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A lifelong Republican born and raised in deep-red East Texas, Thomas Smith often laments that he felt forced to become a Democrat this year.
“Ever since the Texas GOP put out their platform earlier in the year, I feel like they deliberately excluded me from the party,” he said. “I don’t agree with all Democratic ideas, but I would rather be part of them than support a group of people who personally have a vendetta against myself.”
Smith, a 52-year-old former police officer who lives in Livingston and objects to the Texas Republican Party’s stance on same-sex marriage, is growing increasingly concerned about his rights as a gay man ahead of the midterm elections and 2023 legislative session.
He is one of more than 1 million LGBTQ Texans burdened by the state’s increasingly polarized politics despite Texas having one of the largest queer populations in the country, second only to California.
As Texans make their way to the polls for the upcoming election, The Texas Tribune spoke with LGBTQ voters, the parents of queer youth and advocates from across the state about what’s at stake for them this November.
In his concurring opinion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended constitutional protection for abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas openly invited challenges to the high court’s rulings that established rights to same-sex marriage and contraceptives.
Since the high court’s ruling, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have said that they would vote against legislation that would codify same-sex marriage rights.
“It’s already the law of the land,” Cornyn told CNSNews in July. “I think it’s a contrived issue because the Supreme Court decided the issue, so I don’t see any reason for the Congress to act.”
Cruz said on his podcast in September that the legislation, which passed in the U.S. House in July but has been delayed in the Senate until after the midterm elections, would be an attack on religious liberties.
Just a month before Cruz’s comments, The Dallas Morning News reported that LGBTQ Texans were moving up wedding dates and taking other legal precautions after the Supreme Court ruling on abortion.
Such is the case for Smith, who fears that same-sex unions might one day be endangered. He and his partner have been together for more than 20 years without a marriage license and are contemplating getting one soon.
“We never thought it was necessary to get married, but with the way things are looking, we’re considering actually getting married before it’s banned,” he said. “We need to do this.”
Jennifer Price, a 58-year-old career educator who lives in Austin with her wife, has been equally disturbed by the political landscape in Texas.
After the overturning of Roe, which had guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion for nearly 50 years before being struck down in June, she first thought of her daughter and others who would soon be subjected to one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
Then, after hearing about Thomas’ concurring opinion, her mind turned to her own marriage.
“In my mind, I feel like if … federal legislation doesn’t protect our rights, I have no doubt in my mind that Texas would take away” same-sex marriage rights, said Price, who has been partnered with her wife since 2006, though they were not legally married until 2017. “We lived before without protection, but once you get it, it would really hurt to get it taken away.”
Although she has lived in Texas most of her life, Price and her wife have considered moving to California or Colorado out of worry for their future. Those states legalized same-sex marriage even before the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized it nationwide, and they are post-Roe havens for those seeking abortions.
But leaving Texas would be unthinkable for Smith, who said his family has lived in the state for over a century. A Beaumont native, he’s spent decades developing thick skin navigating the conservative stronghold that is East Texas as a gay man.
“I’m not going to let someone run me off because of the way I live,” he said.
The rights of LGBTQ workers are a grave concern for Austin Davis Ruiz of Houston, who was disappointed after a federal judge in North Texas gutted Biden administration guidelines that said failing to allow transgender employees to dress and use pronouns and bathrooms consistent with their gender constituted sex discrimination.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, known for his rulings in opposition to expanding or protecting LGBTQ rights, sided with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who challenged the guidelines in court last year.
The Biden administration’s guidance came about after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay or transgender employees from discrimination.
Ruiz, a trustee and the communications director of the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, sees Kacsmaryk’s ruling as just the beginning of what could be a significant rollback in protections for LGBTQ workers.
“For me, this election isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans,” he said. “It’s really about who is going to take care of Texans and really ensure that we don’t go backward … and continue to make strides that improve our society.”
The 28-year-old has closely followed other court cases and said a recent ruling by another federal judge in Texas could endanger public health.
In a September ruling, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor agreed with a group of Christian conservatives that Affordable Care Act requirements for employers to cover HIV prevention drugs violate their religious freedom.
His ruling could threaten access to sexual and reproductive health care for more than 150 million working Americans who are on employer-sponsored health care plans.
“This doesn’t just affect the LGBTQ+ community,” Ruiz said. “HIV affects everybody.”
Elizabeth Gregory, a longtime University of Houston professor and the director of the school’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality, agreed that the recent rulings could erode advancements in LGBTQ rights.
“If that’s what a judge is saying, that these protections don’t exist, then you’re going to have even more of a clampdown” on rights, she said. “All these movements toward inclusivity … are totally undermined by policies that punish people for being authentic.”
Whether it’s from the state Legislature or the governor and attorney general, transgender Texans have found their bodies, schooling and medical treatments under political scrutiny for years.
