Texas lawmakers have introduced multiple bills this year that could have a significant impact on transgender youth; what is taught in schools; and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
In doing so, Texas joins several other Republican-led state governments in focusing on some of the most controversial cultural and social issues on people’s minds.
“What you find with this set of issues is that in many ways it’s much more national than it is state in nature,” said Joshua Blank, research director at the UT Austin Texas Politics Project.
A wide variety of proposals along these lines are attracting attention this legislative session.
“The nature of the new issue is that it almost always favors the conservative position, because the traditional conservative position is to go back to what everybody knows and is comfortable with.”
Joshua Blank, UT Austin Texas Politics Project
Among them is a measure by state Rep. Nate Schatzlein, R-Fort Worth, that would designate drag shows as sexually oriented businesses, effectively banning them from public places.
Another proposal would end affirmative action in the state. Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, told Texas Newsroom that his legislation aims to ensure that people are hired based on merit, not race. He said affirmative action policies are discriminatory.
“It’s very uncomfortable for people, I think from my generation and the generation that follows, to use race as an issue or a standard in admitting people to public universities or as part of the hiring process and the job application process,” Tepper said.
According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, affirmative action is “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, to correct the results of such past discrimination, and to prevent such discrimination in the future.”
Similar efforts on hot-button issues are being supported by GOP lawmakers across Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who has focused in part on education this year, including school vouchers and public school curriculum.
“Schools shouldn’t be imposing woke programs,” Abbott said in his State of the State address last month.
Joshua Blank said many of these social and identity issues are being noticed in part because they’re things some Texans haven’t thought about before.
“The nature of the new issue is that it almost always favors the conservative position, because the traditional conservative position is to go back to what everybody knows and is comfortable with,” Blank said.
Pay attention to transgender rights. According to a Texas Politics Project survey released earlier this month, of the Texas voters polled, 59 percent said they did not personally know a transgender person. Broken down by party affiliation, 49% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans say they do not personally know a transgender person.
Part of a national political trend
Similar debates are taking place in statehouses across the country.
In Tennessee, lawmakers recently banned gender-confirmation care for minors and severely restricted drag performances.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — a likely Republican presidential candidate — has vowed to end funding for DEI programs at his state’s universities.
It’s a sentiment shared by Governor Abbott, who has asked state agencies to stop using DEI in hiring.
Democrats in the state say Abbott and other Texas Republicans are simply following Florida’s lead.
“We shouldn’t pander to somebody from Florida,” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told reporters recently. “If he wants to come here and talk to us about DEI, go ahead and have him.”
Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, joined members of his party in vowing to fight much of this legislation. He believes these measures will further alienate and disenfranchise already marginalized groups.
“We can’t pretend it’s just about removing DEI policies,” Menendez told reporters earlier this week. “There are conversations about whether DACA students should be allowed to have in-state tuition, or whether people from certain countries can buy land, or the elimination of Plyler v. Doewhether trans people have access to health care, how parents can raise their own children.
What do Texans want from lawmakers?
The Texas survey shows that some of the identity-related policies enacted by state lawmakers don’t necessarily match what voters want.
Last month, The Texas Politics Project asked voters what they thought state lawmakers’ top priority for K-12 public education should be.
School safety, teacher pay and curriculum content were the top three responses for Republicans. Only 1 percent of GOP respondents said the treatment of transgender students or what’s in school libraries should be a priority.
Meanwhile, a December 2022 survey by the same organization found that 36 percent of Texas voters believe businesses and corporations are doing too much to address LGBTQ rights, while 26 percent say the same about racial discrimination.
However, 40 percent of Texas voters said businesses and corporations do too little for women’s rights.