Protesters evicted from Texas Capitol as clash between LGBTQ residents and GOP leaders escalates
Texas state police detained and handcuffed people protesting legislation that would prohibit transgender kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapy. The House separately delayed a vote on Senate Bill 14 until later this week.
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LGBTQ Texans defending transgender kids’ access to transition-related medical treatments that experts consider lifesaving clashed with a state Republican party that opposes all efforts to validate trans identities Tuesday, as state police forcefully booted from the Capitol people protesting a bill that would ban such care.
It was the most dramatic day yet during a legislative session in which Republicans are pushing a slate of bills that could drastically upend how queer people live. It began with LGBTQ Texans, their families and advocates singing outside the House chamber. Hours later, it ended in altercations with law enforcement and scores of protesters being forced from the building after some chanted during legislative proceedings.
Speaker Dade Phelan initially warned that he’d have the House gallery cleared if disruptions persisted — and quickly followed through. State police eventually handcuffed two people.
“Rules matter in the TX House,” Phelan said in a tweet Tuesday evening. “Today’s outbursts in the gallery were a breach of decorum & continued after I warned that such behaviors would not be tolerated. There will always be differing perspectives, but in our chamber, we will debate those differences w/ respect.”
Trans Texans, though, condemned the move.
“It’s a real act of cowardice,” said Landon Richie, a trans man and policy associate with the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “They don’t want to face accountability for their actions. They don’t want to face the people that this legislation is going to harm.”
Richie was among hundreds of LGBTQ advocates who traveled to the Capitol to oppose Senate Bill 14, which would block transgender kids from accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapy — care that medical groups say is critical to a population already facing higher risks of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. Under the bill, trans kids who are already receiving these treatments would have to be “weaned off” and eventually stop taking them. The bill would also ban transition-related surgeries, though they are rarely performed on kids.
SB 14 ended up making little progress Tuesday. Democrats managed to delay the scheduled vote on the bill on a technicality — but Republican leaders quickly vowed to bring the legislation back later this week. The bill is now slated to return to the House floor on Friday.
The moment the House took up the bill Tuesday afternoon, Democratic state Rep. Mary González of Clint called a point of order, a legislative maneuver meant to kill the bill on a technicality. The bill analysis cited a study from the “American College of Pediatrics” when the organization is the “American College of Pediatricians.”
As chamber leaders reviewed whether that mistake violated House rules and should prohibit a vote, some LGBTQ Texans and allies in the gallery above chanted “One, two, three, four, trans folks deserve more” and unrolled banners in support of trans kids.
Shortly after his initial warning, Phelan ordered the gallery cleared. State police quickly began moving people out into a hall. Some Department of Public Safety officers were seen physically restraining one person inside the gallery.
Protesters who left the gallery continued to chant in the lobby outside the chamber on the Capitol’s third floor. A DPS officer with a bullhorn then directed the group to leave the lobby because the lawmakers “cannot continue business.” State police began to usher protesters down the stairs and out of the building.
Several troopers physically restrained and handcuffed Adri Pérez, an organizing director with the Texas Freedom Network, in an altercation that lasted about 10 seconds. They initially faced two misdemeanor charges of disrupting a public meeting and resisting arrest, as well as a second-degree felony charge for assault on a peace officer. The county attorney’s office later rejected the misdemeanors, and a municipal court judge ordered the felony charge be disposed, according to Kristen Dark, a senior public information officer at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. Pérez was also released from custody late Tuesday night.
A second person was charged with assault by contact and was released on-site, according to DPS. It is not clear if their charge has been dropped. The Travis County attorney’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Troopers threatened to make additional arrests if LGBTQ advocates did not continue to make their way out of the state Capitol. DPS officials said the troopers had been assigned to the Capitol to provide law enforcement and security services and that no tasers or pepper spray were deployed by DPS personnel at any time during the clearing.
Earlier Tuesday, troopers also banned Sofia Sepulveda — a TENT board member and staff member of Equality Texas — from entering the Capitol for a year after she unrolled a massive banner that read “Let trans kids grow up” from the second floor of the building’s rotunda. They also gave her a criminal trespass warning. DPS said she violated a law that prohibits visitors from attaching signs or banners to a part of the Capitol.
“I am a proud Texas resident, a Mexican-American, and a transgender woman, and I deserve to have my voice heard just like any other Texan invested in the policies shaping our lives,” Sepulveda said in a press release.
The swift developments came on a day when LGBTQ advocates and parents of trans kids spent hours at the Capitol, hoping to kill a bill they consider to be one of the most consequential for their community.
