Why did the bathroom bill become such a big thing this year?

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Jay Janner
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, talks to state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, in the Senate chamber on Aug. 14. Both pushed for laws to limit use of restrooms by transgender people.

Transgender bathroom limits exploded onto Texas politics this year, dominating the Legislature’s regular and special sessions with all-night hearings and a barrage of protests, rallies and news conferences.

It was a far cry from the 2015 session, when a little-noticed bill requiring students to use the school bathrooms and locker rooms of their “biological sex” stalled in a committee.

A reader asked us, “Why has the bathroom bill become such a big thing? Seems like there wasn’t a problem, or at least we didn’t hear about it, until recently.”

The leading advocates for limiting transgender-friendly restrooms and changing rooms, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, pointed to two events.

First, there was a May 2016 Obama administration letter directing school districts nationwide to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identities. Schools that failed to comply could lose federal money, the letter said. Texas and 12 other states successfully sued to temporarily block the directive.

“It wasn’t that we brought this fight to the people. The fight was brought to us,” Patrick said at a January news conference to introduce Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 6, which would have banned transgender-friendly facilities in public schools and government buildings.

Although President Donald Trump rescinded the federal school guidance in February, he “left it for the states to decide,” Kolkhorst said in late July, explaining why she continued to press for passage of SB 6.

Second, Patrick and Kolkhorst said, the Obama administration letter “came on the heels” of a November 2015 election over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which voters rejected 69 percent to 31 percent.

Known as HERO, the ordinance banned discrimination based on age, religion, disability, pregnancy, family, marital, military status and sexual orientation, but opponents focused on one category — gender identity. With conservative Christian leaders in the vanguard, opponents portrayed HERO as the “Sexual Predator Protection Act” and said it would place women and girls at risk by giving men and boys access to intimate facilities.

“No men in women’s bathrooms, no boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms,” former Houston Astros star Lance Berkman said in an anti-HERO ad. “This would violate their privacy and put them in harm’s way.”

The resounding defeat of HERO provided a road map for supporters of bills to limit transgender-friendly bathroom policies, with Patrick frequently saying the legislation was needed to protect privacy, decency and safety, particularly for women and girls.

Separate polls illustrated the strength of messaging on the issue.

According to a Patrick-commissioned poll in November, 77 percent of Texans said female students should not “be forced to use the same restrooms, lockers or showers at the same time as boys,” while 69 percent said it should be illegal for a man to enter a woman’s restroom.

In a July poll of Republican voters in five Texas House districts — financed by the Texas Association of Business, a leading opponent of the legislation — only 22 percent said the “bathroom bills” would make Texas a better, more pro-family state, 20 percent said Texas would suffer economic harm “due to discrimination being legalized,” and 40 percent said little would change because “Texas already has laws to punish people who misbehave in bathrooms.”

Both Patrick and the business association touted the numbers as showing overwhelming support or opposition to the transgender bathroom limits.

During both sessions, much of the support for SB 6 and similar bills came from social conservatives and religious leaders, particularly Christian pastors, and tea party Republicans.

But it was a steady drumbeat of widespread and vocal opposition that elevated attention on the issue.

Executives from multinational corporations — including IBM, Intel, Apple and many of the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — joined pro-business groups in arguing that the bills would paint Texas as discriminatory, making it harder to attract top employees and prompting businesses to decline to move to Texas or expand operations here. Global investorsentertainersreligious leaders, pro sports officials, tourism officials, civil rights leaders and gay rights activists joined the chorus.

Transgender Texans and parents of transgender children, and the children themselves, became visible like never before, talking about their struggles with bullying and exclusion and arguing that the legislation placed a vulnerable transgender population at increased risk.

And while the regular and special sessions ended without the passage of any bathroom-related legislation, supporters have vowed to carry the issue into the 2018 Republican primaries, targeting House members who played a central role in thwarting the bills, particularly House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the State Affairs Committee.

Patrick expects the issue to resurface in 2019, when the Legislature begins its next regularly scheduled session. Opponents say they’ll be ready.

“We’ll be back to kill it again,” said Monica Roberts, a transgender activist from Houston.

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