Greg Abbott
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

For just a moment in late May, Texas ACLU advocate Adri Perez felt able to breathe.

A Republican-dominated state legislature had introduced about 30 anti-transgender bills. One bill limited trans participation in youth sports. Another classified as “child abuse” gender-affirming surgeries for young people. But the legislative session ended with none of these bills passed.

Then Republican Governor Gregg Abbott called the legislators back for a special session in July. Dozens of anti-trans bills were reintroduced. Then Abbott called a second special session in August that’s still underway.

In July and then again in August, The Washington Monthly’s Gregory Svirnovskiy discussed with Perez 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 2016 in North Carolina, and then in Texas, with bills prohibiting trans people from using the bathroom that aligned with their gender identity. Were you surprised when such proposals hit the docket?

At the time, it did surprise me that anybody would be concerned with where I went to the bathroom or where transgender youth and adults went to the bathroom. But it was concerning that was the focus of state and national discourse.

Adri Perez (Courtesy)

How did Democrats fight that bill when it was proposed in Texas? Was it as simple as not all Republicans got on board? Was there a filibuster?

I don’t want to ever discount the power of business allies, and them chiming into the conversation and speaking out against the bill and the economic impact that it would have on Texas. We saw a similar bill happen in Indiana that had enormous economic impacts. And so drawing parallels to that in Texas was pretty easy, and a way to build opposition to this bill. But something that was incredible was the [number] of transgender people that showed up to the Capitol to speak out against the bill. And it’s still, I think, one of the most amazing displays of people power that I’ve seen happen at the Texas Capitol. It resulted in hours and hours of testimony.

What lessons did you and other activists in the ACLU take away from 2016 that have helped you this year?

What I return to time and time again, the session highlighted the importance of transgender people showing up to tell their own stories. And to not let the narrative be taken from them by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, people who may not want to see the humanity in trans people. So showing up and sharing the stories of trans youth, of trans adults, and the joy that exists in our lives despite these government attacks is, I still think, one of the most powerful forms of advocacy.

In 2019, after a pretty punishing midterm election, Republicans worked with Democrats on education and public policy. Theyve since moved back, proposing a number of ultra-conservative anti-LGBTQ bills. Can you explain any rational calculus?

The rational calculus?

Sure, or I mean, you know, the irrational calculus.

There are several other things that Texas Republicans should be focused on, like our electric grid. [In July,] in parts of central and east Texas, their electricity was flickering for no reason. It failed in February and resulted in about 700 deaths. [Gov.] Greg Abbott did not fix the electric grid. [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick did not fix the electric grid. We are still recovering from a COVID-19 pandemic where Texas has one of the lowest rates of vaccinations and health care coverage in the country. And we are seeing the numbers for a potential fourth wave of COVID-19 in the state of Texas where infections are rising and predominantly in rural counties in Texas.

I’m thinking and pausing just because that particular point has been pretty irritating.

We are seeing a governor who faces gubernatorial opponents from further right than he is. And we see that he is trying to kind of establish his legitimacy as a conservative by attacking transgender kids because that is where the party has chosen to shift their focus. This is not a coincidence. It is something that is politically convenient for more Republican legislators. And it’s something that is heavily funded by conservative right-wing organizations. And they are putting forth a coordinated and aggressive attack on a fictionalized narrative of transgender people as though they are harmful.

There are two bills that I want to focus on, one that targets participation in sports and another that could classify gender-affirming care as child abuse.” How does the ACLU assist opponents of those bills in the fight?

I think one of the main things that we’re 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 behalf of local legislators and their constituents to push these forward. A lot of the work, unfortunately, of doing LGBTQ and trans advocacy is just basic education. And there was a good quote from a trans youth who testified in the Texas legislature saying that she wishes that she didn’t have to educate the legislators on the basics of her existence. It’s almost imposed on us because there’s no one else to do it, who feels that compelled to do it. At times, it involves just ensuring that legislators know stories of their own transgender constituents and how these bills would impact them, pointing out that they are blatantly unconstitutional, and providing that information and documents so that they can reference it.

Both those bills died in the state house in late May. Can you describe to me what that felt like? Did it feel like a victory?

It did very much feel like a victory, yeah. It was a short-held victory but for about a month and seven days, it felt like a victory. There were a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills filed in the session, I have accounts of 33. 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’s a record high. Since I first started doing this work, I have not seen that many bills be filed in a single year. 2019 was actually a record low year for anti-LGBTQ legislation and a record year for pro-LGBTQ measures being filed in the state legislature.

The transgender sports bill seems like its coming back to the fore.  And the governor is attempting to build up trans health care restrictions outside the state legislature. So what happens now?

What we know is that if there is any sort of restriction imposed on trans youth and their ability to access health care, whether it be at the legislature, or at the executive level from Governor Abbott, that is a law that simply cannot stand. It is a law that would steal hope, it’s a rule that would steal the hope from thousands of children in the state of Texas and risk their lives and livelihoods in a way that we would most certainly fight back against.

It just seems like you’re always forced to be playing defense. Every few months or years, the governor or state house pushes forth bills aimed at restricting trans rights, and then it’s time to respond. Is there any way to get ahead of those issues? Are you always just 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 splinter off one letter of LGBTQ and target that specific community to 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. It is in some ways so much harder because we are a smaller percentage of the population as a whole. It requires a very small percentage of Texans overall to speak up enough and loud enough to counter the misinformation and hatred from an entire political party. But we have made progress in the scope of LGBTQ rights. I’ve been out for 10 or 11 years now. And when I first came out, I had no idea if I would be able to get married to somebody that I loved. When I first came out, I had no idea if I would be able to adopt children. We have made progress.

In that second special session in August, the Texas state legislature held a hearing rehashing their attempted restrictions on trans participation in organized sports. Tell me about that.

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 harm that these bills do. They have heard it time and time again from advocates for transgender youth, from their parents. And they still continue to pursue these bills time and time again, right. So it’s undeniable on their part to say that they don’t know what they’re doing. They called the special session on Friday, and that started on Saturday at noon and then they scheduled the hearing for the anti-transgender sports participation bill on Sunday. So it was on very last-minute notice. Receiving within that time frame, it’s impossible for most people to make it down to the capital. But the boycott itself was really a principled approach. To say, we’re not gonna play into your game anymore.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

Gregory Svirnovskiy, a former Washington Monthly intern, is a journalist based in Evanston, Illinois.