The day Caomhán Ó Raghallaigh began living as a man in June 2012 — “the day I became myself,” he calls it — was a moment of immense personal liberation.
It was also a political opportunity for Ó Raghallaigh, 57, who was born female. Weeks later, with support from his two children and the man he married 30 years ago, he signed up to work for a state representative in Texas’ overwhelmingly conservative Capitol, where he would brush shoulders with lawmakers at a time when he was beginning hormone therapy.
“I said, ‘I am political capital because I’m going to start transitioning right before session begins, and I want to be in the Capitol where they can see it,’” said Ó Raghallaigh, who is now leading an effort against a set of bills that would criminalize people who use public restrooms not designated for their biological sex.
It was a rare chance for a transgender person to gain visibility in state government. Despite recent political gains for the Texas lesbian, gay and bisexual community — including a pending repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage ban, now in federal appeals court — transgender advocates say they have struggled to gain similar acceptance.
Two bills filed this year by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, would make it a crime to enter a public restroom or locker room not designated for a person’s biological sex at birth. And two more filed by state Rep. Gilbert Peña, R-Pasadena, would permit a bystander to sue a transgender person who used a prohibited bathroom for up to $2,000, in addition to compensation for “mental anguish.” The legislation, Ó Raghallaigh says, would effectively put a bounty on his head for trying to use the bathroom that matches his gender identity.
Social conservatives say the bills, which have been referred to the House State Affairs Committee, are designed to protect people from assault in public restrooms.
“I’ve got four granddaughters, and I’m not interested in anybody that has a question about their sexuality to be stepping in on them,” said state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who co-authored Riddle’s bills. Neither Riddle nor Peña could be reached for comment.
There are roughly 700,000 transgender people in the United States, or less than 1 percent of the population, according to estimates from the Williams Institute, a research center at the UCLA School of Law.
For Flynn and other conservatives, that means transgender advocates are fighting a battle that would benefit only a small group of people over the concerns of a majority.
“I think it’s unbecoming of anyone to want to make others uncomfortable,” Flynn said. “It’s unfortunate that there are those who want to push their agenda that’s contrary to the majority public position.”
The controversy is part of a larger fight over how states should meet their obligation to protect both minority groups and religious liberty. The Florida Legislature is considering a bathroom bill similar to Riddle’s. And in Indiana and Arkansas, public backlash over laws to protect religious freedom forced the states' governors to sign amended versions that included protections for gays and lesbians. Religious freedom proposals that lack such protections — including Senate Joint Resolution 10 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels — have been filed in Texas.
Ó Raghallaigh, who now volunteers for the advocacy group Equality Texas, worked during the 2013 legislative session for former state Rep. Lon Burnam, one of the Legislature’s most reliably liberal Democrats. Burnam, who unsuccessfully filed multiple bills to legalize same-sex marriage, said he wanted to make “a statement on the egalitarian nature” of his office by offering a position to Ó Raghallaigh.
“There was both a cost and a benefit to that statement,” he said. “The cost was cold bigotry against the staffers. There are just some minds that are so closed that it’s hard to imagine that you could open them.”
"Early in the session people would just stop and stare," said Ó Raghallaigh, whose Irish last name is pronounced like O'Rolly. "The most disconcerting things to happen to me were hearing myself called 'it' and 'that.' It was gut-wrenching."
The fight over “bathroom bills” mirrors similar local battles around the state. Cities like Austin and Houston have worked to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances that protect transgender people in public places, including restrooms.
Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
“These people are perverts,” said Steven Hotze, a Houston-based GOP activist who said Riddle filed one of the bathroom bills after he urged her to do so.
“If you’re a man, you go to a man’s bathroom,” he said. “It’s just wrong, for crying out loud. I’ve got granddaughters, and we want to protect them against a bunch of creeps.”
In Houston, Hotze has been waging a war on the city’s “equal rights ordinance” on similar grounds. That dispute, between Mayor Annise Parker and the city’s religious right, has been tied up in court.
Some observers say bathroom bills filed in the Legislature are an effort to prevent cities from enacting similar ordinances.
The legislation can be a back-door way for state government to subvert local control because it “renders those nondiscrimination statutes essentially meaningless,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York City-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“Transgender people are already targets for extraordinary levels of violence, and these types of bills will increase the discrimination that they face,” he said.
A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Public Management and Social Policy found that transgender people experienced verbal harassment and physical assault at “alarming rates” when using public restrooms.
“Bathrooms are really necessary in order to participate in public life and go to work and go to school,” said Jody Herman, the study’s author. “We’re all humans, and we all have to go to the bathroom.”