“Part of me would like to go back down in the hole if we’re going to do this again,” Chuck Smith, CEO of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Texas, joked, when asked about a recent report in the Austin American-Statesman suggesting that socially conservative lawmakers in the state could spark yet another bathroom battle—again?—during the forthcoming legislative cycle.
“But no,” Smith added on a more serious note, noting that Equality Texas would indeed be prepared to deal with another “bathroom bill” if a serious contender arose.
Whether one will, however, remains an open question.
As the American-Statesman reported, Republican lawmakers in attendance at a recent Texas Values forum—including State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, who sponsored the Senate version of last year’s failed anti-transgender “bathroom bill”—indicated that they would indeed continue to work on anti-LGBT legislation when the next legislative cycle begins in January 2019. When the topic of transgender restroom use came up at the forum, Kolkhorst said that it was “the women’s rights issue of our time.”
In theory, then, another Texas “bathroom bill” could be on the table. The official Texas Republican platform, as the American-Statesman noted, calls for legislation that would ensure “the privacy and safety of women and children in multi-use facilities.”
But given how spectacularly the 2017 version of the Texas “bathroom bill” failed—dying in the House during a special mid-summer session that Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick called for after the legislature failed to pass the anti-transgender measure before their break began—Smith wonders whether these whispers of another “bathroom bill” are just talk.
“Much of that is pandering to a base,” said Smith. “And yet at the same time certainly there are elected officials in both the Texas House and the Texas Senate who don’t want to give up on pursuing this legislation and probably will continue to say that they’re not going to give up—and some of them will probably try again.”
Kolkhorst did not directly respond to The Daily Beast’s question as to whether she will sponsor a “bathroom bill” during the coming cycle, instead referring The Daily Beast through a spokesperson to a tweet from a Texas Tribune reporter that does not definitively answer the question, either.
Patrick did indeed claim a moral victory in the matter, despite the high-profile defeat of last year’s “bathroom bill,” telling reporters this June, “We won. This issue is settled.”
Anti-transgender lawmakers have also been comforted by the Trump administration’s February 2017 rescinding of Obama-era federal guidance on transgender student restroom use—but it should be noted that this action took place months before the Texas special session, when lawmakers including Kolkhorst tried to pass a law requiring students to use restrooms matching the genders listed on their birth certificates.
“During the [Texas Values] panel, Senator Kolkhorst clearly stated that the victory was unwinding the Obama ‘Dear Colleague’ letter issued in May 2016, and that there was proper attention given to the issue so parents in local communities were not caught off guard like they were in Fort Worth and Dripping Springs ISDs,” Matthew Russell, communications director for Kolkhorst, told The Daily Beast, referring to local school districts that adopted transgender-inclusive restroom policies.
Asked to clarify whether or not Kolkhorst would be sponsoring restroom legislation during the next legislative session, Russell did not immediately respond.
Indefinite comments like that give Smith hope that buzz about another “bathroom bill” is just that: buzz, with nothing to back it up.
“Certainly we have to be on the watch and listen to people who are talking about bathroom legislation,” he told The Daily Beast. “Most certainly, somebody will probably file something. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have a lot of traction to move.”
Last year, when Patrick and Kolkhorst spearheaded the push for a “bathroom bill,” a broad array of groups opposed their efforts. Law enforcement leaders and businesses joined the hundreds of sexual assault and domestic violence organizations that had already condemned such anti-transgender legislation.
So far, with the glaring exception of North Carolina, no state has passed legislation explicitly restricting the restroom rights of transgender people—thanks in large part to the increasingly loud chorus of opposition to such bills.
So, in a GroundhogDay-esque scenario where Texas deals with another “bathroom bill,” said Smith, there’s no reason to expect that police chiefs and business owners would suddenly withdraw their LGBT support.
“Those people haven’t gone away and there’s nothing that’s changed that would make blatantly discriminatory legislation like that palatable or necessary in 2019,” he told The Daily Beast.”I would expect the same wave and collation of opposition to that type of unnecessary legislation would push back again, and hopefully harder than before.”
One of Smith’s concerns, however, is the forthcoming retirement of House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate Republican who stopped last year’s “bathroom bill,’ saying that he didn’t “want the suicide of a single Texan on [his] hands.”
Straus’ retirement, as the American-Statesman noted, was favorably mentioned at the Texas Values forum because he could be replaced by a more socially conservative pick who would be more amenable to anti-LGBT efforts—but so far, as the American-Statesman also noted, moderates have been proving more successful in the primary runoffs. That trend has allowed Smith, he says, “to sleep at night.”
In fact, if anything, Smith sees the re-raising of the transgender restroom issue as a way to motivate more socially conservative voters in advance of the November midterms.
“I think LGBTQ opponents are certainly trying to use social issues as a way to try and get people to the polls, and we’ll see how much impact that has,” he told The Daily Beast.
What is more likely, the LGBT leader said, is that socially conservative lawmakers in Texas will double down on anti-LGBT laws like Mississippi’s that would legalize discrimination against LGBT people on the basis that not allowing it would violate religious freedom—the same logic advanced by opponents of LGBT equality used in the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case.
Such legislation would have much more far-reaching effects than a bill narrowly focused on transgender restroom use.
“There will most definitely be an avalanche of legislation that will hide behind religion as a basis to discriminate,” Smith predicted.
Indeed, as The Daily Beast previously reported, targeted anti-transgender bills have been largely sidelined by anti-LGBT groups in favor of what the Human Rights Campaign calls more “sector-specific” bills that focus on legalizing discrimination against LGBT people in specific areas like adoption or wedding services.
But if an old-school “bathroom bill” somehow becomes a serious threat, Smith says LGBT Texans will be ready for another déjà vu-inducing showdown.
“The response from Equality Texas,” he said, “would not be different from the response that I think we could expect from the business community, from mainstream faith communities, from law enforcement communities, from sexual assault and anti-violence groups who would say that this legislation is not about safety or privacy at all—that any such legislation’s sole purpose is to demonize and stigmatize an already vulnerable population of transgender Texans.”