One of the most heated debates in Austin this legislative session is over Senate Bill 6. Introduced as the Privacy Protection Act, the "bathroom bill" would bar people from using restrooms or locker rooms in schools and other government buildings that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates.
It would also would nullify local protections passed in order to give transgender people the right to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Opponents say it’s discriminatory, but a key argument in favor of the bill is that it is a public safety measure, though the data to support that argument is largely anecdotal. Opponents raise their own anecdotal evidence, and one researcher is collecting data to add clarity and rigor to the debate.
Linking public safety and transgender Texans
Earlier this legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the bill is about public safety, though he clarified that he didn't think public safety was directly threatened by transgender people. While sexual assault and other crimes that might occur in bathrooms remain illegal, Patrick says that transgender protections can make it too confusing to enforce the laws.
“It’s about preventing a free pass to sexual predators, who are not transgender, to be able to walk into any bathroom with any child or any woman at any time,” Patrick said.
This got one listener wondering: Is there any evidence to back up the claim that SB6 would keep Texans safe? Taken a step further, the question gets at whether expanding rights for transgender people undermines safety or leads to greater incidents of crimes in bathrooms.
Back when the Senate Committee on State Affairs held a hearing on Senate Bill 6 about a month ago, hundreds of people packed in into the committee chamber and an overflow room in the heart of the Texas Capitol. Testimony lasted for 20 hours, proponents and opponents raised a host of issues and concerns. But the first to bring up public safety was the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham).
“There’s been a number of incidences just here in Austin, recently. Just a few days ago at the Salvation Army store, a man was recording a woman changing in a dressing room,” she said.
Kolkhorst talked about that incident and more that were worse, all where women and girls have been harmed or spied on in bathrooms. She said it’s the consequence of giving people the right to use the bathroom based on their gender identity as opposed to the sex on their birth certificate.
“While many have made this about a transgender bill, it’s more about someone who will use this bill as an excuse to go into the most intimate places we find ourselves in,” she said at the hearing.
Kolkhorst did not reply to a request for comment.
'Common sense' versus objective data
The two largest law enforcement groups in Texas have said they’re not concerned that expanding transgender protections threatens public safety.
Nonetheless, proponents like Jonathan Saenz find the anecdotal evidence Kolkhorst and others have pointed to as evidence of risk to be compelling. Saenz heads the conservative Christian group Texas Values, which opposes LGBT rights. With transgender protections advancing across the state and country, he said Texas should block them even if evidence of their public safety impact is rooted in collected individual accounts rather than rigorous research.
“We’re not going to wait for academia to put a report out, when the evidence is already clear and makes common sense to people,” he said.
Of course, common sense is in the eye of the beholder. Katie Sprinkle is a lawyer based in Dallas. She’s transgender, and said proponents of SB6 are cherry-picking their facts.
“Now we’re up to 19 states that have statewide protections, and you still have 200 cities. And common sense would suggest that you look and see what’s happening in those states. And they’re not doing that,” she said.
Turns out, doing that is pretty complicated. Jody Herman has been finding that out. She’s a researcher at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which studies LGBT issues.
“You have to find the right data to study the issue,” she said.
Finding the evidence
Getting that data means going through troves of police reports culled from jurisdictions before and after transgender protections are enacted. That’s what Massachusetts did and that’s what Herman’s been studying. That research is ongoing, but she has been able to put together some preliminary findings.
“We have found no evidence to support a relationship between public safety incidents in bathrooms with anti-discrimination laws that cover transgender people’s ability to use those spaces,” she said.
Still, Herman said that doesn’t make the crimes SB6 supporters are concerned about any less real.
“These incidents have occurred, they are occurring, and public safety is a concern. But the problem is that they’re linking it to anti-discrimination protections for trans people in a way that I think is completely inappropriate and not supported by the evidence,” she said.
Research does show that one group does face heightened risk in public restrooms, Herman said: transgender people. In a recent survey of 27,000 transgender adults, one in eight said they’d been harassed, attacked or sexually assaulted in bathrooms in the previous year.
Sprinkle said, especially when she was transitioning, using public restrooms was harrowing.
“I would run in, use the very first stall so I was closest to the door. I would wait in the stall if others were in the bathroom until they were gone and then I would quickly leave. I wouldn’t wash my hands, I wouldn’t comb my hair, check my makeup,” she said. "I would keep hand sanitizer in my purse so I didn't have to wash my hands."
Even though she lives in a city that now protects her right to use a women’s restroom, Sprinkle worries that fears stoked by the SB6 debate are putting transgender people even more at risk whenever they use a public restroom.
Jen Rice contributed research to this story. This feature was produced as part of Texas Decides, a series produced in cooperation with the Texas Station Collaborative.