Texas conservatives take on transgender restroom fight
Lawmakers prepare to face the same boycotts and bigotry barbs lobbed at North Carolina
WASHINGTON—The spotlight of the transgender debate is about to shine bright on Texas, where conservative lawmakers are bracing to continue the fight started in North Carolina last year.
The Texas legislature introduced a bill last month requiring all government facilities, including public schools, to keep restrooms, showers, and changing areas separated by biology, not gender identity. The law allows private business owners to make their own policies in accordance with their beliefs.
As lead advocate for the new Texas restroom policy, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says he has the motivation to see this fight to the end—even if it costs him his job. Texas will hold a hearing on the bill—comparable to North Carolina’s now infamous HB2 law—early next month. State lawmakers, including the dominant Republican caucus, remain divided on the issue. Fears of business boycotts and public ridicule could derail a bill Patrick asserts is “common sense.”
“You should never get full of yourself and say ‘I’m going to win this to prove a point,’” Patrick, a Republican, told me. “No, this is the right issue—this is the right thing to do.”
In 2016, North Carolina became a punching bag for LGBT advocates when state lawmakers blocked a City of Charlotte ordinance establishing identity-based restroom rules. The move generated widespread backlash from businesses choosing to boycott the state and LGBT groups smearing lawmakers as bigots. The nationwide fallout possibly cost former Gov. Pat McCrory his reelection bid.
Then the Obama administration weighed in by threatening to pull funding from any public schools that did not make special accommodations for transgender students.
Last year, a federal judge ruled the Obama administration overextended its authority and blocked the rule’s enforcement. The Obama administration sought a partial stay on the ruling, but the Trump administration’s Department of Justice withdrew the request the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions took over the department.
This year, 14 states have pre-filed or introduced bills dealing with who can and cannot access public restrooms, locker rooms, or other gender-specific facilities. But as the largest GOP-controlled state in the country, Texas will influence the national conversation.
Patrick said Texas had to act since some school districts had already changed rules to allow boys and girls to change and shower in the same facilities. He told me the rule change causes confusion for children struggling with gender dysphoria and opens the window for sexual predators to take advantage: “These predators will have carte blanche to get into the ladies’ room.”
The Texas legislature could vote on the restroom bill as early as mid April, but Republicans have yet to coalesce around the legislation. House Speaker Joe Straus, also a Republican, will guide the direction of the legislation since he has final say on which bills come up for a vote.
Straus’ office did not respond to an interview request for this story, but he previously voiced skepticism about passing a bill similar to the one that caused such an uproar in North Carolina.
“I hear from the business community and leaders back home that are very, very concerned that we might be walking into a situation that would be similar to be what North Carolina has experienced,” Straus said in January. “I’m hearing that we should be very, very cautious about that, and I agree with that.”
Houston just hosted the Super Bowl earlier this month, and the NFL is already threatening to bar Texas from hosting future games if the bill becomes law. Last week, the NBA issued a similar warning. The NCAA has yet to say it will punish Texas, but it will have the option to move the Men’s Final Four, scheduled for San Antonio in 2018.
The Texas Association of Business also has criticized the bill, predicting the state will lose $8.5 billion in revenue from tourism, conventions, sports, and entertainment if it passes. But the group made similar predictions in 2015, when Houston overturned a city ordinance requiring all businesses and public buildings to open their restrooms and private changing facilities based on gender identity. The rule’s overwhelming rejection—61-39 percent—didn’t interfere with Super Bowl plans or other events.
The proposed statewide legislation would allow organizations like the NFL and NCAA to set their own restroom policies at Texas convention centers or arenas but prohibit cities from passing local laws regarding transgender accommodation.
Patrick told me he’s confident the legislation will pass out of the heavily Republican Texas Senate and expects Straus to fall in line when it reaches the House. Patrick also cited misinformation about business opposition, claiming most businesses favor the legislation but worry about fallout from supporting it publicly.
“We didn’t start this fight, the fight came to us and if we do nothing they will win,” Patrick said of the transgender debate. “If it costs me an election, so be it. This is so clear. Sometimes you get into a fight and say ‘OK, I really need to think this through’—this is so clear.”
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