This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune
This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. The story was also produced in partnership with NBC News.
In early January, a day before students returned from winter break, Jeremy Glenn, the superintendent of the Granbury Independent School District in North Texas, told a group of librarians he’d summoned to a district meeting room that he needed to speak from his heart.
“I want to talk about our community,” Glenn said, according to a recording of the Jan. 10 meeting obtained and verified by NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Glenn explained that Granbury, the largest city in a county where 81% of residents voted for then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, is “very, very conservative.”
He noted that members of Granbury’s school board — his bosses — were also very conservative. And to any school employees who might have different political beliefs, Glenn said, “You better hide it,” adding, “Here in this community, we’re going to be conservative.”
That’s why, he said, he needed to talk to them about some of the books available in the school district’s libraries.
For months, conservative parents and politicians across Texas had been pressuring districts to remove from school libraries any books that contain explicit descriptions of sex, labeling several young adult novels as “pornography.” Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, called for criminal investigations into school employees who make such content available to students.
Many of the titles targeted statewide have featured queer characters and storylines, but those calling for the books’ removal have repeatedly said they are concerned only with sex and vulgarity, not with suppressing the views of LGBTQ students and authors.
Glenn made a similar argument during his closed-door meeting with librarians in Granbury, which is about an hour’s drive southwest of Dallas.
“I don’t want a kid picking up a book, whether it’s about homosexuality or heterosexuality, and reading about how to hook up sexually in our libraries,” Glenn said.
He also made it clear that his concerns specifically included books with LGBTQ themes, even if they do not describe sex. Those comments, according to legal experts, raise concerns about possible violations of the First Amendment and federal civil rights laws that protect students from discrimination based on their gender and sexuality.
“And I’m going to take it a step further with you,” he said, according to the recording. “There are two genders. There’s male, and there’s female. And I acknowledge that there are men that think they’re women. And there are women that think they’re men. And again, I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there’s no place for it in our libraries.”
Minutes later, after someone asked whether titles on racism were acceptable, Glenn said books on different cultures “are great.”
“Specifically, what we’re getting at, let’s call it what it is, and I’m cutting to the chase on a lot of this,” Glenn said. “It’s the transgender, LGBTQ and the sex — sexuality — in books. That’s what the governor has said that he will prosecute people for, and that’s what we’re pulling out.”
Over the next two weeks, the school district embarked on one of the largest book removals in the country, pulling about 130 titles from library shelves for review. Nearly three-quarters of the removed books featured LGBTQ characters or themes, according to a ProPublica and Texas Tribune analysis. Others dealt with racism, sex ed, abortion and women’s rights.
Two months later, a volunteer review committee voted to permanently ban three of the books and return the others to shelves. But that may not be the end of the process.
In his recorded comments to librarians, Glenn described the review of 130 titles as the first step in a broader appraisal of library content, and a new policy approved by the school board later in January grants him and other administrators broad authority to unilaterally remove additional titles they deem inappropriate, with no formal review and no way for the public to easily find out what has been pulled from shelves.
Legal, education and First Amendment experts contacted by ProPublica, NBC News and the Tribune said the audio of the superintendent, combined with the decision to abruptly remove books from circulation, even temporarily, raises constitutional concerns.
Glenn’s comments also call into question the district’s commitment to fostering a safe and inclusive school environment for LGBTQ students and could be grounds for a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, the experts said.
“This audio is very much evidence of anti-LGBTQ and particularly anti-trans discrimination,” said Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, who reviewed the recording at the request of NBC News, ProPublica and the Tribune. “It is very much saying the quiet part out loud in a way that provides very significant evidence that book removals in the district are occurring because of anti-LGBTQ bias.”
In a written statement, Glenn said the district was committed to supporting students of all backgrounds. And although he said the district’s primary focus is educating students, “the values of our community will always be reflected in our schools.”
