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In her reelection bid, Rep. Shawn Thierry tests whether Democrats will tolerate anti-LGBTQ votes

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

In her reelection bid, Rep. Shawn Thierry tests whether Democrats will tolerate anti-LGBTQ votes” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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HOUSTON — That Senate Bill 14 would pass was not in doubt.

The legislation, which would bar gender-transitioning care for children and teens, had universal Republican support and merely awaited final sign-off by the GOP-led House.

The only surprise that May evening in the Capitol was when Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Democrat from Houston, strode to the front of the chamber and announced she was breaking with her party to support the bill.

Children must be protected from transgender care because of its risk of harm, she said, citing precedent in Texas for allowing only adults to get tattoos, use tanning salons and purchase tobacco products. She said teenagers’ brains are not developed enough to make potentially irreversible medical decisions.

“This debate… was never about erasing trans children,” Thierry said in a tearful 12-minute speech. “For me, this discussion is about how to best protect and care for these children as they navigate through the challenging journey of finding the best version of themselves.”

[Republican blitz on LGBTQ issues exposes fractures among Texas Democrats]

Thierry’s remarks ignored that treatment decisions for minors can only be made by parents or legal guardians, as well as the consensus of major medical groups that gender-transitioning care should be available to children and teens in the care of doctors.

Republicans were quick to praise Thierry as a brave politician willing to buck her radical party. To Democrats, who watched the speech in stunned silence, she had betrayed their party’s commitment to protect LGBTQ+ rights and vulnerable Texans.

“It feels defeating, when you’re a Democrat in the Texas Legislature,” said Dallas Rep. Jessica González, one of several gay members of the caucus. “The last two legislative sessions had the most conservative bills. That’s why it’s even more important for us to stick together.”

The political fallout is spilling into the Democratic primary, where in her bid for reelection Thierry faces two challengers. One of them, labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons, is well funded and has secured the support of several Democratic officials — including sitting House members — and progressive groups like the influential Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus. A Democratic club in Houston censured her, accusing Thierry of turning her back on the gay and transgender community.

Thierry, whose small-dollar donations have largely dried up, now relies heavily on wealthy Republican donors to fund her campaign.

More than a third of Thierry’s donations over the past year came from individuals or groups who typically support Republican groups, a curiosity in a predominantly Democratic district. They include $10,000 from Doug Deason, a conservative activist, and $15,000 from his pro-school voucher Family Empowerment Coalition PAC.

While she’s not the only Democrat in the House to have voted with Republicans on those bills, Thierry’s race has become a referendum on whether elected officials who do not fully support LGBTQ+ causes can remain in good standing with the Democratic Party. Thierry is insistent she can, and said her votes last year reflected the will of her constituents.

Thierry, who declined to sit for an interview but spoke briefly to The Texas Tribune by phone, said most of the criticism of her on LGBTQ+ issues comes from white progressives outside her district, who do not represent her base of more socially conservative, religious Black voters.

“I didn’t just jump out against … my constituents,” Thierry said. “Clearly, I have a good pulse of how the majority of the people in my district feel. I really do. I’ve lived here forever.”

But it’s a knife in the back for gay and transgender residents in District 146, who previously viewed her as an ally. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas endorsed Thierry as recently as 2022.

Ashton Woods, a gay man and founder of Houston’s Black Lives Matter chapter, accused Thierry of lying about her constituents’ support for her LGBTQ+ positions. He said the representative previously presented herself as an ally of the gay and transgender community, but in reality is solely interested in the views of a small group of mostly elderly supporters that agree with her.

“I don’t know who she’s talking to in my age group,” said Woods, 39. “She’s seeking a safe space where people share the same ideology as her.”

Woods, who unsuccessfully challenged Thierry in the 2020 Democratic primary, said her votes on LGBTQ+ issues last year were a reason why he has decided to run again.

Joëlle Espeut, a Black transgender woman in Thierry’s district, said she had doubts about the sincerity of Thierry’s commitment even before the votes.

“I think people think that showing support is merely just saying you support the LGBT community,” Espeut said. “Outside of these bills, her support, at best, was nominal.”

