get kids to care about history more, and how do I teach more effectively.”

Surman said her students generally perform above average and she hasn’t gotten a negative evaluation. “Trans teachers can be good teachers or bad teachers. They’re just teachers like anyone else.”

April Ortiz has been a math professor at a state university in Uvalde for 15 years. Her focus is preparing future primary school teachers. But now, she’s got other things to worry about.

“I came out as trans in March of 2023 through an article that I wrote for the Texas Observer,” Ortiz said. “Things have been okay for me locally. But, of course, I’m scared about what the state is possibly doing in the future.”

Ortiz is a highly involved member of her community. She used to write a column about math for a local newspaper. She helped start a program for kids to interact with professionals in the fields of math and science, and she’s active in her church. 

“I had a lot of concerns about coming out as trans,” Ortiz said. “It was something that I didn’t do lightly. I felt like I just needed to for my own survival.”

In the relatively conservative community of Uvalde, Ortiz has been pleasantly surprised by the reactions she’s received. “I’ve dealt with people seeming uncomfortable a little bit, but I have not gotten any hate outright,” Ortiz said. “I came out at work the same time I did publicly. I told my students: ‘This is a math class. There’s not much you really need to know about Dr. Ortiz, but I’m going to look different from now on. Here’s my name, here’s my pronouns, please respect them.’ And that was it. It brought home to me that this is not really a problem that the people have. It seems like a very artificial moral panic.”

Ortiz is not opposed to dress codes on principle. “Certainly a trans person could dress inappropriately,” Ortiz said. “But so could a cisgender person. Wearing a skirt is not a turn-on for me. It’s just my clothes.”

Even if the recent proposals by Abbott and the GOP never become law, the rhetoric has an impact, teachers say.

“A law doesn’t even have to be passed to have a stifling effect,” Surman said. “The proposal itself can make people afraid because they could be targeted or lose their job—which is fine if it’s about something you’re saying or doing, but it’s another thing when it’s about who you are.”