During the legislative session, Texas legislators filed a staggering 141 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills, solidifying Texas as a leader in proposed discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community. In this episode, Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, the largest LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization in Texas, provides an overview of the 88th Texas Legislature, highlighting both the victories and challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community. The efforts of the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies were not in vain. They managed to defeat 134 out of the 141 bills, marking a significant triumph and reflecting the power of advocacy and collective action. But a few bills passed with devastating consequences for the community. These victories demonstrate the resilience and dedication of those working towards equality and justice for all. Ricardo also highlights the importance of Akira Ross’s story to understand the harmful impact of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric on the personal safety of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Tune in to this episode, and let’s continue to support and amplify the voices of organizations like Equality Texas and work together towards a more inclusive and equitable future for the LGBTQIA+ community.
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Ricardo Martinez Of Equality Texas Helps Us Understand The Effects Of The 88th Texas Lege On The LGBTQIA+ Community
We are glad that you have joined us. This is an episode in our series where we are recapping the 88th Legislative Session. We are learning what went down, what bills you should be paying attention to, which died, and which passed. We need to understand and wrap our heads around where Texas is headed next.
We have an incredible guest with us. Before we get to that, I want to make some quick announcements. If you are not subscribed to our newsletter, please do that on our website, GoBehindTheBallot.com. We send our newsletters every Monday, and it is a nice recap of the show. If you are a reader, please share the blog with a friend. I like to share them with my friends. Please leave us a rating or review. That would be great. Let’s jump right in and meet our guest. We are going to be learning what happened regarding LGBTQIA+ rights in Texas. We have Ricardo Martinez with us from Equality Texas. Hello, Ricardo.
Thank you for having me.
We are glad you were able to join us. We would love to start out by learning what is Equality Texas and how did you end up being a part of it?
Equality Texas is the largest statewide organization that champions LGBTQ equality in the Lone Star State. We have been around for many years, going back to the Anita Bryant days in 1978 and some grassroots former. We have been here for quite a long time. My story with Equality Texas starts back in 2019. I was recruited for this job. Someone reached out to me and believed I could do it. I fought them off for what seemed to be a month and a half until they convinced me and twisted my arm to apply, and I did. Seven interviews later, I joined Equality Texas. It has been one of the most challenging but rewarding things I have ever done.
Can I ask where you are from? Are you a native Texan?
I was born in Mexico City. My parents moved us to New York City when I was six years old. I spent some time in the Southwest. I was in Arizona doing some advocacy work, LGBTQ work, and education work for several years before moving to Texas back in 2019. My grandmother spent a lot of time here in Texas. She was a migrant worker. She used to go back from Mexico to Brownsville. I have two uncles who were born here in Texas. We have some Texas roots.
Texas is a unique place. We are glad to have you here. What is it about this work that attracted you to it?
I always tell the same story. It goes back to sixth grade and being introduced to civic engagement via one of my teachers. If I think about it thoughtfully now, some of the work that he did with us in sixth grade would be considered CRT now. It would be considered contentious. For us, it was more about engaging in difficult conversations with your peers. How do you talk about race? How do you talk about injustice? How do you talk about conflict? How do you resolve it together as peers? How can we introduce you to doing as much good as you possibly can? He did that for me.
It was 1993. In sixth grade, he took us on a field trip to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. They used to do the AIDS Walk. They taught us about ACT UP, civil disobedience, and resistance. That was fascinating that one person could disrupt injustice. I carried that with me until my twenties when it all came flooding back, and I wanted to become even more engaged.
We did a series a while back on education, and a lot of folks who got into advocacy work. There was a common recurring story of a specific teacher touching them and helping them realize the world is much bigger than you and me and how to find your place in it. It is a great story. It is not a surprise we see attacks on those conversations because they do lead to this change and inclusiveness that some people, unfortunately, don’t want to have to happen.
What they taught me was empathy and compassion. It wasn’t necessarily fortified in inclusion, although that was a part of it. It was more about understanding the people’s humanity and their lived experiences. I don’t think there was jargon language back then that seemed to be foreign to folks. It was more about, “This is my classmate. I want to understand where they are coming from. We are having this issue. They are experiencing this injustice. Why is it important that we consider all of the parts of them in breaking it down to the courage you led for us to be involved and have some tangible opportunity to change?”
