There is a battle waging in my home, the Lone Star State -- one that could have severe implications not only for the brave Texans fighting for gender equality in one of the reddest states in the union, but for the LGBTQ community as a whole, for as we have seen countless times and on countless issues, as Texas goes, often so goes the nation.
(RELATED: 4 Ways LGBTs Are Under Attack in Texas)
The first shots in this new Texas revolution were fired in the early days of the recently concluded 85th Texas Legislature when Dan Patrick (a former television anchor, turned conservative talk show host, turned state senator, and now the state's firebrand lieutenant governor) declared that strict regulation of transgender people's bathroom use in Texas was his number 1 legislative priority for the session. Joined at a capitol press conference by other lawmakers, Patrick laid out his plan to systematically discriminate, ostracize, and punish transgender Texans and visitors to the state by making it a crime for anyone to use a public bathroom that was not consistent with their birth sex.
Lt. Gov. Patrick and his partner in crime, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican and former champion collegiate women's golfer, touted the same disproved public safety arguments for the bill often parroted by the religious right -- the threat of sexual assaults, children in danger of pedophiles, and the fisticuffs that would surely occur when testosterone-fueled cowboys discover that a transgender woman had entered a restroom occupied by their wife, daughter, or girlfriend. Patrick and Kolkhorst rushed their bill through the Texas Senate, where it quickly passed with the support of every Republican and against the strong opposition of every Democrat in the state's upper chamber.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in the Texas House, which is presided over by LGBTQ-friendly Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate San Antonio Republican who is now in his fifth term as speaker after having ousted hardcore Republican Tom Craddick in a bloodless coup with the support of a handful of Republicans and every House Democrat. Straus, who has been attacked by right-wing zealots for being anti-Christian (Straus is Jewish), stopped the bathroom ban in its tracks in the lower chamber and instead focused on public school financing, strengthening the state's economy, and dealing with improving infrastructure. Straus recently told a columnist with The New Yorker that he opposed the ban because he didn't want a suicide to occur on his watch, noting the high rate of suicides amongst transgender Texans.
Most in our LGBTQ community cheered when the legislative session ended May 30 with no bathroom ban, but our joy was short-lived -- the following day, Patrick had a backup plan in place. It seemed that the Senate had failed to pass a so-called sunset bill to keep the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners functioning and that without a remedy, Texas's medical doctors would have no regulatory or licensing oversight after September 1, creating an untenable crisis for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. If Abbott failed to call a special session, physicians would not have a licensing board. If he called a special session to address that issue and did not include the bathroom bill in the call, Patrick would have the justification and the radioactive issue he needed to challenge Abbott in the 2018 Republican primary. Who would blink?
Abbott did. Not only did Abbott call a special session, he included in the call (the list of issues legislators are allowed to address during the 30-day special session) the bathroom bill and a host of other contentious measures favored by conservative Republicans, such as school vouchers and efforts to remove local control from Texas cities. Not only had Patrick won the PR war and forced Abbott's hand, the governor was now publicly championing the bathroom ban and made it the centerpiece of the special session, which started Tuesday.
I have been zealously involved in political activism since I was 16. As I'm openly gay, much of my drive has long been the potent desire for the LGBTQ population to finally and completely be recognized as the firs-class citizens we are, and to receive all the rights and liberties we deserve as equals. Upon the recent announcement of the special session involving transgender restroom rights, the fuel of my desire began to rapidly accumulate more powerfully when something else came to light that ignited that fuel into the fully impassioned blaze that my life has now become.
I learned that Dawnna Dukes, the current Texas state representative for District 46 (which includes most of east Austin, home to a predominantly minority population), has been severely negligent in her position. A longtime Democratic incumbent legislator, she is currently facing a 13-count indictment for misuse of state funds and resources, and debatably even more concerning, she has missed over 75 percent of record votes cast during the last legislative session. In a properly functioning democracy, the role of a representative is to represent, and to put it simply, if she is not voting, she is not doing her job. To say I was irritated is an understatement. However, my frustration quickly blossomed into an idea: I decided that if District 46 was to be properly represented, Dukes needed to be replaced, and in an exciting whirlwind of the realization that perhaps all of my passion and experience had led me to that moment, I decided I wanted to be the one to do it.
I believe that one of my greatest strengths lies in the diverse experience I have across a wide range of politics, and the accumulation of what I have learned on the journey through that spectrum. I was born into a strictly conservative household (my father was a Christian fundamentalist pastor) and even at a young age, I was very interested in politics. At age 16, I managed my first political campaign, helping Betty Brown, a conservative Republican, win a northeast Texas House seat previously held by a Democrat. I was the quintessential young Republican, helping manage local races in my hometown before helping Republican physician Bob Deuell win election to the Texas Senate against a liberal plaintiffs' attorney in a high-dollar contest watched by political observers across Texas. But just as my political acumen was being lauded by the state's Republican leaders, I was coming to grips with my sexual identity. I came out as a gay man to my parents and the Texas political establishment, which had just applauded my political acumen but now treated me as a pariah. I left the state, moved to Miami, and came to terms with my sexuality and the realization that the party I had championed was working against the LGBTQ community and the authentic identity I had finally begun to express.
I moved back to Texas in 2013 and began putting my political skills to work for causes I truly believed in, doing work for the Marijuana Policy Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas Criminal Justice Reform, and other like projects. Following the 85th Texas legislative session, I started Keep Austin Proud (a play on the well-known Austin mantra "Keep Austin Weird") to help lead the fight against the bathroom ban in Texas's most progressive city, and to make Texans aware of the high-stakes war against the LGBTQ community. Then, as mentioned, I became aware of the disappointment shared by many of my fellow Austin residents in Dawnna Dukes. In a session when the state's top officials went to war against the LGBTQ community, Dukes was conveniently absent, missing hundreds of record votes and failing to be a strong voice in opposition to the bathroom bill and a host of other right-wing attacks on progressive causes.
But I say, "No more." It is time Austin had someone properly representing its east side, home to tens of thousands of LGBTQ and other minority voters. As a battle-tested political warrior, I will be an unabashed advocate for progressive causes and a confident challenger to right-wing ideologues like Patrick and Kohlkorst. I now formally announce my candidacy for state representative from Texas's District 46. The time for timidity in the face of direct attacks against the community is over.
MIKE HENDRIX is a political and community activist in Austin running for state representative from District 46. If elected, he will be the only openly gay member of the Texas House.