Less than two months after failing to pass a “bathroom bill” restricting access for transgender people, Texas lawmakers are trying again amid fierce opposition from Democrats, civil rights groups and leading businesses.
A special legislative session will start on Tuesday in Austin. Among the main items on the agenda is a measure to limit transgender access to restrooms and changing facilities. The issue is the latest battleground in the conflict in Texas between moderate, pragmatic Republicans and far-right, ideologically driven conservatives emboldened by the rise of Donald Trump.
That clash is embodied by antipathy between two of the state’s most important politicians: Joe Straus, speaker of the House and a relative moderate, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Christian conservative who was the state chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Passing a bathroom bill is a top priority for Patrick. In a sign of the pressure being placed on moderates as Texas politics lurches even farther rightwards, the GOP in Straus’s home county last week passed a resolution calling for him to be replaced as speaker, in protest at his lack of enthusiasm for a bathroom bill.
A reported conversation between Straus and a state senator friendly to Patrick was recounted in the New Yorker, which quoted Straus as saying he was “disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
Critics contend that a bathroom bill will stigmatize an already vulnerable part of the population and fear that children will seek to avoid using school toilets by skipping meals and drinks.
Supporters argue, without evidence, that a bathroom bill is necessary to safeguard privacy and will improve public safety by offering protection against sexual predators.
In March, the Texas senate passed a bill obliging people in public buildings such as schools and universities to use restrooms and changing facilities that comport with their “biological sex” as written on birth certificates. The House approved a modified version applying only to public schools. But Patrick and the Senate rejected that measure as insufficient.
After the 140-day regular legislative session, Republican governor Greg Abbott called a special session to address unfinished business. There are 20 items, including the bathroom bill and anti-abortion measures.
Among the options lawmakers will consider is a statewide move to supersede existing local non-discrimination ordinances in cities such as Austin and Dallas. This would stop entities such as school districts from following or creating policies that accommodate transgender people.
Abbott has argued for uniform rules across the state. Critics charge that Republicans are seeking to impose unwanted policies on Democratic-leaning big cities such as Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
“These anti-LGBTQ bills are part of a larger, overarching strategy to roll back the rights of LGBTQ Texans,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice-president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said on a conference call with reporters.
“Ever since marriage equality became the law of the land after the [US supreme court’s 2015] decision in the Obergefell case, legislatures around the country have been introducing blatantly discriminatory bills at state level in order to curtail or roll back the rights of our community. These bills come in many forms but the latest form they have taken is discrimination against transgender people.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said on the call that proponents of bathroom bills were “trying to score political points with lies and scare tactics”.
In Texas, such a bill would be popular with the core constituency of many of the politicians who back it: staunch suburban and rural conservatives who turn out in large numbers for Republican primary elections.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released last month found that 44% of all respondents consider a bathroom bill to be “important” and 47% “not important”. But among those who identify as Tea Party supporters, 70% said it is important, a figure that grew as the issue was discussed extensively this year.
Texas led a legal challenge to federal guidelines introduced by the Obama administration last year that told schools to provide facilities for transgender students that align with their gender identity. The Trump administration rescinded the guidance in February, boosting bathroom bill advocates.
However, moderates such as Straus fear economic boycotts of the kind that rippled through North Carolina when it introduced a bathroom bill in 2016.
IBM has taken out full-page advertisements opposing the bill in Texas newspapers and plans to send senior employees to Austin to lobby against it, the Dallas Morning News reported. Other technology companies with a significant presence in Texas, including Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, have also criticized the plan.