“In Granbury and across Texas we are seeing parents push back and demand elected officials put safeguards in place to protect their children from materials that serve no academic purpose, but rather push a political narrative,” Glenn said in the statement. “As a result, classrooms and libraries have turned schools into battle grounds for partisan politics.”
None of Granbury’s school board trustees responded to messages requesting comment. District spokesperson Jeff Meador sent a statement emphasizing that all of the books permanently removed from shelves in Granbury are “sexually explicit and not age-appropriate” and noting that district libraries “continue to house a socially and culturally diverse collection of books for students to read, including books which analyze and explore LGBTQ+ issues.”
The three books the committee voted to remove were “This Book Is Gay,” a coming out guide for LGBTQ teens by transgender author Juno Dawson that includes detailed descriptions of sex; “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Pérez, a young adult novel about a romance between a Mexican American girl and a Black boy that includes a rape scene and other mature content; and “We Are the Ants,” by Shaun David Hutchinson, a coming-of-age novel about a gay teenager that includes explicit sexual language.
At least one member of the volunteer review committee was dissatisfied that only three books have been permanently removed so far, and she has started calling for a second review of the ones that have been returned.
“There are people who want to tear down values and force theirs and then also force acceptance,” Monica Brown, the committee member, said in a Facebook video following the decision. Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the Granbury ISD employees in attendance at the Jan. 10 meeting with librarians said that regardless of which books are pulled from shelves or returned, Glenn’s comments left her afraid to display or purchase LGBTQ books going forward — a chilling effect that she said could limit the diversity of Granbury library catalogs for years to come. The staff member, who was not the source of the audio, spoke on the condition that she not be named, because she feared retaliation from the district.
“He literally said books on trans issues have no place in a school,” she said. “It was alarming.”
The superintendent’s comments reflect a broader national debate. Conservative state legislatures across the country have been considering bills to restrict the ways educators teach about gender and sexuality in schools. This month, the Florida Legislature passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics, which restricts or bans discussion of LGBTQ issues in the classroom.
Conservative activists and politicians pushing these changes nationally say the goal is to prevent teachers from having sensitive conversations with students unless the parents give their consent. Some have at times conflated sex and sexual orientation, accusing educators of attempting to “groom” young children because the teachers had discussed the existence of transgender people and same-sex relationships. Opponents contend that the measures discriminate against LGBTQ students and educators and violate federal laws meant to prevent discrimination in schools.
These changes coincide with attempts in several conservative states to limit the rights of transgender minors to participate in school sports and to access gender-affirming medical care. Last month, Abbott issued a directive — temporarily halted by a Texas judge — ordering the state’s child welfare agency to open abuse investigations into any reported instances of minors receiving such medical care, including the prescription of puberty blockers or hormones.
As superintendent of a district that’s home to more than 7,400 students, Glenn is responsible for implementing and enforcing policies that ensure that children are not discriminated against based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
After listening to the recording of Glenn’s remarks, Lou Whiting, a nonbinary junior at Granbury High School, said they were outraged. Whiting and another student who’s part of the LGBTQ community said classmates at Granbury have harassed them at school, but they’ve avoided reporting the harassment because they worried administrators wouldn’t take their complaints seriously.
Glenn’s comments validated those fears, Whiting said.
“I don’t feel incredibly safe or welcomed by a large majority of the students at my school,” Whiting said. “I’ve been called slurs. I’ve been verbally attacked. I’ve been physically attacked. But it kind of feels worse when the attacks are coming from adults, from the people who are supposed to keep us safe.”
“A Very Conservative Board”
The meeting with librarians wasn’t the first time Glenn had publicly embraced socially conservative values in schools.
In 2014, when he was superintendent at another district, he and a pair of education professors wrote a book called “Daily Devotionals for Superintendents,” which lamented the legalization of same-sex marriage and the passage of state laws “making it a crime to counsel gay young people about changing their sexual orientation.”
