As Republican lawmakers tackle them on dozens of bills, LGBTQ Texans are ready (2023)

Masha Leah's social circle is shrinking. Six families the Austin-based transgender man knows have left the state as Texas authorities have spent years targeting transgender youth and their parents with restrictive child abuse laws and investigations.

Like many LGBTQ Texans, she is concerned about the next wave of bills that state legislatures will consider in the legislative session that begins Tuesday. But Masha Leah, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of harassment or anti-trans violence, is not ready to leave Texas just yet.

"I don't want to run because I want to fight," said Masha Leah, PFLAG Austin vice president of membership.

The Texas Republican legislature, which controls both houses of the legislature, introduced nearly three dozen legislation targeting LGBTQ people in the past week. That's already more than they attempted to pass in the regular five-month legislative session in 2021, according to Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy group tracking the legislation. Many of the bills aim to limit or ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children. Others aim to restrict teaching about sexuality and gender identity. And some are trying to restrict drag shows and performers.

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These bills come after the Texas GOP re-appropriated language from the party's platform, claiming homosexuality is "an abnormal lifestyle choice," though proponents are quick to note that sexual orientation is not a lifestyle choice itself. Although there is no scientific consensus on how a person develops their sexuality, according to the American Psychological Association, most people have "little or no choices about their sexual orientation."

"We oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity," says the Texas GOP platform.

The current legislative push also comes as parents, activists and conservative groups push for the revision or removal of books that focus on LGBTQ characters and sexuality. At the same time, far-right groups are increasingly threatening and protesting drag shows in Texas and across the country, and the US Department of Homeland Security highlighted anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence in a November terror bulletin.

“The community has a purpose right on our backs,” said Anna Nguyen, President of PFLAG Austin and a transgender woman.

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Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, who respectively lead the two legislative houses, did not respond to requests for comment.

Conservative activists and politicians at all levels have also framed this effort as support for parenting rights in education, particularly in relation to how race, gender and sexuality should be taught.

"Parents will resume their rightful place as outstanding decision-makers for their children," Gov. Greg Abbott said during a reelection event last year.

Notably, the new list of bills comes just months before the 20th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a Texas law criminalizing homosexuality and ushering in an era of significant advances for LGBTQ rights. This year's session also follows the Supreme Court's stunning overturning of the constitutional right to abortion last year -- a decision that included comment from a judge who said he wanted the Supreme Court to reverse its decision on upholding marriage rights for LGBTQ people -People checked. Looking ahead to the coming legislative battles, proponents recognize that it's just as important to look back and learn from historic victories.

"This isn't the first time we've been rogue," said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. "It won't be the last time. We just have to fight.”

gains and setbacks

Over the past two decades, LGBTQ Americans have won major legal victories, such as U.S. Supreme Court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 and granting protections to LGBTQ workers in 2020. Most of the US supports marriage equality, including in Texas, which also has the second-largest LGBTQ population in the country. These developments came amid increasing pop culture representation and societal acceptance. A survey conducted in 2020 found that younger generations are increasingly identifying as LGBTQ.

However, these social and legal achievements are now being offset by a setback. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also attributed much of the rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric within the Republican Party to former President Donald Trump's administration.

"It's about increasing visibility," said Wesley Phelps, a University of North Texas expert on the American South and 20th-century LGBTQ history. "And after 2016, it's all on the table."

In recent years, there has been “an epidemic of violence,” especially against black trans women. Anti-trans laws have also become more prevalent, starting with North Carolina's now-defunct 2016 law that banned trans people from using toilets that conformed to their gender identity. Texas saw a similar bill in 2017, but it fell through.

"From that point on, the situation just got worse," Nguyen said. She expects the new legislature to be "the worst" of all time.

There are at least two bills proposed by state representatives Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, that would propose banning sexual orientation and gender identity education through fifth and eighth grade. They mimic and amplify Florida law, which critics call the "Don't Say Gay" law.

"I will make this law a top priority in the next session," Patrick said on such a law during his re-election campaign last April.

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The Republican legislature has also introduced more than 10 bills aimed at restricting gender-affirming care for transgender youth, including one by Toth, which seeks to criminalize it.

This type of care is recommended by leading medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, the suffering someone can experience when their physical appearance is not consistent with their gender identity. For young people, this grooming often involves a social transition—using different pronouns or wearing different clothes—but may also involve puberty blockers, which are completely reversible. According to medical experts, it's rare for young transgender people to undergo gender-affirming surgery before they reach adulthood.

But Republican lawmakers have mistakenly equated the broad spectrum of gender-affirming care with “genital mutilation” and “child abuse.”

"It's the same formula," Martinez said. "You're holding on to something about our community that people don't necessarily understand. They fill that knowledge gap with misinformation and disinformation that they hope will lead to hysteria, and they use that hysteria to legislate against us.”

A representative for Toth said he was unavailable to comment on this story. Patterson did not respond to requests for comment.

LGBTQ Texans aren't just challenged by the legislature. Last year, Abbott directed the state's Child Protection Agency to open child abuse investigations into parents who allow their transgender children access to gender-affirming care, which has been blocked at least in part by legal challenges, including the PFLAG. Attorney General Ken Paxton's office has also asked the Texas Department of Public Safety for data on transgender people in Texas, though officials declined to say why, the Washington Post reported last month.

“It's not just the attacks during the legislature. It's also the weapon of government agencies," Martinez said.

