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Masha Leah’s social circle is shrinking. Six families the transgender Austin resident knows left the state as Texas officials have spent years targeting trans youth and their parents with restrictive legislation and child abuse investigations.
Like many LGBTQ Texans, she worries about the next wave of bills state lawmakers will consider in the legislative session that begins Tuesday. But Masha Leah, who asked that her full name not be used out of fear of anti-trans harassment or violence, isn’t ready to leave Texas just yet.
“I don’t want to run because I want to fight,” said Masha Leah, PFLAG Austin’s vice president of membership.
Republican Texas lawmakers, who control both legislative chambers, have filed around three dozen bills targeting LGBTQ people as of last week. That is already more than they attempted to pass in the regular five-month legislative session in 2021, according to Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy organization that tracks such legislation. Many of the bills seek to limit or ban gender-affirming health care for trans kids. Others aim to limit classroom instruction about sexuality and gender identity. And some look to restrict drag shows and performers.
[Two Texas bills would restrict lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools]
These bills are arriving after the Texas GOP re-adopted party platform language claiming homosexuality is “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” though advocates are quick to note that sexual orientation is not a lifestyle in and of itself. According to the American Psychological Association, while there is no scientific consensus on how an individual develops their sexuality, most people have “little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”
“We oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity,” the Texas GOP’s platform also says.
The current legislative drive also comes as conservative parents, activists and groups have pushed for the review or removal of books that center LGBTQ characters and sexuality. At the same time, far-right groups are increasingly threatening and protesting drag shows in Texas and around the country, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has highlighted anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence in a November terrorism bulletin.
“The community has a target squarely on our back,” said Anna Nguyen, PFLAG Austin’s president and a trans woman.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, who respectively lead the two legislative chambers, did not respond to requests for comment.
[Texas Legislature 101: Understanding the state government and how it passes laws]
Conservative activists and politicians at all levels have also framed these efforts as supporting parental rights in education, particularly over how race, gender and sexuality should be taught.
“Parents will be restored to their rightful place as the preeminent decision-maker for their children,” Gov. Greg Abbott said during an event for his reelection bid last year.
Notably, the new slate of bills will be assigned out to legislative committees for debate just months ahead of the 20th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Texas law criminalizing homosexuality and ushered in an era of significant LGBTQ rights advancement. This year’s session also follows the Supreme Court’s stunning revocation of the constitutional right to an abortion last year — a ruling that included an opinion from one justice who said he wants the high court to revisit its decision affirming marriage rights for LGBTQ people. So as they look ahead to the upcoming legislative battles, advocates acknowledge that it’s just as important to look backward and learn from historical victories.
“This is not the first time that we’ve been villainized,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. “It won’t be the last time. We just have to fight.”
Gains and setbacks
In the past two decades, LGBTQ Americans have seen major legal wins such as the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 and granted protections to LGBTQ workers in 2020. Most of the U.S. supports marriage equality, including in Texas which is also home to the country’s second-biggest LGBTQ population. Those developments came amid growing representation in pop culture and societal acceptance. A survey conducted in 2020 found that younger generations are increasingly identifying as LGBTQ.
These social and legal gains, though, are now facing a backlash. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also attributed much of the rise of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric within the GOP to former President Donald Trump’s administration.
“It is about the increased visibility,” said Wesley Phelps, a University of North Texas expert on the 20th century U.S. South and LGBTQ history. “And post-2016, everything is on the table.”
Over the past few years, there has been “an epidemic of violence” particularly against trans women of color. Anti-trans legislation has also arrived more frequently, starting with the now-defeated North Carolina law from 2016 that sought to ban trans people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Texas saw a similar bill in 2017, but it failed.
“It has gotten progressively worse from that point,” said Nguyen. She expects the new legislative session to be “the worst” yet.
[The Texas Legislative session has begun. Here are 6 things we’re watching.]
There are at least two bills proposing to ban classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity up to fifth grade or eighth grade — filed respectively by state Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Jared Patterson, R-Frisco. They mimic and expand on the Florida law that critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“I will make this law a top priority in the next session,” Patrick said last April during his reelection campaign about such legislation.
Republican lawmakers have also submitted over 10 bills looking to restrict gender-affirming care for trans youth so far, including one from Toth that seeks to criminalize it.
This type of care is recommended by major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, the distress someone can feel when their physical presentation doesn’t align with their gender identity. For youth, this care often means social transitioning — using different pronouns or wearing different clothes — but can include puberty blockers, which are fully reversible. It’s rare for trans youth to undergo gender-affirming surgeries before they become an adult, according to medical experts.
Still, Republican legislators have falsely equated the broad spectrum of gender-affirming care to “genital mutilation” and “child abuse.”
“It’s the same formula,” Martinez said. “They latch onto something about our community that people don’t necessarily understand. They fill that knowledge gap with disinformation and misinformation that they hope leads to hysteria, and they use that hysteria to legislate against us.”
A representative for Toth said he wasn’t available to comment on this story. Patterson did not respond to requests for comment.
LGBTQ Texans are not facing challenges just from the legislative branch. Abbott last year directed the state’s child welfare agency to open child abuse investigations into parents who let their trans children access gender-affirming care, which have been at least partially blocked by legal challenges including from PFLAG. Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has also asked for data on trans Texans from the Texas Department of Public Safety, though officials would not say why, The Washington Post reported last month.
“It’s not just the attacks during the legislative session. It’s also the weaponization of state agencies,” Martinez said.