In another section of the book, Glenn and his co-authors said those pushing for broader acceptance of “alternative lifestyles” and other cultural changes are doing so through the indoctrination of children in schools, as “was done by Hitler when he took over Germany.” They warned that school superintendents will face pressure to “recognize the demands of alternative life-style adults,” adding, “As a superintendent, you will have to be strong and courageous to stand against the onslaught of the enemy. Your country and your children’s future are at stake.”
Glenn, who arrived at Granbury ISD in 2018 following stints leading two other Texas districts, said he couldn’t recall if he wrote those specific passages, but he acknowledged co-authoring the book, adding, “It’s fair to say I am aware of its content.”
In November, voters in Granbury elected a pair of school board members who, while campaigning, also raised concerns about the spread of LGBTQ-affirming curricula in schools. Melanie Graft rose to local prominence after leading a conservative movement in 2015 to remove a pair of LGBTQ-themed picture books from the children’s section at Granbury’s public library. She ran alongside Courtney Gore, the co-host of a local far-right internet talk show.
As candidates, the women promised to stop the “indoctrination” of students and rid the district of educational materials they said promote LGBTQ ideology or what they referred to as critical race theory, a university-level academic framework based on the idea that racism is embedded in U.S. legal and other structures.
In the weeks after Graft’s and Gore’s election victories, Glenn began asking district administrators about several books, including “This Book Is Gay,” that an unnamed school board member had found on the district’s online card catalog, according to text messages obtained by a parent through an open records request and shared with the news organizations.
The text messages included screenshots of eight titles, all of which deal with LGBTQ topics, with the keyword search terms “gay,” “trans” and “gender” highlighted in some of the book descriptions.
In a December text message, Glenn asked an administrator in charge of overseeing district libraries if any of the books were physically on shelves and available to students. Librarians needed to have a sense of urgency in responding to community complaints about books, Glenn wrote, “otherwise this will consume us in the spring.”
The list comprised titles that were aimed at helping transgender and LGBTQ teens navigate life and that told teen love stories through an LGBTQ lens, as well as an LGBTQ-themed fairy tale. Although some of the books included descriptions of sex, others did not.
Glenn referred to concerns from a board member during his Jan. 10 meeting with librarians.
“We do have a very conservative board,” Glenn said, according to the recording. “They are elected, and recently more conservative. And so that’s what our community is. That’s what our job is.”
NBC News, ProPublica and the Tribune spoke to three Granbury teachers who were not present at the Jan. 10 meeting but who have listened to the recording and said they were troubled by Glenn’s remarks. The teachers said they’ve seen additional library books being pulled from district shelves — mostly young adult books containing talk of sex — that haven’t been subject to a formal review, raising concerns among staff members that content is being eliminated with no oversight from the public.
The teachers said they feared retribution and spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing Glenn’s comments advising educators against sharing opinions that don’t align with the conservative views of district leaders.
“I was disturbed that our superintendent would say those things,” one of the teachers said, referring to Glenn’s comments about there being no place for transgender and LGBTQ content in school libraries.
Schools have wide latitude to remove library books that are deemed age-inappropriate or “pervasively vulgar.” But free speech advocates say Republican politicians and school districts have applied an overly broad definition to the phrase in recent months, mislabeling coming-of-age stories and sex-ed books as pornography.
“The most striking feature of the current crop of book challenges is this effort to mischaracterize literature and sexual education resources, which clearly have educational value, and stigmatizing them by claiming that they violate obscenity statutes,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Under a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court legal decision, Island Trees School District v. Pico, a public school system can’t remove a book because school board members or administrators disagree with its viewpoints or ideas, including its discussion of LGBTQ identities.
The 1982 case dealt with the removal of books deemed “anti-American” and “anti-Christian” by a school district in Levittown, New York. At the time, a school board member testified that he believed it was his duty to make decisions for the school district that reflected the community’s conservative values. Those comments were echoed decades later in the Granbury superintendent’s directive to librarians.
