Transgender bathroom bills again the focus of hours of testimony

With a long day of testimony continuing into the night, the Capitol rang once again Friday with voices debating legislation to ban transgender-friendly bathroom policies by local governments and public schools.

Sometimes tearful, sometimes angry during this year’s third public hearing on the subject, transgender Texans and parents of transgender children told the Senate State Affairs Committee that limiting bathroom use to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate would target a vulnerable population for harassment, isolation and discrimination.

“What about my safety? There are people out there who hate me,” said Ashley Smith, a transgender woman who said the two bills by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would force her to use the men’s restroom even though she looks nothing like a man.

Tourism officials from Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and Galveston also opposed the bills, testifying that the debate over transgender policies has already cost the state millions of dollars in canceled conventions and business meetings — with far higher losses coming if either bill becomes law.

Business representatives also said the bills would damage the state’s pro-business reputation and make it harder to recruit top talent to Texas.

Opponents outnumbered supporters by more than 4-to-1 after almost eight hours of testimony, with hours more on tap after more than 250 people signed up to speak on the bills at two minutes apiece.

Supporters said the legislation is needed to protect the safety and dignity of women in vulnerable situations.

Dana Hodges, state director of Concerned Women for America, said sexual predators use gender-neutral bathrooms “as an opportunity to prey upon women.”

“I am here to ask you why the wishes of a very few sexually confused minors are more important than the rights of all the women of the state of Texas,” Hodges said.

Dave Welch, head of the Texas Pastor Council, submitted a letter of support for the legislation signed by 700 Texas pastors.

“The 99.4 percent of women who are not confused about their gender deserve the protection of the law,” Welch said.

Some of the most heartfelt testimony came from parents who sat next to or held their transgender children — showing committee members, as one put it, that they had nothing to fear, and relating the difficulty of watching their youngsters cope with a hostile world.

Several predicted that suicides would rise if the bills become law, noting that surveys have shown that 40 percent of transgender people have tried to kill themselves.

The father of a transgender high school student from Leander introduced himself as a staunch Republican who opposed the bills as the antithesis of conservative values, saying attempts to determine who can use which bathroom are “about as intrusive and big government as you can get.”

Jess Herbst, a transgender woman and mayor of New Hope in Collin County, said the legislation was unnecessary because current criminal law covers any problems, including voyeurism and sexual assault, that occur in public bathrooms or elsewhere.

“If passed, this bill would make Texas the only state in the nation that requires discrimination against transgender people,” said Cathryn Oakley with the Human Rights Campaign.

Statewide, $66 million in convention bookings has been lost to cancellations over concern about the bathroom bills, said Phillip Jones, head of Visit Dallas.

Tom Noonan, head of Visit Austin, said the city has already lost two conventions, which could have added $10 million to the economy, because the Legislature has been debating bills on transgender bathroom policies. Groups with business worth an additional $133 million have said they will cancel Austin conventions if either bill passes, he said.

Kolkhorst said she introduced Senate Bills 3 and 91, which are nearly identical, to “protect the privacy of women and children as well as gains made by women in athletics under Title IX,” which bars sex-based discrimination.

Both bills would ban transgender-friendly policies for multioccupancy private facilities by local governments and in public schools and open-enrollment charter schools. The bills also would prohibit cities and counties from requiring transgender-friendly bathrooms and ban schools from allowing transgender athletes to compete in athletic events that match their gender identity.

Passage of the bills isn’t in doubt in the committee or full Senate, both of which are dominated by Republicans who favor the legislation.

A vote by the full Senate, which approved a similar bill during the regular session, is expected as early as Monday.

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