Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
That’s all I could think after a press conference at the state capitol Tuesday morning, wherein Democratic lawmakers joined civil rights groups and a prominent—and notably not-Democrat—business leader to decry anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed by some of the state’s most stringently conservative lawmakers.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The focus of this particular press conference was HB 4105, just one of a number of anti-LGBT freedom bills filed this session. This proposed legislation is at once resigned and defensive: even as it assumes that legal same-sex marriage is coming in Texas, like it has for most of the rest of the country, it seeks to persuade county clerks from complying with any court ruling or legislation that would make it so.
HB 4105 would basically pay county clerks to discriminate against gay and lesbian Texans: It stipulates that if clerks issue a marriage license to same-gender Texas couples, they’ll have to forfeit $30 of each marriage licensing fee to the state’s general revenue fund. Licensing fees from heterosexual couples would be remanded back to the clerk’s office for their use.
In the course of the press conference, much was made of HB 4105’s potential for quashing business interests and growth in Texas. Indeed, Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond was on hand to rail against the negative economic impact this kind of state-sanctioned discrimination could have on the state, citing the recent backlash against Indiana’s “religious freedom” law that would empower businesses to further discriminate against LGBTQ people.
If that’s a compelling argument to folks who would otherwise count themselves opposed to treating LGBTQ Texans like human beings, then I suppose some folks need to make it. If the only way we can get people to care about not actively oppressing our fellow Texans is to make a fiscal plea, perhaps the ends justify the means.
I won’t rehash those arguments here. I think you can probably work out for yourselves what they are: basically, the kind of respectability politics that value LGBTQ Texans only when, and if, they behave like good consumers and upholders of capitalism, and offer economic value to people who’d like to profit off their needs and wants. Instead, I want to talk about a comment that state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) made in the course of the press conference, wherein he asserted that some of his Republican colleagues “privately” agreed with him that these LGBTQ bills are bad for Texas.
But, he said, that “doesn’t mean they’ll vote with me.”
I have long held that there are very few right-wing “true believers” in the state capitol, by which I mean lawmakers who genuinely and with their whole hearts believe that being gay or lesbian or queer or transgender is a sin, or who really and truly think that abortion is murder. Mostly, what I see is political posturing meant to shore up support among the ultra-conservative right-wing primary voter base, combined with lazy—or perhaps wholly self-interested—line-towing the rest of the time.
Take Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Flower Mound), who floated HB 2, Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, during the 2013 legislative session. She was so thoroughly inept at answering the most basic questions about the bill that her party basically told her to shut up and smile while Texas Democrats ran roughshod over her supposed rationalizations for the legislation. This year, we have Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), who bloviated about a budget amendment that’s supposed to keep Planned Parenthood from providing sex education to Texas schools, even as it demonstrably does no such thing.
And I do not believe state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Grapevine), for example, is truly so foolish, or so deeply religious, that she thinks reproductive health care in Texas has done anything close to “advancing” under her party’s leadership. She’s simply too smart to believe something so patently asinine, so clearly wrong. Which is not to say that she isn’t clever enough to know when it’s time to keep quiet about it.
So, look: I have spilled a good deal of virtual ink over the last couple of years calling on Texas Democrats—whether they be lawmakers, voters, or activists—to be bolder and more defiant in the face of the right wing’s relentless attacks on civil rights and, especially, reproductive autonomy.
But now, today, during this legislative session? It is this legislature’s reasonable, moderate conservatives who need to be bold and brave.
Because if there are GOP lawmakers who will only agree that anti-LGBTQ legislation is harmful if they’re behind closed doors, and I take Sen. Ellis at his word on that, it can only mean one thing: Texas doesn’t have to be this way.
Texas doesn’t have to be a place where transgender or gender non-conforming people must fear using a public restroom, where bounties are put on their heads just for leaving their doorsteps, or where gay and lesbian couples who love each other can’t enjoy the same marital benefits as heterosexual couples. It doesn’t have to be a place where bigots can refuse service to their neighbors just because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Texas could be a place where freedom and personal responsibility—words I hear all the time on the floors of the Texas house and senate—take precedence over hatred and fear. Where we value and trust Texans to do what’s right for themselves and their families, without the heavy handed interference of state lawmakers who can’t see past the next primary.
But only if these conservative lawmakers will stop agreeing “privately” with progressives and start disagreeing publicly with peers seeking only to build careers on legacies of oppression and discrimination. Houston Republican Rep. Sarah Davis comes to mind, here—she’s taken a public stance against her colleagues who want to cut access to breast and cervical cancer screenings just so they can stick their tongues out at Planned Parenthood. Should it be remarkable that a Texas Republican stood for accessible health care, and that she didn’t fall prey to the tired claims of anti-choice lawmakers who’ll throw Texans with cancer under the nearest bus just to gather up a few votes come November? No, but it is. And the only way it’s going to stop being remarkable is if more members of the Texas GOP follow Davis’ lead.
Because a private agreement that the state shouldn’t pay county clerks to discriminate against gay and lesbian Texans, for example, doesn’t do anything for that couple on the courthouse steps who are turned away by a county clerk who has to decide between retaining the funds that will keep her office’s doors open and obeying the law. It’s just a cowardly, mealy mouthed admission that GOP lawmakers are willing to compromise their personal morals and ethics in order—they think—to keep an office at the capitol.
Certainly Texas’ ultra-right primary voters are a formidable voting block in a state with abysmal voter turn-out, but they’re not invincible. And they’ll be even less formidable if these “privately” reasonable conservative lawmakers stop cowing to the demands of a handful of people they apparently disagree with, whose interests run counter to everything that could make Texas a better, stronger, more welcoming state.
Does it hurt the hearts of these “privately” progressive GOP lawmakers to cast votes against their own beliefs even a little bit? If so, and I hope it does, I have to demand that they do better. Because a “yes” vote on the record is a “yes” vote on the record, and it puts any “privately” conflicted lawmaker in the same pool as outright bigots like state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) or Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), the “former fetus.”
I can’t believe that this is the kind of legacy any lawmaker with a conscience would want to leave behind: that when it came down to the decision, in the moment, they opted to throw in their lot with some of Texas’ most notoriously hateful, and willfully ignorant, right-wing lawmakers.
Surely, surely, it is better to be remembered for being on the right side of Texas’ political history, than to be remembered for going to any immoral lengths to be included in the history books at all.