AUSTIN, Texas ― A potential compromise to avoid a full-blown set of bathroom restrictions keeping trans Texans from using the facilities that most closely match their gender fell apart Friday night, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) once again implied that he’d force legislators to return for a special session if the measure doesn’t pass.
Patrick has made the issue a priority since the beginning of the regular session, which started in January. But the bill he backed in the state Senate, which would have required trans Texans to use public bathrooms of the sex listed on their birth certificates, failed to gain traction in the state House of Representatives.
Instead, House Speaker Joe Straus blocked the measure and threw his support behind an amendment to a separate bill last week as his watered-down alternative. The amendment would have required public and charter K-12 schools ― but not government buildings ― to provide single-use bathrooms to those uncomfortable using facilities of their “biological sex.” The amendment wouldn’t have overturned more inclusive local policies, which Patrick wanted.
Friday night, both Straus and Patrick called press conferences to tell reporters neither one intended to budge. Patrick once again threatened to push legislators into a special session over the issue.
“They’re definitely playing a game of chicken,” Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, told HuffPost. “Straus has effectively told Patrick, take it or leave it.”
Straus is an establishment Republican who opposes the bill and fears it will drag the state through the same negative publicity and boycotts that North Carolina faced last year when it restricted bathroom use for trans people. He’d spoken publicly against the idea, but backed the amendment last week after Patrick threatened to hold up must-pass legislation if the House didn’t approve some version of the bathroom restrictions.
“He said he has compromised enough, but in fact, he has not compromised at all,” Patrick said, according to the Texas Tribune.
“It communicates to transgender people that they don’t belong. Quite literally, this bill is killing my patients.”
The state legislature meets once every two years for five months. But Patrick, a staunch conservative who presides over the Texas Senate, once again raised the possibility of pulling lawmakers back to Austin for the express purpose of considering the bathroom bill.
“We are representing the people of Texas,” Patrick said, according to the Texas Observer. “Women want to be protected in bathrooms, government bathrooms, across this state… Every poll clearly says that.”
During debates at the legislature, supporters of the Republican-backed bill did little to show that the state faces a public safety problem if people use public bathrooms that correspond with their gender identification. Assaulting women or men in a public bathroom or anywhere else is already illegal. Trans bathroom use is not associated with crime.
Hundreds of people, however, told legislators at a committee hearing in March that the bill would needlessly stigmatize and harm trans Texans. Only 9 percent of trans Americans have successfully altered the markers on their birth certificates, according to a 2015 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The study cited bureaucratic hurdles and associated costs as obstacles.
Colt Keo-Meier, a clinical psychologist who specializes in serving transgender clients and has transitioned himself, told Senators in March that his clients routinely suffer from suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems provoked by the harsh way they are treated.
“It communicates to transgender people that they don’t belong,” Keo-Meier said of the measures Patrick supports. “Quite literally, this bill is killing my patients.”
The compromise amendment backed by Straus didn’t satisfy LGBTQ advocates, who likened it to segregation. But in a legislative session dominated by hardline conservatives, Straus hoped it would at least limit the bad press and economic consequences that the original bill threatened to unleash.
“For many of us — and especially for me — this was a compromise,” Straus told reporters Friday, according to the Texas Tribune. “As far as I’m concerned, it was enough. We will go no further. This is the right thing to do in order to protect our economy from billions of dollars in losses and more importantly to protect the safety of some very vulnerable young Texans.”
If Patrick refuses to back down, the pressure to raise the bill will fall on Gov. Greg Abbott. He alone has the authority to call a special legislative session, and he picks which bills state lawmakers may consider when taking that measure. Abbott has said he supports some measure restricting bathroom use.
But forcing a special session over the issue would put an even greater spotlight on the controversial bill, which worries some business-minded Republicans. Two studies showed the state would lose billions of dollars due to boycotts and lost tourism if the measure passes.
“If it passes during the regular session, it appears like a priority,” said Jones, the political scientist from Rice University. “But if you call a special session to pass the bathroom legislation, you’re essentially saying this is such a priority we’re willing to pay approximately $1 million to hold a special session and make 181 legislators return to Austin to debate it and pass it.”
If Abbott were to call a special session and place bathroom restrictions on the agenda, they’d have a higher likelihood of passing because Straus would have less room to use procedural tools to block the measure.
“The Texas economy is sliding backwards. Healthcare for millions of Texans could be ripped away. Our students pay the price for a broken school finance system. Higher education is out of reach for working families. And Texas workers still need a damn raise,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement in response to the controversy.
“We are facing a Texas with less opportunity, and Republicans have been debating bathrooms for months,” he added. “Texas Republicans have failed us all.”