House District 146 covers a swath of south Houston, bounded by Brays Bayou, that includes the world-class Texas Medical Center and world-famous Astrodome. Three-quarters nonwhite and heavily Democratic — President Joe Biden won some precincts by more than 90 points — the district stretches west through middle-class Meyerland and Westbury, heart of the city’s Jewish community. But it is anchored in Sunnyside, a low-income, majority-Black neighborhood that once was a thriving economic hub that is trying to revitalize.

The district has always been represented by a Black Houstonian. Thierry, now 54, in 2016 was selected by Democratic precinct chairs as the party’s nominee for the seat after then-Rep. Borris Miles resigned to run for the state Senate. She was elected unopposed.

Thierry made an impression in her first session by fighting for bipartisan legislation to address the state’s high maternal mortality rate for Black mothers, drawing on the experience of her own difficult pregnancy with her daughter.

In the following sessions, Thierry voted reliably with her party. She joined most of the Democratic caucus in their 2021 protest of a GOP voter restrictions bill, where they absconded to Washington, D.C., for several weeks to shut down the House. It was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a civil rights activist who integrated Sharpstown High School in Houston.

In the 2023 regular legislative session, Republicans made sexuality and children their new top social issue. By the time lawmakers adjourned in May, much of the camaraderie Thierry had built with fellow Democrats unraveled.

Three major pieces of legislation proposed by Republicans became law last year: a bill aimed at removing sexually explicit books from school libraries, a designation critics feared would be used to target LGBTQ+ literature; a requirement that transgender college athletes play on teams that align their sex assigned at birth; and the ban on trans minors from receiving gender-transitioning care.

[Texas lawmakers pursued dozens of bills affecting LGBTQ people this year. Here’s what passed and what failed.]

Thierry supported all three. She was not the only Democrat to break ranks — 11 others supported the book-banning bill. But she was by far the most outspoken in her support for the legislation. She said in another floor speech that the book bill would set up guardrails against explicit materials that have “infiltrated” schools, noting one that she said teaches children how to access dating websites.

Fellow Democrats told the Tribune they were especially frustrated that Thierry did not support their efforts to offer compromises on the transgender bill.

Rep. Ann Johnson, whose district borders Thierry’s, offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have permitted trans teens from receiving such care if two doctors and two mental health professionals approved — a high bar intended to assuage concerns that treatment such as hormones could be carelessly prescribed. Johnson declined to comment.

Thierry skipped the vote on the item, as well as all 18 other Democratic amendments. Thierry said that her positions reflected the views of her constituents.

State representatives gather to listen to discussion of a Point of Order brought against SB 14 on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023.
State representatives listen to a Point of Order discussion brought against SB 14 on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, prepares for a press conference in front of people who have gathered on the stairs across from the House floor to protest against SB 14, before it is heard for debate on May 12, 2023.
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, prepares for a press conference in front of people who have gathered on the stairs across from the House floor to protest against SB 14, before it is heard for debate on May 12, 2023. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune

Community leaders in Sunnyside said LGBTQ+ issues are not the ones they think most about. Sunnyside Civic Club President Tracy Stephens, 66, recalls when the neighborhood was a bustling center of Black life in Houston, with its own movie theaters, bowling alleys and grocery stores.

After decades of neglect and underinvestment, he said Sunnyside needs a representative that will secure funding for street repairs and strengthen penalties for pollution. He commended Thierry for being accessible and attentive to these needs.

Stephens also said he supported Thierry’s stances on the book rating and gender-transitioning care bills. These weren’t issues when he was a kid, he said, adding that he understood Thierry’s desire to protect children.

“You’ve got to think about what’s going to happen to that kid in the long run,” Stephens said about gender-transitioning care.

Sandra Massie Hines, who earned the nickname “the mayor of Sunnyside” for her civil rights work in the community, said her focus lately has been helping elderly residents at risk of homelessness because of rising rents.

When it comes to gay and trans issues, Hines said she supported Thierry’s votes. She said exposing children to LGBTQ+ materials is confusing for them.

“I think kids shouldn’t be coached into being told they need to grow extremities, or cut off extremities,” said Hines, 75. “I just think a lot of that is fostered by adults.”