Supporters of the bill, wearing red shirts with the words “save Texas kids” also sat in the gallery Tuesday. Republican state Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, who is shepherding the bill through the House, said in a tweet before the disruption that their presence “strengthens our resolve to get this done today!”
Bill supporters dispute the science and research behind transition-related medical treatments. They also portray doctors who provide this care as opportunists capitalizing on a “social contagion” and misleading parents into approving treatments for kids who may later regret them.
“[Parents] were given a false dichotomy choice between ‘it’s either this or suicide,’” Oliverson said during the committee hearing for House Bill 1686, his companion bill for SB 14. “The science doesn’t support that. It is unconscionable to me that a licensed health care provider would put a parent in that position.”
SB 14 is a legislative priority for the Republican Party of Texas, whose platform opposes “all efforts to validate transgender identity.” The Senate has already passed a version of the bill, and a majority of state representatives — all of them Republicans — support the measure.
This is the furthest this proposed ban has advanced in the lower chamber, which has often served as a moderating force on legislation targeting how LGBTQ Texans live. Tuesday’s scheduled debate on the bill put to rest the question of whether Phelan, who presides over the House, would intervene on the issue. In the past few months, some LGBTQ advocates had hoped that the Beaumont Republican would put up roadblocks against SB 14 in the lower chamber. In 2019, as a House committee chair, Phelan told The Texas Tribune that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”
Medical experts, trans youth and their families also say transition-related care — which leading medical associations support — isn’t rushed and involves a long and thoughtful evaluation process.
For trans kids and their parents, the stakes are high. If SB 14 becomes law, some say they would have to travel out of Texas or flee the state altogether to ensure their kids can still access the care they need — and these options are not affordable for or available to all families.
“There are so many layers to what it would look like to have to up and move, aside from the pretty significant financial impact to our family,” Rachel Gonzales, the mother of a trans child, told the Tribune last month. “I have three kids who are deeply rooted in the community and our schools and our neighborhood. … These people around us are our chosen family.”
The gallery of the Texas House is open to the public when the chamber is in session. It was last cleared in 2017 on the last day of the legislative session, when protesters dressed in red T-shirts unfurled banners and chanted in opposition to a bill, which was signed into law later that year, that punishes local government entities and college campuses that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials or enforce immigration laws.
Richie, with TENT, said the House Speaker’s order to clear out the gallery was an authoritarian stunt and breaks basic Democratic principles. Removing protesters from the “people’s House” disenfranchises the very Texans that voted the representatives into office, he said.
Richie has testified and shown up to every legislative session since 2015. When LGBTQ Texans show up in large numbers to testify, he has watched committee chairs cut off testimony with hundreds still waiting to speak. The clearing of the gallery on Tuesday, and the subsequent detainment, was yet another effort to silence trans Texans, Richie said.
A few Democrats expressed mixed feelings about Phelan’s move to clear the gallery. Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who has served seven terms in office, said the move to clear the gallery was “unusual” but the speaker’s prerogative.
“Guests have to abide by the House rules but it’s always better when people get to observe if they choose,” he said.
Turner said supporters of transgender rights who were asked to clear the gallery should not be discouraged by Tuesday’s actions.
“Their voices matter, they have friends and allies and we’re going to continue fighting,” he said.
“People have the right to come and observe the people’s business but that does not give them the right to disrupt the proceedings,” said Rep. Julie Johnson, a Farmers Branch Democrat who opposed the bill. “I can certainly understand why emotions are deep and strong. However, you can’t disrupt proceedings in the chamber.”
Still, Johnson said only the protesters causing a disruption should have been removed, not the entire gallery.
The Rev. Erin Walter said lawmakers have become comfortable conducting business without Texans bearing witness.
“They may clear out the gallery but they will never be able to erase the existence of trans youth,” Walter said.
LGBTQ advocacy groups also voiced their defiance — as they wait to fight SB 14 on the House floor another day.
“What happened today shows that we are a force to be reckoned with,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. “They can tear down our banners, they can push our bodies out of the gallery, they can be selective with the rules, but they cannot silence the millions of Texans who support their trans and LGB neighbors.”
Though many, like Rachel and Frank Gonzales, looked deflated late Tuesday. The Dallas parents have been running around to meet with House members and advocate for their daughter Libby since Monday evening. The Gonzales family waited outside the speaker’s office for nearly an hour and a half — but were not given the chance to meet with Phelan.
Now, they are trying to go home and resume their daily life — before the House takes up SB 14 again. State Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the House Calendars Committee, tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the legislation will be back on the floor “later this week.”
“It’s a super messed up day,” Rachel Gonzales said.
Zach Despart and James Barragán contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Equality Texas and the Texas Freedom Network have been financial supporters 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.
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