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Dan Patrick Willing To Lose Billions Over Bathrooms

Christopher Connelly
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to a crowd at the Texas GOP convention.

The school bathroom wars blew up Friday at the Texas Republican convention in Dallas. 

After a week of debate about Fort Worth’s moves to protect transgender students, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was prepared to throw down the gauntlet with federal officials over a letter urging all public schools across the country to accommodate transgender kids, including giving them say over which bathrooms they use.

On Tuesday, he held a press conference in Fort Worth ahead of a monthly school board meeting to call for the resignation of schools Superintendent Kent Scribner. Patrick opposed guidelines the district issued to make the school more accommodating to transgender students.

“The job of the superintendent is not to be a social engineer,” he told reporters before a school board meeting. “The job of the superintendent is to prepare his students for a great education."

The guidelines are partly focused on reducing bullying of transgender students. Patrick said some students will be uncomfortable sharing a restroom or locker room with transgender kids, and he worries the uncomfortable ones will be bullied for their discomfort. The policy, he said, violates Texas law, and he thinks parents should have had more input before it was implemented.

On Thursday, Patrick promised legislation to keep transgender people from using the restroom that fits their gender identity in all public restrooms in the state. He said he’s not sure exactly what it would look like, but similar bans passed in North Carolina and Georgia recently. The Georgia governor vetoed the measure after businesses threatened to pull out of the state.

Patrick cracked wise when he addressed an adoring crowd at the Republican convention Thursday morning.

“Now, just so you’re not confused, when you go to the restroom, the M doesn’t stand for make up your mind, and the W does not stand for ‘whatever,’” he said to loud laughs in the audience of thousands.

On Friday, Patrick’s bathroom barrage took on national dimensions after the Obama administration released guidance to public schools saying transgender students are protected by the ban on sex discrimination in public education.

This has big implications for a range of school activities and policies, and it means transgender kids can use the bathroom they’re most comfortable with. Patrick said superintendents should not comply, even if it means the Obama administration withholds billions of dollars of federal funding for Texas schools.

“He can keep his thirty pieces of silver,” Patrick told reporters. “We will not yield to blackmail from the president of the United States.”

Patrick suggested the state could find an alternative to the $10 billion Texas receives in federal education funds.

Delegates to the state GOP convention are voting on the final planks to go into their party’s platform. And bathrooms pop up there in a provision supporting legislation that restricts individuals to bathrooms, showers and locker rooms that match their “biologically determined sex.” The results aren't expected until Saturday morning.

Rudy Oeftering, president of the LGBT-friendly Metroplex Republicans club, agrees with the lieutenant governor that Obama is overreaching his authority with the guidelines. Still, he said, he’s no fan of the bathroom warriors in his party. He says claims that allowing transgender people to relieve themselves in the facility they prefer would cause a rise in sexual assaults are baseless. It's just the latest wedge issue, he said.

“Once the gay marriage issue was settled then we went straight into the transgender issue,” Oeftering said. “This is not the top priority for me as a republican. And it’s not the top priority to a lot of republicans.”

As they craft a party platform this week, Texas Republicans are considering a number of other proposed planks related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. One opposes job protections for gay and transgender people. Two reject same-sex marriage. Another says homosexuality should not be presented as acceptable.

The issues are personal, Oefetring says. “But to say it’s the most important issue? I wouldn’t be there if that’s the case.”

Oeftring says there is progress: A controversial plank promoting reparative therapy to turn gay people straight was toned down this year – now it just says such therapy should be an option. A more symbolic sings of inclusion: The Metroplex Republicans have a booth in the exhibitor’s hall at this year’s convention. At the last one, no gay-friendly group was allowed to set up a table.

Long term, Oeftering says he thinks there’s a generational divide, and his party will grow more accepting of its LGBT members over time.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.