The underlying message is not controversial at all, and yet it is amazing how it has been politicized. There has been divisive thought put into making it something controversial when at its core, it is about empathy.
We are going to start with the good. What we love to know is if any good bills were passed this session for the LGBTQIA+ community. If there wasn’t, there could be the answer, if there were any legislators who were real allies in this movement.
I’m sure that there are a few that passed that could be considered helpful. There were a couple of mental health bills that ended up making their way through the legislature. I don’t know if they ended up passing or not, to be honest. We were focused on all of the awful bad bills that were passing through. I have to look back and take a look.
One of the things that sticks out to me is the CROWN Act. When I think about LGBTQ ten gentle bills that would help members of our community, I also think about the intersections. The CROWN Act ensures there is no discrimination based on hair texture. It was one of those moments I can look back on and be proud of the work that Bowers did and the fact that we went to testify in support of the Bill, and many of our allies did. That was one thing I would look back and always smile about.
Can you tell us more about the CROWN Act for folks who might have no familiarity with it at all?
We have a long history in the US of arbitrarily determining what constitutes professional hairstyles or clothing choices when we get into the workplace. Oftentimes, the realities are we create these narrow boundaries of what constitutes professional and not professional. All of the time, they are based on folks in positions of power and elite folks who are part of marginalized communities out. There is a long history of braids, box braids, and twists being considered unprofessional. The CROWN Act addresses that directly and enumerates within the bill that these specific hairstyles are not and should not be used as a measure of whether or not someone is professional, which is great.
Any legislators who you advocated in a meaningful way this session?
I’m going to answer this a little bit differently because I like politics, policy, and policymaking. There is tremendous power in doing the most good for the most amount of people in the shortest amount of time. I think about being in the building and still being a fan of people who can get up there and say some powerful, wonderful things that make a difference, and they are not the deciding factor on whether or not a bill ends up becoming law, but it changes hearts and minds. It reaches people profoundly.
Venton Jones delivered a powerful speech on the floor against SB 14 that I will remember for the rest of my life. Watching Ann Johnson on the floor for many of the debates and even during hearings, asking important questions that cut through the noise and right to the heart of an issue, was impressive. I always love James Talarico’s way of being kind and direct about his questioning and support for his communities. I’m always thinking when answering a question like this through the lens of, “What moments during the session were I amazed or inspired?” Those were three that I can recall.
Senator Menendez is the one person to think about. This is a moment of extreme volatility. During moments of extreme volatility, it requires a tremendous amount of uncommon courage. Senator Menendez, in this session, unequivocally stated that he is an ally to the LGBTQ community. He is such a kind person. That matches his intent and words when he is on the floor of the Senate or during your hearings. Despite how bad the session was, the feelings around it, and the experience I will take away, I will always remember how he showed up vocally in support of the LGBTQ community.Moments of extreme volatility require a tremendous amount of uncommon courage. Click To Tweet
It is also a good inspiration for social media. Sometimes we struggle with making meaningful posts. These would be great things to highlight and uplift.
Do you want to pivot us, Nichole?
As our plan goes, we are going to talk about the bad. What are the bad bills that were passed this session?
There were 141 anti-LGBTQ bills that were filed this session. I want to say that because we have been going to prides. By the end of June 2023, we will have been at 73 pride events all across Texas as Equality Texas. We have been speaking to a lot of people that don’t realize how bad this session was. For one reason or another, they tuned out because they are protecting themselves or the news isn’t an accessible thing for people. I get it, but the reality is that this is the worst attack on LGBTQ equality in this state and country for any specific state in the history of the US. It is 141 anti-LGBTQ bills. That is awful in itself.
The good of that, if there can be any, is that 134 of these bills were stopped. Only seven ended up passing. They are still reeling from the fact that they did and noting the harm that all of these will cause. SB 14, the bill that bans lifesaving healthcare for transgender young people, was signed by the governor. In its final form, the bill revokes the medical licenses of any healthcare provider who prescribes and outlines care for what they wrote in the bill and the purpose of transitioning child sex.
It also prohibits any public funding to anyone who provides this treatment or healthcare to trans young people. That was bill number one. Bill number two was SB 15, which extends the current ban on transgender youth playing sports in public universities. In 2021, the only Bill to pass was HB 25, which was the K-12 sports ban. Now, there is a collegiate sports ban.