“If the evidence shows that the motivation for a book removal is to keep these ideas from getting to children, then the courts are very skeptical,” said North Carolina attorney Neal Ramee, who advises school districts on constitutional issues. “That could potentially lead to a finding of a violation of the First Amendment.”
Justin Driver, a Yale Law School professor, former clerk for two Supreme Court justices and author of “The Schoolhouse Gate,” which analyzes legal battles over education, said the similarities between the Pico case and the Granbury situation are “striking and overwhelming.” As a result, he said, Glenn’s statements to librarians “would seem to place the school district in an unenviable litigating position.”
Yet because the Pico case was a divided opinion, some legal scholars said the issue is ripe for another appearance in front of the Supreme Court.
LGBTQ Students Push Back
On Jan. 11, a day after Glenn’s meeting with librarians, Kennedy Tackett, a 17-year-old senior at Granbury High School, was working in a student-run store on campus when one of her friends approached, looking upset.
The friend had been volunteering in the school library and noticed several boxes filled with books that had been taken off of shelves.
“She said, ‘Kennedy, a lot of them look like they’re LGBTQ,’” said Tackett, who is bisexual. “And so I immediately texted my parents, and I was like, ‘Hey, have y’all heard about this?’”
In the days that followed, Tackett and her father, a former school board trustee who has criticized the school district’s conservative shift, used public records requests to unearth what the district hadn’t shared publicly: the list of more than 130 books that librarians had been directed to immediately remove from shelves. (The records also included the December text messages about the eight LGBTQ books.)
Some of the 130 books had no sexual content whatsoever, including “George” by Alex Gino, a book meant for children in elementary school that tells the story of a transgender child who’s coming to terms with her gender identity.
Most of the books appeared to come from a larger list of 850 titles dealing with racism, sex and LGBTQ themes that had been compiled by state Rep. Matt Krause. The Republican lawmaker said in a letter sent to districts across Texas that the books might violate a new state law that restricts the ways teachers can talk about “currently controversial” issues, including racism and sexuality. Krause did not respond to a request for comment.
Tackett created an online petition calling on the district to return the books to shelves, quickly drawing more than 600 signatures. A couple of weeks later, on Jan. 24, she and several other LGBTQ students showed up at a meeting of the Granbury ISD board of trustees and called on the district to reverse course.
Instead, the board voted to amend a district policy that required contested books to remain on shelves while a committee reviewed them, giving administrators more discretion to remove titles that they deem to lack “educational suitability.”
“The job of the superintendent and the school board is not only to protect the students in this district, but to make them feel like they have a place in this community,” Tackett told the board during public comments prior to the vote. “But I gotta tell you, from what I’ve seen so far, you are failing at your job.”
The comments, which would later go viral and be broadcast on national news reports, drew a rebuke from Glenn during the meeting. Glenn announced that the district had previously removed five books unrelated to LGBTQ themes that were written by Abbi Glines, an author known for including explicit sex scenes that push the boundaries of young adult fiction.
“Let’s not misrepresent things. We’re not taking Shakespeare or Hemingway off the shelves,” Glenn said, at one point referring to those who frequently speak out at school board meetings as “radicals” and emphasizing that the district was focused on sexually explicit content. “We’re not going and grabbing every socially, culturally or religiously diverse book and pulling them. That’s absurd. And the people that are saying that are gaslighters, and it’s designed to incite division.”
Those comments gave Whiting, the nonbinary Granbury junior, an idea: Using Granbury’s G logo, Whiting designed a T-shirt with the words “Radical Gaslighter” and created a page where students could buy them. They ended up selling nearly 250 to people all over the country, raising more than $2,000 for the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Foundation.
By early February, word began to spread through Granbury that someone had recorded Glenn’s comments to librarians. The employee who’d made the recording did not post it publicly or share it with reporters, but soon a copy of it was circulating among a small group of educators and community activists.
