One mother decided to run for the Legislature when her own state rep wouldn’t talk to her about her trans daughter
DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
Meet Valerie Hefner. She’s a new breed of Mama Bear, someone fiercely protective of her children.
Hefner lives in Sherman, about 80 miles north of Dallas, with her four kids. One kid’s gay. Two are straight. And her youngest is her trans daughter, Arrianna.
Arri’s in 6th grade this year, and this year things have been better in school than they were last year. Hefner said the bullying comes and goes, but she noticed that when teachers and school staff treat Arri as they do any other kid and its business as usual, things are good.
But, she added, “When a teacher keeps slipping, that’s when I notice trouble with the other kids.”
Last year, Arri had to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office. This year, she’s using the girl’s room. Maybe school staff has learned it doesn’t matter? Or maybe they’re a little intimidated by Hefner since she announced her run for the Texas Legislature.
Hefner said she was always busy working and taking care of her four children, so she never got involved in state or local politics. She first took notice after the Obergefell marriage equality ruling in June 2015, when Kim Davis made the news.
Davis is the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it conflicted with her religious beliefs. Hefner doesn’t believe Davis gets to decide that.
“She doesn’t get a choice,” Hefner said. “It’s her job. That wouldn’t fly in any other profession. She’d be fired.”
Hefner said she was also outraged at how the media handled the story, turning Davis into a hero for not doing her job.
Then came this year’s onslaught of so-called “bathroom bills” in the Texas Legislature — efforts to pass laws targeting transgender people by regulating what public restrooms they could use. Because of work, Hefner wasn’t able to make it to Austin to testify herself, but she watched the testimony online that went late into the night.
“It fell on deaf ears,” she said of lawmakers’ responses to the public testimony that was overwhelmingly against the bathroom bills.
Hefner was sorry she couldn’t go herself, but did what she could: “All I could do was call my state rep.”
She left a message for state Rep. Larry Phillips at his office, asking that he call her. She wanted him to know that he had the life of one of his own constituents in his hands.
But, “He never picked the phone up to call me back,” Hefner said.
So she started going to Democratic club meetings in her area to get more involved. And, she said, “Me going to those meetings turned into me running for state rep.”
Hefner said she knew since Arri was two or three years old that she was different from the other kids. Arri, who was assigned male at birth, liked dolls and dressing in a princess costume.
“She put on make-up and walked around in my shoes,” Hefner said. “She had a purse since she was three.”
Hefner thought Arri was probably gay and always let her be herself.
But at age nine, Arri “told me she had a girl’s soul in a boy’s body,” Hefner said.
Hefner said she immediately went to the web, did some research and watched a few episodes of the reality show about a trans teen called I Am Jazz. But, she said, it wasn’t a shock when Arri told her she was a girl since Arri had always been consistent about her gender identity.
After her fifth grade experience where she had to use the nurse’s bathroom, Hefner knew her daughter wasn’t happy. So over the summer she told Arri, “If you want to go to the girl’s bathroom, I’ll deal with it.”
Two months into the school year, one staff member saw Arri walk into the girl’s room. Hefner was called to the school. She told them there was no law on the books about bathroom use, and there’d been no problem in the two months Arri had been using the girls room.
So why, Hefner demanded of school officials, were they trying to start a problem where none had existed?
As she begins her campaign for public office, Hefner likes to tell people in her district, “I’m more concerned with what goes on in the classroom than in the bathroom.”
One issue of concern for Hefner is the amount of standardized testing required in the schools, which she believes is killing public education and shouldn’t be tied to teacher pay.
Another looming problem is healthcare. Lawmakers in the 2017 Legislature spent time arguing over unnecessary bathroom bills that should have instead been spent dealing with healthcare. And now, with CHIP not renewed by Congress, 400,000 Texas children face losing their coverage. That means some children won’t get life-saving medication they need.
“I feel I can do something about that,” Hefner said.
Although she has no opponent in the March Democratic primary, Hefner’s already been out campaigning. She said every town and city in the area has a fall festival, and she attended as many of them as she could. This summer she plans to knock on as many doors as she can.
This might be the right time for a newcomer to jump into that North Texas race, which has traditionally been a safely Republican seat. Phillips is retiring from the seat that covers Grayson, Fannin and Delta counties. In November, she’ll face one of the three people running for the Republican nomination.
Hefner said she has spoken to some of her neighbors, Republicans who have said who are supporting her. When she’s asked them why, they’ve told her they’ve looked at what the Republican Party has become they told her: “This is not what I signed on for.”
Hefner lives in a Republican district, but this might be the year a Democrat has a chance even in that conservative part of the state.