Austin City Council passes transgender protections

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Members of the Austin City Council voted Thursday afternoon to approve offering some protections to local transgender people seeking gender-affirming care, though it may lead to more pushback by Texas Republican lawmakers.

By a vote of 10-1, the council passed a resolution introduced by Council Member Chito Vela, who represents District 4. The measure directs Austin police to make enforcement of Senate Bill 14, which bans certain treatment options for transgender minors in the state, as their lowest priority. Only Mackenzie Kelly of District 6 voted against it, saying she believed it may lead to a costly lawsuit from the state.

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Austin is now the first community in Texas to approve such a measure since SB 14 took effect in the state.

The resolution reads, “Except to the extent required by law, it is the policy of the City that no City personnel, funds, or resources shall be used to investigate, criminally prosecute, or impose administrative penalties upon: (1) a transgender or nonbinary individual for seeking healthcare, or (2) an individual or organization for providing or assisting with the provision of healthcare to a transgender or nonbinary individual.”

Dozens of people signed up Thursday to speak for and against the resolution, leading to long lines outside Austin City Council in downtown and limited space inside the chamber. Critics of the measure also had a truck with a digital billboard circling the building at one point, which had messages like “protect Texas kids” and “no child is born in the wrong body” displayed on the large screen.

The resolution also indicates that the City of Austin won’t terminate or limit an individual or an organization from receiving city funding as a result of that individual or organization helping a transgender or nonbinary person from getting healthcare.

Vela, who first brought forward the resolution, criticized what he called “intimidation tactics” from opponents outside City Hall Thursday.

“Trans people deserve the right to self determination,” Vela said from the dais. “Our state has forced them and their medical providers into hiding, and that is wrong. Austinites do not prioritize criminal enforcement of rules that limit medical decisions made between families and their doctors, whether that’s the decision to terminate a pregnancy or how to treat a child struggling with gender dysphoria.”

Austin City Council transgender protections resolutionDownload

Vela previously said he’s modeling the approach after what he did two years ago when he put forward the GRACE Act, a series of resolutions aimed at protecting reproductive rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. One of those measures deprioritized enforcement of criminal laws surrounding abortion.

He also said he wishes he could do more to assist transgender Austinites, but he explained city leaders have to move forward carefully given the scrutiny this will likely bring by state Republican lawmakers.

“I understand that folks want us to go farther and want us to really kind of, you know, fight,” Vela told KXAN last month, “but I don’t want to overplay our hand, get struck down by the courts and then kind of be back at the place that we started with nothing to show for it. So we want to be very careful and very strategic, and we want to make sure that the protections that we’re instituting are going to survive and are going to last.”

The city will also significantly limit its involvement in investigations that might arise in other communities or states into alleged violations of similar laws.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, a few Republican state leaders posted on their social media accounts warning this measure could lead to more scrutiny and consequences for the city.

Texas Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, wrote on X, “This Council should remember that the city is a political subdivision of the State of Texas and derives its authority from the State. There is already growing momentum in the Texas legislature for the State to strip the City of Austin of its autonomy and take over city governance.”

Meanwhile, Texas Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said on his X account, “As liberal cities desperately attempt to usurp the laws of this state, you can be assured I will continue my efforts to stop these back door attempts at forcing progressive policies upon Texans.”

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The measure approved by Austin leaders will also require a couple of things for the city manager to do, including directing him to “explore establishing a program or identify resources to assist Austin residents facing potential criminal punishment, civil liability, administrative penalties, or professional sanctions for providing to or assisting transgender or nonbinary individuals with healthcare or for seeking or receiving such care, including but not limited to collaboration with Travis County.”

The city manager will have to report back about this to the council as well as the LGBTQIA+ Quality of Life Advisory Commission within three months of the resolution’s approval.

The advisory commission, which provides insight to the council about issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, already voted on the measure last month and recommended approval by the full council.

The measure is cosponsored by Council Members Ryan Alter, Zo Qadri, José Velásquez and Vanessa Fuentes.

History of Senate Bill 14

Texas Republican lawmakers made restricting access to transgender health care and creating consequences for doctors who provide it in the state one of their main priorities during last year’s regular legislative session. They ended up passing SB 14 along with the help of a few Democrats in the legislature.

The law, which took effect on Sept. 1, 2023, bans anyone younger than 18 from receiving puberty-blocking medication, hormone therapies or surgeries to assist in their transition. Texas doctors who provide this type of care could also lose their medical licenses.

The law’s supporters argued these restrictions are necessary to protect children. However, many leading medical associations recommend gender-affirming care for minors experiencing gender dysphoria, which is the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics.

A group of physicians as well as families with transgender children sued the state as part of an attempt to block SB 14 from remaining in effect. Their lawsuit is currently under review by the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case in January.

It’s unclear when the justices could announce their ruling on the case.

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