Texas A&M Student Senate passes anti-gay bill to cut program’s funding; state Rep. Bill Zedler temporarily withdraws similar statewide measure
AUSTIN — LGBT resource centers at Texas universities became the target of legislation this week aimed at defunding them based on religious and health reasons.
State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, withdrew a budget amendment Thursday night that would have cut state funding from universities with “Gender and Sexuality Centers.” It was unclear whether Zedler would try to revive the measure later in the session.
Matthew Posey, Zedler’s legislative director, declined to comment on what led to Zedler’s decision.
Meanwhile, the Texas A&M University Student Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would allow students to opt out of funding the campus GLBT Resource Center if they have religious objections.
Zedler’s amendment would have prohibited universities from using state funds “to support, promote, or encourage any behavior that would lead to high risk behavior for AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis B, or any sexually transmitted disease.”
Two years ago, a proposal to ban LGBT resource centers was defeated on the House floor. Several calls to Zedler’s office were not returned earlier this week.
Daniel Williams, field organizer for Equality Texas, said the amendment being withdrawn shows how the “massive public outcry” about the measure put Zedler under “tremendous pressure.”
“It means we won,” Williams said, adding that Zedler will have a harder time adding the amendment on to future bills.
The amendment would have to be added to a related bill, Williams said. And despite there being a number of higher education-related bills this session, he said the process makes it harder for Zedler to pass his amendment.
“We will continue to diligently analyze all legislation,” Williams said.
Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said Zedler’s amendment was “misguided and misinformed” and was glad to see the large response in opposition to the amendment this week leading up to Zedler’s decision to withdraw it late Thursday. Smith said in most instances student fees go toward LGBT centers, so there is little, if any, state funding allotted them.
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, defeated Zedler in 2008 but lost to him in 2010. Turner was drawn into a new district in 2012. Turner told Dallas Voice this week that the Zedler amendment would only continue to harm LGBT youth.
“Many young Texans struggle with their sexual identity every day,” Turner said. “We, as state legislators, have no business making their struggle even more difficult by proposing mean-spirited and divisive measures.”
Williams said while the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M and the University of Houston have dedicated offices for their LGBT resources centers, the amendment could also affect the LGBT program at the University of Texas at Arlington, as well as women’s centers at several universities.
Last year $42,000 was budgeted for the UTA program that is staffed by graduate interns and peer volunteers.
The University of North Texas offers a minor in LGBT studies and has an LGBT library collection, but it was unclear whether the amendment would affect those programs.
James Lee, a junior at the University of Houston, started the “Get Off my Backpack” campaign this week in opposition to Zedler’s amendment. Lee also created an online petition to encourage people to contact their legislators to vote down the measure.
As a senator in student government, he helped unanimously pass a resolution opposing Zedler’s amendment Wednesday night.
Lee grew up in a conservative Catholic family in Brownsville. His family members had different views on being gay, so when he researched universities to transfer to two years ago, he said the LGBT resource center at U of H was the deciding factor.
During his time at the university, he said his experience has been life changing because of the support and education he received from the center.
“Coming to the University of Houston and having the resource that’s on that campus, it opened so many other doors for me and completely changed my life,” Lee said. “Its sole purpose is to help and to educate students.”
Lee said he thinks Zedler’s mission was to stop LGBT centers from prospering at universities, as well as to prevent any future centers.
Meanwhile, in College Station this week, Texas A&M’s Student Senate approved a bill late Wednesday after an emotional three-hour debate that would allow students to opt out of funding the LGBT resource center if they have religious objections.
Less than 24 hours before the vote, the name of the bill was changed from the “GLBT Funding Opt Out Bill” to the “The Religious Funding Exemption Bill,” and specific references to the GLBT Resource Center were removed. However, opponents of the bill who packed the Student Senate meeting before the vote Wednesday said the name change did not alter the bill’s discriminatory, anti-gay intent.
Online petitions sprung up in response to the vote, encouraging Student Body President John Claybrook to veto the bill, as his predecessor did with a similar bill in 2011.
Another petition called for alumni to pledge to end donations to the university until the discrimination stops.
Camden Breeding, former president of the GLBT Aggies group on campus, said he’s confident Claybrook will veto the bill. And with the bill passing by only a 35-28 margin, it’s unlikely the veto could be overturned.
“He, himself, responded with great emotion to the pain of his fellow LGBT Aggies and left the meeting in tears,” Breeding said Thursday of Claybrook. “I think he understands the hurt and division this bill has caused and I hope he stands by us in our time of need.”
As for the LGBT community on the campus, Breeding said the lack of knowledge has contributed to the attacks on the center and he hopes that will change in time thanks to the tireless work of advocates.
“It is a great challenge to be an LGBT Aggie, especially on days like today, but we are a strong and resilient community that will grow stronger and closer as a result of this,” Breeding said. “This is not the end; it is just the beginning.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 5, 2013.