SB 12, which was coined the drag ban at the beginning of 2023, is a bill that broadly defines sexually oriented businesses, including some vague language that is meant to target drag performers. A violation of this bill occurs when a minor is present. Business owners could be fined up to $10,000 for hosting a drag brunch or a drag performance that violates this ludicrous bill.
Because the definition of sexually oriented performances is broad, it has wide-ranging implications outside of judge drag. It could be pride celebrations, bachelorette parties, dirty dancing, or so much. There is SB 17, which is a ban on DEI programs in public universities. It is a diversity, equity, and inclusion program. We testified with all of these Bills PS, but this one was incredibly personal because I benefited tremendously from DEI programs in my university and undergrad.
I don’t think I would have gotten as far as I did had I not had the support that I received during my freshman year to give me an on-ramp to be able to acclimate to the idea of being the first person in my family to go to college, but also to be away and not to have parents who understood how to navigate that system. That was heartbreaking for me, as all of these but these are personal heartbreaks.
HB 900 is the Book Burning Act. This bill restricts access to books in school libraries by prohibiting the acquisition, limiting access, and defining obscenity in a broad manner. If you go back to a couple of years back when Matt Krause released a list of 800 plus books that should be reviewed, banned, or removed from libraries, more than 60% of those were LGBTQ protagonists or authors. It was Black authors or Black protagonists as the second large category. We know that when they pass this Book Burning Act, the books that are going to be impacted are going to be from authors who are LGBTQ-identified, Black, or at the intersections of both.
There is HB 2127, which preempts a broad span of local regulations, including housing non-discrimination ordinances. That is number six. Number seven is SB-763, which allows for the replacement of school counselors with untrained, unlicensed religious chaplains. Those are the seven that ultimately ended up passing.
It sounds like some of these bills are vague. It is to be determined what their consequences are. For the ones where you do know what the consequences are, what is that going to look like? I’m sure there are some people thinking, “I don’t see how bad it can be.” They are telling that to themselves. What does the future hold because of some of these bills?
I see them as a package of 141 bills. It is not only these seven bills that are going to have an impact. The whole package and the several months of debating the humanity of LGBTQ people have a chilling effect and a detrimental effect on the way that we are treated. It emboldens people who are anti-LGBTQ extremists to cause us harm.
We are the largest statewide organization. We will always have a vantage point of being one of the first organizations that people reach out to when they are in crisis. The calls haven’t stopped for years now. We have been tracking the uptick in bullying, harassment in schools, physical assaults in schools, and violence that is happening in our communities. The protestors that are coming to the pride that are armed and White nationalists who are Nazis are trying to put fear into spaces that are supposed to be joyous for us.
The overall impact is that it causes people to be fearful and to have to carry this weight looking over their shoulders, worried about whether or not they are going to come home. That is the reality for many people. In the short term, it also impacts the availability of healthcare and practitioners who are knowledgeable about the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community. Trans folks are already adults. Young people have a difficult time accessing knowledgeable care.
We are creating healthcare deserts for people who need them. We are attacking families by removing their stories from the curriculum and books. That is disastrous. All of these send a dangerous message that, somehow, the lives of LGBTQ people are taboo. That is not the case, but we know that Texans are with us. We know that 72% of Texans believe that discrimination against our community is wrong.
At this moment, what we need is for a large majority of Texans to think thoughtfully about what they can do at this moment to help interrupt the hate that we see by having difficult conversations by stopping homophobia, transphobia, and racism when they see it in their daily lives. I know that people often think that advocacy looks difficult or maybe is not accessible, but you being a bystander or an upstander during moments when people are being attacked, violated verbally harassed is also important because the burden of this fight cannot solely be transgender and LGBTQ people.
There is a couple of comments I wanted to hop in. It is important to recognize the level of fear pervading many people’s lives. It is easy if you are not being intentional about staying conscious and being present for this moment and thinking about what it is like for many people. It is entirely easy not to recognize how terrible it is.
I want to make a plea for people to hear what you are saying and be a true ally, co-conspirator, or whatever the terminology you want to identify with because this is a theme that has come up in other episodes for us, but the chilling effect of these conversations that have happened at the legislature is truly effective. We have seen clinics close down.
