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Texas lawmakers this year are expected to debate several bills that could bring major changes to the lives of gay and transgender Texans. Republicans have filed bills that would restrict when sexuality and gender identity are taught in schools, where people can perform in drag and what kind of health care is available to transgender children.
Children and young adults in particular are a focus of the legislation. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made it a Senate priority to pass measures that pertain to classroom instruction about LGBTQ people, the college sports teams transgender students can join and medical treatments that can be provided to transgender youth. Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to ban schools’ “woke agendas.”
LGBTQ activists and many Democratic lawmakers are bracing for a monthslong fight. Many say the proposed measures amount to attempts to minimize queer expression and restrict people’s rights. One such group, Equality Texas, has identified more than 90 “bad bills” filed so far this session, already more than total identified by the group in 2021 during a full session and three special sessions.
Even if only a few of them pass, the damage will be substantial, they say. According to a January report from the Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ youth suicide-prevention organization, 71% of LGBTQ youth said debates over bills affecting how they live negatively impact their mental health — and 86% of transgender youth reported negative mental health repercussions from such legislation.
“Texas has become one of the most dangerous and hostile places for transgender youth and transgender people and their families in America,” Andrea Segovia, senior field and policy adviser of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told reporters in February.
The clash between comes at a time when 72% of Texans support anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, according to a 2021 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute.
Blocking trans kids’ access to certain kinds of transition-related health care
As soon as lawmakers were allowed to file legislation, some Texas Republicans authored bills aimed at hindering or outright prohibiting transgender kids from accessing certain health care treatments.
[Texas Senate panel advances bill that would hinder transgender kids’ access to puberty blockers and hormone therapies]
Senate Bill 14, authored by a slate of Republican senators, could effectively ban transition-related care for queer youth. It would revoke the licenses of doctors who provide anyone under 18 years old with puberty blockers, hormone therapy or other medical treatments specifically for the purpose of transitioning. And it would withhold public dollars from hospitals that provide such care. The bill also seeks to halt transition-related surgeries for minors, though medical experts say such procedures are rarely, if ever, performed on children.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made the issue a priority for the Senate this year. The Senate State Affairs Committee advanced the bill on March 20, meaning it could soon go before the full Senate.
In the other chamber, 77 Republican state representatives have signed on to an identical bill. House Bill 1686 is scheduled for the hearing in the House Public Health Committee on March 27 and already has support of more than half of the 150-member House. The bicameral support to ban puberty blockers and hormone therapy for transgender youth provides a significant boost for Republican lawmakers who seek to restrict these medical treatments. During the 2021 session, the Senate passed a similar restriction on gender-affirming care for trans children, but the House did not support it.
Medical groups, doctors and transgender Texans say the lawmakers backing the ban are missing the point of how transition-related health care helps trans people, improving the mental health of children who are at higher risks of attempting suicide. Critics say the Republicans pushing for the health care restrictions are deliberately misconstruing information to target an already marginalized group of people.
Other lawmakers have filed bills with similar goals. House Bill 41 and Senate Bill 250 would bar physicians from providing minors with puberty blockers or hormone therapies and would ban insurance companies from covering such treatment. SB 250, like Patrick's priority bill, would also revoke the licenses of health care professionals who provide such treatment. It was referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee, where it was left pending after a hearing on March 16. HB 41 has been assigned to the House Public Health Committee.
Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, the primary author of HB 1686, has another bill that would allow medical providers to decline treatment to any patient for religious views, moral philosophy or “ethical position,” except for during emergency or life-threatening instances. House Bill 319 does not explicitly mention LGBTQ people, but advocates fear the bill would allow doctors to turn people away simply because of their gender or sexual identity. It has been assigned to the House Public Health Committee.
House Bill 436 from Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, aims to classify health care treatment like puberty blockers and hormone therapy as child abuse if they are administered for the purposes of transitioning. After similar legislation failed in 2021, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion that equated certain medical treatments and procedures for transgender teens with child abuse. Citing that opinion, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to the Department of Family and Protective Services directing the agency to investigate parents who provided transition-related care to their transgender children. LGBTQ advocacy groups are fighting that directive, which a Travis County judge largely blocked last year. HB 436 has been assigned to the House Public Health Committee.
