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During his first few weeks in office, President Joe Biden has reversed the ban on transgender people in the military and directed U.S. government agencies operating abroad to protect the human rights of LGBTQ people worldwide.
But LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers in Texas face a much tougher battle in the Republican-controlled Legislature affirming LGBTQ people’s rights and protecting them from discrimination.
This legislative session, some legislators are trying to pass bills that would prohibit conversion therapy and discrimination against LGBTQ Texans. They’re also trying to prevent laws that would ban transgender girls and women from joining single-sex sports teams in public schools and universities or laws that could keep doctors from providing care affirming childrens’ gender identity.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights law prevents employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Biden has said he will prioritize The Equality Act, which would go a step further and prohibit similar discrimination in housing, public education and other places.
State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, said the fate of congressional attempts at expanding federal protections is uncertain. While the Supreme Court has ruled on employment nondiscrimination, she said the state Legislature still needs to put laws on the books that protect LGBT Texans from more forms of discrimination.
She plans to introduce a bill that would provide protections for LGBTQ Texans from discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing. The bill will boost the economy by attracting more businesses to Texas if the state affords its LGBTQ employees equal protections, she said.
“We're facing a global pandemic, and aside from passing nondiscrimination legislation because it’s the right thing to do, there is good policy there,” said González, the vice chair of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus. “There's solid research behind it that shows ... our state will reap economic benefits for being inclusive and embracing diversity.”
A statewide nondiscrimination law would lead to billions in both annual state and local government revenues by 2025 and hundreds of thousands of jobs by 2045, according to a 2020 study from The Perryman Group, an economic research firm in Waco.
Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a statewide coalition of businesses promoting equality, said the nondiscrimination bill will also impact tourism. She said that a lack of discrimination protections could also dissuade people from visiting the state whose lawmakers four years ago spent a regular and special legislative session debating the failed “bathroom bill.” That legislation sought to limit which public restrooms transgender Texans can use.
“When we come out of the pandemic, … every state and every city is going to be fiercely competing to win tourism back, which has taken one of the biggest hits in terms of industries in this pandemic,” Shortall said. “It's every city, every state for itself fighting for this business ... and knowing that we're going to end this practice of targeting LGBTQ people and trans people in particular would make Texas cities and Texas as a state more competitive for tourism.”
Outlook in the Texas House
Some Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates acknowledge that the bills they’re pushing may not become law in the Republican-dominated state Legislature after Democrats underperformed their own expectations in November and made no gains in the House.
Democrats also hoped the bipartisanship of having at least two Republicans sign on to the bill would increase its odds, but they lost one of their GOP allies in former state Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place, who was ousted in the 2020 election.
“Despite the outcome of the elections in November and Democrats hoping to gain some seats to hopefully make it a little bit easier for us, our priority legislation hasn't changed as far as the people who are supporting this bill,” González said.
If Democrats can’t change the law, they hope to at least have hearings for bills that would amplify the voices of LGBTQ Texans to gather support and educate others in the state.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, filed House Bill 560, which would penalize state-licensed counselors and therapists who engage in conversion therapy with children. She has filed a similar version of the bill every session since her first in 2015, and the bill was debated in a public hearing for the first time during the last session.
“The Legislature is built not to be a very productive body. But if you can have a robust hearing and have heartfelt testimony, that really resonates. That in it of itself is a victory,” said Israel, a founding member of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus. “It can be a reminder to the opposition that when you promote this kind of stuff, you're promoting hatred and division, and that's not the Texas that we all want.”
While previous legislative sessions included heated disputes over bills that targeted LGBTQ people, members of the caucus are hopeful about future progress made in the Texas House under the leadership of the new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.
During the 2019 session, the Texas Senate advanced legislation that would have restricted how local governments regulate private businesses. The upper chamber drew ire from LGBTQ advocates after taking out a measure that would have explicitly kept local nondiscrimination ordinances in place.
Phelan, the former chair of the House Committee on State Affairs, notably advanced a House bill with the protections for LGBTQ workers added back, but the bill died after the two chambers couldn’t reconcile the differences.
Phelan said during an interview in 2019 with Evan Smith, CEO of the Texas Tribune, that he wanted to send a message to the House that nondiscrimination language is important.
“I’m kind of done talking about bashing on the gay community,” Phelan said during the interview. “It’s completely unacceptable.”
Challenges to LGBTQ protections
Even if pro-LGBTQ bills get a hearing and pass the Texas House, they will likely face challenges in Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate. Patrick, whose spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, previously championed the battle in 2017 to pass the “bathroom bill.”
While trying to get bills over the finish line, LGBTQ advocates and caucus members are also turning their efforts to trying to prevent lawmakers from passing legislation that they say is discriminatory. One of the bills includes House Bill 1458 by State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, which would ban transgender women from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women at public K-12 schools and universities.
One study shows that hormones do not have a significant performance advantage for transgender women in distance running, and there has been no significant recorded dominance of transgender athletes in women’s sports.
Dan Quinn, spokesperson for the nonpartisan Texas Freedom Network, said he hopes the Legislature provides protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but he also is preparing to fight bills that would promote discrimination against transgender Texans.
“After the year we've all gone through with COVID and all the other challenges we face, it seems unconscionable that we would be going into a session which we have to be concerned that lawmakers are going to be passing bills that promote discrimination against anybody, whether they're LGBTQ or not,” Quinn said.
Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Clarification, Feb. 15, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify state Rep. Jessica González's comments about recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. A previous version said she was concerned about previous Supreme Court decisions being overturned, but she said that while the court has ruled on employment nondiscrimination, she said more state laws protecting LGBTQ Texans need to be on the books.