Daniel Williams

DANIEL WILLIAMS | Legislative Queery

This week was the 12th of Texas’ 20-week regular legislative session, held in odd-numbered years. The urgency of looming deadlines has pressed lawmakers into a flurry of activity with committee hearings lasting into the wee hours of the morning and lawmakers engaging in hours-long floor debates. While the heated budget fight continues to dominate headlines, several key bills important to the LGBT community have quietly made progress this week.

On Tuesday, the House Public Education Committee considered legislation designed to address the issue of bullying, including House Bill 24 by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Duval, Starr, Webb and Zapata counties, and House Bill 170 by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo. Guillen’s bill had originally been scheduled for a public hearing on March 1, but he removed it from consideration to address concerns that it focused simply on punishing bullies and not on preventing bullying in the first place. At Tuesday’s hearing, Guillen offered a revised version of the bill that included education and prevention elements not in his original bill.

This was the second time this session that the committee heard legislation on the subject of bullying. During discussion of the bills Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, conceded that this is an important issue for many Texans and indicated that the committee would likely pass some form of anti-bullying legislation that included elements of all or some of the bills that have been filed this session.

On Wednesday, House Bill 665 by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, which would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, was heard in the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee. Meghan Stabler, Human Rights Campaign board member, testified passionately in favor of the bill using her personal experience as a transgender woman to illustrate the need for employment protections. The slack-jawed awe of some committee members at being in the same room with an actual transgender person slowly morphed into rapt attention as Stabler patiently told her story of transitioning on the job and how her employers slowly demoted and moved her to less critical positions. Dennis Coleman,executive director of Equality Texas, also testified in favor of the bill.

Representatives of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Texas both registered as being against the bill, but neither testified to the committee. Both organizations have historically opposed laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Bills prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity have been filed every regular legislative session since 2001 , but none of them have been voted out of committee.

On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee voted to restore funding to the HIV medication assistance program and to increase funding for the biennium to $19.2 million. The increased funding will add medication assistance for an additional 3,000 Texans not covered currently. The House version of the Budget, which is scheduled to be debated on the floor today, still contains no funding for the program.

The Texas HIV/AIDS coalition issued an action alert Wednesday asking people to call members of the Senate Finance Committee and urge them to continue to fully fund the medication assistance program. “Without medication assistance the only way for poor HIV-positive people in this state to receive care will be to become sick enough to be admitted to the hospital,” said Januari Leo, the public affairs specialist for Legacy Community Health Services (an HIV/AIDS care provider in Houston). “It will be a return to the height of the crisis in the ’80s and ’90s. People will die.”

Next week looks to be equality important for bills affecting the LGBT community. On Tuesday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will hear House Bill 2227 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. The bill would add gender identity and expression to the list of characteristics covered by the state’s hate crime law. Currently, Texas law allows prosecutors to seek tougher penalties for crimes motivated by bias against certain characteristics (or percieved characteristics) of the victim. These characteristics include the race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, and “sexual preference” of the victim, but not the gender identity or expression. Because gender identity and expression is not currently included prosecutors are unable to pursue hate crimes charges if the victim is targeted for being transgender or for behaving in a way that the perpetrator considers gender inappropriate (such as a man being “sissy” or a woman being “butch”).

During the same hearing the committee will also hear another one of Coleman’s bills: House Bill 2165, as as well as an identical piece of legislation, House Bill 604 by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston. The bills would remove the crime of “homosexual conduct” from the Texas Penal Code. The law prohibiting homosexual conduct was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, making it unenforceable. However, only the Texas Legislature has the power to remove the law from the books and lawmakers have, thus far, been unwilling to do so. Similar legislation has been filed every session since the Supreme Court ruling, but has always failed to pass.

Last week, Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Wayne Christian, R-Shelby, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Sabine and Jasper counties, told the Austin American-Statesman that having the law on the books “better reflects the views of a lot of citizens.” Christian’s statement is not surprising considering that last year the Republican Party of Texas (of which he is a member) voted to add renewing enforcement of the homosexual conduct law to its platform. Even Farrar, one of the bills’ author, is pessimistic about its chances, but said that it was important to file the legislation to encourage conversation on the topic: “If nobody files the bill, then nobody talks about [the bill]” she told the Statesmen. “That’s the value of filing bills that may be unpopular because over time you can change peoples’ minds and their hearts.”