That month, the ACLU of Texas sent a letter to Granbury calling on the district to apologize for the book removals and to release a statement affirming its commitment to “LGBTQ+ and racial inclusivity.” That was before Huddleston, the ACLU lawyer, reviewed the recording at the request of reporters.
Huddleston said the recorded comments also raise serious questions about what else has been said behind closed doors, not just in Granbury, but also in other districts where books are being banned.
“This is very strong evidence of what is happening in the background,” she said. “But it also raises a host of questions about all the other districts in Texas where this is happening and we don’t have audio.”
Tackett, the Granbury senior, cried after listening to the recording of Glenn’s remarks. She thought of his public comments accusing critics of trying to deceive the public about the district’s motivations for removing and reviewing books. If anyone was gaslighting the community, Tackett said, it was him.
“It’s unsettling,” she said. “You can’t just turn your back on the students you’re supposed to be protecting.”
Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Under Katy ISD gender policy, student identities disclosed to parents 19 times since August
Public records obtained by the Houston Landing offer the first glimpse at how often the new, hotly contested policy has been used to disclose LGBTQ+ students’ identities to parents — even if the students aren’t ready.
Since narrowly passing a controversial gender policy two months ago, Katy Independent School District has sent 19 notifications informing parents that their child identified themselves as transgender or requested to use different names or pronouns at school.
The number of parental notifications, obtained by the Houston Landing through a public records request, is the first glimpse at how often the new, hotly contested policy has been used to disclose LGBTQ+ students’ identities to parents — even if the students aren’t ready.
So far, the district averages a notification to a parent roughly once every three days.
The district’s policy requires staff to inform parents if their student requests to use different pronouns or names, or if they identify themselves as transgender — and obtain written parental consent to comply with the request. It also prohibits employees from asking for students’ preferred pronouns and discussing “gender fluidity,” and requires students to use bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth.
Jarred Burton, a student leader at Tompkins High School’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said the number of notifications already sent to parents is both depressing and surprising. Critics, including Katy parents, LGBTQ+ students and local advocates, have blasted the policy as a dangerous measure with the potential to expose students’ gender identities to unsupportive parents, further harming a community that already faces a higher risk of mental health issues than their peers.
“It’s just sad to see this actually happening,” Burton said. “It shows that (the policy) is not a bluff.”
Board members who supported the policy hailed it as a measure that would center parents’ right to be informed about their child’s gender identity and protect teachers from making uncomfortable decisions about concealing such information from parents.
“(Parents are) supposed to be looking after the health and welfare of their child,” Board President Victor Perez said at a late August meeting. “Withholding that information from the parent, that is a great burden on staff.”
It’s unclear how many parents were already aware of their child’s gender identity. District officials also did not make any board members available for an interview on the matter.
“The policy is intended to provide parents and guardians the opportunity to be made aware of their child’s name change request, and the opportunity to grant or deny approval of said request,” Katy spokesperson Nick Petito said in a statement Wednesday.
Ash Thornton, a transgender man and a junior at Tompkins High School, said the number of notifications being sent home will discourage LGBTQ+ students from feeling safe to explore their identities.
“It signals that it’s something bad, them being transgender or expressing gender in a way that’s different,” Thornton said. “It definitely messes up student-teacher relationships.”
Employees are not required to comply with a student’s name or pronoun change even if a parent gives consent, the policy states.
One staff member on every campus is responsible for processing and sending notifications to parents and guardians, Petito said. The policy makes an exception for “cases of suspected abuse.”
Students belonging to LGBTQ+ clubs have told the Landing the policy has caused their schools to become less of a safe space and has instilled fear among LGBTQ+ youth in Katy.
“There’s just been this looming cloud of dread over a lot of people,” Burton said in a September interview. “There’s gonna be a lot of people that get in trouble by their parents or get hurt. … It just sometimes keeps me up at night a little bit because it’s hard to imagine how much hate people can have to pass something like this.”
The number of notifications sent to parents to date leaves Thornton to wonder what else is to come.
