The Texas House approved legislation on Thursday that would restrict transgender student athlete participation in school sports, clearing a notable hurdle for supporters of the measure after similar legislation sailed through the Senate and stalled in the House three times prior this year.
House Bill 25, authored by state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, passed with a 76-54 vote. Before Thursday's vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan signaled that the House would have enough votes to pass the restrictive sports legislation. The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.
Under HB 25, student athletes in K-12 public schools would be required to compete on sports teams that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate received at or near the time of their birth. The legislation singles out transgender children who would be prohibited from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity.
The University Interscholastic League, which governs school sports in Texas, already requires that an athlete's gender be determined by the sex listed on their birth certificate. Swanson has said HB 25 would simply "codify" existing UIL rules. However, UIL recognizes any legally modified birth certificates. That policy could accommodate someone who may have had their birth certificate changed to match their gender identity, which can sometimes be an arduous process.
HB 25 would not allow recognition of these legally modified birth certificates unless changes were made because of a clerical error. It's not clear though how it will be determined if a birth certificate has been legally modified or not. According to the UIL, the process for checking student birth certificates is left up to schools and districts, not the UIL.
Transgender advocates and parents of transgender children have argued that HB 25 unfairly targets children who may see sports as a refuge. And they note that bills such as HB 25 and others that have targeted transgender children this year - such as legislation that limits gender-affirming care - have already inflicted a mental toll on youth and families.
Proponents of the legislation have said that HB 25 does not completely bar transgender children from participation in school sports, but it requires them to play on teams consistent with their sex assigned at birth.
"This is all about girls and protecting them in our UIL sports," Swanson said Thursday on the House floor.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Swanson, other Republican legislators and outside organizations said the measure is needed so cisgender girls are not displaced on sports teams by transgender girls. LGBTQ advocates say there's been little evidence in the state of Texas to support this argument.
Democratic representatives delivered adamant and passionate questioning of HB 25 on Thursday, warning about the harmful implications it could have on transgender children if enacted and arguing it doesn't address legitimate problems in women's sports.
State Rep. Mary E. González, D-Clint, chair of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, compared the issue to 2017 legislation that did not become law and would have prohibited transgender Texans from using public bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
"This is bathroom bill 3.0, a bill that was not needed then and a bill that is not needed now," González said.
González proposed an amendment that theoretically would have prevented the bill from going into effect, however, the amendment was voted down 68-46.
"If you care about mental health, and I know you do, then do this simple thing and not advance this piece of harmful legislation. ... We actually also know that this is a nonissue, that there is no issue with transgender and intersex students playing sports," González said.
Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, spoke in support of González's attempt to kill the bill, tearfully sharing her own story about coming out as gay and imploring the House to "vote on their heart and not the political risk that might come with making a very courageous decision."
Other proposed amendments included leaving decisions about student participation on sports teams up to local school boards, restricting HB 25 to apply only to individual sports and not team sports, plus applying the legislation only to schools that have a licensed professional counselor on staff. Those amendments also failed to pass. Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, who proposed the latter amendment, said legislators need to fully think through the mental health impacts the bill could have on children.
"I feel if we are going to pass this law, which we know is going to hurt some children, we need to have something in place, some support system, to help them out," Goodwin said.
An amendment from Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, passed 121-8 that would ensure the legislation comply "with state and federal law regarding the confidentiality of student medical information." Howard's amendment received explicit support from Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress.
Thursday's vote happened after emotional closing statements from legislators that followed almost 10 hours of debate, with many asking their colleagues to rethink voting for the bill.
"We're playing games with the people who've represented the state that we claim to love," said Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, while recounting how she considered taking her own life at 17 over fear of coming out. "You're causing more pain tonight. We hope the courts will protect us, but damage has been done."
Legislation limiting transgender student athlete participation in sports has been signed into law in at least five states this year. A legal challenge has already been brought forth in West Virginia against a new state law that bans transgender student athletes from competing on teams that match their gender identity. In July, a judge issued an injunction temporarily blocking the law from being enforced, according to the Associated Press.
Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said, "Texans will hold lawmakers accountable for their cruelty," for passing HB 25.
"Excluding transgender students from participating in sports with their peers violates the Constitution and puts already vulnerable youth at serious risk of mental and emotional harm," Perez said.
In June, the U.S. Department of Education released a statement on its interpretation of Title IX, a federal law which prohibits educational institutions that receive federal funds from discrimination on the basis of sex, to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Republican lawmakers have often cited Title IX as the reason for HB 25 and to uphold equality in girls sports, however opponents of the bill have said it fails to realize the full extent of who Title IX is meant to protect.
This story comes from our ABC13 partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.