Equity & Diversity

Texas Kicks Off Emotional Debate Over ‘Bathroom Bill’ in Special Session

By Evie Blad — July 21, 2017 5 min read
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A Texas Senate committee held a marathon hearing Friday, listening to emotional testimony from people on both sides of a debate over a so-called “bathroom bill,” which would restrict access to restrooms in public buildings in the state—including public schools—based on the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.

If one of two proposed bills is eventually signed into law, the Lonestar State will become the second in the country to enact a measure that restricts transgender students’ access to facilities like restrooms and locker rooms in schools. The first, North Carolina, faced a lawsuit from the Obama administration’s Justice Department. It has since amended its law, but transgender advocacy groups say the changes don’t resolve their concerns.

After the Texas legislature failed to pass a bill on restricting transgender access during its regular session, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, included it in his call for a special session.

What the bills’ opponents said

Opponents of the bills, including chambers of commerce and tourism groups, told the Texas Senate’s state affairs committee that passing it into law could have a negative economic impact on the state due to a loss of tourism and tech jobs. Some educational leaders, including a group of San Antonio-area superintendents, have voiced the opposition.

Transgender children’s learning time is often interrupted when they don’t have access to the same restrooms as their peers, some witnesses said. That’s because single-stall restrooms, typically in staff areas and nurses’ offices, are often farther from classrooms than the multi-stall restrooms designated for students.

A transgender student who now identifies as a boy said he gets awkward looks from female classmates when he uses the girls’ restroom, but his school will not allow him to use the boys’ bathroom. Another witness read written testimony from his 14-year-old transgender son, Landon Richie, who described walking seven minutes each way to use a restroom in the school nurse’s office.

“This is not a reasonable accommodation, and it limits my learning opportunities,” he wrote.

National advocates for transgender rights have said some students avoid drinking water at school so they can limit uncomfortable trips to the restroom. Restrictive access policies amount to state-sanctioned bullying of these children, who are already at higher risk for suicide and depression, they argue.

Rachel Gonzalez, a mother who testified before the Texas committee, said she and her husband deliberated for years before they agreed to recognize their 7-year-old daughter Libby’s gender transition.

“I really just wanted to convey to all of you how difficult it can be to be a parent of a transgender child,” she said. “This was not a flippant decision. This was not my child saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m a girl today,’ and we jumped on board. ... We knew that she would be victimized for living an authentic life, but we also knew we had to support her.”

Libby also testified. “I never want to use the boys’ restroom,” she told lawmakers. “It would be so weird. Please keep me safe. Thank you.”

What the bills’ supporters said

Supporters told the committee they are concerned about their privacy and the privacy of their children in public restrooms.

Some expressed concern that some schools in Texas had passed policies allowing transgender students to use facilities that match their gender identities without seeking public input. Others said boys who are not actually transgender may use such policies as permission to access girls’ restrooms and that school policies on transgender policies promote “gender confusion.”

“Even if a boy wants to be a girl, biologically they are not,” 5th-grade student Shiloh Satterfield told the committee. “I think the fact that a boy might even come in [to the restroom] is very uncomfortable and it would make me feel nervous.”

Her father, Rob Satterfield, said Shiloh’s school district had refused to include opponents of its transgender-student policy on its meeting agendas. He dismissed concerns about the economic impact of passing one of the bills into law.

“As a dad, there’s no amount of money that I wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice to protect the dignity, and the safety, and the modesty of my little girl, and my wife, and my son,” he said.

Legal confusion about Title IX and transgender students

Lawmakers and witnesses expressed some confusion during the hearing about whether the sex-discrimination protections in Title IX apply to gender identity, as well as biological sex.

The Obama administration previously asserted that Title IX, the federal gender non-discrimination law, guarantees the rights of transgender students to access bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, even if it differs from their sex at birth. But the administration of Donald Trump lifted that guidance shortly after he took office, bringing an end to a multi-state lawsuit led by Texas that said the federal guidance threatened the privacy rights of students.

Absent that guidance, states and schools are on their own to interpret federal law in this area.

By lifting the guidance, the Trump administration communicated that it would not take civil rights enforcement actions against schools that restrict restroom access for transgender students. But LGBT legal advocacy groups have said they will continue to assert the Obama-era interpretation of Title IX in federal courts. Several federal courts have sided with transgender students in such lawsuits, granting preliminary motions to secure their access to restrooms that match their gender identities while their cases are heard. But some educational professional groups have said the issue may not ultimately be settled until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

Photo: Protesters gather on the steps of the Texas Capitol in Austin earlier this week while State lawmakers begin a special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. LGBT activists bitterly oppose “bathroom bill” proposals. --Eric Gay/AP

Further reading about transgender students:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.