Rockwall may never go down alongside Stonewall in the annals of LGBT history, but Monday’s City Council meeting in the conservative Dallas suburb arguably marked a turning point for transgender rights in Texas.
First, nearly 100 LGBT activists gathered outside City Hall beforehand, in one of the largest pro-trans rallies in the state’s history.
Then, after several hours of emotional testimony and debate, council members overwhelmingly rejected a proposal from Mayor Jim Pruitt to criminalize some trans people for using restrooms according to their gender identity — and to require businesses to bar them from doing so.
Pruitt’s proposal came in direct response to retailer Target’s recent announcement that it will allow trans employees and customers to access the restrooms and dressing rooms of their choice in its stores. The ordinance would have required people to use multiple-occupancy public facilities according to their “biological sex,” as shown on their birth certificates, with individual and business violators subject to misdemeanor fines of up to $500.
“First, I don’t know why we’re having to have this conversation about public restrooms, but we are because evidently someone decided that we’re going to make a policy to allow men to have unfettered access to women’s restrooms,” Pruitt said during the meeting, before comparing the problem to both jaywalking and “running down the street naked.”
“This is for our children’s security, and frankly I don’t think a young girl should be subjected to seeing another’s genitalia when they are changing alone in a public restroom,” he said.
But other council members argued the ordinance would be unenforceable and constitute unnecessary government intrusion into both the property rights of businesses and the privacy of individuals.
“If you believe that Target is a dangerous place for your child, don’t go,” said David White, whose remarks culminated in a heated exchange with Pruitt. “I think when government starts getting involved in where you pee or poop, it’s God-dang ridiculous.”
Councilman Kevin Fowler jokingly held up his own birth certificate, saying he didn’t believe the ordinance would accomplish its intended goal. And Mayor Pro Tem Scott Milder noted there are already laws on the books against lewd behavior.
“Above all else, God commands us to one love another, especially those who need it most,” Milder said. ”As a Christian, I ask myself a simple question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think he’d vote in favor of this particular ordinance.”
Despite objections from all six of his colleagues, Pruitt ultimately made a motion to approve the ordinance, but after it died without a second, he quickly adjourned the meeting.
The standing-room only crowd, which had been raucous throughout and also filled an overflow area of the lobby, erupted in applause one final time.
For LGBT advocates, the outcome appeared to relieve six months of pent-up frustration since voters overwhelmingly repealed Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). In the unlikeliest of places, they’d finally chalked up a victory over the trans bathroom myth.
Pruitt limited public input to the city’s residents and called on his wife, Rockwall County District Attorney Kenda Culpepper, as a resource witness. But those moves did little to tip the scales of testimony in his favor.
One by one, opponents of the ordinance — including local attorneys, business leaders, psychologists, social workers, parents and trans youth — picked apart the false, fear-mongering slogan that sunk HERO and has become a rallying cry for opponents of nondiscrimination ordinances: “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”
“I feel it is an ordinance in search of a problem that doesn’t exist,” said attorney Sol Villasana, alluding to the fact that there have been no reported incidents of sexual predators pretending to be trans to gain access to women’s restrooms. “Is the Rockwall City Council seriously suggesting that business owners need to inspect a patron’s genitals before they use the restroom?”
James Montgomery, general manager of the Hilton Dallas/Rockwall Lakefront hotel, which he said employs 175 people and pays millions annually in local taxes, pointed to economic backlash over a similar law in North Carolina, saying the ordinance would have “a very, very negative impact on our business.”
Several witnesses warned of the dangers of vigilante enforcement of the ordinance by citizens, pointing to recent news reports about a man who followed a woman into a Frisco restroom to make sure she was female.
Others noted that trans people are at high risk of being assaulted in restrooms, and that most child sexual abuse offenses are committed by perpetrators who know their victims. Some said although they’d voted for Pruitt, they’d never do so again, accusing him of trying to exploit the issue to advance his political career.
Karen Roggenkamp, the parent of a trans teen, threatened to file a federal lawsuit against the city over the ordinance, calling it unconstitutional. And attorney David Smith offered to represent anyone prosecuted under the law at no cost.
“There comes a time when you’ve got to make a stand,” he said.
Before the meeting, at the rally organized by Dallas-based Trans Pride Initiative, participants held signs reading “Bathroom Bills Kill” and “Trans Rights Are Human Rights,” delivered speeches through a bullhorn and marched around the block.
Melissa Ballard, founder of DFW Trans Kids and Families, said she feared if the Rockwall ordinance passed, other North Texas cities would follow suit, including her hometown of Denton, where GOP sheriff’s nominee Tracy Murphree recently threatened violence against trans people in public restrooms.
“I totally believe it’s about discrimination, and I think it’s taken us back to the time of segregation,” Ballard said. “I thought we had advanced somewhat from there, but it doesn’t look like it.”
Adam Richards, president of Rainbow Guard at the University of Texas at Dallas, noted that state Representative Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has already vowed to introduce a statewide anti-trans “bathroom” bill next year, with the blessings of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
“I think the motivating factor, other than obvious hatred and fear, is political opportunism,” Richards said. “This is a statewide effort to demonize trans people for the purposes of ginning up the fundamentalist vote.”