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Abilene Reporter-News (Texas)
AUSTIN - The most divisive issue so far of the 2017 legislative session won preliminary passage in the Texas Senate on Tuesday, placing it one step away from being sent to the House, where its future remains uncertain.
Senators in the Republican-dominated upper chamber were solid in their support of Senate Bill 6, nicknamed the "bathroom bill" because it would limit the restroom options of transgender people. They were joined by one Democrat, Brownsville's Eddie Lucio.
The bill's author, Brenham Republican Lois Kolkhorst, fended off sometimes hostile questions from Democrats and beat back efforts to make it more accommodating to people who are transitioning from one gender to another. She rejected several assertions that transgender people would be marginalized by the bill and that she was needlessly extending the reach of state government.
"I don't in any way think we are going to have the policing of bathrooms or restrooms," Kolkhorst said during debate on the bill that lasted nearly five hours.
Kolkhorst's legislation is among the top priorities of the Senate's presiding officer, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who since last year has said it is needed to protect the privacy of women. But the bill, which still requires one more Senate vote before being sent to the House, only applies to multistall restrooms in buildings operated by governments and public schools and colleges.
The bill would not dictate restroom policy for private businesses and it would allow private entities that rent government buildings for their own use to also set their own policies on restroom use.
The bill would, however, prevent local governments from setting restroom policies that allow opposite-gender use.
House Speaker Joe Straus, a business-minded Republican from San Antonio, has criticized the bill as a distraction from more important legislation. And last week, he called reporters off the House floor during a routine session to restate that he is "not a fan" of SB 6.
During Tuesday's debate, several Democratic senators argued that people transitioning from one gender to another have an extraordinarily high suicide rate and often struggle for acceptance from family, friends and coworkers.
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said pushing the bill might contribute to the isolation of transgender people and perhaps even contribute to suicide. Kolkhorst, whose bill is expected to come up for its final Senate vote Wednesday, replied that she sympathizes with the transgender community's struggle and has prayed for guidance as she moved her bill through the legislative mill. She said that trying to balance the needs of people transitioning from one gender to another with the privacy concerns of others is complex and difficult.
Garcia disagreed, noting as have other critics of the bill, that transgender people have used public restrooms without issue for generations.
"This is complicated ... because you made it complicated," Garcia told Kolkhorst.
In restrooms where the bill, if enacted, would apply, use of the facility would be restricted according to the gender printed on someone's birth certificate. That means that even if someone had gone through the medical procedures to change genders - and had the physical characteristics to match the new gender - the person still would have to use restroom associated with that person's gender at birth.
Kolkhorst noted that people can petition the courts to have their birth certificates amended. But Garcia said that of the estimated 125,000 transgender Texans, only 500 have navigated the legal requirements to make such a changeThe bill has the support of several social conservative organizations, including Texas Values, the Texas Pastors Council, the Texas Eagle Forum and Empower Texas. The influential Texas Association of Business has been the most outspoken critic of the bill, saying that SB 6 would label Texas as an intolerant place to visit and do business.
"We're disappointed the Texas Senate would choose to pass discriminatory legislation like Senate Bill 6, despite clear indications that its passage will have an economic impact in Texas," said Chris Wallace, president of the business group. "TAB remains committed to fighting and defending the Texas economy against bills that discriminate and run counter to Texas values."
Senate Republicans, however, said the bill was very much in keeping with Texas values. Like other Republicans, Sen. Bob Hall, who represents a district north and east of Dallas, pointed out that there is no law on the books in Texas that keeps men out of women's restrooms and women out of men's.
"The question is really not the transgender person but the person who is a pervert," Hall said.
But Democrat Jose Rodriguez, of El Paso, brushed aside such suggestions.
"A lot of it is a lack of understanding of the transgender community," Rodriguez said. "A lot of it is about fear."
Staff writer Beatriz Alvarado contributed to this report.
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