Texans everywhere are discussing the “bathroom bill,” one of the most controversial issues debated during the recent state legislative session and one that again has drawn attention during the continuing special session. On Tuesday, the State Senate passed Senate Bill 3, which would restrict bathroom use in local government buildings and public schools to the gender listed on the user’s birth certificate.

Police officers, politicians, and civil rights groups have spoken out against SB 3, an earlier bill that died in the regular session, and similar bills in the House. Transgender people, however, see one voice conspicuously missing from coverage of the issue: theirs.

Emmett Schelling is the president of the San Antonio Gender Association (SAGA) and the Alamo Region Director for Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT).  He said that while the public has grown more conversant in issues of sexual preference, gender identity is not as far along in public discourse. Even among those who want to help, transgender voices are often subsumed by the other members of LGBTQIA coalitions.

“Sometimes the trans community is looked on as kind of this infantile demographic,” Schelling said. “The people who stand with us think they need to speak for us.”

Schelling spoke to the Rivard Report from Austin, where he, along with many others, have signed up to speak before the committees and chambers of the Texas Legislature as the bill is considered.

Ashley Smith, a transgender woman who like Schelling has gone to Austin to speak to the Legislature multiple times, recently found that sometimes photographs – and hashtags – speak louder than words.

Smith drew widespread attention to the bathroom bill controversy – and to herself –when she snapped a selfie with Gov. Greg Abbott, a proponent of the legislation, at a San Antonio event earlier this month announcing his re-election campaign.

Rather than seize the moment to plead her case with Abbott, Smith snapped the now-famous picture and captioned it #Bathroombuddy. Had she simply stated her case, she said, she doubted the governor would have paid much attention. 

Ashley Smith's selfie with Gov. Greg Abbott, a proponent of the "bathroom bill," went viral.
Ashley Smith’s selfie with Gov. Greg Abbott, a proponent of the “bathroom bill,” went viral. Credit: Courtesy / Ashley Smith Facebook

“For some reason or another, nobody [in Austin] is listening to me,” Smith told the group at Pub Theology, a faith and culture discussion group hosted at the Friendly Spot Neighborhood Ice House by local youth pastor Gavin Rogers. 

The attention her photo generated caught Smith off guard. She said she mainly took the photo to make her mom laugh. “I thought I may get 50 or 60 likes…,” she said. Instead, it went viral, and Smith found herself speaking to everyone from the San Antonio Express-News to CNN

She agreed to speak at a special edition of Pub Theology, which usually meets weekly during the school year. Each meeting is co-hosted by a special guest with first-hand knowledge of a specific topic. Before he was elected mayor, Ron Nirenberg led a discussion on civic engagement. Darsh Preet Singh, a Sikh whose own viral image made him famous, and Omar Akhil, a local entrepreneur and member of the Muslim community, discussed Islamophobia. Faith leaders from a range of conservative and liberal Christian traditions also have led discussions. 

The event highlighted the importance not only of hearing transgender voices in advocacy, but within the communities where they live, which Smith pointed out, is everywhere.

A sign in the bathroom of The Friendly Spot states that all stalls are unisex.
A sign in the bathroom of The Friendly Spot reiterates that all stalls are unisex. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

President Trump’s tweeted statement that transgender people would no longer be able to serve in the military came the day before the scheduled Pub Theology event.  The statement was later qualified by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, who said the military’s policy would not change. Nevertheless, the topic drew much discussion.

As “a Christ-follower,” Rogers said, it has long bothered him that most churches don’t welcome conversation on these topics. 

It’s good to talk about transgender equality and civil rights theologically and politically, Rogers said at the opening of the meeting, but at the same time it’s “heartbreaking” that these conversations still have to happen.

“We are discussing basic human liberties,” he told the Rivard Report after the meeting. “Transgendered people still don’t enjoy the same rights as other citizens.”

Despite the intense July heat, it was one of the largest crowds in the one-year history of the event, which Rogers saw as a testament to the need for actual transgender voices in the current political climate. 

Emmett Schelling.
Emmett Schelling Credit: Courtesy / Emmett Schelling

While he was unable to attend the event, Schelling agreed that participation in community dialogue can build understanding of the transgender community.

He said the “bathroom bill” controversy has created hostile situations where none previously existed. Whereas people used to be unaware of the trans community in and around them, now they are more aware.

“Unfortunately that awareness is not always attached to education,” Schelling said.

That lack of education, Schelling said, has allowed more extreme, fear-driven policies to take hold. Smith said that while the issue isn’t new, its apparent staying power as a legislative issue indicates that Texas is moving to the extreme right on social issues.

“That kind of thing didn’t make it out of committee two years ago,” Smith said.

The issue goes to the State House of Representatives in coming weeks. Its passage, Schelling and Smith both stressed, would be a step back for transgender rights, which have not gotten far to begin with in the Lone Star State.

In Texas, there are currently no laws prohibiting an employer from discriminating against a transgender employee, as other states do. The ACLU of Texas reports that 90% of transgender people have been mistreated in the workplace.

“Transgender Americans are at a substantially higher risk for unemployment, poverty, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, health care discrimination, bullying, suicide, assault, and murder,” the ACLU Texas website states.

For people with non-binary identities – meaning they don’t identify as male or female –and those mid-transition, the bathroom issue is dangerous, Schelling said. Transexual women also experience more violent and overt transphobia.

In 2016, the Human Rights Campaign report “A Matter of Life and Death” calculated that transgender women accounted for around 95% of transgender murders that year. Most of those were women of color.

What makes less sense to many in the transgender community is why the bathroom issue has to involve what they see as fear-mongering. Police officials have said they have found no incidents on record of bathroom assaults committed by men posing as transgender women. 

Knowing that misinformation is common, Schelling said the transgender community needs to have compassion for allies who fail to grasp the issues facing transgender people. “My hope is that it continues to get better.”

Smith was also clear that she didn’t hold it against people, even those with religious objections, if they struggled to understand transgender identities. She hoped that civil conversation and human dignity could prevail, even among people who may disagree.

That is the point of places like Pub Theology, Rogers said. When the event starts up regularly again in the fall, he challenged the group, which was predominantly more liberal, to show up to a discussion led by someone more conservative and to seek out people who view issues differently.

“Fight for political rights, sure,” Rogers said, “But fight for relationships.” 

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.