The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature will convene January 8 for its 140-day biennial session that will determine how the state and its inhabitants will be governed for the next two years.
This means that LGBTQ Texans will once again be on edge, waiting to see if 2019 will be dominated by anti-LGBTQ legislation, or if the blue wave of 2018 had a dampening effect on the conservative appetite for LGBTQ blood.
In the wake of last year’s Beto-mania, anti-LGBTQ statewide Republicans like lieutenant governor Dan Patrick held onto their seats by smaller margins than usual. Although the GOP will still rule the capitol roost from a numbers standpoint, they lost seats in both the House and Senate.
“The political map changed in Texas on Election Day,” says Rebecca Robertson, chief programs officer for Equality Texas. “Candidates up and down the ballot who ran on pro-equality messages had unprecedented success. Openly LGBTQ candidates blazed new paths all over the Lone Star State, running in more than thirty competitive races and winning thirteen key legislative and judicial races. There are now five openly LGBTQ women in the Texas House: incumbents Mary Gonzalez and Celia Israel, and newcomers Jessica Gonzalez, Julie Johnson, and Erin Zwiener.”
In the 2017 session, Equality Texas and other groups helped defeat more than two dozen anti-LGBTQ bills. However, lawmakers did pass a “religious freedom” measure that allows religiously affiliated adoption and foster-care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Even if those agencies receive taxpayer funds, they are now free to turn away qualified LGBTQ parents or even discriminate against LGBTQ children in their care.
The defeat of most discriminatory legislation in the 2017 session, which was dominated by anti-transgender “bathroom bills,” was due in part to former House speaker Joe Straus, who expended considerable political capital to keep Texas from going the way of North Carolina.
But with Straus retiring, and before the outcome of the November 2018 midterm elections was known, things seemed bleak for the LGBTQ community last year. Although things now look less bleak due to the blue wave, as well as the likely election of Straus lieutenant Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) as speaker, there is still reason to be concerned.
During a legislative preview in November, sponsored by the Texas Tribune, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers seemed focused primarily on school finance reform. That system, which has not been modified since the early 1990s, is starting to buckle under the pressure of increased property values as wealthier districts are being forced to send millions of dollars back to Austin for redistribution across the state. Little was mentioned at the preview about resurrecting the more controversial aspects of the 2017 session, so for now it appears that the legislators might actually be focused on governing the state rather than dividing it. But Robertson remains cautious.
“I wouldn’t take their silence as evidence that 2019 will be easy,” she said. “I think it’s very likely that we’ll be fighting off efforts to repeal local non-discrimination ordinances and pass more religious-refusal bills.”
Although the session does not officially begin until January 8, bill filing commenced in November.
“We’ve already had a religious-refusal bill filed that would prevent employers and professional associations from disciplining counselors who discriminate on the basis of their personal religious views, and I expect we’ll see many more religious-refusal bills filed in the coming weeks, Robertson said. “But we’re also excited to see bills that would update the state’s civil-rights laws to include LGBTQ people in protections against discrimination at work, in access to housing, and at the corner store. We’ll be following these bills closely.”
Groups like Equality Texas plan on being there every step of the way, blocking bad bills and promoting pro-LGBTQ equality bills—just as they do in every session.
“We can’t do our work without the help of Texans who care about equality,” Robertson said, adding that the easiest way to get involved is by visiting www.equalitytexas.org and signing up for action alerts.
This article appears in the January 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.