‘Bathroom bill’ in Texas ignited transgender activism

AUSTIN, Texas – State Sen. Judith Zaffirini was prepared to do Dan Patrick a favor.

He’s the lieutenant governor, the veteran senator thought, and he cared about this “bathroom bill.” Plus, since he assumed his role as head of the Senate two years earlier, Patrick had never called to ask her to vote for something.

“‘If at the end of the hearing, you’re 50-50 on the issue, will you vote yes?'” Zaffirini, a Democrat, said she remembers him asking. “I said, ‘Yes, that’s fair.'”

For more than a year, Patrick pulled out all the stops for the bathroom bills, which would have restricted restroom use based on biological sex and undone local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting the rights of transgender Texans.

But rather than pushing them farther into the shadows, Patrick’s bathroom bills have galvanized the transgender community in Texas like never before. New friends have been made, activist networks formed and some are even running for office, all spurred by an effort they feared would only vilify and dehumanize them.

Patrick’s crusade, however, succeeded in further dividing his own party, whose fissures were laid bare as big business, big oil, police and teachers pushed back. The Republican Party was at odds with benefactors it has long protected, underlining the struggle between the traditional “open for business” Republicanism of the Rick Perry years and the culture war evangelism Patrick espouses.

The bathroom bill’s defeat was stunning. Patrick is considered by many to be the most influential conservative in Texas. But more astounding than this failure was its effect on the marginalized group it targeted.

The transgender community is now a new standard-bearer for the civil rights fight in Texas. And they have more allies than ever.

Count Zaffirini among them. There’s a saying in Spanish, she says: “‘No hay mal que por bien no venga’ – Nothing bad happens without something good coming of it.”

“A lot of good came from (the bathroom bills). The spotlight on the issue, new insider knowledge, the compassion and support,” Zaffirini said. “There is strength in numbers.”

As alderman and mayor pro tem of a small town in Collin County, Jess Herbst was content to busy herself with matters important to her and the other 672 citizens of New Hope.

Then, at 58, she came out as a transgender woman. She became an instant celebrity as the only openly transgender elected official in Texas. She probably would have been content to stay in New Hope after her 15 minutes faded – if it weren’t for the bathroom bill.

By now, though, she has learned to navigate the state Capitol nearly as well as she can New Hope’s tiny town hall. And she’s not leaving now that the bathroom bill’s dead.

“I plan on playing a role on trying to get as many of the Republicans unseated as possible,” Herbst said. “I’ve had, God, a dozen people reach out to me for advice on how to run for office.

“This whole thing has backfired on Dan Patrick and 1/8Gov. Greg3/8 Abbott.”

Several LGBT candidates are already on the ballot for 2018, many of whom were emboldened specifically by the debate over restrooms. In a year when Texas Democrats don’t have a candidate for governor, they’re intent on at least trying at the local level.

Twenty-six transgender men and women ran or are running for elected office nationwide this year, far more than at any other time, according to Logan Casey, a Harvard University researcher who tracks the transgender community’s political involvement.

They have an obvious uphill, perhaps insurmountable, challenge in unseating incumbent Republicans. But whether they win or lose, Casey said it’s significant that people are hearing their voices for the first time.

Republican senators who started the year using incorrect pronouns or inappropriate words like “transgendered” were, months later, adopting the correct terminology. And some, like Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas, changed their minds on the issue entirely.

His moment of clarity came when House Republicans got a text message from a prominent Patrick donor arguing they were on a slippery slope to approving “prostitution, transvestitism, pedophilia or bestiality.”

“This was hate, pure and simple, and Texas rejected it outright,” Villalba said. “I think it will blow up in their face.”

That sounded familiar to Glen Maxey.

The first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature in 1991, Maxey said he’s seen a version of this fight before. He was a gay activist during the height of the HIV epidemic, when similar arguments were used to vilify gay men.

But the push to restrict bathroom access has strengthened activist networks. The number of attendees at Transgender Lobby Day increased almost fourfold in two years, and the gay and queer community is now backing their transgender brothers and sisters like never before.

That’s “the most important thing that comes out of the darkness of this, the evil of this,” Maxey said. “The transgender community is now a full partner in the civil rights movement.”

Patrick began advocating for the bathroom bill months before the Legislature gathered in Austin this year. Men should not be allowed in women’s restrooms, showers and locker rooms, he said, and only passing a statewide law to prohibit that would protect their privacy and dignity.

“This issue is so clear and simple that it defies belief,” Patrick said in April 2016. “Have we gone too far in the world of political correctness that we’ve forgotten common sense, common decency?”

He pushed the idea for months, easily moving the legislation through the Senate. But when the bill reached the House, it met a brick wall: Republican Speaker Joe Straus.

July was when the tide truly turned.

After months of working behind the scenes, big-business representatives turned out in droves against the bathroom bill. The opposition eventually grew to include 51 Fortune 500 companies, police chiefs from several major cities, state and national teacher groups and the Episcopal Church.

CEO after CEO sent letters to Abbott, calling the bills an embarrassing and dangerous example of state-sanctioned bigotry.

By August, with just weeks left in the special session, any momentum the bathroom bills once had had fallen away. The debate stagnated.

Patrick’s side hunkered down, repeating unproven theories that men would pose as transgender women to gain access to girls’ bathrooms. The opposition, growing still larger, pointed to voyeurism and assault laws already on the books.

Neither side was budging. The stalemate perfectly encapsulated the growing fissure in the Republican Party between business-friendly, small government traditionalists and Patrick’s far-right social conservatives. By backing the bathroom bill, Abbott threw his lot in with the latter.

The rift with big business is not expected to last. But the breaks exposed in the Republican Party could be more lasting.

Patrick has threatened to make the issue a conservative litmus test for Republicans running in next spring’s primaries. Abbott, too, issued a veiled threat to Straus, warning him there may be political consequences for killing half of the governor’s special session agenda.

Asked to reflect on the issue, Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who wrote one of the bathroom bills, said in a statement that “men do not belong in female locker rooms, showers and restrooms and no amount of monetary threats, corporate logos, New Yorker articles or Hollywood hypocrisy will ever change that.

“Many Texans are alarmed at the effort by some to erode all gender barriers in our schools and public spaces and at the end of the day, there will be future legislative sessions and elections to continue the conversation.”

Transgender Texans worry that the hatred exposed by the bathroom debate will grow as their visibility increases. The past year has been scary, jarring and exhausting.

But Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for LGBT rights group Equality Texas, hopes transgender men, women and children know they aren’t weathering those attacks by themselves.

“It’s a different feeling now, of not being so alone in tackling this,” he said.

Despite the sound defeat, Patrick shows no signs of letting go, promising the bathroom bill will be resurrected when lawmakers meet again in two years. Until then, the LGBT community expects his allies to work piecemeal to undo local laws and school rules that protect transgender rights.