Parents of Transgender Children Fight Bathroom Bills

Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during Monday's lobby day at the Texas Capitol.
John Wright
Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during Monday's lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

Mitchel Roth hasn’t been involved in politics since he protested the Vietnam War.

But Roth, an author and criminology professor at Sam Houston State University, spent Monday at the Texas Capitol lobbying against bills that would require transgender people to use public restrooms according to their birth sex.

Roth traveled to Austin on behalf of his 10-year-old son, who’d become suicidal before his parents realized last year that he was transgender.

“There’s so much wrong in this state,” Roth said. “We’re like No. 50 in education and insurance and everything, and they’re worried about guns in holsters and someone going to the wrong bathroom. That’s what pisses me off. It’s hateful, non-necessary legislation.”

Roth was one of several parents with young transgender children who joined dozens of other LGBT advocates at the lobby day organized by Transgender Education Network of Texas.

For Roth and other parents, the prime target was House Bill 2801, by Rep. Gilbert Peña (R-Pasadena), which would make school districts liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms according to the gender with which they identify.

HB 2801 was scheduled for a hearing two weeks ago, but Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chair of the House Committee on State Affairs, abruptly asked Peña to rewrite it.

Peña, who previously told the Observer that HB 2801 is designed to protect students’ privacy, has declined to discuss the measure further.

“I have no idea what’s going on with it,” Peña said Monday. “You’ll have to ask the committee chair.”

Cook said Peña hasn’t offered a substitute bill or asked for another hearing to be scheduled.

“This looks like something that’s not likely to be addressed this session,” Cook said, adding that the liability for school districts presented “a huge issue.”

Another proposal, House Bill 1748 by Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Spring), would make it a misdemeanor for transgender people to use public restrooms according to how they identify and a felony for business owners to allow them to do so.

Riddle, whose bill was also referred to Cook’s committee, has repeatedly declined to discuss it with the Observer. She recently told Breitbart Texas that HB 1748 is “simple common sense” because “men go to the men’s room and women go to the women’s room.”

“It protects the privacy and safety of women and children,” Riddle told Breitbart. “It is sad we even need a bill like this in today’s society.”

Lisa Strnad - transgender lobby day
Trans woman Kerri Strnad, left, prepares to visit lawmakers’ offices with her wife, Lisa Strnad, during Monday’s lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said it’s too soon to declare anti-trans legislation dead, noting the deadline for committees to report bills to the House is May 11.

“Amendments are still a risk, but I think events like this are what’s keeping those bills down,” Williams said before a press conference to kick off the lobby day on the north steps of the Capitol. “There are 35 days left in the session. At this point, every hour is a victory.”

Monday’s event was the third trans lobby day this year. That’s unprecedented, and Williams said anti-trans legislation has had a galvanizing effect for people who support transgender rights.

“Before this session, I think 90 percent of lawmakers could have said they’ve never had a conversation with a transgender person,” Williams said. “I don’t think any of them can say that now.”

On the eve of same-sex marriage arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, the lobby day also served as a timely reminder that the LGBT movement is about more than marriage, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality. In addition to fighting negative bills, participants advocated for statewide nondiscrimination laws.

“In states like Texas, a gay couple could get married in the morning and go back to work and tell their co-workers and get fired,” said Keisling, who traveled to Austin for the event. “Marriage was never the most important or only part of our agenda.”

Keisling said similar anti-trans bills have been introduced in eight states, but none has passed.

“It really is almost exactly the same bill in every state,” she said. “It’s based on, clearly, some radical think tank putting these things forward, because there’s no problem in Texas with people using the bathroom. While every legislature has a few knuckleheads, the leadership in most of these state legislatures has understood what sort of boneheaded policy it is.”

Keisling accompanied Roth and other parents of transgender children as they visited legislative offices throughout the afternoon.

Ann Elder, of Friendswood, said her son transitioned from female to male at 7. He was allowed to use a nurse’s bathroom at school but stopped when other students started asking him why.

“He just stopped drinking at school and stopped going to the bathroom,” Elder said. “He comes home dehydrated, starved, because he’s so afraid to use the bathroom.”

During a visit to the office of Rep. Mark Keough (R-The Woodlands), co-author of an anti-trans bill, legislative director Kurt Jones told Elder and other parents that Keough supports the measures because he’s pastor of a conservative Christian church.

“His worldview is obviously going to come from that,” Jones said.

Elder responded that her son is a foster child whom she and her husband adopted because they were unable to have kids.

“My child came to me from God,” Elder told Jones. “Tell [Keough] that God sometimes gives people challenges.”

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Published at 4:46 pm CST