Fight on multiple fronts

In recent years, far-right groups in Texas and across the country have also increasingly targeted drag shows, accusing performers of "grooming" children -- a term historically used against LGBTQ people, experts said. In some places, the threat against drag shows and LGBTQ venues has become deadly: in November, a gunman killed five people and injured many more at a Colorado gay club.

With the session looming, drag performers now face a Patterson bill aimed at regulating venues that house them as sexual orientation businesses, much like sex shops. Some also raised concerns about the broad definitions of the legislation and its potential impact, including on transgender people who are not drag performers.

"As the law is written, if I were to sing in a karaoke bar, I would be breaking the law," said Masha Leah.

Local school boards are another battleground. In recent years they have become increasingly politicized, along with conservative pressures against so-called critical race theory, although this academic framework is not taught before college. Once sleepy state and local school board elections have morphed into closely watched races that draw big campaign funds, particularly from conservative Christian groups like Patriot Mobile. Conservative activists and politicians, including Toth and Patterson, have also invoked parental rights in promoting their campaigns and bills.

The Grapevine-Colleyville School District now allows teachers to reject pronouns that match students' gender identities. The Granbury School District is facing a civil rights investigation by the US Department of Education after it banned books from the school library that deal with sexuality and gender. The State Board of Education delayed voting on updates to the social studies curriculum after conservative backlash against possible changes, including a suggestion that the LGBTQ pride movement would have been taught alongside civil rights and women's movements in eighth grade.

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LGBTQ advocates and experts say parental rights over what children learn have long been used as a reason to restrict access to what children have in the classroom. What is different now than in previous decades is that, thanks to the internet and wider representation in mainstream media, queer youth have much more access to information about gender identity and sexuality.

"Part of this right-wing activism is an attempt to delay LGBTQ gains," said Lauren Gutterman, an American and LGBTQ history expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “You are fighting a losing battle. It won't be easily undone."

change landscape

Many supporters say they will spend the session testifying at committee hearings and lobbying for the legislature. But many don't all share the same view on how to combat the GOP's broader pursuit of LGBTQ rights.

After the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade last summer, many LGBTQ Americans expressed concerns that Obergefell v. Hodges, who enshrined the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, could be next. Congress has since passed federal protections for marriage equality, but Texas could still choose to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples if Obergefell is repealed.

But Phelps, the historian, believes the courts remain an important tool even as the Supreme Court has become much more conservative in recent years.

“We cannot leave this territory to anti-queer activists. We have to keep fighting on all fronts," he said.

The most important Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 was part of a year-long legal battle. Other court cases followed, which failed but allowed organizers to build legal strategy and public support, Phelps noted.

"It takes effort, it takes time, it takes money, it takes organization, it takes allies," he said.

Meanwhile, some LGBTQ Republicans who have long struggled for acceptance within the party have left the GOP.

But Marco Roberts, a longtime openly gay Republican and president of the Texas Conservative Liberty Forum, sees the need to stay put and fight for change from within.

"If you're not involved, if you're not in the room to discuss it, how are you going to change your mind?" he said.

He upholds a libertarian creed and urges Republican lawmakers to enact limited regulation, not just on fiscal issues but on social issues as well. In particular, Roberts would advise lawmakers to draft "opinion-neutral" laws that do not favor certain religious views or sexual mores.

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"The best way to defend liberty is to do it for everyone, whether you agree with them or not," Roberts said.

"I'm so happy to be me"

The constant struggle has deeply affected many LGBTQ Texans.

According to a 2021 national survey by The Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, LGBTQ youth in Southern states, including Texas, are more likely to consider and attempt suicide than other states. The organization's crisis advisors also heard directly from Texas youth about their mental health issues, which are fueled by the state's political climate, KERA News reported.

This prompted some LGBTQ Texans to leave the state. Most advocates who spoke to The Texas Tribune said they know people who have done so or are trying to pay for the change.

The lawyers themselves feel the price of their work.

"I'm wondering if this is the right place for me," said Naomi Green, a transgender woman who serves on the board of directors of Texas Pride Impact Funds. "But I don't want to just let someone I love throw me out."

Meanwhile, the defenders maintain their optimism to continue the fight.

Martinez welcomed the recent elections to the Texas House of three openly gay black men: Democrats Jolanda Jones of Houston, Christian Manuel Hayes of Beaumont and Venton Jones of Dallas. He also pointed out that Texas Democrats introduced 32 pro-LGBTQ bills last week, many of which propose sweeping anti-discrimination rules in areas like housing and employment. This effort comes at a time when LGBTQ people are still more likely to face homelessness and poverty, Green noted.

Advocates also hailed the importance of maintaining a sense of community, whether it's meeting friends or joining LGBTQ support groups. Finally, many cited Harvey Milk — one of the country's first openly gay elected officials — and emphasized that the most effective tool is to live authentically.

Masha Leah, who is also Jewish and fears increasing anti-Semitism, has considered moving to Canada or Israel. But for now, she is determined to remain in Texas and testify against the many bills that may be put to a vote. And like many others, she is trying to remember the benefits of an open life.

"My wife says, 'You're much more comfortable with yourself,' and I said, 'Well, you know, becoming a woman has made me a better husband,'" Masha Leah said.

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"I'm going to see a therapist for my depression caused by this [political climate] and I've gained a little weight," she said. "But I'm so happy to be me."


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