Texas Senate bill dictating which school sports teams transgender children can join misses House deadline

A teenage softball player in black uniform slides into home plate.

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A controversial Texas bill that would restrict the participation of transgender student athletes in school sports ran out of time for consideration in the House as the lower chamber hit a crucial deadline Tuesday night for passing all Senate bills.

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Senate Bill 29 would have mandated that transgender student athletes play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. The bill’s proponents said it was necessary to protect girls’ sports, arguing that allowing transgender girls to play on school sports teams gave them an unfair advantage because they have higher levels of testosterone.

LGBTQ advocates said the legislation was harmful and discriminatory against transgender Texans. It is among a slate of Texas bills aimed at transgender people this legislative session and the latest to miss a House deadline that needed to be met so they could advance and eventually become law. No legislative measure can be considered dead, though, until the session ends Monday.

No matter the success of the legislation, LGBTQ advocates say the mere specter that such measures could become law has already damaged the mental health of transgender people.

Debate on SB 29 was delayed until 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night, leaving only half an hour for the chamber to pass the bill. Then several other delayed bills ahead of it ran down the clock until there was no time left for the imperiled bill.

House Democrats spent much of Tuesday’s marathon session using delay tactics to keep several GOP-backed bills, including SB 29, from coming up in time to be debated. With less than 10 minutes until the deadline Tuesday, Democrats offered an amendment to an unrelated bill and then asked each other clarifying questions about it as a way to run out the clock.

As the deadline crept closer, representatives circulated transgender pride flags on the floor in an obvious nod to their tactic and target. Austin Democrat Gina Hinojosa smiled and waved the flag alongside members of the House LGBTQ Caucus as the clock hit midnight.

“Democrats had a long, aggressive floor strategy to keep a number of bills, most notably SB 29, from affecting the people of Texas,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, treasurer of the caucus, told The Texas Tribune. “I’m really happy we were able to end the session by preserving the dignity and rights of the children of Texas to be free of discrimination.”

Texas is among several states that have considered bills limiting transgender health care options and school sports team participation this year. SB 29 was one of the most high-profile pieces of legislation this session after it was deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the Senate, and Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, indicated he would sign the bill into law if it came to his desk.

In early May, however, the bill appeared to die in the House Public Education Committee after Republicans fell one vote shy of moving the bill forward when a GOP committee member, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, stepped out of the room and missed the vote.

But a few days later, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, revived the controversial bill after his fellow Democrats killed one of his priority education bills on the House floor through a tactical procedure. Democrats have accused Dutton of bringing the bill back in retaliation for killing his bill.

Dutton denies that and says he brought it back because it had enough votes to pass the committee and he did not notice Huberty’s absence during the initial vote.

Dutton, who was criticized by LGBTQ advocates for reviving the bill, said he did not like the Senate’s version of the bill and tried to amend it in his committee to soften the legislation’s impact on transgender students. He signed on as the bill’s co-sponsors after approving it in committee.

Dutton said the House’s version of the legislation would only codify the University Interscholastic League’s existing rules, limiting the impact on transgender students. His version of the bill also includes a study to determine how many students are impacted by these rules.

But LGBTQ advocates say even Dutton’s amended version was harmful. Instead of the UIL’s current rules stating that a student’s gender is determined by their birth certificate — which some transgender students are able to amend — Dutton’s version prohibits students from competing on sports teams “designated for the sex opposite to the student’s sex as correctly stated” on the student’s official birth certificate.

Advocates worry that such a language change would bar transgender students from participating in school sports altogether. They also worry that the language could lead to disgruntled parents suing a school district to challenge the sex of a student participating in sports.

“It doesn’t just affect trans kids. It affects all kids that don’t conform to gender norms,” said Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist for LGBTQ Equality at the ACLU of Texas. “It opens the door for anybody’s gender, for anybody’s body to be questioned.”

Even if the bill was limited to codifying existing UIL rules, Perez said, that would still be harmful to transgender students who face barriers to participation under those rules. Not all transgender students are able to amend their birth certificate.

Mack Beggs, a transgender man whose birth certificate identified him as a woman, was forced to compete in girl’s wrestling even though he lived and identified as a man. Beggs won the 2017 girls’ state wrestling championship.

Megan Munce contributed to this report.

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