“It’s only been two months and there’s already 19, how many more people are going to be affected by even just the end of the semester?” he said.
The Houston Landing is a nonprofit newsroom devoted to public service journalism for all Houstonians.
Texas’ ban on certain drag shows is unconstitutional, federal judge says
Senate Bill 12 would have prohibited performers from dancing suggestively or wearing certain prosthetics in front of children. Critics sued the state, saying it violated the First Amendment.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune
U.S. District Judge David Hittner found Senate Bill 12 “impermissibly infringes on the First Amendment and chills free speech.” The struck-down law prohibited any performers from dancing suggestively or wearing certain prosthetics in front of children.
Hittner ruled that language discriminated based on viewpoint and is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.
“The Court sees no way to read the provisions of SB 12 without concluding that a large amount of constitutionally-protected conduct can and will be wrapped up in the enforcement of SB 12,” the ruling reads. “It is not unreasonable to read SB 12 and conclude that activities such as cheerleading, dancing, live theater, and other common public occurrences could possibly become a civil or criminal violation.”
The plaintiffs who sued the state celebrated the order, saying in statements shared by their lawyers that the decision affirmed their rights to express themselves.
“I am relieved and grateful for the court’s ruling,” drag performer Brigitte Bandit said. “My livelihood and community has seen enough hatred and harm from our elected officials. This decision is a much needed reminder that queer Texans belong and we deserve to be heard by our lawmakers.”
Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who authored SB 12, defended the bill and pledged to challenge the ruling. The Texas Attorney General’s Office will appeal the ruling, a spokesperson said.
“Surely we can agree that children should be protected from sexually explicit performances. That’s what Senate Bill 12 is about,” Hughes said. “This is a common sense and completely constitutional law, and we look forward to defending it all the way to the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes.”
Critics of the bill, though, say that Republican lawmakers and officials this year have incorrectly — and unfairly — portrayed all drag performances as inherently sexual or obscene.
While SB 12 was originally billed as legislation that would prevent children from seeing drag shows, the final version did not directly reference people dressing as the opposite gender.
However, Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, made it clear that drag shows were the bill’s target — comments and history that Hittner wrote “the court cannot ignore.”
Last month, Hittner temporarily blocked SB 12 from taking effect on Sept. 1 after a two-day hearing for a lawsuit filed against the state by a drag queen and LGBTQ+ groups.
LGBTQ+ Texans, advocates, artists and business groups who sued the state, argued that the law discriminates against the content of performances and restricts equally protected free expression that is protected under the First and 14th Amendments.
In Tuesday’s 56-page ruling, Hittner noted a survey of court decisions “reveals little divergence from the opinion that drag performances are expressive content that is afforded First Amendment protection.”
“Drag shows express a litany of emotions and purposes, from humor and pure entertainment to social commentary on gender roles,” the ruling reads. “There is no doubt that at the bare minimum these performances are meant to be a form of art that is meant to entertain, alone this would warrant some level of First Amendment protection.”
Other states have passed similar legislation restricting drag performance, which have also been struck down by federal courts.
In June, a federal judge in Tennessee, appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled a law there was unconstitutional in its effort to suppress First Amendment-protected speech.
Bucking that trend, another Texas federal judge last week issued an opinion that supported drag show restrictions.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk said that West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler acted within his authority when he canceled a campus drag show. Kacsmaryk wrote that Free Speech jurisprudence had “not clearly established that all ‘drag shows’ are categorically ‘expressive conduct.’”
Hittner acknowledged his Panhandle counterpart’s ruling Tuesday. Hittner pointed to a letter in which Wendler explained his reasoning for banning the show, comparing drag to blackface and a slapstick sideshow.
“The president’s sentiment reinforces this Court’s opinion that while some people may find a performance offensive or morally objectionable, it does not mean the performance is not expressive or given First Amendment protection,” he wrote. “Not all people will like or condone certain performances. This is no different than a person’s opinion on certain comedy or genres of music, but that alone does not strip First Amendment protection.”
