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Dade Phelan, a Republican state representative from conservative southeast Texas, turned heads in 2019 when he said publicly that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community” in the Legislature, session after session.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said on The Texas Tribune podcast Point of Order, referring to his actions that year to revive language shielding LGBTQ employees from discrimination in a worker protection bill.
A year later, as he tried to wrap up his bid to become the next speaker of the Texas House, those comments carried weight with Democrats deciding which of the Republican candidates to back. Several Democrats lined up behind Phelan, giving him the win, reassured he would avoid controversial social issues that targeted LGBTQ Texans.
But in the final days of Phelan’s first session in charge, he has indicated support for Senate Bill 29, a controversial bill that would force student athletes to play on sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.
Phelan has not commented publicly on the bill and declined comment for this story. But SB 29 was set on Tuesday’s “Major State Calendar,” which is something of a priority list of bills for the day, intended to show the House speaker’s support to the rest of the body. The move fast-tracks its consideration by the House even as the chamber faces a deadline to pass all Senate bills by Tuesday at midnight.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he would sign such a proposal into law and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, made the bill a priority in his chamber.
Democrats and LGBTQ activists have called SB 29 discriminatory against transgender people. The bill’s proponents say the legislation is needed to protect women’s sports, arguing that allowing transgender women or girls to play on the same teams as cisgender women and girls would give them an unfair advantage since they have higher levels of testosterone.
Officials with the University Interscholastic League have told lawmakers they have not been able to identify any cases of transgender athletes disrupting Texas school sports.
“It’s very disappointing to see SB 29 put on the calendar,” said Farmers Branch Democrat Julie Johnson, a member of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus who was among those swayed by Phelan’s comments in 2019. “We thought we’d had very productive conversations about the harmful impacts that discrimination has on the children of Texas.”
“Speaker Phelan has supported that up until this point,” Johnson said. “We felt like we had really made progress in terms of educating and seeking commitments that this kind of discriminatory maneuver wouldn’t be seen on the House floor.”
Andrea Segovia, policy and field coordinator for the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said she was also hopeful when Phelan became speaker because she remembered his comments about not attacking the LGBTQ community.
But this session, Segovia said, she’s been disappointed. Phelan has ducked opportunities to speak out publicly in favor of LGBTQ Texans during a year in which the Legislature has considered many bills that would impact their lives, she said.
“That is a lot to be silent on,” she said. “He still has time to be an ally. We have to have their backs because if we don’t, nobody does. And the speaker has made that clear, that he does not have the backs of trans youth.”
Phelan has been up against political forces on both sides of the aisle when it comes to issues this session related to LGBTQ Texans. In addition to restricting transgender youth in sports, fellow Republicans have pushed Phelan on legislation that would ban gender-confirming health care, like hormone therapy and surgery, for minors.
A House version of that proposal, House Bill 1399, advanced far enough that it nearly made it to the House floor but fell victim to a bill-killing deadline.
SB 29, which has already passed in the upper chamber, is slated to be heard in the House on Tuesday morning. That means Democrats could defeat the bill by running out the clock with procedural tactics on bills that come up before it. But because the legislation is so high on that day’s calendar, Democrats would have to play defense most of the day.
That realization has rubbed some Democrats the wrong way, including state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, a member of the LGBTQ Caucus who faulted Phelan and his leadership team for letting the bill get so far in the legislative process, especially after Republicans have run the table on other priority bills on guns, abortion and elections.
Now Democrats will have to delay to kill the bill even though Israel says some Republicans are also privately against it.
“Why can’t you just do the right thing and say no?” she said.
Pressure from his right
The perception that Phelan was more friendly to the LGBTQ community than other Republicans loomed over his bid for the gavel last year. While the perception may have earned him some Democratic support, it also generated some resistance on his right, with the social conservative group Texas Values declaring it “strongly” opposed Phelan becoming speaker.
“Rep. Phelan used his power last session to advance the LGBT agenda and we have not forgotten,” Texas Values’ president, Jonathan Saenz, said at the time.
One of the Texas GOP’s eight legislative priorities is “Children and Gender Modification,” and the party’s chairman, Allen West, has aggressively lobbied for it, especially in the closing days of the session.
Jill Glover, who chairs the state party’s legislative priorities committee, noted that “Children and Gender Modification” was the third-highest-rated priority when delegates to the Texas GOP convention picked them last year. She also pointed out that 95% of Republican primary voters in 2020 voted for a ballot proposition that expressed support for outlawing such treatments for minors.
“We are very disappointed in Speaker Phelan,” Glover said, adding that Abbott also has not spoken out about the proposal. “I think there’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Marco Roberts, who chairs the statewide Log Cabin Republicans, which represents LGBT conservatives and their allies, said in an interview Monday that “from what we see so far, we don’t have an objection” to how Phelan has navigated the issue. Roberts said it was his personal opinion that Phelan has “kind of delivered … what he said he would do, and that is navigate the different factions of the legislative body.”
Last month, all four chapters of the group across Texas unanimously adopted a policy position in support of SB 29 and its House companion, with a couple caveats.
“While we may have reservations about the bills’ lack of nuance allowing schools latitude to address very unique situations, and about the issues it leaves unresolved that will certainly arise if this bill becomes law, we nonetheless believe this law takes a necessary step in protecting interscholastic athletic activities that are currently segregated by biological sex for the benefit and safety of both girls and boys,” the policy position said.
Bills targeting transgender youth have been too much to stomach for some other red — arguably more conservative — states this year. In March, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem rejected an initial version of a bill passed by that state’s Legislature to restrict participation by transgender girls and women in athletics, sending the proposal back to lawmakers with suggested revisions. In April, another GOP governor, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, vetoed legislation to ban gender-confirming treatment for minors, though state lawmakers subsequently overrode the veto.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association sent a warning shot at states like Texas last month, saying it would only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can compete without discrimination.
LGBTQ advocates have said that just the discussion of these bills has a negative impact on transgender kids. Ninety-four percent of LGBTQ youth said recent politics had negatively impacted their mental health, according to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Young Mental Health.
Angela Hale, senior adviser at Equality Texas, said she has helped families with transgender children meet with Phelan and his staff. While Hale said her group is relieved that other bills targeting transgender Texans have failed to meet legislative deadlines, she is still concerned that Senate Bill 29 has a shot at receiving the House’s approval.
“We are going to do everything we can to defeat the bill,” she said. “I do not want to have to look into the faces of these parents and tell them that their state leaders have failed to protect the most vulnerable children in the state. I remain hopeful that we will be able to defeat all of the anti-trans legislation so that trans children are protected.”
Disclosure: Equality Texas 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.