LGBT Advocates Brace For Legislative Session | KERA News

LGBT Advocates Brace For Legislative Session

Nov 24, 2016

The next legislative session doesn’t start until January, but the battle lines are being drawn. One issue is sure to be contentious: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Lawmakers have introduced a number of bills, some intended to help LGBT folks, others that would strip protections and reverse recent gains.

Democrats in the state legislature have put forward a sweeping agenda for LGBT rights. Some would expand non-discrimination protections. They would make it illegal to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment, public accommodations and government contracting.

Others are more symbolic, like a bill to remove homosexuality from the Texas criminal code 15 years after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to criminalize being gay. 

But these Democratic bills haven’t historically fared well in the Republican-dominated legislature.

“Realistically, it is an extremely challenging environment and it would not be realistic to expect passage of this legislation in the upcoming session,” says Chuck Smith, who heads Equality Texas, which advocates for LGBT rights.

Smith is more concerned that anti-LGBT bills have a better chance. Success in Austin next year, he said, may be to simply hold the line.

“We are certainly, currently living in a period where there is significant pushback from people who did not support the freedom to marry,” Smith says.

For instance, more than a dozen large Texas cities already offer some protections for LGBT people that the state doesn’t. The state doesn’t offer any such non-discrimination protections. A proposed bill would block those local laws by banning local governments from offering protections for any group not included in the state’s non-discrimination law.

The bill’s sponsor, northeast Texas Sen. Bob Hall, declined an interview request. Hall and his fellow conservatives argue that LGBT protections often violate religious freedom and burden small business owners. Speaking to the conservative group East Texans for Liberty in September, Hall put so-called religious freedom legislation on his list of legislative priorities.

“We’re going to be going after trying to protect the florists, the shop owners, the adoption agencies and things like that this next session,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest fight will be over bathrooms.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has promised legislation that would restrict people to the bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate. LGBT advocates say that explicitly targets transgender people, whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth. A similar bill caused a huge controversy in North Carolina earlier this year.

“When you go to the restroom, the 'M does not stand for ‘make up your mind,’ and the 'W' does not stand for ‘whatever,’” he joked at the state Republican convention in Dallas last spring.

“We shouldn’t even be having the debate in America,” he told the cheering crowd. “It’s common sense. It’s common decency.”

But speaking to Dallas business leaders last month, the lieutenant governor had softened his rhetoric. Transgender people had been using the restroom of their choice for years without problems he said, but “if laws are passed that allow men to go into a bathroom because of how they feel, then we would not be able to stop sexual predators from taking advantage of that law like they’ve taken advantage of the internet,” Patrick said.

Chuck Smith of Equality Texas said that’s fear-mongering.

“The claim that somehow protecting transgender people is going to cause people to pretend to be transgender people in order to commit offenses, it simply has not occurred,” Smith said.

Smith has a powerful ally in his corner this year. The business community worries such legislation makes the state less attractive to employers who might move here. The Texas Association of Business estimates that $8.5 billion and 185,000 jobs are at risk.

University of Houston political scientists Brandon Rottinghaus said this pits the Republican Party’s social conservatives against those focused on economic issues.

“We’ve seen this happen before in some other instances but this is one of the more dramatic examples of those issues really coming to a point,” he said.

Rottinghaus said that party in-fighting could hurt Republicans or distract from getting other business done next session. Still, Rottinghaus says, Republican leaders like Dan Patrick may be looking to play to their base by championing red meat issues ahead of re-election bids in 2018. And after a Trump victory, conservatives may be expecting movement on social issues.

“This is the last legislative session they’re going to have to prove their conservative bona fides. And they’re going to have to do that in a direct way to appeal to their base,” Rottinghaus said.

Either way, LGBT advocates expect a lot more unfriendly bills to be filed before lawmakers head back to Austin in January.