by Sherri Castillo and Joseph Rojas
Despite the fact that Texas is home to the second largest LGBT population in the country by number and share of the total population (ca. 1.8 million and 8.4%), Republican lawmakers filed 140 discriminatory bills targeting the LGBTQIA+ community—nearly doubling the 76 bills filed throughout the 87th state legislative session in 2021. Texas House Democratic and LGBTQ Caucus members have managed to outpace this deluge of bad bills, having filed 144 of their own pro-LGBTQ+ bills. Moreover, the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus and allied organizations are tracking and fighting against this record number of bills restricting the rights of queer and trans people. As bills are assigned to committees, it is increasingly important to communicate to legislators that we do not want discrimination in Texas.
Some of these bills would involve using the power of the state to enforce biological determinism: HB 1952 would require that birth certificates include and mark “biological sex,” defined solely by the presence of a Y chromosome; HB 3883 and HB 3902 would add legal definitions of gender that enforce the gender binary throughout state law and require their use in government statistics; and HB 2862, HB 3147, and HB 3213 would require the separation of inmates in state prisons and juvenile detention facilities based on “biological sex.” Whether it is limiting access to life-saving healthcare or making anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination permissible in certain spheres of public life, these ideas entering the mainstream and the halls of the state legislature represent a worrisome change for the worse in public discourse and policy about issues concerning LGBTQ+ Texans, especially for trans folks and for LGBTQ+ youth and their families.
A common tactic that many Republican lawmakers have employed is to propose their legislation under the guise of “parental rights.” Thus far, the language of so-called “parental rights” legislation often appears designed to seem innocuous. For example, there are proposed constitutional amendments “establishing the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children” and “protecting the fundamental right of parents to raise their children,” which could read quite differently if we were discussing, say, systemic racism in child welfare practices. Among the others proposed so far, one can find bills that would require parental access to or the disclosure of certain information regarding public school materials and activities; “soft censorship,” such as the creation of new (and misleading) content rating or labeling systems; and parental approval or consent for participation in human sexuality education, among other school activities and services. Dovetailing nicely with the simultaneous attacks on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in higher education, the impact of this brand of queer- and transphobic legislation would be LGBTQ+ erasure in education, especially at the K-12 level.
The most brazen and cruel of attacks on LGBTQ+ Texans take aim at drag performances, trans folks, and youth. Part of a national trend, Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), Rep. Nate Schatzline (R-Fort Worth), and Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) submitted identical bills (HB 643, HB 708, HB 1266, and SB 476, respectively) which would define bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and any similar establishments as “sexually oriented business.” The subtext of the use of “sexual,” in this case, is not to indicate a mere relation to gender or sexuality, but to insinuate that drag is deviant and explicit. For some, this will be reminiscent of earlier Anita Bryant-style “sex panics,” which have long portrayed LGBTQ+ people as a potentially corrupting force or a danger to “our children.” Not only does this misconstrue the nature of drag—and thus, many venues geared towards LGBTQ+ people—but, in the state of Texas the Business and Commerce Code currently imposes a fee of $5 on each entry by each customer. Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) separately filed an additional bill (SB 1018), which would raise this fee to $20. Functionally, this would be a “drag tax,” and one that appears designed to target LGBTQ+ people and our allies who have developed cultures around drag. Beyond the risks this poses to critical LGBTQ+ social spaces, even the proposal of this legislation is concomitant with and contributes to an increasingly extreme, threatening, and violent environment for drag performers and LGBTQ+ people.
Across the United States, including in Texas, LGBT people experience higher poverty rates and are more vulnerable to food insecurity, with LGBT people of color and trans folks disproportionately impacted. For all these and many other reasons, the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus is committed to taking an intersectional approach to social equity and justice and invites everyone to join us as we combat this wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and actions. The House LGBTQ Caucus is led by Representative Mary González (D-El Paso). Dra. González completed her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction – Cultural Studies in Education at UT Austin and has been a champion of LGBTQ+ rights during her time serving in the Texas House of Representatives. For those people new to Texas or new to the Texas Legislative Session, it may be helpful to understand how bills are tracked, assigned to committees, and ultimately blocked or passed.
