‘Bathroom Bills’ Get Second Life in Special Session

Three different proposals to discriminate against transgender Texans await lawmakers in what critics have dubbed the “Session of Oppression.”

Frank Gonzales testifies against HB 2899 at 1:45 a.m. on Thursday morning with his transgender daughter Libby, 7, asleep in his arms.

In late May, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick monkey-wrenched the 85th Texas Legislature as lawmakers entered the final days of the regular session, threatening to hold must-pass legislation hostage unless he got his way on a couple of red-meat conservative items.

Likely the most controversial Patrick priority that failed to clear the regular session is what’s been clumsily dubbed a “bathroom bill,” a shifting, potty-policing measure aimed at blocking transgender Texans from using facilities that correspond with their gender identity. When Patrick followed through on his threat, Governor Greg Abbott effectively rewarded him by adding bathroom bill legislation to his 20-point list of special session priorities.

As we enter Round 2 of the Texas bathroom fight this week, it’s not yet clear which version of the bathroom bill Patrick and his supporters favor and plan to push in the special session. Civil rights groups, however, point to a trio of bills that Republican lawmakers have already filed that illustrate the range of discrimination on the docket.

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“These bills are not about bathrooms and safety and they never have been,” Stephanie Martinez, an activist with the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told reporters on a recent conference call. “They’re meant to limit people from living a full, open and public life.” Martinez, a transgender woman, said any of the bathroom bills already added to the special session docket would “severely limit our ability to just function in society.”

Transgender Texans already face harassment and discrimination on a regular basis. One recent survey of more than 1,000 trans Texans found that 9 percent were physically denied restroom access within the past year, even without a looming bathroom bill. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they try to avoid using public restrooms altogether. A third said they limit how much they eat and drink outside the home so they won’t have to use a public restroom in the first place.

Two of the bathroom bills already filed for the special session were authored by state Representative Ron Simmons, a Carrollton Republican who carried the water for similar legislation that died in the Texas House during the regular session. Simmons’ House Bill 46 would block cities, school districts, and state colleges and universities from adopting nondiscrimination rules that ensure transgender people access to “multiple-occupancy restrooms, showers, or changing facilities” that match their gender identity. Simmons’ HB 50 limits that ban on trans-inclusive policies to only school districts.

A third proposal on file, SB23 by Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, takes the napalm-the-jungle approach by blocking any local nondiscrimination protections that go beyond state or federal law — effectively gutting policies passed in cities like San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin that prohibit discrimination based on everything from sexual orientation and gender identity to military status. In late 2015, religious-right conservatives, with an assist from Patrick, killed Houston’s trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance with a rallying cry that would eventually seep into state politics: “No men in women’s restrooms.”

This summer’s special session follows what’s already been a bruising year for activists fighting for equal rights in Texas, who dubbed the 85th the “Session of Oppression” as conservative lawmakers pushed no fewer than two dozen bills aimed at curtailing LGBT rights. Last month, California banned state-funded travel to Texas after Abbott signed a law allowing faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to reject certain parents, like same-sex couples, on religious grounds.

While Patrick and his supporters continue their push for a bathroom bill, one big question is which version of it stands a chance of clearing the Texas House. Speaker Joe Straus has been increasingly vocal in his opposition to any bathroom bill, most recently telling the New Yorker, “I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”

Businesses big and small remain loudly opposed to any bathroom bill, saying state-sanctioned discrimination will hurt the Texas economy. On Monday, CEOs and top execs from more than a dozen Texas-based corporations, like American Airlines and AT&T, sent a letter to state leaders decrying any bathroom legislation that would “seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investments and jobs.” As the Texas Tribune reports, on Monday IBM sent more than 20 of the company’s top executives to Texas to lobby against any bathroom bill.

Meanwhile, LGBT rights groups vow to continue swarming the Capitol throughout the special session. They’re angry that the state’s still pursuing anti-trans legislation, even after activists successfully blocked it in the regular session.

“Even holding the special session is scaring children and parents all over Texas,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, recently told reporters on a conference call. “It’s unconscionable. It is disgraceful.” 

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 11:18 am CST
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