Whenever the Rev. Remington Johnson goes to the Texas Capitol to testify, she brings a friend whose “only job is to hold me and remind me to eat.”
Johnson, a health-care chaplain and consultant at the University of Texas at Austin, has been advocating against a historic deluge of bills aimed at transgender people in the state — more than 40 have been filed in the past 10 months alone. It is “brutal” work, she says: She experiences rolling panic attacks in the weeks leading up to giving testimony. Once she’s there, Johnson, who is transgender, is forced to listen to “hours and hours” of people insulting her directly, calling her “abhorrent” and a “sin.”
“Every moment that you’re there, you’re unsafe,” Johnson said.
But, “the other option is to feel powerless.”
Texas’s third special session began this week — with Gov. Greg Abbott (R) prioritizing a law that would bar transgender kids from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. Despite previous defeats, the renewed battle highlights the state GOP’s insistence on passing the bill this year.
Texas state Sen. Charles Perry (R), who wrote the bill, told local TV news outlet KCBD that the legislation was “common sense.” His office did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s just an effort to preserve the tradition, the history, and provide safe competition for women with their biological peer group,” Perry said in August.
Johnson, alongside other transgender people and their families, is bracing herself for another round of legislative battles that, in 2021, have felt more intense and isolating than in years past.
“The big difference this year was how lonely it was,” Johnson said. “It was unbelievably lonely.”
In Texas, trans advocates and their allies have been pushing back against bills targeting them since 2017, when a “bathroom bill,” which would have denied trans and gender-nonconforming people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity, was defeated after multiple special sessions.
But while none of the bills proposed this year have passed, advocates say they have already taken a toll on them and other trans Texans. And unlike in 2017, when broad left-wing alliances helped buoy trans advocates, this year has felt uniquely exhausting, cruel and lonely, they say.
Angela Hale, a senior adviser at the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas, described the mood leading up to the special session as somber.
“It’s disappointing that we have to have another special session, and that the governor put this on the call,” she said. Because many of the bills are focused on regulating the activities and health care of trans children, some families of trans children have gone to the Capitol “dozens and dozens” of times to testify at legislative hearings.
“These kids in Texas, many of them have had to grow up having to testify to defend their own humanity,” Hale said. “It is really taking a toll on our community.”
Among those families is Lisa Stanton and her daughter, Maya.
Stanton first advocated alongside her trans daughter in 2017, when the bathroom bill had been proposed in the Texas legislature. Maya was just 6 at the time.
They met one-on-one with lawmakers, determined to convince them that the bill was bad policy. During one of those meetings, Stanton said, a state representative called Maya “an abomination” to her child’s face.
This year, the Stantons have continued advocating against a “tidal wave” of legislation, a decision led by Maya, Stanton said.
Because Maya, now 10, socially transitioned at a young age, many in her community did not know she is trans, Stanton said. The decision to advocate publicly means the family has “essentially had to out ourselves.”
Over the past 10 months, the Stantons have made the nearly three-hour trip from Houston to Austin and back again to testify; sometimes, Maya will wait until 1 a.m. to speak before various committees.
Maya has recently developed a tic; her doctors believe it has been induced by stress, Stanton said. It has been gutting to see the toll the legislative sessions have taken on her daughter, she said.
But Maya said she feels a responsibility to stop the bills from passing, to show lawmakers “that I’m human.”
The fact that many of the bills concern trans children is unique to 2021, where states across the country have sought to pass legislation restricting their access to gender-affirming health care or imposing new regulations on which sports teams they can compete.
Other factors have made the battle to defeat these bills challenging, advocates and experts say. Many trans Texans and their families have noted that there are fewer allies to support them this year.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has resurged in Texas in recent months, has left people “less rooted in their communities,” said T.J. Billard, a communications professor at Northwestern University and executive director of the Center for Applied Gender Studies. “People are faced with so many more day-to-day struggles that it’s hard to care about the things going on at a broader level.”
