FOr just a moment in late May, ACLU of Texas defender Adri Perez felt able to breathe.
A Republican-dominated state legislature had introduced about 30 anti-transgender bills. A bill limited the participation of trans people in youth sports. Another classified as “child abuse” gender affirming surgeries for youth. But the legislative session ended without passing any of these bills.
Then Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott called lawmakers for a special session in July. Dozens of anti-trans bills were reintroduced. Then, Abbott called a second special session in August that is still ongoing.
In July and then again in August, The Washington MonthlyGregory Svirnovskiy discussed with Pérez this legislative assault on transgender rights in the Lone Star state. The conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity..
The politicization of trans rights first entered the public consciousness in 2016 in North Carolina, and later in Texas, with bills banning trans people from using the bathroom that align with their gender identity. Were you surprised when such proposals hit the record?
At the time, I was surprised that anyone cared where transgender youth and adults went to the bathroom or where they went to the bathroom. But it was worrying that it was the focus of state and national discourse.
How did Democrats fight that bill when it was proposed in Texas? Was it as simple as not all Republicans joining? Was there an obstructionism?
I never want to discount the power of business allies, and them stepping into the conversation and speaking out against the bill and the economic impact it would have on Texas. We saw a similar bill in Indiana that had huge economic impacts. So drawing parallels to that in Texas was pretty easy, and a way to build opposition to this bill. But something that was amazing was the [number] of transgender people who showed up on Capitol Hill to speak out against the bill. And I think it remains one of the most amazing displays of the power of people that I have seen on the Texas Capitol. It turned out in hours and hours of testimony.
What lessons did you and other ACLU activists learn from 2016 that helped you this year?
What I keep coming back to, the session highlighted the importance of transgender people coming forward to tell their own stories. And don’t let the narrative be taken away from you by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, people who may not want to see humanity in trans people. So showing and sharing the stories of trans youth, trans adults and the joy that exists in our lives despite these government attacks is, I still believe, one of the most powerful forms of advocacy.
In 2019, after a tough midterm election, Republicans worked with Democrats on education and public policy. They‘We have since backed down, proposing a series of ultra-conservative anti-LGBTQ bills. Can you explain any rational calculations?
The rational calculation?
Sure, or I mean, you know, the irrational calculus.
There are several other things Texas Republicans should focus on, like our power grid. [In July,] in parts of central and eastern Texas, electricity was flickering for no reason. It failed in February and caused around 700 deaths. [Gov.] Greg Abbott didn’t fix the power grid. [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick didn’t fix the power grid. We are still recovering from a COVID-19 pandemic where Texas has one of the lowest rates of vaccination and health care coverage in the country. And we’re looking at the numbers for a possible fourth wave of COVID-19 in the state of Texas, where infections are increasing and predominantly in rural Texas counties.
I’m thinking and pausing just because that particular point has been quite irritating.
We see a governor who faces opponents to the government of more right than him. And we see that he is trying to establish his legitimacy as a conservative by attacking transgender children because that is where the party has chosen to change its approach. This is not a coincidence. It’s politically convenient for more Republican legislators. And it is something that is heavily funded by conservative right-wing organizations. And they are launching a coordinated and aggressive attack on a fictional narrative of transgender people as if they were harmful.
There are two bills I want to focus on, one that targets participation in sports and another that could classify gender-affirming attention as “child abuse. “How does the ACLU help opponents of those bills in the fight?
I think one of the main things that we are seeing with this coordinated attack is that the right-wing conservative groups that are pushing these bills are counting on the misinformation and lack of education on the part of local legislators and their constituents to push them forward. . Much of the work, unfortunately, of doing LGBTQ and trans advocacy is just basic education. And there was a good quote from a young trans woman who testified in the Texas legislature saying that she wishes she didn’t have to educate lawmakers on the basics of her existence. It is almost imposed on us because there is no one else to do it, who feels compelled to do it. Sometimes it simply involves making sure lawmakers know the stories of their own transgender constituents and how these bills would affect them, pointing out that they are blatantly unconstitutional and providing that information and documents so they can reference them.
Both bills died in the House of Representatives in late May. Can you describe to me how that felt? Did it feel like a victory?
It felt a lot like a victory, yes. It was a short-lived victory, but for about a month and seven days, it felt like a victory. There were a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in the session, I have 33 counts. Of those 33, 13 of them were explicitly anti-trans. [As of July 21, there had been] 50 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2021 in the state of Texas. That is a record. Since I started doing this job, I have not seen that many invoices come up in a single year. 2019 was actually a record low year for anti-LGBTQ legislation and a record year for Pro-LGBTQ measures pending before the state legislature.
The transgender sports bill looks like it‘s returning to the fore. And the governor is trying to impose restrictions on health care for trans people outside of the state legislature. What happens now?
What we do know is that if any kind of restriction is placed on trans youth and their ability to access health care, whether in the legislature or at Governor Abbott’s executive level, that is a law that simply cannot be upheld. It is a law that would steal hope, it is a rule that would rob the hope of thousands of children in the state of Texas and risk their lives and livelihoods in a way that we would surely fight.
It seems like you are always forced to play defense. Every few months or years, the governor or the House of Representatives pushes bills aimed at restricting the rights of trans people, and then it’s time to respond. Is there a way to get ahead of those problems? Are you always waiting for the next wave?
I think it’s important to contextualize this in the fight for LGBTQ rights as a whole. Decade after decade historically, they would split an LGBTQ letter and target that specific community in an attempt to marginalize and restrict them from all areas of public life. They did it with the G they did it with the letter L. Now it really seems like they are doing it with the T. In some ways it is much more difficult because we are a smaller percentage of the population as a whole. It requires a very small percentage of Texans overall to speak out loud enough and enough to counter disinformation and hatred from an entire political party. But we have made progress in the area of LGBTQ rights. I’ve been away for 10 or 11 years. And when I first came out of the closet, I had no idea if I could marry someone I loved. When I came out of the closet, I had no idea if I could adopt children. We have advanced.
At that second special session in August, the Texas state legislature held a hearing addressing its attempts to restrict trans people’s participation in organized sports. Tell me about it.
It was the first time there was a boycott. And I think that in itself was really powerful. But there were testimonies that really stood out during that hearing, one person called the committee members bad people because they understand the damage these bills do. They’ve heard it over and over again from advocates for transgender youth, from their parents. And they still carry on these bills over and over again, right? So it is undeniable of them to say that they do not know what they are doing. They called the special session on Friday, which began at noon on Saturday, and then scheduled the hearing for the anti-transgender sports participation bill on Sunday. So it was at the last minute. Receiving within that time frame, it is impossible for most people to reach the capital. But the boycott itself was really a principled approach. To say, we are not going to play your game anymore.