LGBTQ advocates booted from Texas Capitol; vote delayed for bill banning gender care for kids

Texas state police detain a protester in the House gallery after Speaker Dade Phelan ordered the area cleared amid chants from people opposed to a bill that would ban transition-related care for trans kids. (Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribun

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan abruptly cleared the public from the chamber's gallery Tuesday, after LGBTQ Texans and parents of transgender kids chanted in opposition of a bill that would ban transition-related care for children.

Phelan ordered state police to clear the gallery just as Senate Bill 14 came to the House floor and as opponents began their chants and unrolled banners in support of trans kids. As bill opponents started filing out of the gallery, they chanted, "Trans rights are human rights."

Minutes later, an expected vote on the bill was delayed until later in the week after a parliamentary concern was raised.

Shortly after state police cleared the gallery, protesters continued to chant in the lobby outside the chamber on the third floor. After several minutes, a trooper with a bullhorn directed the group to leave, and state police began to usher protesters down the stairs and out to the rotunda. During this event, several troopers and two protesters began pushing and shoving one another in an altercation that lasted about 10 seconds. Troopers handcuffed one individual and led them away.

Trans advocates had been at the Capitol since Tuesday morning, awaiting debate on SB 14. The legislation would prohibit trans youth from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapy — care that medical groups say is vital to their mental health — in order to transition. Immediately after the bill was brought up for consideration, Democratic state Rep. Mary González called a point of order, a legislative maneuver meant to kill the bill on a technicality.

The swift developments came on a day when LGBTQ advocates and parents of trans kids spent hours at the Capitol, hoping to kill a bill they consider to be one of the most consequential for their community. Hours earlier, before the House convened Tuesday, a crowd of people opposing SB 14 weaved up a staircase as they filled the hallway outside the chamber. Many donned rainbow clothes and flags and waved signs to show their support for trans Texans. The Rev. Erin Walter — one of several clergy members there to support trans kids as part of the Texas Freedom Network’s "Just Texas" project — led the group in song.

"We are fighting for our rights, and we shall not be moved," the crowd sang.

Under SB 14, trans kids who are already accessing these treatments for gender-affirming purposes would have to be "weaned off" in a "medically appropriate" manner. The bill would also prohibit transition-related surgeries, though these are rarely performed on kids. As the House was convening Tuesday morning, LGBTQ Texans and their allies began entering the gallery overlooking the chamber floor. Some also stayed outside for a rally at the nearby indoor rotunda.

"There is nothing more Texan than fighting for your rights," said Adri Pérez, an organizing director with the Texas Freedom Network, before LGBTQ Texans broke into a chant.

Supporters of the bill, wearing red shirts with the words "save Texas kids" also sat in the gallery. Republican state Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, who is shepherding the bill through the House, said in a tweet that their presence "strengthens our resolve to get this done today!"

SB 14 is a legislative priority for the Republican Party of Texas, whose platform opposes "all efforts to validate transgender identity." The Senate has already passed a version of the bill, and a majority of state representatives — all of them Republicans — support the measure.

This is the furthest this proposed ban has advanced in the lower chamber, which has often served as a moderating force on legislation targeting how LGBTQ Texans live. It is among a bevy of bills lawmakers are pushing this session that target gay and trans Texans. And Tuesday’s scheduled debate and vote on the bill put to rest the question of whether Phelan would intervene on the issue. In the past few months, some LGBTQ advocates had hoped that the Beaumont Republican would put up roadblocks against SB 14 in the lower chamber. In 2019, as a House committee chair, Phelan told The Texas Tribune that he was "done talking about bashing on the gay community."

The House’s expected vote could represent a significant step in Texas toward joining more than a dozen other states in restricting transition-related care for trans youth. And because Texas is home to one of the country’s largest trans communities, such a ban would have a far-reaching impact. For trans kids and their parents, the stakes are high. If SB 14 becomes law, some say they would have to travel out of Texas or flee the state altogether to ensure their kids can still access the care they need — and these options are not affordable for or available to all families.

