Sunday, April 3, 2011

Budget Amendments Attempt to Elevate Straight, White College Students

Last Friday, April 1, the Texas House began its deliberation of the state's budget. Two amendments offered by Rep. Wayne Christian (Shelby, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Sabine and Jasper Counties) 14 hours into the 16 hour debate attempted to ensure the continued elevation of straight people and white people in Texas' public universities. One amendment was successful, the other was not.

Christian's first proposed amendment to the budget (amendment #143 of the debate) required public universities in Texas who have a "gender and sexuality center or other center for students focused on gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transexual, transgender, gender questioning, or other gender identity issues" to spend an equal amount of money to fund a center for "family and traditional values." Every university in the state is facing a budget crisis. Christian's amendment would effectively double the cost of having gender and sexuality centers, which will cause schools which do not have them to be less likely to create them, and force schools which do have them to slash their center's budgets to make up the difference.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) questioned why Christian felt that it was necessary for the legislature to dictate what kind of centers universities should have. Christian explained that he understood that schools were allowed to create gender and sexuality centers and that the legislature didn't have the power to stop them from doing so. To explain his position he offered a simile, suggesting that "if they were teaching students how to make terrorism bombs or murder or whatever" then the legislature would want to be sure that students were also being taught to love America. Likewise, he said, if universities are going to "teach alternate sexual behavior" then they should also teach "traditional values".

Castro, apparently unphased by Christian's comparison of queer people to terrorists (or his gross mischaracterization of the resources provided by college gender and sexuality centers), then asked what "pansexual" meant. Christian said that he didn't know, but that that was the kind of thing that these centers taught. The amendment passed: 110 yeas to 24 nays, the entire debate took 5 minutes. No one spoke against the amendment and only Castro questioned the need for it.

Christian's next proposed amendment (amendment #144) required Texas' universities to dedicate 10% of their classes to teaching "western civilization." Castro again questioned whether the legislature had the power to directly dictate what state universities taught. This time, however, he went so far as to raise a point of order against the amendment, claiming that it created "general law" (according to the House rules the budget can only be used to create funding for state agencies, it can not be used to create new laws). Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) ruled that the amendment did not create general law and debate continued.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) then spoke against the amendment. He questioned what Christian meant by "western civilization" and said that it was inappropriate for the legislature to start creating quotas about what kind of classes universities offered. Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-San Bonito) then rose and asked Villarreal "have you been presented any information that defines 'western civilization' prior to this amendment?" Villarreal indicated that he had not (indeed, state statute contains no definition of "western civilization"). Lucio was followed by Rep. Mark Strama (D-Travis Co) who asked if the contributions of African Americans, Mexican Americans or Native Americans to our culture would be included in a "western civilization" class.

Castro made a motion to table the amendment. In accordance with House rules Christian came back to the microphone to explain why he thought that the amendment should not be tabled and to answer questions. Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) questioned Christian, trying to get him to explain what "western civilization" meant in the context of his amendment. Christian obfuscated, claiming that experts at the universities would be able to define what he meant. Anchia indignantly replied that the amendment appeared "very political and potentially insulting to the diverse membership of this body."

Rep. Borris Miles (D - Fort Bend Co) then grilled Christian about what parts of history would be included in a "western civilization" class: "would it include the Jim Crow South," he asked Christian "would it include the dragging of James Byrd that happened in your district?" (James Byrd Jr was killed in a horrific hate crime in 1998 in Jasper, TX which is in Christian's district) "It should, if that was part of the history," replied Christian. After much heated debate the vote to table the amendment succeeded: 108 yaes to 27 nays, the debate lasted 26 minutes. Five representatives spoke against the amendment.

Why did an amendment which promoted straight people succeed, while an amendment that promoted white people fail? Why did the people elected to represent us line up to decry racism, but not homophobia/transphobia? Why were members of the House so easily able to identify the coded language of "western civilization," but unwilling to seek a definition of "traditional values?"

Make no mistake, the racism inherit in amendment 144 is readily apparent. I am not naive enough to ask whether the oppression experienced by queer people is the same as the oppression experienced by people of color. There is not a quantifiable unit of measurement for oppression. It is not possible to hold one against the other and I refuse to be so arrogant as to try. This is not a question of "which is worse," but rather why, in this specific instance, homophobia/transphobia prevailed why racism was defeated.

Why? Because, frankly, it's easier to talk smack about someone when they're not in the room. At least 47 members of the Texas House are of African, Hispanic or Asian descent, including all 5 members who spoke against amendment 144. There is not a single out queer member of the legislature, in either the House or the Senate. When Castro questioned the need for amendment 143 he did so as a straight person who doesn't understand the queer experience. When he spoke against amendment 144 he did so as a Hispanic person who is well aware of the systemic racism historically perpetuated by the academic system.

Maybe if a queer person had been there they would have been able to ask questions like
  • "What does 'traditional values' mean in the context of this amendment? Do you mean values like integrity, honesty, charity?"
  • "Is it the author's belief that "traditional values" are not taught by gender and sexuality centers? Or that 'traditional values' are not shared by LGBT people?"
  • "Is it the author's intent that these 'family and traditional values centers' support all families? or just specific types of families? Would a student with two dads, or two moms be welcome at the 'family and traditional value center?'"
  • "Is it the author's belief that straight students need additional resources, not available through other venues? Is the author aware of straight students being disowned by their parents for being straight? Or of straight students attempting suicide because of society's disapproval of the straight lifestyle?"
But a queer person wasn't there, so instead we got snickering questions about what "pansexual" means.

It's our fault, really, the queer community's. We can't expect the straight people who've been elected to represent us to understand the queer experience unless we talk to them about it. When was the last time you called your representative and told them what it was like to be a LGBT college student (or high school student)? We are not in the room when decisions like this are made so we have to be certain that the people who are in the room hear from us regularly.

You can see the breakdown of who voted which way on HB 1, amendment 143 at Legislative Queery's new House Scorecard. It's good to know that 24 members of the 150-member house were willing to stand up for what's right (including one republican: Sarah Davis (R-Houston)!). It's disappointing to see who didn't.

In particular I'm disappointed that Anchia, who has historically been a staunch ally of the queer community (and who's district includes parts of the Oaklawn "gayborhood" in Dallas) decided to vote "present, not voting." "Present, not voting" means that the representative is on the floor when the vote takes place, but simply declines to have an opinion on the matter. Anchia should know better. He should know that "family and traditional values" means "straight people and homophobia/transphobia." He should know that amendment 143 will cause fewer universities in Texas to have resources for students who need help facing the transphobia and homophobia in our culture. He should also know that his constituents will not stand by while he cowardly refuses to take a stand on this issue. Anchia can be reached at(512) 463-0746, or by e-mail at

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