Published 8:58 am Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Senate State Affairs committee approved a bill proponents say is intended to protect privacy and provide security in public restrooms. Widely known as the “bathroom bill”, SB 6 would require a person to use restrooms, changing rooms, locker facilities and other areas correlated to the gender listed on a person’s birth certificate in public buildings. Supporters argue that such a measure is needed to keep men from entering women’s restrooms and other facilities. Author Senator Lois Kolkhorst said the bill is the result of hard work to find a fair and non-discriminatory solution to this issue. “Senate Bill 6, the Texas Privacy Act, is a bill that many of us have spent a great deal of time on carefully crafting to find the balance of privacy, decency, respect and dignity to protect women, children and all people for that matter,” she said in her opening remarks on the bill.

SB 6 only applies to public buildings and facilities, including public schools. Private businesses would still have discretion over their own restroom policies. “In other words, businesses do what they do,” said Kolkhorst. “They can handle their restrooms, dressing rooms, their locker rooms and showers as they see fit.” Private entities who lease public buildings for an event would be able to determine restroom policy. When taking bids from private companies for a public contract, governments would be prohibited from considering a company’s restroom policy. Schools, courthouses and other public venues would be able to make exceptions to accommodate people on a case-by-case basis.

Critics of the bill believe that this measure is targeted discrimination against transgender individuals. Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia asked why the Legislature wouldn’t simply pass a bill saying that people can’t use the bathroom of the opposite sex. “If that’s really what your aim is, why are we doing all these other things like pre-emption, the reference to the biological sex on the birth certificate?” she asked. “Because I think that’s what leads to the concerns of many of the people in my district to believe that this is discriminatory, and that is targeting transgender children.” Kolkhorst replied that the complexity of the issue and the need to balance the needs of various groups, especially those of school districts, informed the crafting of the bill. She also addressed the issue of discrimination in her layout of the bill. “The legislation offers non-discriminatory guidance to public buildings and schools by protecting all human rights, including women’s rights and parental rights, and by allowing for personal accommodations for special circumstances.”

Kolkhorst laid out a timeline for the development of this issue in Texas. It first arose following a number of local ordinances intended to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, including allowing people to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. In 2014, the Houston City Council passed such an ordinance, followed a few months later by the city of San Antonio.   In April of 2016, the Fort Worth Independent School District passed transgender guidelines, which stated that staff should respect the needs of transgender students, including in bathroom policy. That caused a clash with state leadership, with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick calling for the superintendent’s resignation and Attorney General Ken Paxton issuing a non-binding opinion that the district may have violated state law.   The Houston ordinance was repealed by referendum in 2015 and the Fort Worth ISD ultimately narrowed their guidelines to deal with the issue on a case-by-case basis.

                  The committee heard testimony until nearly five a.m. on Wednesday morning, and passed the bill on a vote of 7-1.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, March 8 at 11 a.m.