Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.
Kerri and Robin woke up well before dawn on Tuesday to make the more than three-hour drive from North Texas to Austin. The two were among the first to arrive at the First United Methodist Church downtown, where activists gathered to get filled in on proposed legislation before Equality Texas’ Transgender Visibility lobby day began at the state capitol.
Kerri, an air traffic controller, and Robin, an elementary school teacher, are loving parents, talented musicians, and informed voters. They’re also trans women, and they let me tag along with them for an afternoon of deeply personal conversations with capitol staffers—not all of whom worked for trans-friendly lawmakers.
In the interest of privacy and clarity, I’ll call both of them—Kerri, who is out socially, at work, and at home, and Robin, who is not—by their first names.
“I didn’t know quite what to expect, as I’ve never done anything like this before,” Kerri told me via email after the lobby day ended. She said she also “expected to have to fight to be heard in the Capitol and expected resistance to our message.”
She was in for a surprise. All three of us were, really.
Kerri and Robin, along with with a dozen or so other trans and queer Texans and allies, spent the day telling capitol staffers their own deeply personal stories in the hopes of showing who could be affected by proposed legislation. They were asking lawmakers for two things: the ability to use public restrooms safely, and the ability to obtain accurate and appropriate identification documents. Though these may seem like simple requests, given the mightily transphobic tenor of some efforts in the state legislature, they’ve become complicated prospects for trans and queer Texans.
Two Texas lawmakers have proposed four bills that would punish trans and queer Texans for using the restrooms that are appropriate for them but that some other people—very likely total strangers—feel they shouldn’t use.
Rep. Debbie Riddle’s (R-Houston) bills criminalize trans folks who use public restrooms that don’t correspond to their gender assigned at birth, and require them either to undergo an invasive DNA test or jump through hoops to get their personal identification documents changed … just to be able to pee in public. And Rep. Gilbert Peña (R-Houston) has proposed two bills—one dealing with public school restrooms and locker rooms, the other with all public restrooms across the state—that would award $2,000 to Texans who report trans and queer Texans the authorities if they feel someone has used an inappropriate bathroom.
These bills would put outright discrimination against trans, queer, and gender non-conforming people into statute, and they trade on wholly unfounded fears and stereotypes. In reality, it is trans, queer, and gender non-conforming people who are more likely to be abused or harassed for using a public bathroom, not cis people. Trans and queer people often experience discrimination and surveillance, as well as verbal and physical abuse, simply for using the bathroom that’s appropriate for them. Riddle’s and Peña’s proposed bills would almost certainly provoke that kind of harassment.
On the positive side, Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) has proposed codifying the process by which trans people can obtain identification documents, a currently undefined and ambiguous process that allows judges—either arbitrarily, or because they seek to discriminate against trans people—to refuse to grant the court orders required for updated drivers’ licenses and birth certificates.
In order to provide some firsthand perspectives on these bills, Kerri and Robin started just after lunch in Rep. Helen Giddings’ (D-Dallas) office. With two conservative lawmakers on our six-lawmaker to-visit list, we figured we’d start with a friendly Democrat—and one who also happens to be the vice chair of the House State Affairs Committee, to which five bills dealing with transgender issues have already been assigned. (None have, as yet, been scheduled for public hearing; part of activists’ efforts on lobby day was to ask lawmakers not to let the anti-trans bathroom bills see the light of committee-room day.)
Standing under the fluorescent lights, talking to an earnest staffer scribbling notes on a clipboard, the beginnings of Kerri and Robin’s pitches—which became finely honed over the course of the afternoon—started to take shape.
Kerri talked about her experience getting her gender marker changed on her driver’s license, a process that required a lawyer and a temporary residency in Dallas in order to get a court order from one of Texas’ handful of trans-friendly judges. Robin described her experience as a teacher, wondering if the proposed anti-trans bathroom bill would force her to turn against her own students for trying to use the restroom of their choice.
As the day progressed, visiting office after office, we encountered friendly staffers who promised to pass on Kerri and Robin’s concerns and stories to their bosses. Many said that they weren’t aware that Rep. Coleman had filed a bill to streamline the gender marker process; others only knew about one or two of the anti-trans bathroom bills rather than all four, and one conservative staffer seemed downright appalled at Rep. Peña’s bathroom-bounty efforts.
Kerri told me she was “pleasantly surprised” by their reception, even in conservative offices generally “considered not friendly to our community.” But the order of the day was unfailing politeness, even when we expected resistance.
Robin said, too, that “a nice surprise was finding some common ground with a staffer in a conservative senator’s office,” she said. That staffer agreed outright that the state should stay out of people’s bathroom business and expressed support for the codification of the personal identification document process.
Robin noted that the personal interactions strengthened her arguments that these bills would have real-life human consequences, perhaps ignored by lawmakers who don’t know—or think they don’t know—any trans people or have any trans constituents.
“Simply showing up in the halls of power, as a citizen, as a person, begins to soften the hearts of those who fear me because they just don’t know any better,” Robin told me.
Putting faces behind sometimes controversial issues is one of the major reasons groups organize lobby days in the first place; Kerri and Robin knew they could have been walking into trouble, but it didn’t stop them.
Kerri told me that when she began transitioning at age 47, her “goal was to be accepted, to blend in, to just be me.” But after talking with other trans women and trans men, she “became painfully aware of the struggles and hardships many of us face,” and realized that just blending in wouldn’t be enough.
For Kerri, spending Trans Visibility Day in the state capitol was a way to challenge the stereotypes that have hurt her and other trans and queer Texans.
“Some of these hardships come directly from a society in which many just do not understand us,” she said. “I simply cannot and will not remain silent.”
Robin concurred, saying that “sitting down and respectfully having a conversation with those different from me creates the memories others need to trump negative stereotypes of my minority.”
Both Robin and Kerri emphasized that they simply wanted to be seen as people, the same as any other Texan might expect.
Kerri wrote a particularly moving treatise on this, which she was kind enough to send to me and which is worth posting in its entirety. I’m going to give her the last word:
We all have our own “labels” for ourselves, ways we define ourselves, many of which change over time. This is how I see myself:
- I am first a person, a human being, a child of God.
- Second, a woman.
- Third, a good spouse and father to our kids (I will always be “Dad.”)
- Fourth, a good daughter.
- Fifth, a good provider.
- Sixth, a professional air traffic controller.
- And seventh, a pretty good amateur musician, cello being my chosen voice.
While I am a transgender woman, that is a fact of my existence and not a label which DEFINES me. While my actions on Tuesday by definition give me another label, “activist,” I do not see myself that way, I just did what I felt had to be done.