“We’ve been hit so hard lately. It’s just hard,” Laura Walters, Pastor at Presbyterian Church of Lake Travis, a small congregation in Austin, told me over the phone. “The election set this congregation and my work back.”
November 8, 2016 was only the beginning of a bigger nightmare in Texas. Since then, state institutions have fired attack after attack on Texas queers, immigrants and their allies like Walters.
One of the more vicious attacks came in the form of an anti-trans bathroom bill that looks a lot like the one that passed in North Carolina. It blocks basic protections for trans folks, takes away freedom to use the bathroom of their gender, and forces communities to teach discrimination against trans children in public schools.
We’re facing a similar initiative in Washington state and the campaign itself has traumatized our trans neighbors and my friends. We are expecting to find out Friday evening if the measure will make it to our November ballot. As I’ve been working with the campaign against Washington Initiative 1552, I’ve been watching the constant flow of horrific news from Texas and imagining how awful it must be for queers and immigrants there. These are the biggest assaults:
- Texas recently passed a law that prohibits the state from taking action against child welfare providers who are acting on “sincerely held religious beliefs”. What this means is foster parents and organizations can refuse to put children with same-sex or non-Christian foster or adoptive parents.
- The Texas Supreme Court ruled against queer people, saying that government benefits should not be extended to married same-sex couples.
- Texas passed a law that gives greater freedom to local police to ask people about their immigration status and it mandates cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Officials who don’t comply could be fined or jailed.
- And, the anti-trans bathroom bill which strips basic protections from trans folks.
I put a message on Facebook to see if I knew anyone in Texas who’s fighting these attacks. Within minutes, my elementary school physical education teacher from Norman, Oklahoma, Karen Wagner, who is now a pastor in Kansas City, responded. She connected me to Walters, her friend from seminary, who she described as “a force” against hate in Texas. Walters and I bridged the two-hour time difference between Seattle and Austin and spent an hour on the phone, commiserating.
“I was told by everyone the bathroom bill would never get out of committee, but it did,” Walters told me. From that point on, for months, she has spent one to two days a week at the state capital building. She’s doing this on top of being a mother of three with a full time gig leading her congregation.
Walters has been advocating for queer folks and immigrants on each of the four attacks I listed above, working with organizations leading the fight like Texas Freedom Network and Equality Texas. She testifies in front of state lawmakers making it clear that she is doing so as a religious professional. She says people listen to religious leaders in Texas and she’s had enough of the religious persecution from the far right.
Walters told me it was the bathroom bill that really showed her something about community. On testimony day at the capital in Austin so many people showed up to speak against the insidious bill that they flooded the building, filling a handful of overflow rooms.
The testimony against the bill came from every angle: trans children, psychologists,
business leaders, religious leaders, North Carolina lawmakers, and more. Organizers brought in catered food and arranged hospitality suites. “It was a really beautiful showing of community and solidarity despite how screwed up the end result was,” Walters said.
The legislature voted to send the bill forward, but in the end it failed, Walters believes mostly because of the fight of normal folks who showed up together to testify.
At one point Republican House Speaker Joe Straus spoke against the bill, “I’m not a lawyer, but I am a Texan. I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
That part about suicide resonated with me because just days prior I had been at Seattle’s Trans Pride Parade. During the parade I started talking with a woman who’d come from an hour south of the city so that she could bring her trans son to the parade. She told me, “He wanted to come to this parade, so I brought him. I’ll do anything to keep him from killing himself.”
And, we constantly hear of other stories of our Trans neighbors in Seattle having severe struggles in this climate. Again, I thought about Texas, and all the trans kids there because the climate for them is even worse.
Walters described phone calls as a powerful way to put pressure on state lawmakers. She urges folks in all corners of Texas to call their state senators and representatives, to pay attention because individual voices are the only thing saving trans lives. She made countless calls and helped organize others to flood the lines of state lawmakers. She also says telling real, human stories through press conferences was powerful. “The way to do this is through relationships. That’s what I learned while testifying against the bathroom bill, that’s how we make change, that’s why we stopped the first bill,” Walters said.
The horrible news is that although the bill was defeated, the governor has called a special session of the legislature starting July 18, mainly to try to take a new approach to ramming through a bathroom bill. Walters is working with her community to again head to the state capital and fight through every available channel.
“It’s not a marathon, not a sprint, it’s a relay,” she says, describing the fact that people who are fighting get exhausted and have to tag out sometimes to take a rest, passing the fight to other community members. The battles are unrelenting in Texas, so she says it’s crucial that people take care of themselves so they don’t burn out.
Walters also describes one of the biggest challenges in the fight for the rights and protection of immigrants and queers in Texas, and I can say from my own experience in Seattle, that it’s true here too. She says that it’s sometimes tough to find the intersection of everyone’s individual struggles. “We could always be more unified. We are struggling with intersectionality. We all have to do better,” she says.
Walters isn’t just fighting for queers and immigrants at the capital, she’s doing it in her everyday work as a pastor. She uses her pulpit to speak directly of the political climate and to call folks to action. Sometimes folks in her congregation strongly disagree with her, perhaps they misunderstand her message because they are mixing it with other mass media messages, and sometimes they push back against her. But, she says she can’t imagine staying silent in this political climate, when queers and immigrants are struggling. “It’s much worse than it’s ever been because our president has given permission to hate. It is much harder to build bridges now, it’s more divisive than it’s ever been,” she said.
As Walters and her community gear up for another fight against the bathroom bill during the special legislative session that starts July 18, she remains full of hope and full of empathy for people like me who are thousands of miles away in places like Seattle. As we ended our conversation, I recognized a familiar warm tone that is shared by almost all the Texans I know. She told me to call her if we need help in our fight, saying, “If I have to fly up there, I will.”