Much of the debate will likely center on the age at which such care should be provided. Leading medical groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s top medical association for youth — recommend treatment for children with gender dysphoria, the distress someone can feel when their physical presentation does not align with their gender identity. For teens and youth, this kind of care is often limited to counseling and social transition — using different pronouns or wearing different clothes. But it can at times include the use of medication that temporarily delays the onset of puberty.
Limiting when children can see drag performances
Sen. Bryan Hughes, who championed some of last session’s most conservative bills, wants to block kids from seeing sexually oriented drag shows. The Mineola Republican's Senate Bill 12, is a top priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. It would impose a $10,000 fine on business owners who host drag shows in front of children — if those performances are sexually oriented. The bill defines a sexually oriented performance as one in which someone is naked or in drag and “appeals to the prurient interest in sex.” The U.S. Supreme Court defines prurient interests as “erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion,” though the language's interpretation varies by community.
[How Texas activists turned drag events into fodder for outrage]
SB 12 doesn't appear to pertain to drag performances at bars and nightclubs since those establishments largely only admit adults. The Senate State Affairs Committee — which Hughes chairs — is scheduled to debate SB 12 on March 23.
The bill is dramatically scaled back from Senate Bill 476, a previous bill from Hughes, that seeks to reclassify bars or businesses that host drag shows as “sexually oriented businesses,” a category that includes adult movie theaters and sex shops. That bill doesn’t distinguish between sexually explicit drag shows and a man wearing a dress to perform in a theater, bar, nightclub or other commercial business. Such “sexually oriented business” designations would force bars to operate under a different set of regulations that come with higher taxes and fees. That could force some businesses to choose between shutting down or ending any kind of drag performance.
Three bills in the lower chamber — House Bills 643, 708 and 1266 — mirror the language in Hughes’ more broad SB 476, has also been assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee. The House bills have been assigned to the House State Affairs Committee. Each of those bills define drag shows as performances “in which a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.” They make no distinction between shows performed at bars, which can at times involve sexual humor, and events where a person in drag reads a children’s book or a play or movie in which a character dresses in drag.
Hughes filed SB 12 after Rep. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth, one of the authors of the House drag show bills, was accused of hypocrisy after it emerged that he once wore a dress for a school project as a teenager. Schatzline said it wasn’t sexually oriented when he did it and Hughes told The Texas Tribune that some new language would be introduced into legislation focused on drag performances. SB 12 appears to be that face-lift Hughes said was incoming.
[Debate over Texas drag shows intensifies]
Hughes also filed Senate Bill 1601 which would withhold state funds from municipal libraries that host events in which drag performers read to children.
This year's legislation focused on drag shows was filed after conservative politicians and activists have taken aim at drag shows in the past year. They have argued that any kind of dressing in drag is inherently sexual. Anti-drag sentiment has prompted protests at drag shows — many of which are adult-only — that have drawn white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. And many organizers of drag events have canceled their events, even those that weren’t sexual or weren’t intended for children.
Restricting the college sports teams that transgender student athletes can join
Conservatives also want to ban transgender women from participating in university women’s sports. This would expand the Legislature’s 2021 law that bans transgender girls in K-12 public schools from playing on girls’ sports teams and transgender boys from playing on boys’ sports teams.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made such a ban for transgender university athletes one of his 30 priorities for the session. Senate Bill 15, authored by every Republican senator except Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would prohibit trans athletes from joining collegiate teams that align with their gender. That backing gives it enough votes to pass the Senate. A majority of House members signed on as co-authors of House Bill 23, a similar bill, which indicates sufficient support to pass out of that chamber if it does not hit legislative obstacles along the way. HB 23 has been assigned to the House State Affairs Committee. The Senate State Affairs Committee advanced the bill on March 16, meaning it could soon go before the full Senate.
