Emmett Schelling

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
[email protected]

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both have said that so–called “bathroom bills” targeting transgender people would not be a priority for them in the 2019 session of the Texas Legislature. Even so, transgender advocates in Texas remain on high alert, knowing that they are a popular target for the right wing.

The ongoing need for diligence proven when, as January came to a close, state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, filed House Bill 1035, a “religious liberty” measure that would allow people to cite their religious beliefs justify discrimination.

Senate Bill 85, filed last November during the pre-filing period by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwall, would allow mental health professionals to refuse to treat transgender people. But HB 1035 goes further.

“Essentially, what you have here is a broad religious refusal bill, what I refer to as [the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling] on steroids,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “It attacks literally every person who may identify as LGBT, and it’s putting folks a step outside the parameters of whatever an individual’s religious doctrine is.”

This measure, like similar bills popular in state legislatures around the country these days, basically says that “one person’s religious liberty allows them to rob other individuals of their basic rights,” Schelling continued. “But I don’t think that is the intention of actual religious liberty. Harming people, putting them at an even higher risk of discrimination is nothing to be proud of.”

Zedler’s bill is “entitled an act relating to protecting freedom of conscience from government discrimination.” It would amend Section 1, Title 5 of the state’s Civil Practice and Remedies code by adding Chapter 110A “Free to Believe Act,” definitng “discriminatory action” to mean “any action taken by a governmental entity to” keep government grants and contracts from going to an individual, organization or company which discriminates against LGBT people as part of his/her/its religious doctrines.

“It’s important to highlight the actual language of the bill,” Schelling said, pointing out that it repeats the words “withhold,” “reduce,” “refuse” and “terminate,” and specifically spells out “all the different arenas where people would have the sanctioned right to discriminate.

“All they have to do is say ‘I don’t believe in your lifestyle,’ and then it is OK for them to discriminate,” Schelling said. “But who I inherently am is not a lifestyle. This bill is attacking every area of what existing in public looks like.”

After hearing from Texas’ leaders that the 2019 legislative session would be about “vital issues affecting the every day lives of Texans — things like the state’s public education system and tax reform — instead of wasting a whole session and the taxpayers’ money, this kind of language is very disappointing,” he said.

“I don’t feel like most people want a repeat of 2017, with the legislature arguing about who gets to serve people, who gets to discriminate and who gets to use the potty,” Schelling added. “I hope our leaders will stick to their word and stick to the meat-and-bones issues that affect the quality of life of all Texans.”

With transgender Texans still in the crosshairs of discriminatory efforts, TENT and its coalition partners — Equality Texas, the Human Rights Campaign, ACLU of Texas and the Texas Freedom Network — is once again planning a Transgender Lobby Day and is urging transgender Texans and their allies to take their concerns directly to their representatives in Austin.

This year, Transgender Lobby Day will be March 7. Organizers will offer morning sessions to educate participants on all the legislation, good and bad, affecting the trans community, then lunch followed by training to help participants be more comfortable and effective when talking to lawmakers.

After the training sessions, participants will converge on the Capitol to speak to as many lawmakers as they can “about the issues affecting our community’s quality of life,” Schelling said.

Organizers are asking for a $5 suggested donation for tickets to the education and training sessions and lunch, but Schelling said there are options for those who cannot afford to pay.

He said organizers are also working to coordinate travel options transportation from locations throughout the state to help those who can’t afford to make the trip to Austin on their own.

“We want to cover all the bases,” he said. “We want to make sure that a person’s financial situation is not a hindrance to participating.”

Those interested in participating in Transgender Lobby Day are encouraged to sign up at the TENT website, TransTexas.org, to get on an email list to receive updates and to find out about options for attending.

Equality Texas and its coalition partners are planning Equality Day, an LGBT lobby day event, for March 18 (visit EqualityTexas.org for information), and the newly-formed Texas LGBT Chambers of Commerce will hold its first Advocacy Day at the Capitol on Feb. 20 (visit TexasLGBTChambers.com for more information).