Tech Giant IBM, 14 Other CEOs Lead Charge Against Bathroom Bill Amid Special Session

These three men will shape how the special session in Austin goes.
These three men will shape how the special session in Austin goes. Abbott Photo by World Travel & Tourism Council/Flickr, Straus Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr, , Patrick Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr

From controversial school-choice vouchers to further abortion restrictions, there's plenty to fight about during the Texas Legislature's special session this summer, which begins Tuesday.

But perhaps no bill is expected to provoke more screaming, yelling and Texas Capitol rotunda-storming than the so-called bathroom bill. The bill, which would regulate bathroom use for transgender people, has spurred outrage from LGBT rights advocates for months. It's created a deep schism within the Republican Party, separating the fiscal conservatives and moderates from the right-wing ideologues. And it's attracted staunch opposition from everyone from Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lawrence to Apple and Facebook.

Yesterday, a flurry of CEOs from businesses with a big presence in Texas — including AT&T, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Texas Instruments — added to the chorus of opposition in a letter to Governor Greg Abbott (copied below), urging him to reject the bathroom bill. IBM went several steps further, dispatching nearly 20 executives to the Capitol on Monday to lobby legislators to vote no on the bathroom bill. The tech giant took out full-page ads in the Austin American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News, with "No one should face discrimination for being who they are" in big, bold print. And the company's global head of design, Phil Gilbert, took the podium at a press conference alongside other business heads to make a direct plea to lawmakers to abandon the legislation they believe is anti-LGBT.

"I'm here to say that discriminatory legislation like the so-called bathroom bill is harmful to business, is bad for business," Gilbert said. "A bathroom bill would allow IBM-ers to be discriminated against, our families, our communities to be discriminated against. This goes squarely against long-standing IBM values of diversity and inclusion."

Gilbert, echoing concerns of many business leaders that large conventions or tourism events will avoid Texas over discriminatory legislation, thanked Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and Representative Byron Cook for being pragmatic and opposing the law. He asked the rest of the GOP to stand with them.

But such appeals to Republicans have placed many in a tough spot: They must decide between acquiescing with longstanding allies who stand in support of a strong Texas economy and a rejection of discrimination, or continuing to peddle paranoia to conservative voter bases and manufacturing an otherwise nonexistent problem: that women and children must be protected from men posing as women in bathrooms who seek to assault or harass them. This is the narrative that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has sold to tea partiers and conservatives, somehow turning bathroom policies based on birth certificates into one of the most defining and divisive issues of the 2017 legislative session.

For the GOP lawmakers, a vote for the bill is a vote against the powerful Republican-leaning business community and LGBT Texans. A vote against is a rebuke of powerful Dan Patrick and a sea of ultra-conservative voters.

The bill is largely the reason we're here in this special session in the first place. While Patrick made a stink about his property-tax reform bill not being passed — which is also on the agenda — Democrats have accused Patrick of holding hostage key legislation, thus forcing the session, just because Speaker Joe Straus refused to pass the bathroom bill. While Straus and the House tried to pass a watered-down version of the bill, which would require school districts to offer single-occupancy bathrooms to transgender students who didn't want to use the one associated with their biological sex, Patrick rejected this compromise.

According to an exhaustive July New Yorker feature reviewing this year's session and the political firestorm that led to it, when Patrick sent a messenger, who was a lawyer, to show Straus a new proposed version of the bathroom bill, Straus reportedly told the emissary, “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.”

And then voilà: With no compromise reached on how to regulate transgender bathroom use, Patrick managed to force an entire special session. He held hostage the must-pass legislation called the sunset bill, allowing various government agencies to remain open while pending review.

That's the bill lawmakers will consider Monday, extending lifelines for the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Medical Board, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, the State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists, the State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors and the State Board of Social Worker Examiners.

Once that goes through, then it will be off to the races. This time around, the bathroom bill author is Ron Simmons, who has proposed barring cities and schools from adopting policies allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. It would make sure an ordinance like the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance never stands a chance.

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn