Gay rights advocates fighting several uphill battles in the Legislature may have found an unusual ally on at least one front in a prominent Republican.
Corsicana state Rep. Byron Cook, one of the original Straus Republicans and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, has endorsed a bill that would clear the way for same-sex partners to both be listed as the adoptive parents of a child on Texas birth certificates.
Cook, who has an adopted child, said he supports the bill not as an endorsement of gay rights, but out of concern for the well-being of adopted children. But gay rights advocates and Democrats alike are celebrating his backing of the measure.
“This bill is not about gay rights issues. This is about children,” Cook told The Texas Tribune. “It really is a different issue from the way some of the folks have tried to frame it.”
Under current law, supplemental birth certificates used by adoptive parents only allow a man and woman to be listed as father and mother of a child. For same-sex couples who adopt, this means only one parent can be listed.
It is estimated that 9,191 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according the Williams Institute, a nonpartisan think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The fact of the matter is there are same-sex couples that adopt children, so we have to recognize the situation these children find themselves in with respect to the birth certificates,” Cook said, adding that the issue needed to be framed beyond a “gay rights issue” in the Legislature.
Cook first spoke positively about the bill during a March 18 committee hearing. Julie Drenner, a legislative analyst with the conservative group Texas Values, told the committee that removing the gender-specific language from the supplemental birth certificates would “open the door” to individuals in polygamous relationships being listed as adoptive parents of a child.
Cook told Drenner that he “struggled” with her opposition to the measure because of the high rates of adoption among same-sex couples at a time when Texas does not have enough parents willing to adopt. Oftentimes, same-sex couples adopt children with special needs that the “traditional community” is unwilling to adopt, Cook said.
“That’s a terrible indictment on one group to be real honest with you,” Cook told Drenner during the hearing.
In response to a comment made by Drenner that the Department of State Health Services would have to modify 20 forms if Anchia’s bill was passed, Cook replied, “So what?”
In an interview with the Tribune, Drenner said she was surprised by Cook’s support for the birth certificate measure, and thought his comments deviated from her testimony about the wider interpretation of who could be an adoptive parent under Anchia’s bill.
“His comments that there all these children out there that the traditional families weren’t adopting, I didn’t think was really in line,” Drenner said, adding that she expects Cook to call a committee vote on the bill.
For Anchia and gay rights advocates, Cook’s words during the hearing were cause for celebration. After the hearing, Anchia said he believed Cook had been “moved” by testimony from adopted children of same-sex couples.
“Chairman Cook is a big believer in adoption in the state of Texas and making sure that we get adopted children into loving family situations, and I think that's what spoke to him about the hearing,” Anchia said.
Anchia has filed the measure for four consecutive legislative sessions, but it has died in committee the last three sessions. Under Cook’s stewardship in the state affairs committee, it could have a better chance this time of making it onto the House floor for a vote.
Daniel Williams, a legislative director for Equality Texas, described Cook as a statesman “who is absolutely committed to passing laws that help the state of Texas.” The birth certificate measure is a key component of the group's legislative agenda to benefit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
This is not the first time Cook has drawn attention for his position on contentious issues before the committee. In 2011, when it was considering a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities — cities that forbid local peace officers from enforcing federal immigration laws — Cook voiced his concerns about the bill and said he wanted to understand how it might affect young people for whom he said he has a “soft spot.”
Cook's support for the birth certificate measure could put him at odds with members of his party who may be unwilling to support legislation that benefits same-sex couples.
At a time when Republicans are increasingly concerned about picking up primary challengers if they don’t stick to the Tea Party’s far-right ideological line, Cook, who was first elected in 2002, said conservatives should be focused on passing good policy rather than trying to get re-elected.
“We need to try to do what’s right for our state and for our constituents,” Cook said. “It’s an injustice to look at it from the perspective of what keeps me in office, what keeps me from having an opponent.”