Protesters in Austin (Texas) in May 2022, in a rally against the filtered U.S. Supreme Court decision of overturning Roe v. Wade. Image credit: Vic Hinterlang / Shutterstock
For those of us in the Lone Star State, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade follows a year of brutal Republican attacks on Texans’ ability to control their bodies and define their gender identities. On September 1, 2021, one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, SB 8, went into effect in the state, prohibiting abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. Later that month, Governor Greg Abbott signed another anti-abortion law, SB 4, shortening the period during which physicians can legally provide abortion-inducing medications, and adding criminal penalties for those who prescribe abortion pills through telehealth or the mail.
Texas Republicans then shifted to focus on assaulting the rights of trans youth and their families. In October, Abbott signed legislation prohibiting trans youth in K-12 schools from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. And in February 2022 the Governor directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate parents of trans children and teens providing them with gender-affirming medical care, such as hormone therapy or puberty blockers, as child abusers. Ironically, one of the state’s first cases was against a DFPS employee.
Meanwhile, although we know that denying trans health care can increase depression and self-harm, state leaders removed suicide prevention resources for LGBTQ+ youth from government websites.
But Texans are fighting back. As the nation reels from the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, reproductive justice advocates elsewhere would do well to look to the Lone Star State, where grassroots organizers have persistently resisted Republican leaders and recognized how racial and economic inequality, immigration status, and gender and sexual discrimination intersect in this fight. Prior to Dobbs, groups like the Lilith Fund and Fund Texas Choice, provided Texans with the information, emotional support, and direct financial aid they needed to secure abortions legally in Texas, or after six weeks of gestation in other states. The Lilith Fund operated volunteer-run English and Spanish hotlines, while Fund Texas Choice helped arrange clients’ travel and overnight stays in and outside of the state.
In the months after SB 8, Texans seeking abortion care traveled most often to Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Kansas, but also as far as California and New York. Both organizations recognize abortion access as part of a broader struggle for human rights and center on the needs of low-income people of color who are most severely affected by abortion restrictions. In 2021, 73% of Fund Texas Choice’s clients were Indigenous and of color.
Although Texas laws do not currently criminalize abortion patients, organizers in Texas have anticipated this outcome. On Thursday, April 7, 2022, when sheriffs in the Rio Grande Valley arrested twenty-six-year-old Lizelle Herrera and charged her with murder for a “self-induced abortion,” activists with the Frontera Fund and South Texans for Reproductive Justice organized a demonstration in front of the Starr County jail the following Saturday. They drew significant media attention to Herrera’s case, mobilizing people across the nation to call the jail and the district attorney’s office demanding her release. That same day the Repro Legal Defense Fund covered Herrera’s $500,000 bail bond. On Monday, the Starr County District Attorney dismissed the indictment and privately apologized for the arrest.
The Herrera case alerted people in Texas and across the nation to the dangers awaiting abortion-seekers in a post-Roe world that may soon abandon the anti-abortion movement’s strategy of only criminalizing healthcare workers. But her story is also a testament to the organization, commitment, and foresight of grassroots reproductive justice advocates in South Texas. These organizers have long been aware of the ways abortion restrictions in Texas disproportionately harm poor, immigrant, and undocumented people living near the Mexico border. In the absence of the Frontera Fund and South Texans for Reproductive Justice, it is unlikely Herrera’s case would have inspired the media attention and national outrage that it did, and Starr County might well have continued its case against her.
Similarly, Republican leaders in Texas have encountered significant grassroots resistance to their unrelenting attacks on trans youth, their families, and medical providers. Over the past year Equality Texas, the state’s largest political advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ people, together with the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) has been providing legal advice for the parents of trans, non-binary and gender-expansive kids, organizing trans-affirming demonstrations at the State Capitol and planning testimony at DFPS meetings and legislative hearings from trans minors’ allies and family members.
As Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas litigate state-sponsored discrimination against trans youth and their families in the courts, advocates for trans youth continue to speak out publicly against hateful state policies and practices. Trans Resistance of Texas has been organizing protests as well as community-building events like picnics and clothing swaps that carve out space and time to build community and affirm trans lives. Trans leaders, including TENT Executive Director Emmett Schelling and eleven-year-old activist Kai Shappley, have gained national attention for their brave activism, mobilizing those in and beyond the state to protect the rights of trans youth and their loved ones.
