AUSTIN, Tex. — Amid conflicting reactions from gay rights groups, social conservatives, corporations and the state’s Republican leadership, the Texas Senate convened a hearing Friday on a bill to restrict which bathrooms transgender people can use in government buildings and schools.
The issue, which roiled North Carolina for more than a year and led to boycotts and other economic blowback, has become one of the most heated and high-stakes issues facing Texas, the second most populous state. It has deepened the divide between moderate Republicans and social conservatives and caused widespread fears that a wave of boycotts and protests would do serious damage to the Texas economy, which is still feeling the effects of a drop in the price of oil.
Given the presence of three of the nation’s 10 largest cities, the economic stakes from boycotts or cancellations of concerts and athletic events could dwarf what played out in North Carolina.
The push to pass a bathroom bill led to a special legislative session that began on Tuesday. It was unclear when the full Senate would vote on the measure, which requires transgender people to use bathrooms, locker rooms and showers that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate, as opposed to their gender identity.
In a hallway outside the hearing room Friday, Alisa Miller, an Austin resident who is the mother of a 15-year-old transgender girl, prepared to sign in to testify before the Senate State Affairs Committee wearing a gray T-shirt reading, “Don’t Discriminate in the Lone Star State.” Her daughter, Maeve, who transitioned to a girl when she was 14, now uses the girls’ room at her Austin high school and worries about being bullied if she is forced to use a boys’ room.
“She’s very concerned,” Ms. Miller said. “It’s potentially not a safe situation for her.”
Social conservatives, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have denied that the bill discriminates against anyone and have accused critics of exaggerating the potential economic damage. One moderate Republican leader, State Representative Joe Straus, the speaker of the Texas House, has expressed concern that the law could prove damaging and dangerous for transgender people, but supporters of the bill say the issue is public safety and women’s privacy.
“Straus doesn’t seem to be concerned about the safety of our wives, our daughters, our mothers and our grandchildren,” said Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist in Houston and one of the bathroom bill’s most vocal supporters. “He seems to conspicuously ignore their safety, their privacy, their well-being, their mental health.”
It was unclear if the hearing on Friday would duplicate one held during the regular legislative session in early March, when lawmakers heard 13 hours of testimony from hundreds of people. But it came during a groundswell of opposition to the bill.
On Sunday, IBM took out full-page ads in major Texas newspapers, saying that the company “firmly opposes” any measure that would harm the state’s gay, lesbian and transgender community and make it harder for businesses to recruit and retain talent.
The next day, the chief executives of 14 Dallas-based companies — including corporate giants like American Airlines, AT&T Inc., Southwest Airlines and Texas Instruments — sent a letter to the governor, expressing concern that the bill “would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”
And on Wednesday, the presiding officers of the Episcopal Church wrote to the speaker of the Texas House and suggested that if the bill passed, the church would cancel its nine-day General Convention scheduled for Austin in July 2018.
“In 1955, we were forced to move a General Convention from Houston to another state because Texas laws prohibited black and white Episcopalians from being treated equally,” read the letter from Bishop Michael B. Curry and another leader. “We would not stand then for Episcopalians to be discriminated against, and we cannot countenance it now.”
An unusual alliance of bathroom-bill opponents has formed between pro-business Republicans, gay-rights advocates, religious leaders and civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. They say that the bill targets an already vulnerable transgender community and that it would be bad for business.
Jeff Moseley, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, the state’s most influential business lobby, announced that the group was taking its opposition to the bill to the airwaves by making a “seven-figure media buy.” The group has long aligned itself with Texas conservative causes and issues, and has rarely taken public stands on social issues.
“The bathroom bill distracts from the real challenges we face and would result in terrible economic consequences — on talent, on tourism, on investment, on growth, and on small businesses,” Mr. Moseley said in a statement.
The Legislature failed to pass a bathroom bill during the regular legislative session that ended in May, with moderate Republicans in the House clashing with social conservatives in the Senate over the bill. Several Republicans in the House, led by Mr. Straus, the speaker, worry that a North Carolina-style wave of boycotts, canceled conventions and negative national attention would hit Texas if a bathroom bill passed.
The lieutenant governor, Mr. Patrick, who has been the driving force behind the bill, effectively forced Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back for a 30-day special session to give the bathroom bill another shot at passage. Mr. Patrick used must-pass legislation that was vital to keeping a few government agencies operating as a tool to get Mr. Abbott to order lawmakers back to Austin.
The bathroom bill must pass the Senate committee before it can be sent to the full Senate for a vote. It was expected to easily win approval by the committee and the Senate, but the bill’s chances are less assured in the House. It was unclear whether moderate Republicans would be able to stall, kill or water down the bill.
Mr. Patrick, speaking to a conservative policy group on the eve of the special session earlier this week, reiterated the Republican rationale behind what conservatives call not a bathroom bill but a privacy one. He said it was an important weapon against sexual predators sneaking into women’s bathrooms.
“I don’t want sexual predators masquerading as being transgender to enter into a bathroom and follow a little girl, or somebody’s wife, or somebody’s daughter, as we have case after case,” Mr. Patrick said. He added: “The parents of Texas have spoken loudly.”