On Friday, a judge will consider whether to block enforcement of a letter that Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) issued Feb. 22 related to transgender minors. After the precedent established in 2021 by the state’s restrictive abortion law, Abbott called for members of the public to report the names of Texans suspected of providing certain medical treatments, such as puberty-blocking hormones, to the Department of Family and Protective Services. The governor’s directive followed a legal opinion issued Feb. 18 by State Attorney General Ken Paxton (R-Tex.) that classified such treatments as child abuse.
If Abbott’s directive remains in effect, Texans risk losing their children to the foster-care system for providing gender-affirming health care. Neighbors could soon turn on neighbors, as the newest iteration of McCarthyism weaves its way through the medicine cabinets of teenagers in Texas.
While restricting the rights of transgender individuals and youths in the state is a relatively recent phenomenon, the discriminatory intent behind these efforts is not. There is a long history in Texas of “otherizing” people in marginalized communities for political gain, with little regard for the truth.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, for example, conservative Christian activists targeted feminists, the LGBTQ population and eventually AIDS patients — people they thought were violating God’s preference for the heterosexual nuclear family and its traditional gender roles.
In 1977, Houston hosted the federally funded National Women’s Conference (NWC), which drew approximately 22,000 participants, 2,000 of whom were delegates, with the rest observing. Conservatives found the conference horrifying. One journalist writing for a right-wing John Birch Society publication denounced the event for encouraging “militant lesbianism” and permitting participation by “old-line Stalinoids” and “active enemies of the United States.”
Anti-feminist, conservative activists — who adopted the moniker “pro-family” for their movement — sought to undermine and disrupt the conference. Some did so from inside the conference itself as delegates, including a few from Texas. One “pro-family” delegate from the Lone Star state complained that the delegate selection process had occurred before conservatives in the state could mobilize, meaning that “pro-lib, pro-ERA, pro-lesbian minority group[s]” outnumbered “the majority traditional American women who are concerned about the moral fiber, and the families, of the United States.”
But most conservative activists either were not elected to the NWC, did not know about the conference in time to apply or eschewed attending the main event in favor of a counter-conference also held in Houston at the old Astro Arena.
Prominent anti-feminist organizer and conservative Republican Phyllis Schlafly is often credited for organizing this “pro-family” counter conference, but equal if not greater credit goes to local activist Lottie Beth Hobbs of Fort Worth — who pulled off what colleagues on the right believed to be impossible. Hobbs secured sufficient funds and organized the wildly successful counter rally, which drew 15,000 people. Christian conservatives arrived by the busload from around the state and the nation.
Hobbs played a significant role in shifting Texas rightward on social issues such as legal abortion, LGBTQ rights and “traditional family values” more generally. Vitriolic attacks on those Hobbs said to be a threat to the traditional family — chiefly, feminists and lesbians — helped fuel this rightward shift in Texas that mirrored broader national trends afoot by 1980. Hobbs argued that the “barriers” feminists wanted removed from the nation’s laws to ensure more equality for women and men, gay and straight, were actually important “safeguards” that “wise men and women of the past [had] carefully built … into our system,” without which the country would “plunge … into social and moral destruction.”
In the years that followed the competing conferences in Houston in 1977 — at both the local and national level — the political parties continued to diverge on the cultural issues driving the dueling movements. The Democratic Party increasingly embraced policies and rhetoric from the feminist and LGBTQ rights movements, while conservative activists continued to gain a greater foothold in the Republican Party.
These opposing forces soon collided again in Houston, first in a battle over an anti-discrimination ordinance in 1984 and then in the city’s 1985 mayoral race.
In 1984, liberal Democratic Mayor Kathy Whitmire, the first woman to hold the position, championed an anti-discrimination ordinance that would have protected the LGBTQ community against employment discrimination. The fight happened at the height of the AIDS crisis, when incendiary anti-LGBTQ rhetoric became commonplace across the nation. One opinion columnist called for all people with AIDS to be tattooed and another suggested that AIDS was nature’s “retribution” against gay people for “declar[ing] war upon nature.”
By conflating a fear of AIDS with equal rights for the LGBTQ community, conservatives achieved victory, with voters rejecting the anti-discrimination ordinance in a referendum by a four-to-one margin in January 1985.
Later that year, Republican Louie Welch, who had served as the pro-business mayor of the city from 1964 through 1973 — before the rise of family values politics took hold in his party — tried to resurrect his political career by challenging Whitmire. Welch campaigned by merging the boosterism of his past political style with the newer social conservatism of the modern Republican Party. Welch made AIDS the main issue in his campaign, and he attacked people with the disease, not the disease itself. In a far cry from the city and business boosterism that had marked his prior terms as mayor, he was caught on a hot mic boasting that he would solve the AIDS crisis by “shoot[ing]” LGBTQ people.
Though not a literal threat, the spirit behind Welch’s remark resonated with those who resented Whitmire’s push for the anti-discrimination ordinance. And he was not the only candidate in Houston that year to make the anti-discrimination ordinance a major issue. A group of conservatives sought election to the city council by running on what they proudly termed the “Straight Slate.” Welch and the Straight Slate candidates said they would require food service workers, day-care workers, teachers and employees of blood banks to carry health identification cards and be tested every six months for HIV, tuberculosis and leprosy.
They claimed to be “trying to return [Houston] to a community oriented to traditional family values.”
This time, however, voters in Houston rejected Welch and the Straight Slate. Whitmire bested Welch 57 percent to 43 percent. Welch’s gamble that political extremism was the ticket for reviving his political career failed.
Today, Abbott and Paxton are adhering to this longer history and tradition of targeting a marginalized group to advance their political careers. Both faced primary challenges from the right. While Abbott won, Paxton will face Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in a runoff. The playbook for both men is to appease the right wing on cultural issues, while making voting incredibly difficult for minority and marginalized communities that might include or be sympathetic to the plight of transgender youths and their families.
Will Texas parents lose their children to reelect Abbott? Will transgender children and teens in Texas lose the right to gender-affirming health care? If the past really is prologue, the answer is maybe, but this history also shows that hate can be stopped when politicians go too far.