Bill striking unconstitutional state law that criminalized homosexuality fails to meet critical deadline in the Texas House

State Rep. Venton Jones, D-Dallas, speaks with fellow lawmakers on the Texas House floor on April 6. (Eddie Gaspar, Eddie Gaspar)

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A promising Democratic push to repeal Texas’ defunct ban on gay sex has fizzled after the lower chamber ran out of time to consider House Bill 2055 on Thursday.

In June 2003, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the state’s criminalization of gay sex. Sessions after sessions since then, Texas Democrats have attempted to repeal this unconstitutional ban. That effort gained the most traction this legislative session, as HB 2055 — which sought to erase the ban from Texas’ penal code as well as its health and safety code — was poised to be debated by the full chamber.

But by the end of Thursday, the deadline for House bills to receive their first vote on the floor, the lower chamber ran out of time to consider HB 2055. It could still be resurrected as an amendment to a relevant bill. But barring that development, this likely spells the legislation’s end.

Had the bill been considered, there was a chance for it to pass. HB 2055 had bipartisan and close to majority support, though the bill did lose some of its over 70 joint and co-authors by Thursday.

I’m very proud that this bill has made it to the House floor,” state Rep. Venton Jones, the bill’s author, told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. The Dallas Democrat is one of the first members of the Texas Legislature who are Black and openly gay. He’s also the first openly HIV-positive member. “There’ve been so many giants in this body that have carried this legislation, and it’s just an honor to … continue really trying to get this work done,” he said.

HB 2055 was not the only legislation supported by LGBTQ groups that sputtered.

At the same time, bills that these advocates oppose also didn’t get considered. The most notable one was House Bill 3502, which would require health plans already covering transition-related treatments to also cover “all possible adverse consequences” related to this care as well as “any procedure or treatment necessary” for detransitioning. It was several bills ahead of Jones’ proposal on the House’s calendar, and it barely missed the Thursday deadline.

Since 2003, the state’s sodomy ban has been unenforceable. Even so, the legislator and other LGBTQ Texans have said that the ban’s continued existence on the books has enabled harassment and discrimination against the community.

“Being a part of the LGBTQ community is not a crime,” Jones said during the bill’s committee hearing in March. “It is unconstitutional, and there’s no reason for the statute to linger in our penal code.”

In April, HB 2055 gained momentum as it passed out of committee unanimously and received approval from some members of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus. Only one other effort — a similar bill from 2017 — advanced out of committee before dying in the Calendars Committee.

“This is a bipartisan effort, and I agree with conservative leaders like Senator [Ted] Cruz and Justice [Clarence] Thomas, who both have said this provision in Texas law should be removed,” state Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, said in an April 12 tweet. He’s a joint author on the bill.

In 2003, Thomas dissented in the Lawrence v. Texas ruling — but he also called it an “uncommonly silly” law and said he would vote to remove it if he was a member of the Texas Legislature. After last year’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, however, the conservative justice raised significant concerns among LGBTQ groups for saying that the high court should also revisit its Lawrence ruling as well as the one protecting same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, some prominent conservatives, like Cruz, don’t think the Supreme Court would go that far. The Republican also told The Dallas Morning News last year that he thinks Texas should repeal its dormant sodomy ban.

HB 2055 also originally sought to remove the language that says “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public,” though this received pushback from social conservative group Texas Values during the committee hearing. The Republican Party of Texas’ platform also calls homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice.”

Jones subsequently took out this proposal from his bill in committee to focus on repealing the defunct criminalization.

“That’s something that’s going to take a little bit more time,” he told the Tribune last month.

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