Sometimes, political stars emerge in unlikely places.
Jessica Shortall, head of a Texas business group that advocates for LGBT rights, delivered a thoughtful and impassioned speech about the transgender bathroom debate at the South by Southwest conference on Sunday. It was the kind of speech that brought the crowd to its feet for a standing ovation — twice.
It helped that Shortall was speaking to a sympathetic crowd. The South by Southwest technology, entertainment and music conference has come out strongly against the transgender bathroom bill being considered by the Texas Senate. That bill would prohibit transgender-friendly bathrooms, locker rooms and changing room policies in public schools, universities and in government buildings.
Shortall’s speech sprinkled anecdotes of her own life, touched on the Texas Competes mission, and worked in themes such as why it’s important to find common ground with political opponents.
“Assume there are no monoliths,” Shortall said. “The second you do that and label a whole group, you miss all the opportunities to find allies and build bridges.”
For two years, Shortall has been in charge of Texas Competes, a group of businesses and chambers of commerce around the state that oppose the transgender bathroom bill, largely based on the argument that it will harm the state economically and cause some critics to label Texas as being “anti-LGBT.” (Which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered.)
The group was founded in 2015 and has over 1,200 members, who are either businesses or chambers of commerce. The emergence of Texas Competes has exposed a rare rift between conservatives and powerful business interests.
At the center of this political storm — one of the most closely watched issues of this year’s legislative session — is Shortall.
On Sunday, with a notepad in one hand and a handful of photos and data points projected on to a screen, she emphasized the need to build bridges with people who hold different beliefs, of finding common ground by rooting arguments in data, not emotion.
Midway through the speech she told the story of a trasngender girl who had an accident in a hallway at school because teachers couldn’t figure out which bathroom she should use.
“I wanted to shout,” Shortall said. “But I took a breath.” She noted that it feels good to be ideological and righteous, and isn’t as fun to stick to a strategy that involves talking to the other side and find common ground.
“Do you think I wanted to be the most boring, most data-driven LGBT advocate in the country?” Shortall said. “I am half-Venezuelan, raised in New Jersey, a very loud person. I like things big. But my job is to create this delicate new space for the business community to get involved in something risky. If I burn that down with my anger, I’d be at zero. I don’t matter. What matters is the goal.”
But she noted that arguments based on data and facts can only get you so far. To create change, you have to tap into empathy and love, she said. “Love is the only bridge that lets us see the people around us simply as people,” she said.
One testament to the effectiveness of Shortall’s message was the size of the ballroom crowd. South by Southwest attendees come from all over the world, and aren’t typically interested in state-level politics. But by the end of her talk, nearly every seat was taken, which is especially noteworthy given that Vice President Joe Biden held the very next speaker slot in a different ballroom.
When she casually mentioned toward the end of her speech a childhood ambition to run for president, a handful of audience members erupted into cheers, signaling their support for Shortall’s political ambitions.