- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Transgender Texans, and parents of transgender children, packed a Capitol hearing that ran through the night, ending near daybreak Thursday, to oppose a bill that would block cities and school districts from enacting or enforcing transgender-friendly restroom policies.
Several choked back tears as they decried House Bill 2899 as discriminatory, recalling years of rejection, harassment and fear about something most people take for granted — going to a public restroom at school, work and elsewhere.
“Trans people, we can choose not to transition and hate ourselves, or we can step out and be authentic and often invite hatred upon ourselves merely by existing,” said Emmett Schelling of San Antonio. “This basically green lights citizens who might have a bias already to openly be worse than they already are.”
Of 72 people who testified over five hours before the Senate State Affairs Committee, 66 opposed HB 2899, unveiled as an alternative to a Senate measure that also received overwhelming opposition during another hearing that had ended shortly before dawn in March.
With 2 a.m. approaching, Frank Gonzales of Dallas, holding his sleepy transgender daughter, Libby, 7, said he feared the message HB 2899 would send if approved. “My family would become a target for hate groups and lawful discrimination,” he said.
His wife, Rachel Gonzales, said, “Many, many families in Texas, including my own, are counting on you to keep our families safe.”
“It’s terrifying to know the ugly in this world is targeting your child,” she said.
Delayed by long debates on the Texas House floor, the committee took up HB 2899 at 11:30 p.m. with its author, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, saying Texans deserve a uniform policy to protect their safety and privacy statewide.
“This bill is about making sure no child is forced to be in a locker room, shower or changing facility against their will with a member of the opposite sex,” Simmons said. “This issue needs to be the same in Austin as it is in Abilene, the same in Houston as it is in Hutto.”
HB 2899 seeks to nullify local anti-discrimination protections, such as Austin’s protections based on gender identity, as they regulate access to multiple-occupancy bathrooms, showers and changing rooms.
‘A thoughtful proposal’
Simmons’ bill takes a different approach than Senate Bill 6, approved by the Senate last month, which would require government buildings and public schools and universities to limit bathroom use to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.
The House version was given an extra boost Tuesday when Gov. Greg Abbott called Simmons bill “a thoughtful proposal to make sure our children maintain privacy in our school bathrooms and locker rooms.” Abbott also said he would work with the House and Senate to get a transgender bathroom bill to his desk before the legislative session ends May 29.
Pastors and social conservatives were among the half-dozen witnesses who spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing.
Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, which he described as a free-market conservative think tank in Dallas, said the House bill was an improvement from a Senate version because it was a small-government solution that limits the creation of additional protected classes of people.
“It will limit the ability of cities to get involved in this type of social justice activity,” he told the committee.
Dave Welch, president of Texas Pastor Council, said Christian pastors from across the state are pressing for a uniform, statewide standard to counter local laws that have created “a definition of gender identity that differs from city to city.”
Welch took exception to witnesses who opposed HB 2899 because they feared an economic backlash from boycotts.
“We need our women and children protected,” he said. “They are not for sale.”
Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, questioned the need for HB 2899 several times during the hearing, saying he knew of no problems caused by transgender people in public restrooms. Cook balked, however, at allowing students to use locker rooms and changing rooms that conform with their gender identity, saying limitations on those areas may be justified.
Opponents of HB 2899 included elected officials from Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso. Business organizations, including several that cater to travel and tourism, also registered their opposition, with representatives arguing that passage of the bill would hurt the state’s economy and damage its reputation as an open and welcoming state.
Jimmy Flannigan, who introduced himself as the first openly gay man to serve on the Austin City Council, said HB 2899 represented an improper state intrusion into people’s lives.
“Yes, there are economic issues. There will be jobs lost; there will be money lost. But this is also about people’s lives,” Flannigan said. “This is no role for government. It is not small government, it is not big government, it’s discrimination.”
Cathryn Oakley with the Human Rights Campaign said the bill targets transgender people under the guise of improved safety and privacy.
“It singles out one group of people for no reason other than sheer dislike of them,” Oakley said. “This is not about bathrooms. It’s never been about bathrooms.”
The State Affairs Committee closed the hearing at 4:39 a.m. without voting on HB 2899, a common practice.