Pivotal House vote moves Texas closer to banning puberty blockers, hormone treatments for trans kids

Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, gives instructions Friday to people who gathered outside the House floor to protest against Senate Bill 14, which seeks to ban puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender youth. It is scheduled to be debated Friday after Democrats previously delayed its consideration. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Texas has taken a major step toward banning transgender minors from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapy — care that medical groups say is vital to their mental health — after the state House approved Senate Bill 14 on Monday.

Trans Texans and LGBTQ advocates consider the bill one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in this year’s legislative session. It would ban trans people younger than 18 from getting certain transition-related care. Kids already accessing treatments would have to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” manner, the bill says. It also would ban transition-related surgeries, though those are rarely performed on kids.

The House formally approved the bill in a 87-56 vote Monday largely on party lines, though some Democrats once again defected to vote in favor of the bill. They include state Reps. Harold Dutton of Houston, Tracy King of Batesville, Shawn Thierry of Houston and Abel Herrero of Robstown. The bill will now return to the Senate, which has already passed a version of the legislation that mandates an abrupt cutoff in treatments instead of a tapering-off process. The Senate can now ask for a conference committee to iron out the difference — or accept the House’s changes and send the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott.

As SB 14 advances, Texas — home to one of the largest trans communities in the country — is moving ever closer to joining over a dozen states in restricting transition-related care for minors. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal have already raised legal challenges against several of them.

State representatives gather to listen to discussion of a Point of Order brought against SB 14, which seeks to ban puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender youth, on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023.

State representatives gather on the House floor Friday to listen to discussion of a parliamentary challenge brought against Senate Bill 14 at the Texas Capitol in Austin. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Compared with the House’s previous attempts to consider the bill, there were far fewer proponents or opponents of the bill in the public gallery Monday. Yet at the start of the Monday debate, a protester briefly chanted “Protect trans kids!” from the gallery. According to the Department of Public Safety, police removed three people from the gallery for displaying a banner and disrupting a public meeting, and issued them a criminal trespass warning that prohibits them from being in the Capitol for a year.

Monday’s brief debate and vote followed over five hours of pushback from Democrats on Friday. After successfully delaying the bill on a technically twice in early May, Democrats once again tried to raise points of order — a parliamentary maneuver aimed at delaying or defeating bills — but their efforts failed last week.

“I hate bullies. I hate when we pick on people who can’t defend themselves,” Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said Monday in his speech pushing back against SB 14. “To me, this legislation is a type of bullying.”

Trans Texans, their families and medical groups say transition-related care is critical to supporting the mental health of trans youth, who are already facing higher risks of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. Getting access to these treatments, they say, is time intensive and requires multiple medical evaluations. Parents are included in decisions about what treatments, if any, are best for individual children.

[“A death sentence”: Trans Texas teen plots his future as proposed ban on hormone therapy progresses]

“The bill in front of us today is banning health care,” state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said Friday while advocating for a failed amendment that would have largely foiled the legislation. “Politics shouldn't determine health care, period.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, including the nine openly LGBTQ state representatives, stood outside the chamber prior to debate Friday and read letters from trans youth who would be affected by SB 14 and their families. And earlier in the day, LGBTQ Texans and their allies marched to the Capitol to protest the legislation, just over a week after state police forcefully booted scores of them from the Capitol and handcuffed two.

“We’re rising up. The whole LGBTQIA community is fighting back against a group of people who, at their core, don’t want us to exist,” said Danielle Skidmore, a longtime Austin resident and trans woman who came to the Capitol on Friday to protest the bill.

SB 14’s supporters have pushed back against the science and research behind transition-related care. They say the bill is meant to protect parents from health care providers who are taking advantage of a “social contagion” and pushing life-altering treatments on kids who may later regret taking them.

“Let me begin to say that there is no high-quality scientific evidence that puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgeries help children,” Cypress Republican state Rep. Tom Oliverson, the bill’s key sponsor in the lower chamber, said Friday.

Oliverson found support Friday from attendees with red T-shirts that said “save Texas kids.” Some also sang and prayed outside of the gallery Friday morning before the House convened.

Ruth Potts, a grandmother from Fort Worth, was at the Capitol for the fourth time this year to support SB 14. She said trans children should wait until they are 18 years old to undergo medical treatments.

“This is not the time to be making these decisions,” she said. “It’s important that children are allowed to be children.”

[Texas Republicans have filed dozens of bills affecting LGBTQ people. Here’s what they’d do.]

The proposal is a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, and the Republican Party of Texas, which opposes any efforts to validate transgender identities. The proposed ban is among a slate of Republican bills seeking to restrict the rights and representation of LGBTQ Texans. It is also coming amid a growing acceptance of Christian nationalism on the right, which has prompted some conservative lawmakers to push for legislation that could further infuse Christianity into the public sphere.

“When lawmakers make decisions about who gets to access lifesaving care, they are deciding who lives and who dies. That’s not a decision I trust them to make,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said Monday. “It’s already difficult for LGBTQ+ people to access health care; lawmakers should be fixing that, not rubber-stamping discrimination.”

The House has traditionally acted as a foil to some of the Senate’s most socially conservative endeavors. Many LGBTQ Texans — and conservatives — wondered if the lower chamber would stop SB 14.

In April, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment on the legislation. In 2019, when he was a House committee chair, he told The Texas Tribune he was “kind of done talking about bashing on the gay community. It’s completely unacceptable.” On Thursday, he praised SB 14’s advancement.