Today’s activists fighting for bodily autonomy in Texas are part of a much longer history stretching back to the 1960s. Although Roe v. Wade was filed in Dallas in the early 1970s, the case’s roots can be traced to a group of young feminist activists that cohered in Austin in the late 1960s. The group’s members, many of them students at the University of Texas, started a birth control information center at the university YMCA. Although they expected that their work would focus on helping unmarried women secure access to the birth control pill, they were soon receiving calls from abortion seekers. Abortion was still criminalized in the state, so these young activists helped refer women to safe abortion providers in San Antonio, Dallas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico. Even after the group’s members began to suspect that the FBI was surveilling them, they persisted in providing abortion care, telling women to come into the office in person rather than risk talking with them over the phone.
As the group’s members became more involved in helping women secure abortions, they grew concerned about the legal liabilities they were exposed to, and they reached out to one of the only women lawyers they knew: Sarah Weddington. Weddington had only recently graduated from University of Texas law school in 1967, but the group’s members pressed her about bringing an action to challenge the Texas abortion statute. Although Weddington, together with University of Texas law graduate Linda Coffee, would eventually file the case that became Roe v. Wade on behalf of a woman who had been unable to secure a legal abortion, Roe would never have begun without the grassroots organizing of feminist activists in the state.
The contemporary battle for trans rights in Texas is also part of an enduring, but lesser-known, history. In Houston, butch lesbians and trans activists waged a decades-long battle in the 1960s and 1970s to overturn a city ordinance prohibiting people from appearing in public “dressed with the designed intent to disguise his or her true sex as that of the opposite sex,” a misdemeanor offense. Lesbian bar owner Rita Wanstrom, together with a dozen patrons calling themselves the “Tumblebugs,” first challenged the ordinance in 1968 after being repeatedly arrested for wearing fly-front pants. The Tumblebugs hired a lawyer, sold sweatshirts, and hosted special events to raise money for their legal fees. Charges against them were dropped after the arresting officers failed to appear in court, but the city’s “cross-dressing” ordinance remained on the books.
But a few years later, in 1972, Toni Mayes, a twenty-five-year-old trans woman, then in the process of transitioning, filed a federal lawsuit against the Houston police department for harassment and sought to have the city’s ordinance declared unconstitutional. Mayes’s doctors required her to live two years “as a female” before providing her with gender-affirming surgery. Although she attempted to secure an ID card from the police allowing her to legally wear women’s clothing, the police chief refused. Houston police officers subsequently arrested Mayes multiple times for violating the ordinance.
Mayes’s case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. But the Court dismissed it without comment in 1974, thus allowing to stand a lower court’s ruling that upheld the legality of Houston’s clothing ordinance. Coincidentally, by this time Mayes’ legal and medical transition was complete, and she decided to step back from the spotlight, but trans activist Phyllis Frye continued the battle in the late 1970s. Fearing arrest while in the midst of her own transition, Frye confronted the Houston police directly, lectured on trans issues throughout the city, and lobbied city municipal judges and city council members for years until they finally voted to repeal the ordinance in 1980.
Frye graduated from the University of Houston law school in 1981, and in 2010 she became the nation’s first openly transgender judge.
All historical moments may be unique, but our current struggle is not new, and Texans are not unprepared. Recognizing the enduring nature of these battles, and acknowledging that activists fighting for our rights in Texas today are part of an ongoing struggle, has provided me with some strength and comfort in this difficult time. Over the past year, I have found a sense of power by participating in actions large and small: joining my students at the state capitol and stopping traffic in protesting abortion restrictions; reading testimony on behalf of family members concerned for their trans children’s welfare at a DFPS hearing; standing with my family in front of the Governor’s mansion at a demonstration for trans rights. I’ve also found hope in the evidence of others’ resistance: finding a copy of the children’s book I’m Not a Girl in the Austin public library with my kids; witnessing Stephanie Elizalde, and the Superintendent of the Austin Independent School District, stand up to Attorney General Ken Paxton after he claimed that the district’s Pride Week violates state law.
After Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs was leaked in May, students in my course on sexuality and the family in U.S. history at the University of Texas asked what I thought was going to happen in the future. In our class, we discussed the long history of many of the issues in the headlines today including abortion, homosexuality, gender identity, and sexual violence. I had been dreading this moment and fighting feelings of hopelessness, so I told students what I felt to be true: that we are entering a dark period in American history in which we will likely lose many rights we have taken for granted. I don’t have the answers, I told them, and I don’t believe that the arc of history “bends toward justice” on its own.
But the nation is looking to Texas, I told them, because we are at the forefront of these battles over our bodies and our human rights. And the media’s focus on Texas means that what we do next matters to Americans in other states facing the same political attacks. You’re going to have to fight for the world you want to see, I told my students.
I hope they do.
Lauren Gutterman is co-host of the Sexing History podcast and an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenGutterman. You can subscribe to the podcast, Sexing History, on iTunes.