Senate gives initial OK to transgender bathroom bill

6:16 p.m Tuesday, March 14, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, explains Senate Bill 6 during Tuesday’s debate in the Texas Senate. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Voting largely along party lines, the Texas Senate approved the transgender bathroom bill Tuesday evening, turning aside Democratic warnings that Senate Bill 6 would further stigmatize a vulnerable population and hurt the state’s economy.

A final, largely ceremonial Senate vote is expected Wednesday, sending SB 6 to the House, where Speaker Joe Straus has shown a notable lack of enthusiasm for a measure that would prohibit transgender-friendly bathroom policies in public schools and universities and in government buildings.

Tuesday’s 21-10 vote, with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville as the only Democrat to join all 20 Republicans in support, came after 4½ hours of often passionate debate.

“I think the people of Texas expect boundaries between genders,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, adding that she was “standing up for those who want privacy and protection in the most intimate places.”

“This is about finding a balance between the right to declare your gender and the right of a parent to defend a child’s interest,” Kolkhorst said.

But Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, asked Kolkhorst and other Republicans to consider the impact SB 6 could have on transgender Texans, more than 40 percent of whom have attempted suicide, according to public health estimates.

“This bill might just be contributing to that because it puts additional stigma and embarrassment” on transgender people, Garcia said.

“Do you not see how much damage this bill is going to do?” she asked.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was equally blunt: “I think this bill is more about discrimination against a certain group of our citizens, especially transgender people.”

“These are not easy issues,” Kolkhorst acknowledged.

“Don’t think I don’t pray about this and making sure we are making the right decision,” she said.

Before the vote on SB 6, Lucio joined Republicans to mow down 17 amendments from other Democrats — including efforts to study the number of crimes in bathrooms, add anti-discrimination protection for transgender people, track the economic impact of SB 6 and create an ad campaign advising against bathroom confrontations to verify gender.

Dubbed the Texas Privacy Act because it also would apply to locker rooms and changing areas, SB 6 was the subject of this session’s longest public hearing — ending 21 hours after it began last week and featuring 13 hours of public testimony, with opponents outnumbering supporters by about 9-to-1.

SB 6 would require schools and government buildings to limit the use of multistall bathrooms to the gender listed on a current birth certificate — an accommodation, Republicans have said, to transgender people who have transitioned. During Tuesday’s debate, however, several Democratic senators argued that it is difficult and expensive to get a court-ordered change to birth certificates.

Of an estimated 125,000 transgender Texans, only about 500 have changed the sex listed on their birth certificates, Garcia said. “It’s not that easy.”

SB 6 also would impose an escalating fine on schools or governments that allow transgender people to use the bathroom that conforms with their gender identity. Civil penalties start at $1,000 to $1,500, rising to $10,000 to $10,500 for each subsequent violation.

The state attorney general would be required to investigate all complaints about possible violations.

The bill also would:

• Overturn city and county regulations that require transgender-friendly bathrooms.

• Allow businesses to form their own bathroom policies.

• Allow businesses to apply their own bathroom policies inside rented government-owned buildings. This would allow sports leagues, for example, to have transgender-friendly bathrooms in arenas.

• Prohibit local governments from withholding or canceling contracts because of the bathroom policy adopted by a business.

Several Republicans said SB 6 would eliminate an opportunity for sexual predators to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms under a pretext.

“We heard from rape victims who said protect us not from the transgender community but from perpetrators who might … come into our restrooms and our most intimate facilities and frighten us,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

But Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said a search of every sex offender in Texas prisons found none who had attacked somebody in a bathroom. And if it happened, other laws — including assault, voyeurism and harassment — are already on the books, he said.

“We don’t need your bill to prosecute them,” Whitmire said.

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