There are also safety concerns about testifying or demonstrating at the Capitol, related to the coronavirus and counterdemonstrators. Some are worried burnout may be affecting organizations that have fought alongside trans and LGBTQ groups in the past. Others wonder if a flurry of conservative bills, such as the antiabortion and voting rights bills, may have splintered resources and energy.
Billard sees another possible explanation for the decreased turnout: Liberal activists no longer have the galvanizing power of the Trump administration.
“There was a particular kind of energy for trans rights among cis allies that happened during the Trump administration,” Billard said. “There was this ‘all hands on deck’ approach.”
With President Biden in power, that energy has shifted to the right. Although Biden has helped bolster the rights of trans and other LGBTQ people at the federal level, his administration “isn’t going to make Texas any different for the activists in Texas,” Billard said. On the left, “people have lost that sense of urgency” they once had.
That has placed much of the burden for fighting for trans rights “solely on trans people,” Billard added. “Given everything else going on in the world, [that] kind of makes this fight a lot less sustainable.”
Even though the state has yet to pass a bill that curbs trans rights, activists agree that harm has already been done, both on a personal and social level.
A measure like Senate Bill 29, which would restrict trans kids’ ability to participate in sports that match their gender identity, can also shape public discourse and understanding of trans people in ways that are toxic and difficult to correct, Billard said.
Supporters of S.B. 29 say the bill is necessary to protect cis girls and women from competing against trans girls, whom they consider to have a biological advantage.
“The issue is about basic fairness and opportunities that women have fought for centuries to obtain,” the conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America recently told ABC News.
But, Billard counters, these sports bills are actually about social exclusion: a way to “legislate trans people out of public spaces.”
Rachel Gonzalez and her family became “accidental activists” in 2017. At the time, Gonzalez said, she had no idea that the battle “was just beginning.” Now an advocate with Human Rights Campaign, Gonzalez agrees that it’s hard to undo the misinformation that comes out in these hearings, in large part because the reality of being trans is so nuanced.
“It’s difficult to explain what trans health care looks like, because it’s different for everyone,” she said. And it’s hard to dispel misinformation about trans girls’ participation in sports without talking about medical care.
Gonzalez, whose 10-year-old daughter, Libby, is trans, is especially troubled by a bill, refiled this week, that would expand the state’s definition of child abuse to include parents who support their transgender children.
According to the bill, administering or supplying medication or performing or consenting to surgery that would help a minor transition would be a crime.
That bill was also written by Perry, the author of the sports ban.
“Why do we want [children to transition] when children can’t understand or comprehend the consequences of doing it,” Perry told KCBD.
But advocates say the bill would deprive trans kids of affirming care and strip them from parents who love and support them. And even without being passed, Gonzalez fears, bills like Perry’s have spurred a “vigilante culture” when it comes to trans children and their families. This week in Dallas, the conservative group Save Texas Kids called on teachers from the Dallas Independent School District to report any colleagues who promoted critical race theory and “gender fluidity.”
The flood of legislation has already pushed some trans children and their families out of the state, activists say. But many of the advocates The Lily spoke to are torn on the subject. Moving requires financial resources and opportunities that are scant, particularly during a pandemic.
They also feel obliged to stay and fight on behalf of their communities.
Among those is Elijah, an 18-year-old college student who began testifying at the Texas Capitol this year.
For Elijah, who spoke on the condition that only his last name be used to protect his identity, the sports bill hits particularly close to home. A trans man who began transitioning his freshman year of high school, Eli was forced to compete on the girls wrestling team throughout high school, he said.
He had to go to the girls’ locker room for weigh-ins, where coaches and members of the wrestling team would gawk at him and tell him he “didn’t belong,” Eli said. Some wrestlers turned down their matches with him.
His goal right now is to make sure younger trans kids have a better experience than he did, one where they can reap the benefits of school activities without the trauma. But, Eli said, “if Texas doesn’t change, they’re going to lose a lot of people.”
“I’d rather stay and help.”