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Texas House passes ‘bathroom bill’ restricting transgender student access

Protesters assemble at the Texas state capitol to speak out against the bathroom bill. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Texas House of Representatives approved legislation Monday that would require transgender schoolchildren to use bathrooms that correspond to their “biological sex,” putting the state on the verge of enacting a “bathroom bill” similar to one that drew controversy in North Carolina.

The bathroom measure moving in Austin was attached as an amendment to an unrelated school hazard preparedness bill Sunday night, and that bill then won final approval from the Republican-led House early Monday on a 94-51 vote. It is considered likely that a version of the measure will pass the Republican-led Senate.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has in the past expressed support for bathroom restrictions and is expected to sign a measure if it reaches desk. If it becomes law, Texas would be the only state with a statute restricting bathrooms for transgender schoolchildren.

“Gov. Abbott’s hope is that the House and the Senate will agree on a measure that, at a minimum, protects the privacy of students in locker rooms and restrooms, and he will continue to work with members of both chambers to achieve that goal,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for the governor.

The bill would require schools to provide alternate, single-occupancy accommodations for students uncomfortable with using bathrooms that don’t align with their biological sex. It also would require the state’s attorney general to defend school districts that face legal challenges.

Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson compared her history of living under Jim Crow to describe how the "bathroom bill" is a form on discrimination on May 21. (Video: Texas Impact)

“I think it’s absolutely about school safety,” state Rep. Chris Paddie (R) said Sunday night.

Opponents called the bill discriminatory and dangerous for transgender youth. Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D) said the restrictions were akin to Jim Crow-era segregation.

“I happened to be a part of this society during a period of time in this state and in this country when we had ‘separate but equal’ and I remember those days. You remember? Bathrooms: white, colored,” said Thompson, who is African American. “Bathrooms divided us then and it divides us now and America has long recognized that separate but equal is not equal at all.”

Texas was one of 16 states to consider legislation that would restrict bathroom usage for transgender people this year, after North Carolina in 2016 became the first state to enact a bathroom bill. That measure required people to use bathrooms in all state-owned buildings according to the sex on their birth certificates and preempted localities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances that included gender identity. Companies and entertainers boycotted the state, leading it to lose $3.67 billion in business, according to an Associated Press analysis. State lawmakers this year repealed that bill, replacing it with a less restrictive measure.

North Carolina governor signs bill repealing and replacing transgender bathroom law amid criticism

Texas this year considered two other bills that would have required people to use bathrooms according to their biological sex in all publicly owned buildings, not just schools. Both bills failed in the House after lawmakers faced pressure from the business community — which feared economic fallout — and LGBT advocates.

When the Obama administration last year issued guidance that required public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity, Texas was one of the first states to sue the federal government. This year, the Trump administration rescinded the guidance.

Trump administration rolls back protections for transgender students

Advocates for transgender children and their parents were distraught as they watched the state House vote for the amendment. They said the restrictions imperil transgender youth, who are often vulnerable to harassment and bullying. Transgender children say using the bathroom that matches the gender they identify with is critical for their transition.

Rachel Adams Gonzalez, whose 7-year-old daughter Libby is transgender and attends a Dallas elementary school, watched the House action from her home as she washed dishes after dinner Sunday evening.

“The second that gavel dropped, I just burst into tears,” said Gonzalez, getting choked up again as she recalled traveling to Austin to speak out against the bathroom bills. “I don’t know how I’m going explain to her that people in Austin, our legislators, people who are in charge of keeping us safe, have intentionally put her and her friends in danger now.”

Gonzalez said Libby, who transitioned before she started elementary school, has always been able to use the girls’ bathroom. She was uncertain what the bill, if it became law, would mean for Libby next year, but said it would be deeply unsettling to force her to use the boys’ bathroom when all her classmates know her as a girl.

The 1,200 school districts in Texas have taken a variety of approaches to accommodating transgender students. Many have nondiscrimination policies that include transgender students and have allowed them to use bathrooms of their choice. Others have directed them to use separate facilities — an arrangement that transgender rights advocates say is discriminatory and stigmatizing.

The ACLU of Texas said it is prepared to file a legal challenge if the bill becomes law. Rebecca L. Robertson, the legal and policy director for the ACLU in Texas, said she believes it would violate Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in schools that get public funding.

The organization has fought for other transgender students in court, including a transgender teen from Virginia, Gavin Grimm, who sued his school board after it barred him from the boys’ bathroom. That U.S. Supreme Court recently sent that case back to a lower court.

Gavin Grimm just wanted to use the bathroom. He didn’t think the nation would debate it.

Paddie, the lawmaker who authored the amendment, said he does not believe the restrictions are discriminatory. He said the goal is to protect students and treat all equally.

“There is absolutely there is no intent — and I would argue, nothing in this language — discriminates against anyone,” Paddie said on the floor of the House Sunday evening. “In fact it makes sure there are reasonable accommodations for all children.”