LGBTQ Texans decry Capitol arrests after protests against bill banning puberty blockers and hormone therapy for kids
Senate Bill 14, which spurred demonstrations earlier this week, is again scheduled for House debate Friday. Trans Texans consider it one of this year’s most consequential bills.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Adri Pérez joined hundreds of people at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday to protest Senate Bill 14, which would ban transgender kids from receiving puberty blockers and hormone treatment, only to leave in handcuffs.
In the days since state police arrested two people and banned another from the Capitol, trans Texans and their allies have lambasted House Speaker Dade Phelan’s order to clear the public from the chamber gallery and state police’s use of force.
While Phelan and other Republicans maintain that his order was a proper reaction to SB 14 protesters chanting and unfurling banners while lawmakers met, LGBTQ advocates say the speaker and law enforcement overreacted — and are squelching Texans’ rights to witness the public legislative process.
“Loving families, community members, and advocates were there peacefully protesting an extremist ban on transgender healthcare that puts the lives of our youth at risk,” Texas Freedom Network Executive Director Val Benavidez said in a statement. “None of them deserved criminalization or brutality.”
While Pérez was initially accused of breaking three laws, prosecutors and a judge quickly rejected state police’s attempts to criminally charge them. Meanwhile, three days after what immediately became this legislative session’s most dramatic confrontations, the House is again set to debate SB 14. The House never voted on the bill due to a successful procedural challenge from Democrats that delayed the vote temporarily. The rescheduled vote Friday could attract more protests, despite — or maybe because of — the force with which state police responded earlier this week.
SB 14 is among several bills lawmakers are pushing that could dramatically alter how LGBTQ Texans — and particularly trans children — live their lives. It would ban the kinds of transition-related care for kids that medical groups and trans people say reduces risks of depression and suicide in a stigmatized population.
The bill is a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Republican Party of Texas, whose platform opposes any efforts to recognize transgender identities. It and the other bills targeting LGBTQ people come during a session in which some conservative lawmakers, emboldened by the growing acceptance of Christian nationalism on the right, are pursuing bills they believe can create a national model for infusing Christianity into the public sphere.
Phelan’s order to clear the House gallery this week and Texas Department of Public Safety officers’ actions toward demonstrators come at a time when protests and arrests are breaking out in state capitols around the country as state legislatures debate controversial legislation regarding transgender rights and access to guns.
Last month in Montana, riot police cleared the House gallery and arrested seven people who had been verbally protesting the treatment of Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker and Democrat who was punished for the way she spoke out against a bill that sought to ban transition care for transgender minors. And in Tennessee, two Democratic lawmakers were expelled from the state Legislature for participating in a protest calling for more gun control on the House floor. Both were reinstated soon after.
At the Texas Capitol, Pérez and Evan Wienck, another protester, were both charged after House officers cleared the gallery in response to SB 14 protesters chanting “One, two, three, four, trans folks deserve more” and unrolling banners in support of trans kids.
Outside the gallery, the protests continued. Pérez, an organizing director with the Texas Freedom Network, was restrained and handcuffed by multiple troopers and later charged with two misdemeanor counts 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 released from custody late Tuesday night.
On Friday morning, Attorney General Ken Paxton incorrectly blamed Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza for dropping the charges, and in a statement called him a "rogue District Attorney" whose "contempt for the law risks encouraging more violent acts, especially against law enforcement officers and legislators."
Paxton encouraged the Legislature to "act swiftly to rein in rogue prosecutors like Mr. Garza to protect the public." He also urged the House to "demonstrate that they will not be intimidated and immediately pass Senate Bill 14."
Garza's office immediately responded to the accusation, clarifying that a judge had rejected the felony charge, and his office was not involved.
“This is yet another example of state leadership commenting on a criminal case in Travis County and getting the facts wrong," the statement read.
Meanwhile, Pérez has maintained that the altercation with the trooper and their subsequent arrest was unprovoked.
“In this moment the most upsetting thing is that in the video being widely circulated, it clearly shows me doing absolutely nothing wrong,” Pérez said in a tweet. “Yet, I was still thrown to the ground, pinned by four men, mistreated, and detained… all to be let go 8 hours later. Free and still harmed.”
Wienck was charged with assault by contact and was released on-site, according to DPS. It is not clear if the charge has been dropped. The Travis County attorney’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Pérez and Wienck could not be reached for comment for this story.
Also on Tuesday, DPS banned another person, Sofia Sepulveda, a Transgender Education Network of Texas board member and staff member of Equality Texas, from 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. DPS also gave her a criminal trespass warning.
On Thursday, LGBTQ advocacy groups hosted a press conference to speak out against the way people at the Capitol were treated by DPS troopers earlier in the week on Tuesday.
“One of the biggest moments for a young person taking that first step in their democratic participation, which we hope becomes a lifetime habit, is a visit to the Capitol,” said Stephanie Gómez, political director of MOVE Texas, a nonprofit advocacy group for youth. “How many of those young people [who] were here earlier this week learned that when they come to speak and participate in their democracy, which is their right, that they will be met with state violence?”
In a statement, 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 their personnel at any time during the clearing.
Phelan did not respond to a request for comment on how potential protests would be handled Friday in the chamber, but he defended his decision to clear the gallery Tuesday, saying on Twitter that the “outbursts in the gallery were a breach of decorum & continued after I warned that such behaviors would not be tolerated.”
Six Travis County lawmakers — all Democrats — tweeted a statement this week asking constituents who don’t feel safe at the Capitol to contact their offices so they can find ways “to alleviate your concerns.”
“We are aware of the serious complaints and allegations regarding the treatment of our constituents yesterday by DPS in the Capitol,” they said. “We are gathering facts in pursuit of securing and maintaining our Capitol as a safe and welcoming public space.”
Democratic U.S. Reps. Greg Casar and Veronica Escobar each tweeted statements supporting Pérez.
“Adri is part of a long tradition of courageous activists who lead with love, challenge the powerful, and shape this nation for the better, regardless of the cost,” Casar wrote.
Escobar said Pérez’s arrest was jarring and unsettling — a sentiment echoed by many LGBTQ advocates trying to fend off SB 14, which they see as one of the most destructive bills this session.
“The last three days I’ve been sitting with the question of how responsible is it of me as a leader to tell trans people to come into this building to fight, while the lives of our families and our youth are being ripped apart in the same building,” Emmett Schilling, executive director of Transgender Education Network of Texas, said at a Thursday press conference.
Eleanor Klibanoff contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Equality Texas, MOVE Texas and 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.
We can’t wait to welcome you Sept. 21-23 to the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.
Quality journalism doesn't come free
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn't cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.Yes, I'll donate today