Herman: Legislative debate over gender identity begins


Now we wait to see if Senate Bill 6, the transgender locker room bill (a name I prefer because it properly makes it sound less trivial than the “bathroom bill”) gets to the House floor for debate.

If it doesn’t, the Senate’s Tuesday and Wednesday debate on the measure, culminating with 21-10 final approval Wednesday, is the last we’ll hear about it this year in a Texas legislative chamber. The line from the Senate debate that stuck in my mind came Tuesday from Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano: “If you’d told me eight years ago I’d be having this debate, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Indeed, especially for those of us whose daily lives don’t include troubling, challenging — and now politically charged — decisions about which bathroom to use.

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A week earlier, as a Senate committee heard overnight testimony, I couldn’t help but think how interesting it would have been to have seen thought bubbles above the senators, perhaps especially the rural ones, telling us what was going through their minds. This is new territory for some folks.

And, while it’s possible we’ve heard this year’s final floor debate on this particular piece of the territory, there’s reason to believe we’re at the front end of legislative and courthouse deliberation on something so many of us used to think was a simple question: Who’s male? Who’s female?

Bill sponsor Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, told colleagues she’s concerned about “the blurring of gender.”

“When asked how many genders there are, we are told the answer is sometimes without limit,” she said, “that there are as many genders as the mind can imagine.”

(Once again, thought bubbles please.)

“We have noted Facebook identifies 58 genders,” Kolkhorst continued. “Some other sources identify 31. Others 400. And some of us, two.”

As I’ve written in the past — questioning whether this debate is as silly as some folks believe — we’re just getting into the legislative portion of the nonbinary world of gender. As we heard in the Senate debate, there are places where gender matters — not limited to the bathrooms and locker rooms in government buildings, including the ones where our children go to school.

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“I think the people of Texas expect boundaries between genders, and this bill seems to seek those definitions and to protect us in these private, intimate settings that we find ourselves in,” Kolkhorst said during the floor debate that touched, albeit briefly, on other places where gender matters, such as sports and government contracts.

Kolkhorst noted some states let high school athletes compete in the gender in which they self-identify.

“Texas is one of the states that goes by birth certificate,” she noted. “There are others that have no qualifiers. Pretty open. California would be one of those. There are some other states like that. I had a teenage girl tell me last week, that runs track, and she said, ‘Mrs. Kolkhorst, it’s not right for a boy to run track against me. I don’t think I can beat the boys if they’re running in our track meet.’ I’m not sure where this eventually ends up. I do think that that is a problem.”

None of that matters in the SB 6 debate. But, moments later, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, reminded us of another place where it does — the awarding of government contracts to female-owned businesses.

“How is that going to work?” she said of the evolving definition of gender. “Will there be unintended consequences?”

It is, Kolkhorst responded, “another slippery slope that we may find later on.”

I remain convinced the bathroom/locker room issue is best handled by local decisions, as it has been to date. This bill would lead to state law that would require people who look like males to use female facilities, and vice versa. I don’t see what that solves.

But I’m also convinced there are broader issues with which we are going to have to deal on this front.

“It’s a little bit different world than what I grew up in,” Kolkhorst said.

No, not really. There always were people with gender identity issues and questions. It’s just that most of us now are much better about being understanding and caring about the challenges they face. And that probably means making rules and laws about gender identity issues instead of making believe they don’t exist.

I’m with Sen. Taylor on this one. If you’d told me eight years ago I’d be watching this debate, I wouldn’t have believed you.

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Kolkhorst, often emotional during the debate, seems sincerely motivated to figure this out in a way that’s not oppressive to anyone. That might not be possible.

“I stay up at night, reading and studying and thinking more and praying,” she said Tuesday, “praying a lot about what this means. The issue of gender or nonbinary, Transgender male. Transgender female. How many genders are there? One transgender parent said to me, ‘It’s messy.’ And it is. And it is.”

SB 6 opponent Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, challenged Kolkhorst with this: “It’s messy because you made it very messy.”

It is messy, regardless of however we got here and whoever got us here. There’s a lot more to discuss about transgender issues, including questions beyond bathrooms and locker rooms.

“We will not end this discussion today,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, an SB 6 opponent, told colleagues Wednesday just prior to the final vote.

Let’s hope we can make the discussion productive enough to not still be having it eight years from now.



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