As grassroots movements make hard-won legal gains against discrimination, affirming the civil rights of minorities and LGBT individuals, their opponents are finding novel new fronts on which to wage the war on equality. Two bills recently introduced in the Texas House of Representatives take the fight into the bathroom.
HB 1747 and HB 1748, sponsored by Republican State Rep. Debbie Riddle, would amend sections of the Texas penal and health codes to criminalize "entering a public restroom that is designated by a sign for members of the opposite sex," and to define gender as "the gender established at the individual's birth or… by the individual's chromosomes."
Riddle proposes forcing transgender people to use public restrooms designated for their chromosomal gender at birth, essentially using the law to compel discrimination under penalty of fines and jail time. Business owners, managers, and school officials who permit transgender individuals to use the restroom of their identification, even on private property, would face minimum prison sentences of 180 days.
Under the two bills, the person entering the prohibited restroom would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and up to one year in jail. Any "operator, manager, superintendent, or other person with authority over a building" who allowed a transgender person to use the restroom of their identifying gender would be charged with a state felony, which carries a minimum 180 days in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
"Other Class A misdemeanors are serious, serious crimes — we're talking about failure to report sexual assault of a child, or assaulting a family member for the first time," Democratic State Rep. Mary González, who opposes the bills, told VICE News. "Trans folks using a restroom should never be considered a Class A misdemeanor."
Riddle's office did not respond to a VICE News request for comment. A post on her official Facebook page in January announced that she would be introducing a bill to "protect women & children from going into a ladies restroom & finding a man who feels like he is a woman that day." Similar language has been used by backers of similar bills in Kentucky and Florida.
"Under existing law, you can already be prosecuted for entering a public bathroom with criminal intent," Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that has led opposition to religious-right initiatives in the state, told VICE News. "What this is really about is stigmatizing and callously putting transgender people at risk."
"The bill isn't about safety," González agreed. "It really increases the likelihood of violence."
Anyone who runs a Texas business, school, or other facility would face a choice between a prison sentence and having to force transgender customers to use restrooms that do not align with their gender identities.
"It's not enforceable, it's just more for-us-or-against-us kind of shit," Dan Fergus, owner of Brasil, a popular restaurant in the traditionally gay-friendly Houston neighborhood of Montrose, told VICE News. "It's a red herring. I doubt there's very many people that even know that a transgender person has used the same restroom."
These bathroom bills come in the context of nationwide attacks on local non-discrimination ordinances under the guise of "religious liberty." In Texas, the relatively liberal cities of Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth have for more than a decade had laws on the books prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment, and public facilities.
Those laws have been largely uncontroversial, but the passage of recent ordinances along the same line elsewhere in Texas have sparked attempts from conservative Republican lawmakers to pass state-level laws invalidating local LGBT protections.
Republican State Sen. Donna Campbell has proposed an amendment to the Texas constitution stipulating that "government may not burden an individual's or religious organization's freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief." Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Texas law already offers some of the strongest protections for religious liberties in the United States. A bipartisan majority passed the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1999, and then-Gov. George W. Bush signed it into law. Campbell's amendment would significantly lower that law's standard for what constitutes a "burden" to the free practice of religion.
"Senator Campbell's bill is not about religious freedom," González said. "It's about denying LGBT equality and justice. They're misleading the public."
Prospects for the passage of HB 1747 and 1748 are unclear. But whatever happens, neither González nor Quinn expect the assaults on local non-discrimination ordinances to abate anytime soon.
Quinn said that nondiscrimination ordinances and laws codifying marriage equality have inspired fear among the religious right.
"These changes offend them personally," she said. "So it's a collective legislative temper tantrum that we're seeing all across the country from folks who just oppose equality and support discrimination."