LGBTQ+ advocates welcomed Hittner’s decision Tuesday.
“Today’s ruling is a celebration for the LGBTQ community and those who support free expression in the Lone Star State,” GLAAD President and Chief Executive Officer Sarah Kate Ellis. “Texas now joins an increasing number of states whose discriminatory and baseless bans on drag performances are being recognized as unconstitutional and an attack against everyone’s freedoms.”
William Melhado contributed to this story.
The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Texas consistently leads the nation in attacks on trans people. Here’s how Houstonians are fighting back.
After attending the Houston Pride parade in June, Søren Beregan just wanted to dance. Beregan, a trans man, and his partner, who is nonbinary, were enjoying themselves at a Montrose-area nightclub when a man approached them.
“I’m better than you,” the man said aggressively.
Caught by surprise, Beregan laughed it off. “In a way it felt almost affirming as a trans guy to have a cis guy feel threatened by me,” he said, using a shortened form of the word cisgender, which means someone whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth. “But then later, I was like, wow, that sucks. It is scary to walk around in public … and know that there are people who are upset seeing you just living your life.”
Although he didn’t show it, Beregan felt helpless. In the past, when he was femme-presenting, he occasionally wore dresses and heels. “I was never taught how to fight. I was never taught how to defend myself. It was always ‘have a guy around you,’” he said.
But since transitioning over a year ago, things are different. He wants to be self-sufficient at a time where there have been increased attacks and hateful rhetoric against his community statewide.
On a recent Saturday morning, Beregan was among roughly 20 attendees in a de-escalation and self-defense workshop at the Montrose Center aimed at training participants on how to defend themselves from a physical attack, in lieu of carrying a gun.
It’s one of the ways that some trans Houstonians are taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves in Texas, a state that introduced more anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-transgender bills than any other state this year, and at a time when data shows anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is on the rise.
Texas lawmakers passed three bills this year that impact trans rights: Senate Bill 12, which bans “sexually oriented performances” – a term originally used to classify drag shows – in the presence of minors; Senate Bill 14, which bans medical care for trans youth to treat gender transitioning or gender dysphoria; and Senate Bill 15, which requires trans college athletes to compete on sports teams based on their biological sex. SB 14 and SB 15 went into effect on Sept. 1, while SB 12 awaits a final ruling from a federal judge in Houston after the ACLU of Texas challenged the law on behalf of several LGBTQ+ organizations.
“With all the anti-trans legislation in Texas, it’s like we’re the next target,” said George Zemanek, the president of Transmasculine Alliance Houston. The group, which organized the weekend workshop, provides community support to anyone assigned female at birth who is questioning their gender or who identifies as non-binary, female-to-male or transmasculine – a term that includes both trans men and nonbinary people assigned female at birth who define their gender as masculine, or who seek medical transition towards masculinization.
Zemanek said the thinking behind the quarterly workshops was, “Let’s do a physical safety training and let’s talk about all these things, because it may become an issue.”
The secret weapon
Trainers from Third Ward Jiu-Jitsu, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide affordable and inclusive self-defense training,led the workshop, which focused on de-escalation tactics and skills such as dodging a punch, or how to twist away if someone grabs your wrist. Instructors also reminded attendees to remain vigilant and put their phones away in public.
“If you’re just walking around with your head down like this the whole time, it is the perfect opportunity for someone to attack,” said Andrew Degar, the cofounder of the group, while demonstrating.
A studious Beregan meticulously watched as the instructors broke down different techniques. “I’m a little guy and [when] I do that frame, how do I then quickly back out of that position so that I’m not then just gripped by this giant?” he asked Degar, physically demonstrating the scenario he had in mind.
Other participants haven’t experienced physical attacks, but wanted to be proactive.