“In Texas, we will not tolerate bad actors taking advantage of our most vulnerable population, and we will not stand for minors being influenced to make life-altering decisions until they are of legal adult age,” he said in a statement following the Friday vote.

According to a recent poll from the University of Texas at Austin, 58% of Texas voters support barring health care providers from offering gender-affirming care to minors. Its February survey also found that 59% of voters don’t personally know an openly trans person.

Thierry, the lone Democrat to publicly speak in favor of SB 14 during Friday’s debate, said she voted for it with “an open heart and clear mind.”

“As a thoughtful legislator, mother, woman of faith and child advocate, I have made a decision to place the safety and well-being of all young people over the comfort of political expediency,” she said.

During the Friday debate, other Democrats took aim at a committee hearing on the legislation that limited the number of people who could testify and how it appeared the number of supporters and opponents were about equal when there were actually fewer than 100 people in favor of the bill and more than 2,400 against it. In addition, they raised questions about whether SB 14 would prevent trans minors from receiving medical treatments still available to other children, which could be aimed at helping any potential future legal challenge based on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Openly LGBTQ state representatives also spoke against the bill while referencing their own lived experiences and communities.

“This is today’s [Defense of Marriage Act],” said state Rep. Ann Johnson, a lesbian Houston Democrat.

State Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, answers questions from Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, on SB 14, which seeks to ban puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender youth, for it's second reading on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023.

State Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, answers questions from Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, on Senate Bill 14. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

State Rep. John H. Bucy III, D-Austin, speaks with his colleagues during discussions on SB 14, which seeks to ban puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender youth, for it's second reading on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023.

State Rep. John H. Bucy III, D-Austin, speaks with his Democratic colleagues during discussions on Senate Bill 14. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Oliverson, who faced a barrage of questions from Democrats on Friday, largely stayed focused on his criticism of the science and research behind transition-related treatments.

“​​The science on gender dysphoria lacks sufficient high-quality evidence documented, and there’s a growing list of harms, established side effects that accompany patients,” he said.

And throughout the Friday debate, Democrats tried to shut down or soften SB 14’s intended restrictions by proposing 18 amendments, but saw no success.

In particular, one failed proposal from state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso would have allowed trans minors receiving transition-related medical treatments before June 1 to continue getting that care. This amendment was similar to what the Senate approved — but then backtracked on — last month. Oliverson had initially expressed support for the exemption when the upper chamber first voted for it, but he disapproved of Moody’s proposal Friday.

Republicans also shot down a proposal from state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, that sought to study for five years the rates of suicide among trans kids, who would be affected if SB 14 becomes law. Oliverson said he takes this issue seriously but cautioned against pushing a narrative that the risk of suicide is high or guaranteed if trans kids don’t receive transition-related care.

Earlier Friday, Democratic lawmakers stood outside the House chamber and read letters from trans youth and their families detailing the harm the state government has already inflicted on their lives. House members shared stories of Texas families who left their home state and children wrestling with thoughts of suicide.

State Rep. Julie Johnson read a letter from a family that fled Texas after Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion that families providing gender-affirming care to their kids should be investigated for child abuse.

“We are the ones protecting children. It is the state Legislature that has decided to hurt them,” the Farmers Branch Democrat read.

In early May, González successfully cut short the House debate on the legislation twice by raising points of order. These roadblocks visibly frustrated GOP lawmakers, who quickly vowed to put the bill back on track after the second delay. The Republican Party of Texas had also publicly urged its legislators to appeal any decision by Phelan that would allow for more delays.

Since the 2021 legislative session and over the past few months, the looming prospect of losing this health care has already spurred some families with trans kids to start planning for ways to get treatments outside of the state or flee Texas entirely. But traveling or moving is cost-prohibitive for some families. Many parents of trans kids have also testified about having been in Texas for generations and not wanting to uproot themselves from the communities they love.

Skidmore, one of the bill protesters at the Capitol on Friday, said animosity from the Texas Republicans directed at transgender people has felt increasingly aggressive and violent.

“Seeing all the energy, all the hate directed against children breaks my heart,” she said.

And at least one Dallas mother, who has been a vocal advocate for her trans daughter, is not planning to leave the state at this point.

“There are a lot of families that are leaving, but I refuse to let my government force me out of my home,” Rachel Gonzales said on the eve of the Friday vote.

“I fully recognize that if we’re able to find a way to stay here safely, that is a point of privilege because so many people are going to be so deeply impacted,” she added. “But trans kids have always existed. Trans adults have always existed. And no matter how hard [lawmakers] try, they’re not going to be able to eliminate their existence from this state, and it’s disgusting that they keep trying.”

Following Friday’s vote, dozens of other LGBTQ advocates walked away from the Capitol to the nearby Waterloo Park to show their solidarity with the queer community. Marti Bier, the vice president for programs for Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that works on LGBTQ issues, dreaded the conservations parents will have to face since gender-affirming care for their children could soon illegal in Texas.

“Even though you can expect something like this to happen, it still feels really overwhelming, the consequences for real kids and real families,” said Bier, wiping away tears as they left the Capitol Friday evening.

In her Monday speech opposing the bill, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, had a message for trans kids in Texas: “You are beautiful. You are loved.”

Zach Despart, Eleanor Klibanoff and Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network and the University of Texas at Austin 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.

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