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While a showdown over Texas bathrooms has been years in the making, debate over the issue came to a head this spring during the state's regular legislative session — and is poised to reignite during the special session that started this week.
During the regular session, several Republican lawmakers pushed measures that would restrict which bathrooms transgender Texans could use — stirring controversy among advocates, the business community and lawmakers.
The most prominent proposal, Senate Bill 6 by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would have regulated bathroom use in government buildings and overridden ordinances in cities like Austin and San Antonio that allow people to use public bathrooms based on their gender identity.
"To avoid a patchwork quilt of conflicting local regulations, Texas should establish a single statewide rule protecting the privacy of women and children,” Abbott said in a June news release announcing that Kolkhorst and state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, would author “privacy protection” legislation during the special session.
“At a minimum, the Legislature should pass a bill that protects the privacy of our children in public schools," Abbott said in the news release.
As Republicans prepare to make another push for a statewide “bathroom bill," we asked Texans to give us their take on the state-vs.-local fight over bathroom regulations. Here’s a look at the legislative debate and how some Texans feel about the proposed measures.
This is the second story in an occasional series exploring how Texans are affected by the fight between state and local officials over regulatory power — and where people like you stand on those issues. What state-vs.-local issue should we tackle next? Vote here.
The state vs. the cities
Over the past few decades, major cities in Texas — including Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth — have proposed or implemented ordinances giving LGBT residents some degree of protection against discrimination in employment, housing and public areas like restaurants and the bathrooms inside them.
State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who authored a bill during the 85th regular session that would have prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, says such protections are vital.
“Those protections are necessary because the discrimination is real,” Bernal said. “The discrimination doesn’t just exist in the minds of people that we may disagree with. It has consistently made its way into legislation and proposed legislation of the highest order at the highest levels of the state.”
Some conservatives, however, argue that statewide regulations are necessary to protect young children ahead of the upcoming school year.
"Confusion over this issue is a major problem that must be solved before children head back to school after this special session has concluded," said Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, a conservative group that supports a bathroom bill. "We look forward to helping parents and children to have the protection in law and the dignity they deserve."
State leaders began weighing in on the so-called bathroom debate when the San Antonio City Council voted in 2013 to adopt a sweeping anti-discrimination law.
Their effort drew fierce opposition from conservatives — including Abbott, then the attorney general running for governor, and then-state Sen. Dan Patrick, who now serves as lieutenant governor.
A year later, a battle erupted in Houston over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) — which would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
After the city council approved HERO in 2014, opponents successfully put the issue on the ballot. On Nov. 3, 2015, Houston voters rejected HERO by over 20 points, giving Patrick momentum to pursue the issue on the statewide level.
Texas representatives and senators clash
Lawmakers have come at the issue from multiple angles this session. Bernal said a family friend, who is a real estate agent and saw instances of discrimination against LGBT Texans, motivated him to file House Bill 192.
“So many people in that community were having a hard time finding places to live,” Bernal said. “There are real people in our community being denied access to housing.”
Bernal wasn’t alone. Other Democratic lawmakers have filed measures in an attempt to protect LGBT Texans.
Republicans however, took a different approach, championing policies that would overturn local ordinances and replace them with a statewide measure to regulate bathroom use in governments buildings and public schools based on “biological sex” — which would keep transgender Texans from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.
“We know it’s going to be a tough fight,” Patrick said at a January Capitol news conference when unveiling SB 6. “But we know we’re on the right side of the issue. We’re on the right side of history. You can mark today as the day Texas is drawing a line in the sand and saying no.”
Other legislation filed during the regular session includes:
- House Bill 2899 by Simmons, which would have banned municipalities and school districts from enacting or enforcing local policies that regulate bathroom use. Unlike SB 6, Simmons’ proposal would not have regulated bathroom use in government buildings and public schools and universities based on “biological sex.”
- Senate Bill 165 by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, which would have created full statewide protections for LGBT Texans and created a penalty for discrimination in both the workplace and public accommodations — such as businesses and parks.
- House Bill 225 by state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, would have made it illegal in Texas to deny someone a job or promotion or to fire someone for being LGBT.
"Most of us Texans already believe that denying someone the opportunity to put food on their table because they are gay or transgender is wrong. Our state law just needs to catch up with us,” Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, said.
Bills meant to expand protections for transgender Texans went nowhere. Of the several measures filed to enact bathroom policies, only SB 6 passed out of a chamber, but that Senate measure died in the House.
A Senate version of a "bathroom bill" was filed Wednesday, and Simmons filed two measures in the House last week.
Transgender Texans, advocates and business leaders weigh in
Dee Ann Kurtzer fears for her transgender sister should a “bathroom bill” pass.
Kurtzer, a 66-year-old from the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, told The Texas Tribune that both her and her sister were born and raised in Texas, but she fears that her sister wouldn’t want to return to Texas if the state goes forward with its effort to pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances. She was among several Texans who said she was against SB 6.
“I am shocked and saddened,” Kurtzer said. “This is not the world I grew up in … A truly sad time in our history.”
Several transgender Texans, including Brandon Beck of San Marcos, said they agreed. Beck said he was against any policy that tried to regulate bathrooms, “especially when it infringes on the rights of people who identify as transgender.”
“You can’t tell by looking at someone if they’re transgender or not, and you can’t make assumptions about someone’s gender based on the way they express their features,” he said.
But some proponents of a bathroom bill say the state needs uniform requirements.
"I think the state must set a standard across the board for all these municipalities to follow so we don't have to keep fighting separate battles [and] putting out separate fires," said Charles Flowers, a senior pastor at the Faith Outreach Center in San Antonio. "Let the state set the standard and let the whole state follow that standard."
Nikki Kelton, a Dripping Springs mother of three boys, said a local school allowed a transgender girl to use the girls' restroom without the input or consent of area parents.
"We'd like the state to come in and offer some consistency from local governments," Kelton said.
A June University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed that this measure is only important to 44 percent of the state’s voters. This comes after pro-business forces, which had for months warned that a bathroom bill could be disastrous for the state's bottom line, stayed neutral on a legislative amendment offered by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, addressing bathroom use in public schools.
A day before the special session began, IBM and other major companies re-upped their opposition to the "bathroom bill" through an internal memo sent to thousands of employees around the world, saying they feared it would discriminate against transgender children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts. IBM sent the letter to employees the same day it dispatched nearly 20 top executives to Texas to lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol.
“I think we have two different philosophies in the two chambers,” said Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas. “I expect the lieutenant governor will be doing everything in his power to try and advance this legislation, and I think House Speaker Joe Straus has indicated that he’s going to focus on other issues.”