Republican blitz on LGBTQ issues exposes fractures among Texas Democrats

Protesters gathered near the entrance to the Texas House to oppose Senate Bill 14, which seeks to ban puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender youth, before it was debated in the House on May 12, 2023. ( (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Democrats in the Texas Legislature have struggled to keep a united front against a barrage of conservative Republican priorities, including proposed limits on drag performers, school library books that discuss sex, and medical treatments for young transgender Texans.

That difficulty has led to eye-catching defections by some Democrats, exposing fractures within the party on LGBTQ rights and the proper role of discussions about sex and gender in public.

Nowhere was that divide more evident than in Rep. Shawn Thierry’s 12-minute speech on the House floor earlier this month defending her vote in favor of a bill that would ban hormone therapy and puberty blockers for transgender Texans under the age of 18. The Houston Democrat’s voice quivered as she recounted grappling with the issue before casting a vote she felt represented her constituents.

“Certainly, the topic of gender and body dysphoria in children requires careful consideration, caution and compassion,” Thierry said in her speech. “It remains my legislative duty and moral obligation to vote the conscience and core values of my constituency. I will do this today with an open heart and clear mind.”

To advocates for transgender Texans, including medical experts who say gender-affirming care is important to the youths’ well-being, Thierry’s vote on Senate Bill 14 was a stark betrayal.

To political observers, it highlighted an ongoing challenge for the Democratic Party, whose base includes liberals and moderates as well as older voters whose beliefs on sex and gender are being recast and challenged.

“The Democratic Party is giving voice to constituencies that were formerly shushed and quieted, so issues like how to treat gender dysphoria are new issues, and I do think the average person is sort of unclear about those issues and how to respond to them,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “They’re uncomfortable with them.”

Thierry’s speech, which repeated conservative talking points that advocates for transgender Texans challenged as false, drew the brunt of criticism from fellow Democrats, but she was not alone in breaking with the party. Longtime Democratic Reps. Harold Dutton of Houston and Tracy King of Batesville also voted for SB 14, as did Rep. Abel Herrero of Robstown.

On other hot-button issues, longtime Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West voted in favor of a bill regulating drag shows, while nearly a dozen House Democrats voted for a bill to ban books deemed “sexually explicit.” The vote on books came despite the state party’s chair criticizing the bill as part of a Republican attempt to “ban huge catalogs of literature every two years.” Some of the targeted books deal with helping kids understand their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ten House Democrats voted with Republicans to pass Senate Bill 15, which was sold as an effort to “protect women’s sports” from transgender competitors by requiring college athletes to compete on sports teams that align with their sex assigned at birth.

To LGBTQ advocates, the votes showed that many lawmakers, and much of the state’s population, remain unfamiliar with the lives of transgender Texans.

“On both sides of the aisle, people don’t understand transgender issues and transgender people in Texas,” said Andrea Segovia, senior field and policy adviser for the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “Having these few Democrats vote for the bill is a clear representation of that.”

While her group has spent years talking to lawmakers about transgender Texans and their needs, she said this year’s session shows that education efforts need to continue.

“The movement forward is more education, more working on ‘Where are those gaps of information? Why is it that this talking point from the opposition worked better than ours?’” she said. “There’s a lot of homework from our part that we plan to do to figure out how we can come back better and stronger for our people.”

“Internal tug-of-war” among Democrats 

Jillson said Republicans have a built-in advantage — a center-right base that is older, whiter and more conservative, allowing for an easier consensus on social issues.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a base that includes a broader range of age, race and religious affiliation.

“For Democrats, it’s much more difficult,” Jillson said, adding that positions taken by some lawmakers who represent more conservative constituencies may clash with activists who support LGBTQ rights.

Segovia said Republicans have been winning the messaging war. By the time she and fellow activists try to explain how puberty blockers and hormone therapy work and the benefits they provide to a population at higher risk of depression and suicide, opponents have already scared lawmakers and the general public into voting to ban such procedures, she said.

