As national attention on transgender issues has fixated on proposed policy shifts in the military, a grassroots clash over emerging privacy issues is being waged in the State of Texas. On July 18, a special session of the Texas Legislature began. They focused on several legislative items, though only one proposal has generated the sort of blazing summer heat the state is known for: the Texas Privacy Act.
On July 21, a tense hearing of the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs revealed the issues and emotions surrounding the bill. Jonathan Saenz, who heads up the non-profit advocacy group Texas Values, shared his perspective with the committee, recounting how parents in small-town Dripping Springs, Tex. learned of a school board decision.
“This was one of the phone calls that we received requesting our help,” said Saenz. “In Dripping Springs, a little girl came home and told her dad, ‘Daddy, there was a boy in my bathroom today.’ That’s how parents found out about a policy change in their school!” On July 26, the Texas Privacy Act passed by a 21-10 vote of the Texas Senate and currently awaits a vote in the Texas House.
While many opinions surround the question of how to uphold all students’ privacy and dignity, local families at the heart of the issue have a perspective worth hearing. For six years, Rob and his wife Kristie have lived in Dripping Springs, where they raise their two children. (At the family’s request, their last name has been withheld to protect privacy.)
Rob and his daughter Shiloh recently granted an interview from Austin, where they were joined by Texas Values policy analyst Nicole Hudgens.
Josh Shepherd: Texans tend to value having less regulation and minimal government interference, a ‘live and let live’ mentality. How does this proposed Texas Privacy Act navigate that culture?
Rob: Most of the people I know who live here in Texas don’t want things over-regulated for them, that’s true. We want to be able to make our own decisions, so I understand the question well.
The problem in this situation is, our public school had made a decision: We’re going to give a special allowance to let this one child use a private bathroom because he’s not comfortable using the boys facilities. Then that little boy’s mom came and said, “No, my boy doesn’t want to use a private bathroom. He wants to use the girls bathroom — and I’m going to litigate if that doesn’t happen.”
Our school board wouldn’t take a stand, they wouldn’t even put this issue on the agenda in multiple meetings. Across our state, we saw schools were all over the board on this — meanwhile, while we’re waiting for some resolution, our school district is being threatened with litigation on behalf of a boy who wants to use the bathroom in mixed company.
To be honest with you, we want our children to love other kids. We’re compassionate to boys and girls who self-identify as transgender; we lead our family to love all the people around them. We just don’t want our little girl to share the bathroom with a biological male.
At this point, the state needs to step in and make a decision about this. We want our children’s privacy protected, and our schools aren’t doing that.
Nicole Hudgens: As Rob said, the same thing that happened in Dripping Springs happened in Fort Worth — a case I was involved in on behalf of Texas Values.
In 2016, the Fort Worth superintendent implemented guidelines without a vote of the school board and without a hearing including parents on these issues. As other moms and dads have reached out to us, we’ve learned this is happening in Coppell and in other schools across the state.
We now know one of the reasons. In a guidance briefing sent to schools statewide, the Texas Association of School Boards referred to a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter issued by the Obama Administration. That letter, since then rescinded by the Trump Administration, was used as a standard that the TASB leaned on.
The federal government and even local governments have been bullying schools into enacting policies that do not reflect the will of Texas parents.
JS: Rob, as a father of two children, what do you see as the problems this Texas bill will solve?
Rob: This proposed policy helps there be a standard to say: We sympathize and empathize with all people, but my little girl is going to be able to go into a bathroom and not be fearful that a biological boy is going to come in. My boy will be able to go to a bathroom and not be fearful that a girl will come in.
It solves the problem at the school level and at the state level. I was shocked that we were empowering our school to protect and watch over the privacy, dignity, and modesty of our children — and they weren’t. They didn’t even let the parents know the stand that they were taking.
Ultimately, we want an answer in which women and kids can go into a bathroom and feel safe and comfortable, as well as we want transgender kids to be able to have a private bathroom they can go into if they’re uncomfortable using a bathroom corresponding with their sex.
I hope the State of Texas will take a stand on this, to protect boys, girls, men, and women across our state. We want our kids to be safe in the school that they’re in right now; that’s why we want this bill to pass.
JS: You’ve invited your 10-year-old daughter Shiloh to share about this issue as well. Shiloh, what grade are you going into this fall?
Shiloh: I’m going into fifth grade.
JS: How do you think having a boy together with girls after gym class would affect you?
Shiloh: One, boys sweat more than girls — so that would be disgusting. Two, it would make me very, very uncomfortable. Bathrooms, locker rooms, and stuff like that should be based on sex; not what they want to be, but what we biologically were born as.