The conversation alone and making so much of this targeting language be common moves through these spaces quickly. I cannot overstate enough how effective that chilling effect is and what it has meant. If I had any influence or opportunity, I am begging people to pay attention and stand up for what they believe in and what they know to be good, true, and right.
We don’t have to look far for this impact every single day. One of the things I think about and that has been weighing heavily on my spirit is the story of Akira Ross in Cedar Park. Not many people are aware of what happened. On June 2nd, 2023, Akira Ross, who is a Black lesbian identified person, was in Cedar Park. She went to pump her gas and was with her partner. She was approached by a stranger. Before shooting her three times and killing her, he called her a homophobic slur.
I’m not saying what happened at the legislature is the cause of this, but it is a contributing factor in emboldening people to be able to dehumanize us based on the way that we present ourselves and the assumptions that people make about us. You are seeing stories about Akira, and her life is being talked about only in the last few minutes of her life. She is not the last two minutes of her life. She loved barbecuing with her family. She loved vlogging, playing video games, dancing, and listening to music. That is who Akira was. That is the light in life that was reduced to this homophobic slur and violent act.
These are the things that will continue to occur if we, as Texans, do not put a stop to it. People forget that we have the power to determine what is acceptable in terms of the way that we treat each other. This is the friendship state. We have a long way to go to find ourselves back to each other to provide a safe and affirming state for everybody.The homophobic slur and violent acts will continuously reduce the light in life if we do not stop it. Click To Tweet
Thank you for sharing her story. I remember reading that and throwing my hands up. I can’t believe it is happening now. It is scary what is to come, especially because the road ahead doesn’t look great. Hopefully, it will change, but we need to work together and listen to Nichole and what you are saying because this is a moment to correct the ship. Before we move on to the Ugh, I’m sure there are a lot of Ugh moments to come. Were there any legislators who were particularly bad? You shake your head out. I’m sure there are many, but if there are a few that pop out, we would be curious to hear.
It is not my style to talk crap about people. Most people would know who are the folks who did not show up for us in many ways and who are the folks who were blatantly antagonistic and working against us all session. There are all of the major filers of anti-LGBTQ legislation. I think about Donna Campbell for weaponizing her degree as a medical professional to provide lies and disinformation about trans folks. I take that personally. I don’t understand it. Representative Slaton, who is no longer a representative, was also one of the prolific filers of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
With him and members like him, hate and cruelty is the point. People throw this around, “This is common-sense legislation.” For me, you can’t call something that hurts people common-sense legislation. You have to measure, think about, and be thoughtful about any bills or policies you are suggesting or filing. How much good and how much bad can it potentially do? That is your responsibility in being elected to serve all types of people in your community. I guarantee you. There are LGBTQ folks in every community. I don’t understand that approach. These are the two that come to mind.
Let’s move on to the Ugh. These are the moments in the session that made you say, “Ugh.” We have 140 days every other year to talk about important issues. This is what we talked about. What comes to mind there?
There is a lot. Back in the day when they cleared the gallery, and people were removed from the building, only Brown trans people were detained, forcibly removed, and arrested. Imagine the pain that caused our community. We have always approached advocacy through the spirit of peace. That is the way I navigate life and what I bring to advocacy. I don’t judge other people’s advocacy tactics right there as a place for everyone to be defiant like ACT UP was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There is a place for all types of advocacy, but when I think about the peaceful nature of that day that culminated at that moment, “Ugh,” is the correct word that would come up.
I was there that day in the morning and saw the speeches. You gave a speech that morning, Audrey Perez, who you are referring to, who was removed. When I watched everything on Twitter later that night, I was like, “I can’t believe this happened.” It was stark the difference between what I experienced being in the gallery with everyone and seeing these violent videos. It was rough.
It was traumatic.
I saw pictures the next day because when you are there, you can only see what is around you. At that time, we were dealing with an emergency downstairs. Everything was happening up at the gallery. I started seeing pictures the next day of anti-LGBTQ extremists praying over some of the folks that showed up to support LGBTQ rights at the Capitol. They had circled a number of folks, and they were praying over them with their hands over them.
I had never been in person or been that close to proximity where faith was being used as a weapon against people. I grew up in a church. For me, my faith is still incredibly important. My mom, every Tuesday and Thursday, still has a prayer circle in her home. I don’t recognize that type of faith. That was incredibly impactful and traumatic for the folks who were on the receiving end.