“The opposition uses a bumper sticker to make their point, and we come back and we say a paragraph,” Segovia said. “It’s always a disadvantage.”

Former state Rep. Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and an LGBTQ advocate, echoed Segovia’s concerns and said some lawmakers were not doing deeper research to look past talking points.

“The Texas Legislature is reflective of the population of Texas. … If they’re hearing scary stuff from different sources and they’re not balancing it out with facts and real people, that’s a problem, that’s not being true to yourself,” she said. “You want people to vote their districts and their conscience, but you don’t want them to vote against science.”

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP political consultant, said Republicans have identified social issues that resonate with the public and taken positions that are more in line with the general Texas population.

“If these bills were as extreme and radical as the left says, you would have Republican defections, and you’re not seeing that,” he said.

Mackowiak said he’s seen more Democratic defections than expected, and he thanked those lawmakers for crossing the aisle on difficult issues. But he said he would expect liberal Democrats to take them to task during next year’s primary elections.

“Did these Democratic House members that came to their own decisions, did they misjudge their own electoral vulnerability, or did they swim with the tide?” he said.

Older Democrats also have an influence on their party, said Jeronimo Cortina, a political scientist at the University of Houston. In heavily Hispanic South Texas, Democrats have historically enjoyed support based on social programs to improve health care, provide benefits to seniors and lift people out of poverty. But that support has been counterbalanced by a largely conservative populace with close ties to the Catholic Church and, increasingly, evangelical churches.

Many of those churches oppose abortion and the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people in society.

Black voters, historically the most reliable base for the Texas Democratic Party, also face a similar issue, Cortina said. Black churches organize the highly successful “souls to the polls” efforts that whisk voters from their churches to polling locations during elections. But some of those churches, he added, are not welcoming to LGBTQ Texans.

“Not all Christian denominations can be defined as welcoming churches on issues of homosexuality or broadly LGBTQ+ issues. That complicates how these representatives voted in terms of that,” Cortina said. “It’s an internal tug-of-war between progressive Democrats and more traditional conservative Democrats.”

Nine of the 11 House Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for banning “sexually explicit” books were either Black or hailed from South Texas. All 10 who voted for the bill on transgender college athletes fell in the same categories.

Those votes have led to anger and frustration from liberal Democrats who say they’ve tried to address concerns lawmakers expressed about these bills.

“The argument that ‘I wasn’t aware’ or ‘I didn’t know’? It's trash at this point,” Segovia said.

What makes a “real Democrat”?

Joel Montfort, a Democratic political consultant, offered to help any candidate considering a primary challenge to Thierry after her vote in favor of SB 14, saying she was not a “real Democrat.”

Montfort also criticized Theirry’s vote to ban sexually explicit library books.

“To see a Democrat backpedal and buy into the GOP propaganda just like she did with book banning, it’s all just nonsense,” Montfort said. “You’re not really a Democrat then. You’re not paying attention to your constituents’ rights.”

But some Democrats defended their colleagues. State Rep. Eddie Morales, an Eagle Pass Democrat who voted against SB 14, said Thierry should be recognized for her courage.

“She carefully laid out her analysis and reasoning,” Morales said on social media. “Republicans have the votes to pass this bill without her vote. Yet she voted her [conscience] knowing she was opening herself up to attacks from within her own base.”

Morales, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, voted for the book ban bill, restrictions on drag artists and requiring transgender collegiate athletes to join sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth. He said he voted against the ban on gender-affirming care after meeting the family of a transgender teen.

Democratic leaders have taken a careful approach to addressing the division within their party. The chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, stayed out of the fracas, saying lawmakers are responsible for their own votes.

“When a member takes a vote on this House floor, they are voting consistently with the values and the principles of their district,” Martinez Fischer said. “Every member has to go home and explain these votes, and everybody takes a vote knowing that they have to come back and get reelected.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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