At home, I don’t even let my little brother in the bathroom with me. When I’m taking a shower, even if I have the shower curtain pulled over, I don’t let him come into the bathroom because it’s not comfortable for me. In the same way, I wouldn’t want a boy that I didn’t even know coming in even if I had a stall.
JS: Nicole, could you provide more insight into concerns about intimate spaces?
NH: It’s important for people to know that, yes, the Texas Privacy Act addresses bathrooms — but it also addresses showers and locker rooms. As a millennial woman, there is an expectation of privacy that begins at the door.
When you’re talking about girls going into locker rooms and showers, most girls are self-conscious as it is. To put them in a situation where they feel like a man or boy could come in, regardless of their intentions, that is a violation of privacy and dignity for women.
Girls deserve safe spaces, whether they are in elementary school, middle school, or high school. The expectation of being protected begins at the door.
JS: While we’ve focused on one aspect of this bill, how would it address concerns affecting women’s athletics?
NH: Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s version of the bill, which is SB3, just passed out of the Texas Senate and it addresses these issues related to athletics. We’re seeing cases where males who identify as females have taken spots of women off of women’s sports teams.
When you look at the original intent of Title IX, it was actually to open up opportunities for women to have a place in sports. Senator Kolkhorst is a great example of this; she’s an NCAA athlete. Yet even here in Texas, there have been a few cases where males identifying as females have won women’s sporting events.
This is a growing concern for many families. What this bill does is ensure that girls keep their spots on sports teams, rather than losing them to biological men — who are able to play on men’s sports teams.
JS: Rob, why does Texas need a statewide policy on these issues, rather than letting local school districts hash out what they want to do?
Rob: First, I trusted our school to make a decision that would protect the privacy and dignity of children and they didn’t. Second, there’s no standard. If this passes in the State of Texas, it will at least give a standard for all Texas parents to know: My little girl or boy can go into the bathroom or locker room and they’ll be protected.
There’s been some discussion about how this will impact our state financially. It saddens me that people would take a stance based on money, essentially saying, It may hurt us financially, so we don’t want to protect little girls, little boys, and women.
That’s why the schools ultimately aren’t making decisions on this issue, because they’re worried about litigation — again, that comes down to money.
JS: Nicole, is there basis for the arguments being made about the economic impact of this law?
NH: When it comes to the economic impact, the best example is to look at the city of Houston because it’s been tested. In 2014, the mayor of Houston implemented an ordinance that would have allowed men to go into women’s restrooms — not just in government buildings, but businesses would have been forced to follow that policy.
The citizens of Houston rounded up three times the number of legitimate signatures they needed on a petition to have that ordinance go to a vote. The mayor stepped in illegally and denied that petition, so the case had to go all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court. This was also the instance where the mayor subpoenaed sermons of five pastors, the “Houston five” as they were called.
Activists made their economic arguments, but the citizens of Houston voted down the ordinance 61 to 39 percent. Now, Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the nation. When they voted down this policy, they never lost the Final Four. This past February, Houston hosted Super Bowl LI and it was a success. Some pressured the NFL to choose another city as a political statement, and they didn’t bow to that.
The fact is, Texas is one of the best economies in the world and we can remain economically strong — without putting our dollars over our daughters.
JS: Rob, in the event your own child was dealing with gender dysphoria, wouldn’t you want him or her to feel totally accepted and included with peers?
Rob: We want all children to feel accepted, included, loved, safe, and comfortable — and to have a great education. We want our kids to play on the playground and be friends with all different types of people.
That’s not what we’re talking about at all. We’re not saying we want to exclude anyone. What we’re asking is, Should children of the opposite sex share bathrooms and locker rooms? On this issue, my voice as a parent should matter. For boys and girls, restrooms and locker rooms are private places.
JS: Nicole, how has the Trump Administration provided revised guidance on this issue?
NH: The Obama Administration issued a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter on May 13 of last year, which actually threatened Title IX funding of all schools if they did not allow biological boys to go into girls’ showers, locker rooms, bathrooms, and even overnight hotel stays when school teams were traveling.
The Trump Administration rescinded that guidance letter on February 22, recognizing the primary role of the states on these issues. That’s one of the many reasons this Texas privacy bill has come into play.
In our own state, we’ve had school districts needing guidance along with some city governments going way beyond their bounds on this issue. The Texas Privacy Act would reset things and give guidance to these school districts in a way that respects the privacy, safety, and dignity of everyone.
JS: Does this bill matter beyond Texas?
NH: There’s a saying I heard even when I was working on Capitol Hill that says: “As Texas goes, so goes the rest of the nation.” The Lone Star State really sets the standard on many issues, especially when it comes to family values.
Privacy is an important concern to parents, taxpayers, and students. As someone who is following these issues nationally, I know what Texas does will impact the rest of the nation. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important.