In 2017, it was a bill that would have regulated public bathroom use for transgender people that never made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. In 2021, Republican legislators passed a law that banned transgender student-athletes from playing on sports teams that correspond with their gender.
And this year it’s no different.
The state’s latest ploy came in February after the attorney general issued a nonbinding legal opinion that led Abbott to direct the Department of Family and Protective Services to initiate child-abuse investigations into parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender kids.
[What is gender-affirming medical care for transgender children? Here’s what you need to know.]
“It’s frightening,” said Adair Apple of Corpus Christi, whose transgender teenage son, Charlie Apple, advocated against the anti-trans sports bill in 2021. “It’s just hateful what they’re trying to do.”
Abbott’s directive has faced mounting challenges in court, with Travis County District Judge Amy Clark Meachum recently granting an injunction that blocked the state’s child welfare agency from investigating families that belong to PFLAG, an LGBTQ advocacy group with more than 600 members in Texas.
Yet Apple fears her family can still face repercussions for providing her son with gender-affirming care while he was a minor. Lawyers have warned her about it, she said.
Anti-trans legislation isn’t exclusive to Texas. More legislation was filed in 2022 targeting the lives of trans Americans than in any recent year prior, according to The Washington Post. Arkansas, Alabama and Arizona have all passed laws banning gender-affirming health care for children, a move Texas lawmakers attempted to make in 2021. A national NPR/Ipsos poll from this June found that 48% of Republicans support laws that classify gender-affirming care for youth as child abuse, while 58% of Democrats oppose them.
Summer Ward of Williamson County, the mother of an 11-year-old queer child, feels as if Texas politicians have taken their rhetoric and legislative efforts too far in recent years.
“We went into special session three times because Greg Abbott wanted to bully trans kids,” the 37-year-old said, referring to the string of special legislative sessions called by the governor in 2021 that culminated in the passing of the anti-trans sports bill.
With her daughter facing harassment in school, Ward has had a hard time justifying keeping her family in Texas and has considered moving to her home state of New Mexico. There, she said, her daughter wouldn’t face bullying for the way she dresses or the gender of her schoolyard crushes.
“I’ve had enough, and I’m tired,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to grow up like this. I don’t want [my kids treated] like they’re less than because they’re outside of the box.”
For 24-year-old Innes Walker of Austin, Abbott’s directive targeting gender-affirming care and the recent wave of anti-trans political rhetoric in Texas have stirred up painful memories of their childhood as a transgender person.
“I don’t have any LGBT children that I know of in my family, but I’ve been one,” they said. “It was terrible, and [investigating families of transgender children] is despicable.”
Informed by their own experience, Walker is worried that the anti-trans rhetoric employed by Texas’ top Republicans will seriously harm the mental health of LGBTQ youth.
According to a 2022 survey from the Trevor Project, a national organization focused on LGBTQ youth suicide prevention, around 45% of LGBTQ youth “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.”
Another Trevor Project survey, conducted in 2021 as Texas’ anti-trans sports bill passed in the Legislature and was signed into law that October, found that 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth — said their mental health was harmed by debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people.
Walker, a 2022-23 fellow at LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Texas, has been researching historic trans figures and was struck by how much attitudes toward the transgender community have shifted over the years.
“No one ever thought to make a law against them back then,” Walker said. “They just did their business, but now we’re well known enough that people dislike us and think there should be a law.”
With the LGBTQ population growing every election cycle, the community is projected to see significant growth as a voting bloc in the coming decades, according to a Human Rights Campaign study.
“Even in a heated political climate where LGBTQ issues are constantly being debated, people feel more and more comfortable being open about their identities,” said 33-year-old Johnathan Gooch of San Antonio, a spokesperson for Equality Texas.
By 2030, the Human Rights Campaign study projects, 16% of Texas’ voting-eligible population will identify as LGBTQ, which is expected to be higher than the national average. Driven by the rise of people in Generation Z, who are more likely than older generations to identify as LGBTQ, the Texas queer community is projected to make up nearly one-fifth of the voting-eligible population by 2040.
Charlie Apple of Corpus Christi, the 19-year-old University of North Texas student who advocated against the anti-trans sports bill in 2021, is among that growing number of young LGBTQ voters and recently mailed his absentee ballot for this year’s elections.
It’s just his second time voting, but he is already looking toward the future.
“Slowly, we’re going to become one of the more dominant demographics, and that’ll hopefully see a change in politics,” Charlie Apple said of young voters. “I can’t wait to see what [Generation Z] does with the vote.”
Despite the obstacles he and his family have faced over the years, including having to move towns and schools, his mother, Adair Apple, remains optimistic about younger Texans who are growing into voters and the long-term impact they can have on the state.
“I think they’re going to change everything,” she said through tears. “I hope so.”
Disclosure: Equality Texas, the Human Rights Campaign, the University of Houston and the University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.