Tuesday, August 15, 2017 is a night Ash Hall will never forget. For nearly seven months, the Clear Lake, Texas, native had spearheaded advocacy efforts to combat the state legislature’s now-infamous “bathroom bill” — an undertaking that was as ceaseless as it was emotionally charged. That’s because, beyond blatantly targeting transgender Texans, the legislation was a signal that, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Republican lawmakers were no longer feigning interest in substantive policies. Their pro-business, small government facade had been lifted, revealing an agenda with few priorities other than fear-mongering and igniting culture wars.
Up until that warm summer evening, Hall had been bracing for the most painful legislative loss of their career. But when Gov. Greg Abbott’s 30-day special session abruptly folded, they tycoordinator finally exhaled for the first time since January. After all the tears and hours of heartbreaking testimony from terror-stricken parents of trans minors, the bathroom bill had failed. It was a landmark victory for trans activists and a crushing blow for right-wing zealots — but it hadn’t come easy for the countless Texans who’d spent the better part of a year wondering what, if any, rights they’d have when the final gavel sounded. Including Hall.
“One of the main arguments we made throughout our fight against that bill was the fact that transphobia dramatically increases the likelihood of mental health episodes and suicidal ideation among trans youth. These are incredibly marginalized people, so targeting them is exponentially more dangerous,” Hall said. “So, I talked to legislators about how, during my freshman year of college, I experienced an discrimination-driven mental health crisis fueled by depression and isolation. I told them how, if I hadn’t had access to a counselor at that time, I don’t know if I would’ve survived.”
Sharing those types of personal stories is central to the job, Hall said. It’s how you build bridges with would-be adversaries, shift perspectives, and stay true to your mission — even when it requires reopening old wounds. Growing up in a religious conserative community in East Texas, Hall didn’t have many opportunities to explore things like gender, sexuality, and identity until freshman year of college. But almost immediately after arriving in Waco to attend Baylor, they were overwhelmed by the campus’ repressive and stiflingly tight-lipped environment. Unable to discuss and explore anything pertaining to queer culture, Hall sunk into depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
That level of loneliness and fear is all too common for LGBTQ youth in Texas, they said. This is particularly true for trans youth, who are once again the top target of state lawmakers during the 2021 session. But unlike four years ago, Texas legislators aren’t focused on enacting a standalone transphobic law. Instead, they’ve set their sights on a plethora of bills that, if passed, could incite one of the single biggest assaults on American civil rights in recent memory.
Take SB 29, for example. Arguably the most talked-about bill being considered (and one of Patrick’s priorities), it would ban trans youth from playing on school sports teams that match their gender identities. In addition to openly attacking minors and barring them from the critical community-building that K-12 athletics provide, the legislation represents the most egregious invasion of privacy yet for Republican lawmakers, Hall said. It also has severe implications for Texans outside of the trans community.
“SB 29 wades into this almost creepy terrority, where lawmakers are creating a litmus test for young Texans’ ability to play sports based on what’s in their underwear. But the impact of this will be significant for folks like Black cisgender women, too,” they said. “When you have Black athletes succeeding and winning competitions, bills like SB 29 potentially open the door for opposing parents, coaches, and competitors to tap into their racism and question whether they’re actually even women. We’ve seen those kinds of assaults levied against the Williams sisters in tennis and Caster Semenya in track.”
But as Hall points out, Republicans are pushing a variety of other transphobic bills, too. HB 1399 and SB 1311 take aim at doctors who carry out gender-affirming by installing prohibitions on procedures related to transitioning, gender dysphoria, and gender reassignment. SB 247 and HB 1424 would allow legal and medical professionals, respectively, to refuse service or treatment to trans Texans on the basis of religion. And SB 1646, which equates providing puberty blockers and hormone therapy to child abuse, could send parents to prison for aiding their children in their transitional journey.
Collectively, these bills embody a clear shift in conservative politics. Given the strides made in same-sex marriage and gay rights across the country over the past decade, Hall said that Republicans recognize they’ve all but lost those battles. So, they’ve pivoted to trans issues in hopes that cisgender advocates and Texans at large will turn a blind eye. “Bills like these have been filed before, but they never got hearings. This is the first time we’re seeing both chambers address the trans community from a medical standpoint,” Hall said. “It’s been incredibly frustrating. Between the medical side and the youth sports side of things, we’re really been attacked on two different fronts here.”
But contrary to what conservative lawmakers expected, Hall has seen parents and activists have come out in full force to oppose this legislation. So has Texas’ business community and nationwide entities like the NCAA, which threatened to cancel all future events in the state. This level of sustained solidarity for the trans community has been an encouraging rebuke of right-wing fear tactics, Hall said. Even more, it will be vital to defeat not just some, but all, of these bills over the course of the next month.
But many obstacles remain, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the health risks of posed by gathering indoors and in person prior to the distribution of vaccines, many people who would have normally come out to testify at the Capitol were relegated to leaving voice messages and providing written testimonies — avenues that, Hall admits, don’t contain the personal touch that’s often critical to swaying Republican swing votes. That’s why, now more than ever, Texas progressives need to be loud and apply political pressure to ensure that conservatives understand how unpopular, dangerous, and wholly damaging transphobic attacks are. That’s the way we win, Hall said.
“In so many ways, this session embodies the larger political trends across America. Yes, we’re facing more anti-trans bills than ever in the legislature, but we’ve also submitted more pro-LGBTQ pieces as well,” Hall said, hinting that a future run for the Texas State House could be in the future. “So, we’re at this fork in the road. Are we going to sit idly and let these devastating blows against our civil rights happen? Or are we going to stand up and fight for what’s right? The answer’s clear: We can’t back down, including after the session is over. Protecting our communities, our safety, our well-being — that’s a year-round job, but one that we’ve got to all take on together.”