Erica Nix looks like a dance instructor straight out of an ‘80s workout video as she faces the small crowd and waits for the music to begin. Decked out in a purple crop top, checkered bicycle shorts, and fuschia platform sneakers, she blossoms against the backdrop of the Texas State Capitol interior. Her eyes flit between the dozen or so dancers in front of her and a portable speaker nearby. Just behind Nix is a winding staircase; this will be her dance floor. When the glittery vocals of trans-pop artist p1nkstar sound from the speaker, it’s showtime.
Let the dancing commence.
“Five, six, seven, eight… and wave your arms, add some flair!” Nix hollers as she bounces up and down the steps, leading the group into a series of jazz hands and ballet twirls. The dancers are a colorful assortment of trans activists and allies, brought together by the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT). They follow the wild movements to the best of their ability, giggling sheepishly as their flailing arms brush against one another. Someone’s tennis shoes coax a small squeak from the terrazzo floors.
“Come on!” Nix yells, swaying her hips. “Yes! Walk with me! Up, down, one two!”
Dubbed “Dance Dance Trans-Inclusion” by TENT organizers, the action is a novel way to resist anti-trans legislation at the Capitol. The dance was originally planned for the rotunda, but was moved last-minute to outside the Senate Chamber doors, with the hope that the sound of the event may penetrate the endless corridors and ornate dorms of the state building. A family of tourists hovers to the right of the staircase. They look bewildered.
For TENT and other trans-rights activists and allies, the dance party offers an alternative way to resist, and find a moment of respite, during the legislative special session that began this month. After working to defeat 13 anti-trans bills in the regular session, advocates are now facing 16 more this summer. It means continued strenuous battle against one of Governor Greg Abbott’s pet priorities, says Andrea Segovia, TENT’s policy and field coordinator. Abbott indicated this week that he would soon announce a plan to ban gender-affirming health care for trans kids, which failed to pass during regular session.
“This is a space that, when someone walks in, they are traumatized, they are triggered, they may not even be able to walk inside,” says Segovia. “But, if you’re dancing, if you’re laughing, if you’re having fun, then hopefully this can make the next month of very tough conversations happening about you, about your body, a little easier.”
TENT has been leading trans-advocacy in the state, since its inception in 2011, as the largest trans-led and trans-focused organization in Texas—and one of only a handful in the nation. Segovia doesn’t know how many hearings she has been to at the State Capitol in the past couple of years. “Maybe over a hundred,” she shakes her head, “Trans people have been under attack by the state since 2017.” Certainly trans people have never been fully included historically, she adds, but the sudden onslaught of anti-trans legislation since 2017 is hard to miss. Their work has felt especially urgent as of late.
After the first short dance, Nix jumps from the steps to join the group. “Wasn’t that fun?” she asks. By then, other activists have joined the fray, setting their signs aside and limbering up to join the next dance.
The group uses the time between dances to give updates on Senate Bills 2 and 32, both of which would prevent trans students from competing in sports “designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex” as stated on the student’s official birth certificate or other government records.
Inside, Lubbock state Senator Charles Perry, a Republican and the sponsor of Senate Bill 2, is certain that “full teams of transgenders [sic] will replace women’s teams” and that “in short order, women’s sports will be eliminated.” A steady flow of parents, teachers, and athletes make their way to the microphone to testify in response. Sunny, an 8-year-old transgender girl, tells her representatives that she has been on girl’s sports teams and dance teams since she was 4—“and nobody cared that I was trans. Kids my age don’t care about that stuff, they care about what’s in your heart.” (Unfortunately for advocates and witnesses who testified against the bills, both eventually passed the Senate. But legislation is stalled in the House, where Democrats left for Washington, D.C. last week to break quorum.)
Back on the makeshift dance floor, the second round of dancing begins, to another p1nkstar song. It’s enough to draw an audience of two state troopers. One wags a water bottle at the dancers as he confers with his partner, both scrunch their faces into an expression that appears to combine confusion and annoyance. The dancers are mid-twirl and laughing at each other. Nestled in between the towering chamber doors and never-ending corridors of unsmiling white portraits, their elation feels illicit.
“We often say that this is the people’s house,” Segovia explains as the dancers wrap up. She nods towards the glaring security guards. “Trans people and other people in this fight deserve to feel joy in this space.”
In these brief moments, in a place where histories of trans exclusion can feel carved into columns, or bronzed and bolted into the door-hinges, the countdown to the dance is a call for the chambers to nurture something other than the same feelings of defeat.