During his first few weeks in office, President Joe Biden has reversed the ban on transgender people in the military and directed U.S. government agencies operating abroad to protect the human rights of LGBTQ people worldwide.
But LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers in Texas face a much tougher battle in the Republican-controlled Legislature affirming LGBTQ people’s rights and protecting them from discrimination.
This legislative session, some legislators are trying to pass bills that would prohibit conversion therapy and discrimination against LGBTQ Texans. They’re also trying to prevent laws that would ban transgender girls and women from joining single-sex sports teams in public schools and universities or laws that could keep doctors from providing care affirming childrens’ gender identity.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights law prevents employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Biden has said he will prioritize The Equality Act, which would go a step further and prohibit similar discrimination in housing, public education and other places.
State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, said the fate of congressional attempts at expanding federal protections is uncertain. While the Supreme Court has ruled on employment nondiscrimination, she said the state Legislature still needs to put laws on the books that protect LGBT Texans from more forms of discrimination.
She plans to introduce a bill that would provide protections for LGBTQ Texans from discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing. The bill will boost the economy by attracting more businesses to Texas if the state affords its LGBTQ employees equal protections, she said.
“We’re facing a global pandemic, and aside from passing nondiscrimination legislation because it’s the right thing to do, there is good policy there,” said González, the vice chair of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus. “There’s solid research behind it that shows … our state will reap economic benefits for being inclusive and embracing diversity.”
A statewide nondiscrimination law would lead to billions in both annual state and local government revenues by 2025 and hundreds of thousands of jobs by 2045, according to a 2020 study from The Perryman Group, an economic research firm in Waco.
Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a statewide coalition of businesses promoting equality, said the nondiscrimination bill will also impact tourism. She said that a lack of discrimination protections could also dissuade people from visiting the state whose lawmakers four years ago spent a regular and special legislative session debating the failed “bathroom bill.” That legislation sought to limit which public restrooms transgender Texans can use.
“When we come out of the pandemic, … every state and every city is going to be fiercely competing to win tourism back, which has taken one of the biggest hits in terms of industries in this pandemic,” Shortall said. “It’s every city, every state for itself fighting for this business … and knowing that we’re going to end this practice of targeting LGBTQ people and trans people in particular would make Texas cities and Texas as a state more competitive for tourism.”
Outlook in the Texas House
Some Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates acknowledge that the bills they’re pushing may not become law in the Republican-dominated state Legislature after Democrats underperformed their own expectations in November and made no gains in the House.
Democrats also hoped the bipartisanship of having at least two Republicans sign on to the bill would increase its odds, but they lost one of their GOP allies in former state Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place, who was ousted in the 2020 election.
“Despite the outcome of the elections in November and Democrats hoping to gain some seats to hopefully make it a little bit easier for us, our priority legislation hasn’t changed as far as the people who are supporting this bill,” González said.
If Democrats can’t change the law, they hope to at least have hearings for bills that would amplify the voices of LGBTQ Texans to gather support and educate others in the state.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, filed House Bill 560, which would penalize state-licensed counselors and therapists who engage in conversion therapy with children. She has filed a similar version of the bill every session since her first in 2015, and the bill was debated in a public hearing for the first time during the last session.