A group of UTD students made their voices heard at the state capitol, where lawmakers voted on several controversial bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
The UTD chapter of advocacy group Texas Rising bused a handful of students on March 28 to the capitol for support of H.B. 970, a bill that would repeal laws that largely prevent educators from discussing LGBTQ+ people and issues in the classroom.
“[The current laws] would basically require them to proclaim that homosexuality is undesirable,” Natasha Kokkodil, a political science sophomore and Texas Rising co-president, said.
Texas Rising is a statewide progressive student organization that strives to increase voter registration and influence a myriad of issues that affect college-age students. The next day, several members of Deeds Not Words at UTD along with 400 young people from all over Texas flooded the streets of Austin. They spoke vehemently against two bills passed by the Texas Senate that restrict drag performances for children.
Senate Bill 1601 would punish public libraries that host drag queen reading events, and Senate Bill 12 would restrict children from attending “sexually oriented” performances. The bill’s author, Republican Bryan Hughes, recently expanded the legislation to penalize not just men presenting as women but anyone engaged in “sexual conduct,” according to The Dallas Morning News.
As the senators were voting inside the chambers, most of the demonstrations were held in the Capitol Rotunda, where drag queens sang and danced and college students spoke at the podium. The Mercury reached out to Deeds Not Words, who attended the student takeover on March 29, but received no comment.
Besides supporting H.B. 970, Kokkodil wanted to meet with legislators in person.
“The point of advocacy day is, of course, to be able to physically go to the capitol and engage in discussion with legislators and the legislation they put out there,” Kokkodil said.
The experience gave Kokkodil and other students the confidence to talk to the people representing them.
“The capitol is somewhat of an intimidating atmosphere; it’s the place where laws are made,” Kokkodil said. “[However], I was reassured that these legislators are there to work for me.”
Kokkodil said she discovered that students and lawmakers weren’t aware of certain bills coming down the pipeline because of the tracking system, which can be difficult to understand.
“That sort of gap that exists between us and legislators is going to grow exponentially,” Kokkodil said. “That gap is there on purpose. When you are unaware of what’s happening in the capitol, you’re feeding into that trap of allowing legislators to make bills that do not truly reflect us in any capacity.”
When Texas Rising spoke to Democratic Rep. Terry Meza about H.B. 970, she was shocked the bill hadn’t been brought to her attention and was immediately interested in learning more about it, Kokkodil said.
Beyond meeting with representatives, Anne Fischer , an assistant professor of gender and history, believes students can take inspiration from history to affect issues they care about.
“I’m of the realization [the LGBTQ+ community] are not alone, that this is not unprecedented, and that this is not the first time we’ve seen these politics,” Fischer said. “We have inherited generations of creative strategies.”
In speaking with The Mercury, Fischer highlighted two examples where activist efforts were successful at moving the public policy needle.
In California, there was the 1978 Briggs Initiative that sought to prevent lesbian and gay people from teaching in K-12 public schools. The ballot measure would have passed, Fischer hinted, had it not been for the “particular kinds of opposition that mobilized around Briggs as a toolkit of strategies.”
Like any grassroots movement, the LGBTQ+ community in California utilized posters, buttons, flyers and demonstrations, but it was the way they tapped into the fear of surveillance that got the attention of all Americans and was critical to their success.
“The intrusion of people’s private lives that would be necessary to enforce the law that seeks to purge gay people from employment and from doing work in education … [was] very offensive to the large majority of voters,” Fischer said.
In addition, there was Miami-Dade County which, in 1977, passed a non-discrimination ordinance based on sexual orientation.
“It would be illegal to refuse employment, to refuse housing and to refuse access to basic social goods,” Fischer said.
Instead of protesting against the government, the LGBTQ+ community directed their efforts at opposing Florida Orange Juice spokesperson Anita Bryant, who Fischer said, “organized the campaign around a call to quote, ‘save our children.’”
“It was organized around a clear belief that homosexuality was a sin … and that gay folks were a threat to normative American life,” Fischer said.
Bryant’s repeal of the ordinance was successful, but Fischer pointed to a creative strategy where the LGBTQ+ community flipped their attackers’ arguments on its head by arguing that LGBTQ+ children in particular are the vulnerable youth, as they need protection from discrimination.
“Even the setbacks can teach us about how to keep building a vision of equity,” Fischer said.