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The Fight for Equal Rights Continues at the 87th Texas Legislature

Decisions made at the 2021 session could greatly impact the LGBTQ community.

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Rep. Jessica Gonzalez (l) has filed a statewide nondiscrimination bill to protect LGBTQ Texans, while Rep. Steve Toth has filed a bill targeting trans children.

A lot is at stake for the LGBTQ community in the 87th Texas Legislative Session that begins on January 12. Lawmakers will convene at the State Capitol for 140 days to discuss dozens of bills that could impact the LGBTQ community, for better or worse.  

The session runs through May 31, and the deadline for lawmakers to file a bill is March 12. Republicans still hold the Texas House and Senate majorities following the November election, and officials have already started filing anti-LGBTQ bills. However, pro-equality legislators are ready to play offense in 2021 by proposing their own LGBTQ-affirming policies. 

“Every legislative session, the rights of LGBTQ Texans are on the line,” says Angela Hale, a senior advisor at Equality Texas. “It is our responsibility to ensure that LGBTQ Texans are treated fairly and that we defeat discriminatory legislation.”

To prepare for this year’s legislative session, Equality Texas has been monitoring other state legislative sessions to spot the trends in political attacks against the LGBTQ community. The organization discovered that opponents of equality are using various tactics—from deceptive religious exemptions to fear-mongering bathroom bills—to deny basic civil rights. This time around, Equality Texas anticipates having to fight legislation that targets transgender youth.

These attacks have already begun. Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) has filed a bill that would subject medical and mental-health professionals to charges of child abuse if they help a trans child medically transition.  

Trans people, including trans children, rely on informative healthcare as part of their transition, Equality Texas reports. Major medical associations consider transition care for trans people to be safe, medically necessary, and life-saving. These findings are backed by a recent study published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  

Hale says Toth’s bill places trans children in danger. Anti-trans attacks during the 2017 Texas Legislative session led to The Trevor Project’s suicide hotline receiving an increased number of calls by young LGBTQ Texans. She fears the same, or even worse, will happen should Toth’s bill move forward.

“Parents and children should not have to debate their personal health care on the Texas House and Senate floor,” Hale says. “This is people’s private lives, and trans children just want to be treated like everybody else, without government interference. That’s why we fight.”

Toth’s bill is not the only anti-LGBTQ legislation that will be reviewed in Austin this year. Equality Texas suspects it will also be combatting bills that bar trans athletes from joining teams that reflect their gender identity. In 2020, lawmakers in 18 other states introduced 25 similar bills. The nonprofit also anticipates a fight over bills that would give people a license to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.

Due to Texas’ conservative majority, many anti-LGBTQ bills could become law this year. Fortunately, the new Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, which was founded in 2019 and has 23 committed members, has vowed to take a stand for LGBTQ equality in Texas.

Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Jessica Gonzalez (D-Dallas) partnered with Equality Texas to file a statewide nondiscrimination bill that would protect LGBTQ Texans in employment, housing, and public accommodations. She recently discussed her plan at a Pride Across Texas event, hosted by the Texas LGBTQ Chambers of Commerce.  

“Most people don’t know that LGBTQ people can legally be fired from their jobs [simply because of their sexual or gender identity]. They can be denied housing because of who they love, and be denied services for the same reason,” Gonzalez told the Chambers of Commerce. “That’s just unfair, and most Texans don’t believe in that.” 

More than 60 percent of Texans don’t believe in discrimination against LGBTQ people, according to a 2019 analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute. “It’s time that our laws reflect what Texans actually believe,” Gonzalez says. “That’s why I’ve decided to make it my top priority to pass a [statewide nondiscrimination bill] for the first time in Texas history.”

Gonzalez’s bill already has bipartisan support. Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), who helped kill a bathroom bill in 2017, has agreed to co-author the proposal. 

“A comprehensive nondiscrimination bill will protect trans children and the LGBTQ community and ensure that they will be treated equally, like everybody else,” Hale says. “We don’t want special rights; we want equal rights under the law.”

Despite widespread support for LGBTQ people across the state, Texas has had a rocky relationship with comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation. 

In 2014, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (in addition to more than a dozen other characteristics), was approved by City Council. Then anti-LGBTQ organizations used misleading anti-trans attacks to convince voters to repeal the ordinance in 2015. Following this repeal, Texas began to see a rise in anti-trans attacks such as the bathroom bills filed in the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions. 

Even so, amid great adversity, advocates, activists, and organizations like Equality Texas are continuing their fight for LGBTQ rights. They are supported at the federal level by the incoming Biden administration, which vowed to pass the Equality Act—with its nationwide LGBTQ protections across virtually every area of daily life—within its first 100 days.  

Texans can stay up to date with the 87th Texas Legislative Session by signing up for Equality Texas’ email alerts. The nonprofit will notify people when it needs individuals who have faced discrimination and are willing to share their story to testify at critical stages in this year’s legislative session.

“We’re always looking for Texans to tell their story,” Hale adds. “It takes people from all over the state standing up, providing testimony, and participating in the process to educate both the legislators and the public about the issues we face in our lives that they may not be aware of.”

Below is a list of several LGBTQ-specific bills that have been filed so far:

Bad Bills:  

 HB 68 would expand the definition of child abuse, prohibiting medical and mental-health professionals from helping transgender youth medically transition. This bill was proposed by Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands). 

HB 369 would classify the transmission and exposure to communicable diseases, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as an aggravated assault. This bill was proposed by Tom Craddick (R-Midland). 

HB 610 could scrap nondiscrimination ordinances if an individual with an occupational license goes to court and claims that a local nondiscrimination ordinance infringes on their ability to run their business. The bill was proposed by Valoree Swanson (R-Spring).

Good Bills:

 HB 73 would ban the “gay/trans panic defense” by prohibiting the use of a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the reason for the defendant’s violent behavior. This bill was proposed by Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin).

HB 407 and HB 560 would ban anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy by prohibiting mental-health providers from attempting to change a child’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. These bills were proposed by Ana Hernandez (D-Houston) and Celia Israel (D-Austin), respectively. 

HB 493 would allow opt-in HIV testing in certain routine medical screenings, regardless of whether an HIV test was part of a primary diagnosis. A healthcare provider would provide each person who receives a positive test result with information on available HIV health services, as well as referrals to community support programs. This bill was proposed by Gene Wu (D-Houston).

For more information, check out equalitytexas.org.

This article appears in the January 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Lillian Hoang

Lillian Hoang is a staff reporter for OutSmart Magazine. She graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in journalism and minor in Asian American studies. She works as a College of Education communication assistant and hopes to become an editor-in-chief.

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