Texas lawmakers have filed at least 20 anti-LGBT proposals this year—likely the most in the history of any state.
It’s the type of onslaught that was widely expected among LGBT advocates, due to backlash over the spread of same-sex marriage.
Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said the group is “well-positioned” to defeat every piece of anti-LGBT legislation. Williams called it the worst session for LGBT rights since 2005—when the state’s marriage amendment passed and a proposal to ban gay foster parents was defeated on the House floor.
But things have changed since then, he said, pointing to the Texas Association of Business’ decision to oppose one well-publicized anti-LGBT proposal—a “religious freedom” amendment that would protect discrimination—prompting its author to back down.
“What’s different about this Legislature than 2005 is that Texas, like most of the nation, has evolved on LGBT issues, and that mainstream voice is emerging and is being heard in the Texas Legislature,” Williams said. “It damages the Texas brand, and I think that’s why you’re seeing so many business voices get involved. … We also know how this process works better than our opposition does.”
Williams wouldn’t elaborate on strategy, but out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) suggested the best one may simply be to run out the clock.
“I feel good about our chances of stopping it, because there are so many major issues out there, that these small hateful and divisive bills will get pushed to the back of the agenda,” Israel said. “We’re going to run out of time, and we will be able to make a statement that there’s no place for that kind of law in the state of Texas.”
If LGBT advocates needs signs of encouragement, they can look north. Oklahoma lawmakers introduced 16 anti-LGBT bills this year, but 15 have already died. Israel noted that many of the anti-LGBT proposals in Texas are similar to those in other states—an indication they’re being shopped by national groups.
“I’m assuming that whatever they’ve seen in Oklahoma, they’ve brought that trash to Texas, and we’re going to clean it up,” Israel said.
Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-LGBT bills—the most of any legislator—said he’s “very confident” one or more will pass.
“Unfortunately, I think it gets couched as ‘anti.’ It’s not about ‘anti.’ It’s about being pro-states’ rights. It’s about being pro-traditional values,” Bell said. “We’re seeing the results of a federal court system that doesn’t seem to be respecting the rights, the sovereignty, of the states and of the people. Because of that, you see the state legislatures pushing back.”
Three of Bell’s bills directly target same-sex marriage, while the other would allow business owners to turn away customers on religious grounds. It’s one of several similar religious freedom proposals, including two constitutional amendments, that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people.
Other bills would bar cities from enacting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and restrict access to restrooms and similar facilities for transgender people.
“This bill really is trying to establish the students’ rights to privacy,” said Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena), who wants to make schools liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms based on how they identify. “How many girls in our high schools are going to be willing to allow some transgender male into their bathroom? Would you allow that for your daughter? I would not allow it for my daughter.”
Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Texas has “the largest number of bills we’ve seen in a single state intended to harm the LGBT community at least in a very long time.”
Warbelow said based on what’s happened in other states, she believes bills targeting same-sex marriage have an “extraordinarily low” chance of passage.
“There is not an appetite among moderate Republicans to pass bills that are so blatantly unconstitutional,” she said.
But Warbelow said she’s concerned about proposals that would undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances.
“As we as a movement have greater success at the municipal level in states that are controlled by more conservative legislatures, it is something that we worry about,” she said.
And while some have characterized the current barrage of legislation across the U.S. as the last gasp of the anti-LGBT movement, Warbelow disagreed.
“I think this is likely to continue for some time,” she said. “I anticipate that this will not be the last year that we see a number of these bills move.”