“I go to the University of Houston. I take public transit so I’m often out and about, so I thought knowing something about breaking away from grabs and getting away from people could be helpful,” said 31-year old Ed Kneelan who took turns practicing with the other participants.
“Fortunately I haven’t had anything fishy happen ever, but I know that can happen, so I think it’s better to be prepared,” he said.
A proactive approach
By taking a proactive approach, Zemanek believes that it will empower the trans community to be aware and know what to do in situations like a public protest, where people may be at an increased risk of physical violence.
“I foresee that at some of these protests against anti-trans legislation, you’re gonna start to see trans people getting arrested,” he said. “Some of these protests can be pretty wild.”
A spokesperson from GLAAD, an LGBTQ+advocacy organization, confirmed to the Landing that there have been 209 anti-LGBTQ incidents targeting drag events nationwide since early 2022. Texas consecutively had the most incidents and threats with 21 reported incidents so far this year, and 27 reported incidents in 2022, a representative said via email.
An April update on its 2022 analysis noted that there was an uptick in attacks beginning in Pride season that year, which is typically during June, and continuing through the midterm election cycle. At this year’s Pride celebration in Houston, participants spoke to the Houston Landing about the apprehension they felt due to the wave of anti-trans legislation. “You never know, there’s crazy people that do things that you don’t expect,” Carlos Gallardo told the Landing while celebrating Pride in Montrose.
It’s not just physical attacks and threats that have rattled the trans community. A joint report from GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League released in June found that anti-LBGTQ rhetoric and harassment has also increased within the last year, with more than 350 hate and extremist incidents recorded in the U.S.; Texas had the third most with 30 incidents.
The return of community patrolling
The rise of anti-LGBTQ+ incidents over the last several years has motivated community activists like Ethan Ganz. He is the co-founder of the Montrose Residents Coalition, a group that is joining forces with the nonprofit Affinity Coalition To Overcome Unethical Theories HTX (ActOutHTX) to revive the work of a Montrose-area volunteer surveillance group called Q-Patrol, which launched in 1991 but dissolved in 2002 due to financial woes, newspaper archives show.
“I really think it’s necessary now,” he said to participants assembled in a circle following the training.
A group of citizens organized Q-Patrol shortly after the murders of Paul Broussard and Phillip Smith, two gay men who were killed outside a gay nightclub in Montrose. Their brutal deaths sparked civil unrest locally, led to national discussions and prompted the Houston Police Department to launch an undercover initiative, dubbed Operation Vice Versa, where officers masqueraded as gay men. Officers were attacked in multiple incidents and many people were arrested within two weeks, according to the website Houston LGBTQ History and ABC13.
Originally Q-Patrol worked in tandem with the police, but now, “That’s not really what they’re trying to do,” Ganz said. “A lot of our people do not feel safe around the police,” he added.
In the 1990s when the original Q-Patrol reigned, it was illegal to carry a handgun openly or concealed without a license, but open carry was made legal in 2021. Ganz still discourages open carry of any firearms, but said volunteers can carry a concealed weapon, mace or a taser at their discretion.
Beregan is uncomfortable carrying a gun and can’t pocket his mace or pepper spray into most bars, so he views self-defense as his best weapon. After taking a few classes recently, he now feels better equipped to defend himself and plans to continue training with the Third Ward Jiu Jitsu’s monthly LGBTQ+ focused self-defense classes. But he has no plans of joining Q-Patrol at this time.
Acknowledging their limits, Ganz said the goal of Q-Patrol is to help people before police need to get involved.
“So if we see somebody that’s alone, we’ll walk them to the car. We see someone drunk in the street, we might engage with them and see what we can do to help them. This is more about being seen engaging our community, taking care of each other.” Ganz said they will also carry power banks to help people charge their phones to call a ride.
More training is needed in de-escalation, CPR, first aid, and, eventually, shooter response practice and Narcan training to ensure safety, Ganz said, but he anticipates Q-Patrol will hit the Montrose streets soon.
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