by John Wright
AUSTIN — It’s the best of times and worst of times for the LGBT community at the Texas Legislature.
At least 20 anti-LGBT proposals were introduced before the March 13 filing deadline, believed to be the most in the history of any state. But more pro-LGBT bills were also filed this year than ever before in Texas.
Unfortunately, given the makeup of the Legislature, the anti-LGBT bills have a better chance of becoming law. But as the biennial session headed into its final 60 days, Equality Texas legislative director Daniel Williams remained optimistic.
“I think the opponents of equality are seeing the world wake up to the reality of the discrimination faced by the LGBT community, and are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of history, and that’s a very uncomfortable place to be, and I think they’re responding out of that sense of discomfort,” Williams said. “There’s every reason to believe we will be successful in defeating all of the bad legislation if we can keep up the level of pressure that we have put on lawmakers to date, and we have put a lot of pressure on lawmakers to date.”
Equality Texas got a boost recently when the Texas Association of Business—the state’s powerful chamber of commerce—came out against two measures that would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the state Constitution, prompting one of the authors to back down.
The amendments are among several religious-freedom proposals that would allow businesses—and in some cases government employees—to refuse service to LGBT people based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
Other bills target same-sex marriage, seek to bar cities from adopting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and aim to restrict access to restrooms and similar facilities for transgender people.
Williams said he’s particularly concerned about the anti-trans measures. Proposals from Rep. Gilbert Peña, R-Pasadena, would make schools and businesses liable for damages if they allow trans people to use restrooms and similar facilities according to how they identify, effectively placing a bounty on the heads of violators. Bills from Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, would also make it a crime for trans people to use restrooms according to how they identify.
“We are spending a lot of time and energy working to educate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the issues faced by the transgender community,” Williams said. “Everybody’s got to use the bathroom. It doesn’t get much more fundamental than that.”
A group of 25 trans activists from Houston descended on the Capitol in March for an impromptu lobby day to fight the proposals from Peña and Riddle. Equality Texas also staged two more formal advocacy days, for people of faith and LGBT families.
Meanwhile, anti-LGBT groups rallied for the second time in as many months against same-sex marriage, with hundreds gathering on the south steps to hear from Alabama chief justice Roy Moore.
Moore, who recently ordered probate judges in Alabama not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, encouraged Texas lawmakers to resist rulings from federal courts declaring the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional.
Days later, a House committee held a hearing on a bill that would bar Texas officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, or recognizing their unions, regardless of court decisions. More than a dozen witnesses, mostly against the bill, gave nearly two hours of testimony. The proposal from Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), was tabled, and Bell said he planned to introduce a substitute that addresses fiscal concerns.
A week earlier, the same committee held the session’s first hearing on a pro-LGBT bill— a proposal to allow same-sex couples to have both names on the birth certificates of adopted children. That hearing provided a ray of hope when the Republican chair of the committee, Rep. Byron Cook, smacked down a witness from the anti-LGBT group Texas Values.
Williams said pro-LGBT lawmakers have introduced “the most comprehensive set of nondiscrimination bills ever filed in the Texas Legislature,” covering housing, education, public accommodations, employment, state contracting, and insurance.
But he said the birth certificate measure, along with a proposal that would extend protections for age-appropriate dating to gay youth, have the best chance of passage.
“They’re both clear structural inequities in the statutes that both negatively affect children,” he said.
Now that the bill-filing deadline has passed, Williams said the LGBT community has entered a “danger zone” before deadlines in May for legislation to be heard on the floor of the House and Senate.
The goal is to run out the clock on anti-LGBT legislation, but there’s always the risk that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will call a special session.
Equality Texas is sponsoring three more lobby days in April and May, including two geared toward transgender issues.
“It’s not just about beating back the bad stuff this session,” Williams said. “It’s about laying the groundwork that’s going to allow us to pass the good stuff in the future.”
The deadline to register for Freedom Advocacy Day on April 13—the group’s main lobby day—is April 6. For more info, visit equalitytexas.org and click on the “Event Calendar” tab.