Texas House gives initial OK to transgender bathroom ban in schools

12:44 a.m. Monday, May 22, 2017 Local
Tamir Kalifa
State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, discusses his amendment to SB 2078, which would ban transgender-friendly bathroom policies in public schools, on the House floor on Sunday. TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Divided almost exclusively along party lines in a Sunday night vote, the Texas House backed a ban on transgender-friendly bathroom and locker room policies in the state’s public schools.

An amendment, added to a bill on school safety and emergency policies, would require public schools and open-enrollment charter schools to limit bathroom use to each student’s “biological sex,” barring transgender students from using the bathroom of their gender identity.

The amendment by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would apply to grade schools and high schools but not colleges and universities.

Only one Republican voted against the amendment — Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place — that was added to Senate Bill 2078. All Democrats voted against it.

The House is scheduled to take a final vote on SB 2078 on Monday, after which it will be returned to the Senate to consider the change.

After Friday’s vote, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he believed the amendment will allow Texas to avoid the economic backlash that would have greeted Senate Bill 6, which would bar transgender-friendly policies in schools, universities and government buildings.

Straus also said Gov. Greg Abbott had threatened to call a special session on the transgender bathroom issue had the House failed to act.

“Members of the House wanted to act on this issue, and my philosophy as speaker has never been to force my will on the body. Gov. Abbott has said he would demand action on this in a special session, and the House decided to dispose of the issue in this way,” he said.

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Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said the House needlessly caved in to threats from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who promised to do what he could to ensure a special session unless a crackdown on transgender-friendly bathroom policies was passed.

“This amendment was more about using trans kids as a negotiating tool at a contentious point in the session than about making kids safer. It paints a target on the backs of already vulnerable children,” Israel said. “We are getting rolled by the Senate, and transgender children are a part of that bargain. Texas is better than what the House did tonight.”

Before the debate, about a half-dozen Democratic women stopped into the men’s room just off the House floor Sunday as a symbolic protest.

“We’re feeling like making trouble today,” said Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, and one of the men’s room visitors. “It’s that kind of mood.”

Beginning the debate Sunday night, Paddie said his amendment was an attempt to “provide definitive guidance to our school districts.”

“There’s absolutely no intent and, I argue that nothing in this language discriminates against anyone,” Paddie said. “It provides for reasonable accommodations for everyone.”

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Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told the House that the bathroom debate reminded her of the discrimination that she and other African-Americans experienced during the fight for civil rights.

“Bathrooms — white, colored,” Thompson said. “Bathrooms divided us then and it divides us now. America has long recognized that separate but equal is not equal at all. … I can also tell you that separate restrooms for transgender kids are based on fear and not fact.”

Patrick’s ultimatum

Patrick has made it a priority to pass SB 6, which also would overturn city and county anti-discrimination ordinances that require transgender-friendly bathroom polices.

Last week, Patrick gave the House an ultimatum — pass a bill limiting transgender-friendly bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms or he would work to ensure that a special session is called by Abbott.

Abbott also has said he wants the Legislature to approve transgender bathroom limits before the session ends May 29.

SB 6, however, bogged down in the House, where Straus has called the bathroom issue a manufactured problem.

In addition, House Bill 2899, which would block cities and school districts from enacting or enforcing transgender-friendly restroom policies, died in a House committee.

Under Paddie’s amendment, schools would be required to provide for “single-occupancy facilities for use by a student who does not wish to use the facilities designated for use … by persons of the student’s biological sex.”

The state attorney general would be responsible for defending the bathroom law by filing lawsuits seeking a court order or injunctions against schools or school districts.

‘A common-sense solution’

Opponents say the amendment would single out transgender schoolchildren, making school even more dangerous and unwelcoming for a population that is already vulnerable to bullying and suicide. Opponents also warn that passage would be greeted by boycotts, endangering the state’s economy.

Supporters say restricting bathrooms and locker rooms to a person’s biological sex is safer and a matter of common sense.

Lambda Legal, a civil rights advocacy group, said Texas can expect a lawsuit if the transgender bathroom ban becomes law.

“Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is hell-bent on making transgender kids into scary villains,” the organization said in a written statement. “If he does succeed in forcing discrimination into Texas law, you can bet that Lambda Legal will be on the case before the next school bell rings.”

But Grover Campbell with the Texas Association of School Boards called the amendment a “common-sense solution.”

“The language captures in law a solution many districts already use locally, seeking a balance between ensuring privacy and security for all students and respecting the dignity of all students,” Campbell said.

Kathy Miller, head of the Texas Freedom Network, said the amendment was not the compromise measure its supporters claimed.

“There is no moral middle ground on discrimination. Either you discriminate, or you don’t. This amendment, if it becomes law, would leave transgender students even more vulnerable to being stigmatized and bullied simply because they are different,” Miller said.

“Transgender youth deserve the same dignity and respect as their peers, and this craven attempt to use children as a pawn for cheap political points is disturbing and unconscionable,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for the Human Rights Campaign.

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