Any other moments that had a similar sentiment?
Every single time they would vote for a bailout despite having overwhelming opposition, back to the healthcare ban where there were 3,000 people who came to the Capitol to drop a card, formalizing their position against the bill versus the 97 people that supported that bill. The 450 people that registered to testify were silenced that day, sent home, and not given the opportunity to testify on their own behalf.
These are people who are happy, who could vouch for the fact that healthcare for transgender people is lifesaving, but they were unwilling to listen. Instead, they prioritized splitting and invited testimony that lasted for hours and prioritized testimony, which was handpicked. They made it seem to the general public that the Texans were split on this issue when clearly, the numbers don’t rely on it.
This came up in another episode about how a lot of times, we are seeing all our legislators pass through bills that have the opposite public support. We will pivot into democracy because we want to see more democracy and people power at the forefront of the minds of our legislators. Speaking of democracy, we would love to wrap up by hearing what democracy means to you because we think it is important to remind our readers that we have a place at the table. We have a voice that needs to be heard. We want to not fall into apathy and feel like the game is over.
Democracy has always been about active participation and removing boundaries from the participation of people. Everyone deserves an opportunity to have their voice heard. People contributing to the whole resistance, the identification of injustice, and rallying against it are all part of democracy. Even if you don’t necessarily prescribe to someone’s ideals or view of the world, being able to have respectful conversations on both sides or multiple sides, because there are not just two, is important.Everyone deserves an opportunity to have their voice heard. People contributing to the whole resistance, identification of injustice, and rallying against it are all part of democracy. Click To Tweet
Democracy has always been about finding something that you are passionate about and participating in. Back to an Oprah podcast that she had with the Radical Nun, Sister Joan Chittister, she talked about uncommon courage. She also said that you have to pick something you are passionate about and do something. You can start small. It doesn’t have to be big. Resistance can be simply living your life fully, authentically, and loudly. At this moment, what they want us to do is run back into the closet. I, for one, will never do that. I will never stop being myself. I will never stop living my life out proudly and loudly. Democracy is participating and finding ways for others to do the same.
I’m going to try to find that podcast episode and share it. I will listen to it because I’m a podcastaholic but I share it with everyone who might be curious about what that conversion was like. Thank you for sharing all of that. Where can people follow your work?
Equality Texas at all of the social media channels. We are on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. That is where everything will be. The best thing I ever did when before I started this job was get rid of all of my personal accounts on all of these social media platforms because I didn’t want to be distracted. You can’t personally find me, but you can certainly find the work.
Readers, do that. It is a good call to action to stay on top of this important topic. Nichole, any final thoughts?
I want to highlight that that is important. Follow Equality Texas because what we have discovered as we have talked to advocates is we can’t all be experts on every issue area that stirs our hearts. We have incredible organizations that do follow these things. If you want to keep an eye on what is happening, follow along.
I would give a shout-out to our coalition partners, who also did a tremendous amount of work during the session. These are the ACLU of Texas, the Transgender Education Network of Texas, the Human Rights Campaign of Texas, and the Texas Freedom Network. There were many new incredible partners that we developed partnerships with, including the AFL, CIO, and ECC Church. I wish I could name them all. There are many great organizations that are doing good work.
Thank you so much for your time and for sharing more with us, Ricardo. We are going to end it here, but we encourage readers to follow Equality Texas and the other wonderful organizations that were mentioned. We will include some of this information in our newsletter. Get on that newsletter if you are not already on it. We will talk to you all soon.
- Equality Texas
- Gay Men’s Health Crisis
- CROWN Act
- Sister Joan Chittister – Past Episode on Oprah’s Super Soul podcast
- TikTok – Equality Texas
- Instagram – Equality Texas
- Facebook – Equality Texas
- Twitter – Equality Texas
- ACLU of Texas
- Transgender Education Network of Texas
- Human Rights Campaign of Texas
- Texas Freedom Network
About Ricardo Martinez
Ricardo has an undergraduate degree from Stony Brook University, and a master’s degree in nonprofit management from The New School in New York City. He was honored by the Obama Administration as an emerging LGBTQ Leader in 2012 and recently awarded the Stony Brook University’s 40 Under 40 award for the impact he has had in Civil Service and Activism since graduating from the university.