Fights on several fronts
Over the past few years, far-right groups in Texas and around the country have also increasingly targeted drag shows and accused performers of “grooming” children — a trope that has historically been used against LGBTQ people, experts said. In some places, the threat against drag shows and LGBTQ venues have turned deadly: In November, a gunman fatally shot five people and injured many more at a queer club in Colorado.
With the upcoming session, drag performers are now facing a bill from Patterson that seeks to regulate venues that host them as sexually oriented businesses similar to sex shops. Some have also raised concerns about the legislation’s broad definitions and their potential effects including that on trans people who are not drag performers.
“The way the law is written, if I were to sing at a karaoke bar, I would be breaking the law,” Masha Leah said.
Local school boards are another battleground. In recent years, they have become increasingly politicized along with a conservative push against so-called critical race theory, despite that academic framework not being taught before college. Once sleepy, local and statewide school board elections have now become closely watched races that see major campaign donations particularly from conservative Christian groups like Patriot Mobile. Conservative activists and politicians, including Toth and Patterson, have also cited parental rights in pushing forward their campaigns and bills.
The Grapevine-Colleyville school district now lets teachers reject pronouns that match students’ gender identities. The Granbury school district is facing a civil rights investigation from the U.S. Education Department after it banned school library books dealing with sexuality and gender. The State Board of Education delayed voting on updates to social studies curriculum after conservative pushback against potential changes, including a proposal that the LGBTQ Pride movement would have been taught in eighth grade alongside the Civil Rights and women’s movements.
LGBTQ advocates and experts say parental rights about what children learn have long been used as a reason to limit what children have access to in the classroom. What’s different now than in previous decades is that queer youth have much more access to information about gender identity and sexuality, thanks to the internet and broader representation in the mainstream media.
“Some of this right-wing activism is an attempt to push back LGBTQ gains,” said Lauren Gutterman, a University of Texas at Austin expert on American and LGBTQ history. “They’re fighting a losing battle. It’s not going to be easily undone.”
Many advocates say they will spend the session testifying at committee hearings and lobbying lawmakers. But many don’t all share the same view on how to fight the broader GOP targeting of LGBTQ rights.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, many LGBTQ Americans raised concerns that Obergefell v. Hodges, which enshrined the constitutional right for same-sex marriage, could be next. Congress has since passed federal protections for marriage equality, but Texas could still decide to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples if Obergefell is eventually overturned.
But Phelps, the history expert, believes that the courts remain an important tool, even if the Supreme Court has become far more conservative in recent years.
“We can’t cede that territory to anti-queer activists. We’ve got to keep up the fight on all fronts,” he said.
The pivotal Supreme Court ruling of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 was part of a legal fight that took years. It also followed other court cases that failed but allowed organizers to build up legal strategies and public support, Phelps noted.
“It takes effort, it takes time, it takes money, it takes organizing, it takes allies,” he said.
Meanwhile, some LGBTQ Republicans, who have long fought for acceptance within the party, have left the GOP.
But Marco Roberts, a longtime openly gay Republican and chair of the Texas Conservative Liberty Forum, sees the need to stay and fight for changes from within.
“If you’re not involved, if you’re not in the room having the discussions, then how are you going to change minds?” he said.
Espousing a conservative libertarian belief, he calls for Republican lawmakers to have limited regulations when it comes to not just fiscal but also social issues. In particular, Roberts would advise legislators to craft “viewpoint neutral” legislation that doesn’t favor any particular stances regarding sex and sexuality, regardless of religious or ideological beliefs.
“The best way to defend freedom is to do it for everyone, whether you agree with them or not,” Roberts said.
“I’m so happy being me”
The constant fight has deeply affected many LGBTQ Texans.
According to a 2021 national survey by The Trevor Project, an organization focusing on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, young LGBTQ people in southern states including Texas are more likely to consider and attempt suicide than those in other parts of the country. The organization’s crisis counselors have also heard directly from Texas youth about their mental health challenges that are fueled by the state’s political climate, KERA News reported.
That has spurred some LGBTQ Texans to leave the state. Most advocates who spoke to The Texas Tribune said they know of people who have done so or are trying to afford the relocation.
Advocates themselves are feeling the toll of their work.
“It makes me wonder if this is the place for me,” said Naomi Green, a trans woman who serves on the board of the Texas Pride Impact Funds. “But I’m not wanting to just let people run me out of somewhere that I love.”
In the meantime, advocates are holding on to their optimism to continue the fight.
Martinez cheered the recent elections of three openly gay Black people to the Texas House: Democrats Jolanda Jones of Houston, Christian Manuel Hayes of Beaumont and Venton Jones of Dallas. He also pointed out that Texas Democrats have filed 32 pro-LGBTQ bills as of last week, many of them proposing broad anti-discrimination rules in various areas like housing and employment. These efforts come as LGBTQ people are still more likely to face homelessness and poverty, Green noted.
Advocates also touted the importance of maintaining a sense of community, be it hanging out with friends or being part of LGBTQ support groups. Ultimately, many invoked Harvey Milk — one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials — and stressed that the most effective tool is to live authentically.
Masha Leah, who is also Jewish and fears the surge in antisemitism, has considered moving to Canada or Israel. But for now, she’s committed to staying in Texas and testifying against the many bills that could come up for votes. And, like many, she tries to remind herself of the benefits to living an open life.
“My wife says, ‘You’re so much more comfortable with yourself.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, becoming a woman made me a better husband,’” Masha Leah said.
“I’m going to be seeking a therapist for my depression that was caused by this [political climate], and I’ve gained some weight,” she said. “But I’m so happy being me.”
Disclosure: Equality Texas, Southern Poverty Law Center, University of Texas at Austin and 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.