Ken Her­man: De­bate over gen­der iden­tity be­gins,

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Ken Her­man Com­men­tary

Now we wait to see if Se­nate Bill 6, the trans­gen­der locker room bill (a name I pre­fer be­cause it prop­erly makes it sound less triv­ial than the “bath­room bill”) gets to the House floor for de­bate.

If it doesn’t, the Se­nate’s Tues­day and Wed­nes­day de­bate on the mea­sure, cul­mi­nat­ing with 21-10 fi­nal ap­proval Wed­nes­day, is the last we’ll hear about it this year in a Texas leg­isla­tive cham­ber. The line from the Se­nate de­bate that stuck in my mind came Tues­day from Sen. Van Tay­lor, R-Plano: “If you’d told me eight years ago I’d be hav­ing this de­bate, I wouldn’t have be­lieved you.”

In­deed, es­pe­cially for those of us whose daily lives don’t in­clude trou­bling, chal­leng­ing — and now po­lit­i­cally charged — de­ci­sions about which bath­room to use.

A week ear­lier, as a Se­nate com­mit­tee heard overnight tes­ti­mony, I couldn’t help but think how in­ter­est­ing it would have been to have seen thought bub­bles above the sen­a­tors, per­haps es­pe­cially the ru­ral ones, telling us what was go­ing through their minds. This is new ter­ri­tory for some folks.

And, while it’s pos­si­ble we’ve heard this year’s fi­nal floor de­bate on this par­tic­u­lar piece of the ter­ri­tory, there’s rea­son to be­lieve we’re at the front end of leg­isla­tive and court­house de­lib­er­a­tion on some­thing so many of us used to think was a sim­ple ques­tion: Who’s male? Who’s fe­male?

Bill spon­sor Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Bren­ham, told col­leagues she’s con­cerned about “the blur­ring of gen­der.”

“When asked how many gen­ders there are, we are told the an­swer is some­times with­out limit,” she said, “that there are as many gen­ders as the mind can imag­ine.”

(Once again, thought bub­bles please.)

“We have noted Face­book iden­ti­fies 58 gen­ders,” Kolkhorst con­tin­ued. “Some other sources iden­tify 31. Oth­ers 400. And some of us, two.”

As I’ve writ­ten in the past — ques­tion­ing whether this de­bate is as silly as some folks be­lieve — we’re just get­ting into the leg­isla­tive por­tion of the non­bi­nary world of gen­der. As we heard in the Se­nate de­bate, there are places where gen­der mat­ters — not lim­ited to the bath­rooms and locker rooms in govern­ment build­ings, in­clud­ing the ones where our chil­dren go to school.

“I think the peo­ple of Texas ex­pect bound­aries between gen­ders, and this bill seems

to seek those def­i­ni­tions and to pro­tect us in these pri­vate, in­ti­mate set­tings that we find our­selves in,” Kolkhorst said dur­ing the floor de­bate that touched, al­beit briefly, on other places where gen­der mat­ters, such as sports and govern­ment con­tracts.

Kolkhorst noted some states let high school ath­letes com­pete in the gen­der in which they self-iden­tify.

“Texas is one of the states that goes by birth cer­tifi­cate,” she noted. “There are oth­ers that have no qual­i­fiers. Pretty open. Cal­i­for­nia would be one of those. There are some other states like that. I had a teenage girl tell me last week, that runs track, and she said, ‘Mrs. Kolkhorst, it’s not right for a boy to run track against me. I don’t think I can beat the boys if they’re run­ning in our track meet.’ I’m not sure where this even­tu­ally ends up. I do think that that is a prob­lem.”

None of that mat­ters in the SB 6 de­bate. But, mo­ments later, Sen. Jane Nel­son, R-Flower Mound, re­minded us of an­other place where it does — the award­ing of govern­ment con­tracts to fe­male-owned busi­nesses.

“How is that go­ing to work?” she said of the evolv­ing def­i­ni­tion of gen­der. “Will there be un­in­tended con­se­quences?”

It is, Kolkhorst re­sponded, “an­other slip­pery slope that we may find later on.”

I re­main con­vinced the bath­room/locker room is­sue is best han­dled by lo­cal de­ci­sions, as it has been to date. This bill would lead to state law that would re­quire peo­ple who look like males to use fe­male fa­cil­i­ties, and vice versa. I don’t see what that solves.

But I’m also con­vinced there are broader is­sues with which we are go­ing to have to deal on this front.

“It’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent world than what I grew up in,” Kolkhorst said.

No, not re­ally. There al­ways were peo­ple with gen­der iden­tity is­sues and ques­tions. It’s just that most of us now are much bet­ter about be­ing un­der­stand­ing and car­ing about the chal­lenges they face. And that prob­a­bly means mak­ing rules and laws about gen­der iden­tity is­sues in­stead of mak­ing be­lieve they don’t ex­ist.

I’m with Sen. Jones on this one. If you’d told me eight years ago I’d be watch­ing this de­bate, I wouldn’t have be­lieved you.

Kolkhorst, often emo­tional dur­ing the de­bate, seems sin­cerely mo­ti­vated to fig­ure this out in a way that’s not op­pres­sive to any­one. That might not be pos­si­ble.

“I stay up at night, read­ing and study­ing and think­ing more and pray­ing,” she said Tues­day, “pray­ing a lot about what this means. The is­sue of gen­der or non­bi­nary, Trans­gen­der male. Trans­gen­der fe­male. How many gen­ders are there? One trans­gen­der par­ent said to me, ‘It’s messy.’ And it is. And it is.”

SB 6 op­po­nent Sen. Sylvia Gar­cia, D-Hous­ton, chal­lenged Kolkhorst with this: “It’s messy be­cause you made it very messy.”

It is messy, re­gard­less of how­ever we got here and who­ever got us here. There’s a lot more to dis­cuss about trans­gen­der is­sues, in­clud­ing ques­tions be­yond bath­rooms and locker rooms.

“We will not end this dis­cus­sion today,” Sen. John Whit­mire, D-Hous­ton, an SB 6 op­po­nent, told col­leagues Wed­nes­day just prior to the fi­nal vote.

Let’s hope we can make the dis­cus­sion pro­duc­tive enough to not still be hav­ing it eight years from now.

RALPH BARRERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Bill spon­sor Sen. Lois Kolkhorst seems sin­cere about fig­ur­ing out the gen­der is­sue in a nonop­pres­sive way.

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