Gender transition surgery is extremely rare under the age of 18, according to doctors, and in most cases gender-transition medical care for minors means hormone therapy or puberty blockers.

But younger residents, and those with gay or trans family members, said Thierry’s stances are hurtful and don’t represent the largely progressive district.

Gender-transitioning care, including doctor-prescribed hormones, makes life bearable for a 16-year-old trans teenager in District 146, his mother said.

The Tribune granted her anonymity, after verifying her identity and address, because Gov. Greg Abbott has authorized state officials to open child abuse investigations into parents who provide gender-affirming care to their trans children. Those investigations are on pause due to a lawsuit filed by Texas families against the state.

The child came out as trans at age 7. He had a mental health crisis at 10, a common occurrence for children suffering from gender dysphoria, a type of psychological distress that results from a mismatch between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. Their mother said at the time she did not understand the kind of support they needed. Gender-transitioning treatments have significantly improved the teen’s mental and physical health, she said.

“They can just go to school, do the SATs, get their driver’s license and think about who they’re going to take to the spring dance,” she said. “It freed them up to have a developmentally normal life, as opposed to where they were at prior to this care, which was a dark place.”

The mother said she wished to share her experience with Thierry as lawmakers considered SB 14 but said her Capitol staff declined to schedule an appointment. She said aides said constituents could visit the office at any time to see if Thierry was available. The mother said it was impractical to make the three-hour drive from Houston without a guarantee (Thierry’s chief of staff said she makes time to meet with visitors, even if it requires stepping away from legislative business).

Now that gender-transitioning care is banned, the mother said she has made a plan to move to a different state if necessary, a step other Texas families with trans children have already taken.

Lauren Ashley Simmons speaks with volunteers before block walking on Jan. 28, 2024, in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston.
Lauren Ashley Simmons speaks with volunteers before block walking on Jan. 28, 2024, in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Anger with Thierry over her votes last year has created an opening for labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons, with a faction of Democrats coalescing around her.

Simmons, who has never before sought elected office, said residents encouraged her to run after a video of her criticizing the state takeover of Houston ISD exploded in popularity online. With two children in the district, Simmons was worried about Republican attacks on public education and felt Thierry was unresponsive to constituents about the issue.

She was shocked to see Thierry’s remarks on SB 14, which she felt were “ripped from the Republican national agenda.” Why not make a 12-minute speech on the most pressing issues in District 146, she wondered, like gun violence and the lack of grocery stores?

Simmons, 36, likened the plight of the parents of trans children to her own daughter’s treatment for sickle-cell anemia, which includes an experimental chemotherapy drug and opioids.

“Those are decisions that are hard for me and her dad to make with her medical team,” Simmons said. “I get really nervous when we start passing legislation about what decisions parents can make about their children’s health care.”

Simmons has captured some of the marquee Democratic endorsements, including labor unions and Planned Parenthood. Democratic leaders including Houston City Controller Chris Hollins, former Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Odus Evbagharu and three House Democrats have also backed her.

Lauren Ashley Simmons checks addresses of voters as she block walks on in Houston.
Lauren Ashley Simmons checks addresses of voters as she block walks on in Houston. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Two Black Democratic House members — Reps. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth — have endorsed Thierry, as have local groups including the Houston Black American Democrats and the Harris County chapter of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats.

Collier disagrees with Thierry’s vote on SB 14. But she said Thierry has been a devoted Democrat on other issues and does not deserve to be purged from the party. Collier praised Thierry as a skilled and hardworking legislator who has done much for her district.

“It takes a lot of courage to take a stand on a provision that isn’t popular or safe,” Collier said. “I respect that as a leader, she is able to do that, in a time where everyone expected her to go along.”

Other Democrats view it differently. There is room for the party’s elected officials to offer lukewarm support to the LGBTQ+ community in moderate districts, they believe, but not in one that has one of the highest shares of Democrat voters of any in the state.

“It is increasingly hard for us to not only pass meaningful legislation, but also defeat harmful policies,” said González, who has endorsed Simmons. “I firmly believe it’s important for us to stand up and fight for our Democratic values and also elect other Democrats who share those values.”

William Melhado contributed reporting.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/15/shawn-thierry-houston-democratic-primary-lgbtq-vote/.

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