During a legislative session, members introduce new legislation until the filing deadline. Bills are then referred to committees corresponding to their subject matter. For example, one bill the Caucus is tracking would levy additional taxes on any business that hosts drag shows. House Bill 643 has multiple companion and duplicate bills in both the House and Senate. It was referred to the State Affairs Committee at the end of February. If the Chairperson of the State Affairs Committee chooses to hold a hearing for the bill, the public is notified and allowed to participate in the committee process. It is important to track harmful bills so that the Caucus and other agencies can rally people to attend and testify in committee hearings. Public support for and against bills can have an impact on whether or not the committee recommends the bill be considered by the full House and Senate. Even if a bill is reported favorably by its committee, it still has to be placed on a House or Senate calendar and considered on the House or Senate floor. If a bill makes it past all of those steps and passes both the House and the Senate, it may be signed into law or vetoed by the Governor. Many of the thousands of bills filed each session do not make it out of committee and are never heard by the full House or Senate.Though bills are not easily passed during the biannual Texas Legislative Session, bill passage is not always the goal. For some lawmakers, political posturing and sending a message to their constituents is more important than passing legislation.
Before and since Tennessee recently became the first state to ban drag performances in public spaces, there has been a public outcry from drag performers against these bills. We have local drag queens right here in Austin who regularly use their platform to support performers like themselves and LGBTQ+ people who rely on the social spaces they provide. Brigitte Bandit, for example, has called out Republican lawmakers in Texas “who are more concerned about protesting and introducing bills about drag shows than the fact that our state has seen the most school shootings since 2012, we continue to drop in rank among the states for education funding and teacher pay, that 1/5th of our children are living in poverty and we are the last state in child healthcare insurance coverage.” She, like many other Austin drag queens, performs at family-friendly events, recently telling The Texas Tribune that, “Like any form of art, drag can be modified to be appropriate for children. We are smart enough to know what that is.” Now more than ever it is important to support local drag: Take your body to a show, tip the queens, follow them on social media, buy their merch, and most of all, show up at the next event, hearing, or protest!
There are many ways Texans can communicate their disagreement with politicians who want to pass discriminatory policies. Staying informed about proposed legislation and contacting local representatives to support and oppose policies is one way citizens can take an active role in what happens at the Texas Capitol. Additionally, there are many resources available to track legislation and set bill alerts to keep informed about bills in committee and bills taken to the floor for debate. Texas Legislature Online is a great resource for following bills, watching committee hearings in real time, and submitting online testimony. Anyone can influence bills!
- In the House:
- Testify at the Capitol (instructions here);
- Drop a Card: This registers your position on a piece of legislation and becomes part of the official record. Note that this must be done at the Capitol either logged onto Capitol Wi-Fi or via the kiosks in the extension hallways (registration here);
- Submit public comments (instructions here).
- In the Senate:
- Most committees only accept invited testimony, but for those that do you can either fill out a paper witness card and submit it to the Assistant Clerk, or register electronically via the kiosks in the extension hallways (registration here);
- Some committees accept written testimony, the requirements for which can be found on an official Notice (example) and usually entail providing a specific number of physical copies and/or a digital copy to the committee clerk;
- Dropping a card is the same as in the House, but one will not find a link for submitting public comments on the Senate side of the legislature.
Those who may want to be more involved in delivering testimony against bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community may find support from several non-profit organizations operating in Texas that provide actionable resources. Equality Texas is an excellent resource for organizing rallies and providing support to queer and trans people. The Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) provides toolkits for working with transgender students, sending Letters to the Editor and love letters to trans people, and is an active proponent of better protections for transgender and non-binary people in K-12 education. The ACLU of Texas helps to organize legislative action and provides resources to help take action against bills that are bad for LGBTQ+ people and those with intersecting identities.
Sherri Castillo is a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of education policy changes on transgender and non-binary students living in Texas during the 2021 and 2023 legislative sessions. Sherri has worked as a legislative intern for the Texas House of Representatives LGBTQ+ Caucus and leading qualitative research projects at UT Austin. Sherri’s work has been published in Socius, the Journal for Education Human Resources, and The Journal for Praxis in Higher Education. Sherri currently lives in Texas with her wife and far too many animals.
Joseph Rojas is a Program Officer on the Citizen Participation & Inclusion team at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. They graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in May of 2023 with a Master’s in Latin American Studies and a graduate certificate in LGBTQ Studies, and interned for the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus during their last semester. They specialize in queer studies in Brazil, and their thesis research examined the spatial practices of young queer and trans femmes in Sobral, Ceará. They currently live in Washington, DC.