Gov. Greg Abbott said he supports the measures.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has policies that monitor transgender student athletes’ testosterone levels throughout a sport’s season, including at the beginning and four weeks before the championship selections, and testosterone levels must be below certain thresholds. In 2021, the NCAA board said the association wouldn’t host championship events in states with laws discriminating against transgender athletes. If passed, these bills would prohibit Texas from holding these major sporting events.
Republican lawmakers have filed two other bills — Senate Bill 649 and HB 23 — that would limit the collegiate sports teams transgender student athletes could join. Those bills would also extend the K-12 sports participation limitation to private schools whose sports teams compete against public school teams. SB 649 has been assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committees.
Limiting classroom lessons about LGBTQ people
GOP lawmakers also want to limit classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
Senate Bill 8, a sweeping education bill that would create education savings accounts for every Texas student, also seeks to ban teaching gender identity and sexual orientation for any grade level. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed such lessons and activities if they were “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” but now the restriction is up to 12th grade, with very limited exceptions. The bill also would require schools to notify parents of any changes to their child’s mental, emotional or physical health. SB 8 was left pending after a March 22 hearing in the Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who coauthored this legislation.
Critics say the bill — patterned on controversial Florida legislation opponents called the “Don’t Say Gay” law — contains vague language that could stifle even informal discussion about LGBTQ people, such as teachers discussing their same-sex spouses. The legislation has the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but will likely face opposition from rural lawmakers over the education savings accounts because those legislators have historically opposed similar legislation, arguing it could siphon money from public schools.
During his State of the State speech in February, Gov. Greg Abbott accused schools of indoctrinating children with a “woke agenda,” though he didn’t provide specifics on what he meant.
Abbott and Patrick have made support for what they call parental rights a rallying cry both on their 2022 campaign trails and heading into this year’s legislative session. But the definition of what that means remains nebulous. So far, it has largely centered around expanding voucher-like programs that would enable families to use taxpayer dollars to pay for schools outside of the state’s public education system.
Republican supporters of SB 8 say the legislation is needed to expand the rights of parents, whom they say are the best people to teach their children about these issues. But opponents say the bill would violate constitutional free speech protections, ban lessons on some aspects of American history and force the Texas school system to ignore the existence of LGBTQ people.
Similar legislation, filed prior to SB 8, would not extend to 12th grade and included less restrictive language about where schools can discuss sexual orientation or gender identify. Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, have filed House Bill 1541 and House Bill 1155, respectively, which would restrict lessons about gender identity and sexuality before ninth grade in public and charter schools.
HB 1541 would enable parents to sue districts if teachers don’t comply. Both have been assigned to the House Public Education Committee.
The House bills would require schools to notify parents of any services provided or monitoring of their “students’ mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,” which LGBTQ advocates worry would require district employees to disclose some students’ sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents when the students may not be ready — or feel safe — sharing that personal information.
These new bills come two years after the Legislature limited how America’s history of racism can be taught in public schools, which teachers said will hinder how students learn about race and current events. And the new legislation also comes on the heels of conservatives pushing for school and public libraries to remove books that center LGBTQ characters and themes. Texas banned more books from school libraries than any other state from July 2021 through June 2022.
Expanding anti-discrimination protections
Democratic lawmakers are pushing a swath of bills that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for a range of areas, including employment, housing and state contracts. But with Republicans controlling both legislative chambers — and no direct support from top leadership — these efforts are unlikely to make it to the governor’s desk.
House Bill 832 would prohibit foster care providers from discriminating against LGBTQ youth based on religious beliefs. House Bill 725 would update language in the hate crime law to include protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation. HB 832 has been assigned to the House Human Services Committee, and HB 725 has been assigned to the House State Affairs Committee.
Senate Bill 110 would add protections for LGBTQ people and Texan veterans to prevent discrimination regarding housing, employment, public accommodation and state contracts. It has been assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Disclosure: Equality Texas has been a financial supporter 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.