"There are so many layers to what it would look like to have to up and move, aside from the pretty significant financial impact to our family," Rachel Gonzales told the Tribune last month. "I have three kids who are deeply rooted in the community and our schools and our neighborhood. … These people around us are our chosen family."

On Monday evening, she and her husband, Frank, were once again hustling around the Capitol to meet with lawmakers and advocate for their daughter Libby. Several other parents of trans kids from across the state were doing the same. The following morning, the Gonzales family said, they and other families waited outside the speaker’s office for nearly an hour and a half — but were not given the chance to meet with Phelan. Rachel Gonzales said they’ve been trying to reach the speaker all session but have not had any success.

Phelan’s office didn’t immediately respond to the Tribune’s request for a comment Tuesday.

"[Parents] were given a false dichotomy choice between it’s either this or suicide," said Oliverson during the committee hearing for House Bill 1686, his companion bill for SB 14. "The science doesn’t support that. It is unconscionable to me that a licensed health care provider would put a parent in that position."

Medical experts, trans youth and their families disagree. They say transition-related care — which leading medical associations support — is critical to supporting the mental health of a population that is already facing higher risk of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. They added that the treatments aren’t rushed and involve a long and thoughtful evaluation process.

Before the House debate on the bill, LGBTQ advocates and their allies also dropped a massive banner saying, "Let trans kids grow up," from the second floor of the indoor rotunda. Sofia Sepulveda, a board member of the Transgender Education Network of Texas and staff member of Equality Texas, said she was banned from the Capitol for one year after doing so. She was cited with criminal trespass, according to a citation provided to the Tribune. The Texas Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the incident.

"I am a proud Texas resident, a Mexican-American, and a transgender woman, and I deserve to have my voice heard just like any other Texan invested in the policies shaping our lives," Sepulveda said in a press release. "This is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate me and members of other marginalized communities from speaking our truth. I know I have done nothing wrong and I refuse to be silenced."

Under the original language authored by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, SB 14 banned any minors from getting transition-related care. During the Senate debate, she amended the legislation to allow those currently getting this care to continue treatments, which prompted criticism from her party. The senator later backpedaled and cut this exemption before it was passed out of the upper chamber.

Once in the lower chamber, Oliverson changed the bill in the House Public Health Committee to allow kids currently receiving the care to be "weaned off" of puberty blockers and hormone therapy instead of being abruptly cut off.

But the bill’s critics say there are few differences between cutting off treatments gradually or suddenly because SB 14 would still ultimately stop trans kids from getting the care that has improved their mental health. Medical experts have also raised alarms about the psychological distress this process could cause; some trans youth have referred to the bill as forced detransitioning.

"I think you can say from the side effects of stopping the hormones, a better approach is to taper off than to stop suddenly," Louis Appel, president of the Texas Pediatric Society, told the Tribune. He has also testified publicly against the bill. "I don’t know that you can say it’s medically safe because you still have the issue that someone has been forced off a medication that they were taking for their health."

Several states have faced legal challenges to their bans on gender-affirming care. For instance, Tennessee is fielding a lawsuit from the Department of Justice, and civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal have brought cases or are considering doing so against several states like Indiana, Idaho and Missouri.

In Texas, these groups planned to sue the state in 2021 when a bill seeking to ban transition-related care for trans youth was heading to the House floor — though the legislation died before then. On the eve of Tuesday’s House vote, the ACLU of Texas was closely examining SB 14 and considering all options.

"Banning healthcare for transgender Texans is a deeply unconstitutional assault on the rights of trans youth and the rights of parents to provide evidence-based, life-saving healthcare for their children," Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement to the Tribune. "It is immensely cruel and a waste of Texas state resources to pass a bill so harmful and unconstitutional."

But Rachel Gonzales also can’t imagine telling Libby she wouldn’t have access to transition-related care as she goes through puberty.

"I have a commitment to keeping my daughter safe," she said. "We’re definitely working to figure out what we can do as families — not just us but other families are all in communication, trying to figure out what we can possibly do to preserve the safety of our kids."

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