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To Austin and Back (and Back and Back)

Reflecting on 20 years of lobbying.

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LOBBY HOBBY: Monica Roberts in the Committee Hearing Room in the State Capitol building.

The Texas Legislature has been in session since January. March is usually the time when we get an idea about which filed bills will be good or bad for the Texas TBLGQ community. We also start making plans to lobby our representatives in Austin.

For those of us in Houston who make that nearly two-hour drive to Austin, it also means stopping by Hruska’s along the way to get a few of their amazing kolaches.  

Trans Texans have been making trips to Austin since 1993 to lobby for and against bills that affect our community, in large part because (unlike Colorado, New Hampshire, and Virginia) Texas does not yet have a trans person sitting in the Legislature repping their district and our community.

Under the auspices of the Trans Education Network of Texas (TENT), trans Texans will be gathering in Austin on March 7 to exercise our constitutional right to petition our lawmakers for laws that can make our lives better.

While this year’s gathering will mark the 20th anniversary of my first lobbying trip to Austin, I will be wandering the halls of our state capitol building with a heavy heart. Last month, we lost one of our trailblazing leaders in Sarah DePalma, who valiantly battled Parkinson’s disease for over a decade. Sarah founded and was the executive director of It’s Time Texas, which, by the time I’d begun lobbying in 1999, had become the Texas Gender Advocacy Information Network (TGAIN) and later TENT.  

She was one of our radio voices on KPFT-FM and one of my activist mentors. I loved her take-no-crap mentality and her willingness to fight hard for us, until she started feeling the early effects of Parkinson’s in 2006.  

This Aggie alum tirelessly worked to rep our community in the ’90s and early 2000s. She made sure that Texas state legislators and equality organizations knew we existed and weren’t going away. DePalma helped organize those lobby trips, and she conducted the training when we arrived early in Austin to get ready to hit the Pink Dome the next day as informed citizen advocates.   

When I participated in my first TGAIN Lobby Day in 1999, we had a total of 20 trans people, with the bulk of us being from Houston. There were also a few from Austin and nearby San Antonio joining us to augment our numbers.

What we lacked in numbers, we made up for with hard work and determination. Using then-Rep. Debra Danburg’s office as our home base, we split up into teams with a goal of hitting all 31 Senate offices and all 150 House offices. By the end of the day we were tired, but we had achieved our goal.  

One of my fondest memories of that maiden Lobby Day experience was working with Phyllis Frye and seeing how it was done as we visited the office of Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas).   

I went back for the 2001 session, and made a return trip to the ATX in April to testify at a committee hearing in favor of the TGAIN name-change bill that would streamline the name-change process for trans Texans.   

Yep, we’re still trying to get that bill passed.

A few months after my committee testimony, I moved to Kentucky in September 2001 and became a Texan-in-exile until returning home in May 2010. It wasn’t until the 2015 session that I returned to Austin to partici-pate in an Equality Texas-sponsored Trans Lobby Day.  

Unlike my 1999 and 2001 Lobby Day forays (in which we had a split legislative control situation with the Dems controlling the House and the GOP the Senate), control of the entire legislature—thanks to the 2003 Delay-mandering and voter-suppression laws—was now solidly in Republican hands.   

I was there to help kill four unjust bills—HB 2081, 2082, 1747, and 1748—sponsored by Reps. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) and Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena) that messed with trans Texans.  Two of Riddle’s bills (2081 and 2082) were aimed at trans adults, and Pena’s twin bills (1747 and 1748) were aimed at Texas trans schoolkids.

Those bills eventually died, and Riddle and Pena paid a political price for messing with Texas trans peeps by losing their seats in the 2016 election cycle.    

The 2017 session was definitely an all-hands-on-deck affair after the shocking election of Trump and the determination of lieutenant governor Dan Patrick to oppress Texas trans people with the introduction of SB 6. I made a total of eight trips to Austin that year to help kill that bill.

I was proud to be part of the record trans contingent of over 100 people and allies from across the state. I waited 10 hours to testify against SB 6 during a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing, and made a subsequent trip to let members of the Texas House State Affairs Committee know that SB 6 must die and that we wanted no hate in the Lone Star State.

One of my 2017 ATX lobby trips was on Easter weekend, to go on the offensive and lobby in favor of HB 121, a pro-TBLGQ bill written by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio). If it had become law, it would have added sexual-orientation and gender-identity language to an existing Texas housing nondiscrimi-nation law.  

And what will I be doing on my 2019 lobbying trips to Austin? In addition to combatting some bad bills and hopefully helping to pass some good ones, I will have the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meet new fellow trans people and allies from around the state.

This year’s ATX trips will give me a chance to help pass down some history, knowledge, and tips to the rookie citizen-lobbyists in the same position I was in 20 years ago—calming their nerves and letting them know they can do this.   

It’ll also be another opportunity to drink some Slurpees while I’m in the ATX.   

This article appears in the March 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Monica Roberts

Monica Roberts, a native Houstonian, is the founding editor of the GLAAD award-winning blog TransGriot. Her ongoing mission is to educate people on the lives of transgender people and fight for everyone’s human rights.

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