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A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Dangerous Rebranding of Discrimination in Texas

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By Ryan M. Leach

On October 20, 2016, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick revealed his list of priorities for the upcoming state legislative session that will commence in January 2017. At the top of the list that he shared with the Dallas Regional Chamber was what Patrick has branded the “Women’s Privacy Act.” In reality, the bill will have zero to do with protecting women and everything to do with discriminating against transgender Texans. The “Women’s Privacy Act” is actually version 2.0 of North Carolina’s House Bill 2—the controversial law that, among other things, overturned local nondiscrimination ordinances and required people to use restrooms corresponding to the gender assigned to them at birth.

The rebranding of this legislation will no doubt help Patrick get it across the congressional finish line and onto governor Greg Abbott’s desk. In the past, similar laws have been called “religious freedom restoration acts” or, more colloquially, “bathroom bills.” This rebranding with a focus on women’s safety is the latest attempt by lawmakers to find a more palatable way to pass discriminatory laws without raising the ire of liberal voters. “It’s not about the transgender issue, it’s not about discrimination, it’s about protecting women,” Patrick said at his Dallas event. But based on Patrick’s description in that speech, the real intent is to create a statewide law that would overturn nondiscrimination ordinances that are already in place in all of the major cities in Texas, save for Houston. Local voters rejected the now-infamous Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in November 2015 by a large margin.

Patrick argues that without a law like the one he is proposing, men will be allowed to enter into restrooms designated for women and sexually harass and assault them. That argument erroneously promotes the falsehood that these criminals would use nondiscrimination ordinances as a defense of their criminal activity. Neither one of these descriptions is true. Existing laws make it illegal to sexually harass or assault anyone, anywhere. Furthermore, the nondiscrimination laws already in place (which have all been enacted with no problems) do not allow people to go into any restroom with the intent to engage in criminal behavior.

It has been proven that laws like the proposed “women’s privacy” or “religious freedom restoration” acts actually do not make women—or men—safer or more protected. What these laws have been shown to do is create political embarrassment and dire economic consequences for the states that have passed them. In 2015, Indiana governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law that got national attention for allowing people to discriminate based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” After a national firestorm that lead to the loss of several major sporting events, conventions, and proposed business expansions in the state, Pence and his legislature tried to re-write and pass a softer version of the law. Unfortunately, the damage to the state’s reputation had already been done.

In April of this year, the North Carolina legislature, in an unprecedented move, convened in special session and passed House Bill 2 through both chambers. Governor Pat McCrory then signed the bill less than 24 hours later. That bill has lead to hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue fleeing the state, a major sporting organization relocating large events, companies halting plans for job expansions, and a contentious gubernatorial race. Late-October polls indicated that Governor McCrory would not be re-elected.

Despite this clear evidence that these laws will only hurt Texas and do nothing to make Texans safer, legislators like Dan Patrick and his ilk are still focused on passing them. They are intentionally bringing the spotlight of discrimination back to Texas.

Proponents of these “protection” laws have seen great success when they focus the attention of the law away from LGBTQ discrimination and onto the protection of women and girls from predators. This argument speaks very clearly, although inaccurately, to the fears of their constituency. By identifying women as the potential victims of sexual assault by transgender individuals, voters unfamiliar with the true impetus for this legislation naturally jump to the conclusion that these laws are not only good, but necessary. Many voters end up having buyer’s remorse once campaigns like this are over and they see the consequences, whether that be the loss of economic development throughout the state or possibly the loss of their own jobs.

Businesses in Texas aren’t fans of this legislation, either. The conservative Texas Association of Businesses has come out against this type of discriminatory legislation. They, along with over 1,200 businesses throughout Texas, have created a coalition called Texas Competes in order to push back on Patrick and his new proposal. Texas Competes is a nonpartisan coalition that is sending the message to Texas leaders that these laws are bad for business and are not welcome in our state. The coalition is made up of some of the largest and smallest businesses throughout the state, and its goal is to reach over 2,000 members by January. Ironically, Patrick’s announcement of the Women’s Privacy Act was made at the Dallas Regional Chamber, an early member of the Texas Competes coalition.

The lieutenant governor can label this offensive, harmful, and discriminatory legislation however he wants, but in the end it’s really just about discrimination. It won’t do anything to help Texans, and it most certainly will harm them.

If you own a business or know of a business that is interested in joining Texas Competes, you can find out more information at texascompetes.org.

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.
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