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Senate committee passes 'bathroom bill' after 10 hours of testimony

For the third time this year, state lawmakers on Friday held a marathon hearing on measures to restrict bathroom use for transgender Texans.

Citizens line up to testify during a July 21, 2017 Senate State Affairs Committee hearing where Senators will take up Senate Bill 3, the "bathroom bill."

*Correction appended

As part of state lawmakers’ second attempt at passing a bathroom bill this year, a panel of Senate lawmakers voted Friday to advance a measure to restrict bathroom use for transgender Texans.

The 8-1 vote came after almost 10 hours of emotional testimony — a large majority in opposition — by transgender Texans, their families and their allies, who pleaded with lawmakers to not endanger an already vulnerable population. For the third time this year, hundreds of people streamed through the halls of the Capitol and waited in line to testify on the divisive issue that has garnered Texas national attention.

The Senate State Affairs Committee signed off on Senate Bill 3, which would restrict bathroom use in government buildings and public schools based on the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate. Such restrictions would keep most transgender men, women and children from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.

The proposal — authored by Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham — would also gut parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms of their choice. Similar proposals have been filed in the House but their fates remain uncertain.

It now goes on to consideration by the full Senate, which is expected to easily approve it and send it to the House next week. Without providing details, Kolkhorst said she would offer up amendments to the bill once it hits the Senate floor. 

The Senate has been working at a breakneck pace to zip through the 20-item agenda for the special session, which started Tuesday and could last as long as 30 days.

“We’re here today because Texas has a tradition of taking care of these issues and not being dictated to by the federal government,” Kolkhorst said at the start of the hearing, referencing since-rescinded guidelines from the Obama administration that accommodated transgender students in public schools.

Kolkhorst pointed to the guidelines and a fight over a now-defunct nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston in explaining that the legislation was meant to find a balance “between the right to declare your gender and the right of a parent to protect your child.”

In pushing for the restrictions, Republicans have argued that trans-inclusive bathroom policies allow sexual predators to exploit them for nefarious reasons.

But Democratic senators at the hearing questioned that point, for which proponents of the restrictions have offered virtually no evidence.

“If the purpose of the bill is to protect women … why do women need this protection only in public school facilities and open-enrollment charter schools facilities like that and not in private business buildings or the state’s public buildings?” state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, asked Kolkhorst.

Kolkhorst responded that she was being respectful of the governor’s position on the issue and legislation he supports. On the private business front, Kolhorst said, lawmakers “tend to allow them their free enterprise and they can do as they wish.”

But Democrats continued to needle her on the issue, questioning the legality of the proposal and its discriminatory effect on transgender people.

Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, argued that Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools, has evolved over the years "to include protections for transgender people as well," citing the interpretations of several federal appellate courts. The issue is likely to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, he argued.

"This is the civil rights issue of our time," Rodríguez said.

Kolkhorst responded that the bills were written to defer to the high court if it ruled on the issue.

This is the Senate committee’s second go-round on the issue after similar measures fizzled out in the regular legislative session because of House Speaker Joe Straushostility to the legislation.

That made the outcome of the hearing easy to predict even before more than 250 people signed up to testify on the proposals. The committee, made up mostly of Republicans, signed off on a similar measure after an overnight March hearing that saw more than 400 people — many of them transgender Texans and their families — sign up to testify.

The bathroom restrictions have been a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate's presiding officer, as part of a legislative crusade that’s been years in the making. During Friday's committee hearing, proponents of the restriction — who were largely outnumbered among witnesses signed up testify — echoed the privacy concerns Patrick has mentioned in pushing for the legislation.

A former teacher who supports the legislation attempted to tie trans-inclusive bathroom policies to claims that schools were being forced to promote “gender confusion.” Another proponent said students were being “brainwashed.” Others said transgender people were demanding “special rights.”

“Intimate spaces should be safe spaces,” one parent told the committee.

Mostly, Friday's testimony echoed the already fierce opposition from a bevy of LGBT advocates, school district superintendents, teacher associations, county and city officials across the state, major corporations, business groups and tourism officials.

“These bills will strip us of basic human rights,” Ashur Ballard, a 15-year-old transgender boy, told the committee, adding that the legislation was “dehumanizing” and treated transgender people “as nothing more than sexual predators.”

Throughout the hearing, opponents of the bathroom restrictions — some choking back tears — implored lawmakers to consider the tragically high rates of suicide among transgender children. Others were more defiant, suggesting to lawmakers that their actions and their rhetoric would create more tragedies.

At one point, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, responded to a witness that "a 40 percent attempted suicide rate is concerning to everybody” but said that Texas lawmakers shouldn’t be blamed.

“I'm hearing that it's somehow our fault that people are committing suicide,” Estes said. “Another explanation could be that people are depressed." 

Those in the hearing room reacted with disbelief before Estes continued: "Hold on everybody. Depression can take many forms and I'm sure it would be depressing to be trying to figure out which gender you are. But I don't accept the fact that what we're doing here is the cause of a 40 percent suicide rate. There's other factors." 

The legislation would make Texas “the only state in the nation that requires discrimination against transgender people,” Catherine Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, told the committee

Others sought to shoot down claims that transgender people could simply amend their birth certificates to comply with the proposals. Several transgender witnesses explained that transgender Texans must go to court to change their names and gender markers and apply to amend their birth certificates — a complicated process that not many can take on.

Transgender individuals who were not born in Texas told lawmakers that they were up against different state policies, some of which made it almost impossible to amend their birth certificates.

Throughout the hearing, opponents of the bills explained that the legislation would mean that transgender men would be required to use the women’s restrooms. At a rally held outside the committee room, two transgender men, both sporting button-up shirts, blazers and facial hair, made that point by holding up signs that read: “Ask me why I will have to use the women’s restroom."

Business and tourism leaders from major cities across the state also came out to testify against the bathroom restrictions, citing potentially staggering economic losses.

Phillip Jones, the CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, told lawmakers Dallas has already lost $40 million just because the Legislature has taken up the bill. He said the city stands to lose over $1 billion in bookings if it passes. Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, said her city would lose thousands of jobs and millions in contracts should the measures pass. Dozens of groups have said they would never host a conference in Texas if the measure is signed into law, she said.  

Tom Noonan of Visit Austin cited similar figures for the capital city and suggested that passing the bill could mean losing the annual South by Southwest festival, an event worth $325 million that he called the city's "Super Bowl."

"How do they sell tickets if they can't get top-tier entertainment to come?" Noonan asked.

During the months-long debate over bathroom restrictions, Kolkhorst and other Republicans have largely brushed off the business community's concerns.

"I put daughters before dollars on this issue," Kolkhorst said Friday morning.

Later in the day, Ginger Chun — the mother a 16-year-old transgender daughter — responded directly to Kolkhorst's comment by holding up a picture of her daughter Marceline while arguing that the restrictions would endanger her safety.

"You've said 'dollars above daughters,'" Chun told Kolkhorst. "But whose daughter? Not mine."

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect first name for Tom Noonan of Visit Austin. The story also spelled Casandra Matej's name wrong.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Texas Legislature