AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Texas state representative already drew a primary challenger and faced a formal censure from a Democratic group in her district one day after joining Republicans in supporting legislation to ban health care options for transgender minors, such as puberty-blocking medication and hormone treatments.

Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, crossed party lines Monday afternoon along with three other Democrats — Reps. Harold Dutton of Houston, Abel Herrero of Robstown and Tracy King of Batesville — to vote in favor of Senate Bill 14, one of the main priorities for Texas Republican leaders this session. The legislation, which many LGBTQ+ advocates adamantly opposed, cleared a final vote in the House by a margin of 87-56.

The amended bill now heads back to the Texas Senate, where it originated, so that lawmakers there can weigh some changes, such as the addition of language specifying children already receiving these treatments would have to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” way. The options facing the senators now are to either request a conference committee to iron out differences or accept the House’s changes and forward the bill to the governor’s desk.

Thierry released a lengthy statement Friday explaining why she initially voted for SB 14, saying she did so to protect Texas children. The wording mirrored what she shared during an emotional, nearly 10-minute speech on the House floor, where she was the only Democrat to speak in favor of the legislation during the hours-long debate. In her remarks, she expressed reservations about the effects of medicine and addressed how her stance on the legislation might fall out of step with others in her party.

“Certainly, the topic of gender and body dysphoria in children is a complex issue that requires careful consideration, caution and compassion. Sadly, the discussion has become polarized and politicized,” Thierry said. “In fact, while many of my constituents encouraged me to vote in favor of this legislation, hostile activists on social media platforms have made nasty political threats to influence my vote against the bill. These personal, and even racist, attacks on me as an African American woman are neither productive or persuasive. It remains my legislative duty and moral obligation to vote the conscience and core values of my constituency. I have done this today with an open heart and a clear mind.”

Brad Pritchett, the field director for the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality Texas, said he lives in Houston and has known Thierry since 2010. He is among those “disappointed” by the lawmaker’s vote on SB 14. He said she may be facing additional scrutiny, though, because of her House floor speech, whereas the handful of other Democrats who ended up supporting the bill remained silent during debate. He accused her of citing research and information “that is just parroted directly out of anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda on this issue.”

During an interview with KXAN Thursday, Thierry stood by her vote and pushed back against claims that she does not support LGBTQ+ Texans.

“Everything I did, I did for children, for trans children and for all children,” Thierry said. “I can’t take a vote that I know could potentially compromise the health and wellbeing of a child, simply because I am worried about my political future.”

Censure vote

Ultimately, the legislation is expected to become state law, and many conservative groups are championing Thierry for breaking with her party to support it. On her personal Twitter account Tuesday, she shared a clip from an interview she did on Fox News discussing her vote along with this quote: “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.”

However, that same vote is leading to some fallout among her fellow Democrats. Following the House vote Monday, the Meyerland Area Democrats Club met and agreed by a 13-7 vote to officially censure Thierry for supporting SB 14 and House Bill 900, which aims to ban sexually explicit materials from school libraries. Critics have equated the latter legislation to a “book ban” and worried it would lead to the removal of books with LGBTQ+ content and themes.

The Meyerland club, which represents Democratic voters in southwest Houston, released a statement on social media Monday evening explaining why its members officially condemned the Democratic lawmaker, who first won her seat representing District 146 in 2017.

“Rep. Thierry campaigned on being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community,” the club’s resolution read, “yet she has supported legislation which will harm this community and doesn’t align with democratic principles.”

The censure continued, “We call upon Representative Thierry to reconsider her stance on these issues and work towards policies that truly reflect the best interests and democratic aspirations of the people she represents. It is our hope that this resolution serves as a reminder that we expect our elected officials to act in accordance with the values and needs of their constituents.”

During a phone conversation Wednesday, Thierry criticized how the censure vote happened, saying it was “done in the cover of night.” She said she never got a chance to defend herself to the club members, but appreciated the seven people who opposed the resolution. She said some of her constituents contacted her after hearing of the club’s censure to reiterate their support for her.

“I represent House District 146, and I did this based on the will of my constituents,” Thierry said. “I believe that the majority of people that live, work and play in my district agree with me, and I heard from them.”

Primary challenge

Thierry’s seat is up for election in November next year, and she already has one Democratic challenger. Ashton Woods, an activist who founded the Black Lives Matter chapter in Houston, announced Tuesday he’ll challenge Thierry — again. He sought to unseat her for the Democratic nomination in 2020, but lost the primary by nearly 35 percentage points.

He called her vote on SB 14 “the last straw” in making his decision to run against her a second time. Since announcing his intent to mount a primary challenge, he said he raised $10,000 in a 48-hour period.

“People are excited. People are energized, and they want something different,” Woods said. “I want to give them that.”

Woods, who is gay, explained he will officially launch his campaign this summer and laid out what his overall vision will be.

“I’m running to get people out of complacency,” he said. “My campaign, my activism and my work that I will do and have done has been about educating people and putting that education to action.”

Ashton Woods, a Houston activist, talked to KXAN’s Will DuPree on May 19, 2023 about why he’s challenging Rep. Shawn Thierry in the Democratic primary. (KXAN photo/Will DuPree)

The District 146 seat that Thierry represents in southwest Houston is in solidly Democratic territory. During her first and most recent elections, Thierry ran unopposed. In 2018, though, she had a Libertarian challenger in the general election, but bested that candidate by 85 percentage points. During their rematch in 2020, she won by 74 percentage points.

Equality Texas put out a warning after SB 14 passed with the help of the four Democratic lawmakers in the House. On social media, the group wrote, “Health care for trans kids saves lives, and we stand with every trans life. These votes were unconscionable, and we will remember the lawmakers who betrayed our community.”

Pritchett said he considered Thierry to be a friend after meeting her more than a decade ago and felt she stood with the LGBTQ+ community.

“I don’t anticipate that she’ll be reaching out to me anytime soon, which is disappointing,” Pritchett said Tuesday, “but I would say [it’s] not surprising given that she has painted herself as an ally to the community and a friend to me for years. On this issue, she never touched base, never reached out, never used the resources that she had at her disposal and instead has just continued to parrot easily disproven information and talking points that are rooted in the erasure of trans people in Texas.”

Pritchett said voters should now scrutinize her record much more closely during the next election.

“I think that the representative has painted herself as a voice for the voiceless over and over again,” he said. “What she did when she cast her vote was she believed a small minority of people who have been on a crusade to harm trans and nonbinary people in Texas, and she ignored a chorus of people who’ve continued to show up that Capitol to make their voices heard as to why essential, life-saving health care should be accessible to everyone, whether they’re transgender or cisgender, and that’s really disappointing. I think it cements in her legacy something that will not be viewed pleasantly by people in the future.”

On Wednesday Thierry joined 10 other Democrats voting for Senate Bill 15, which would require transgender athletes to only compete on collegiate sports teams that align with their sex assigned at birth. It’s an expansion of a law that passed during the 2021 legislative session, and it now needs one more vote to officially clear the chamber. Supporters argue the legislation is about creating fairness for women’s sports in particular.

However, during the hours of debate Wednesday, other Democratic lawmakers in the House called the bill “discriminatory” for limiting participation for transgender student-athletes and claimed it addresses a problem that does not exist in Texas. According to recent reporting from the Austin American-Statesman, none of the four-year Texas public universities in the NCAA said they had ever had a transgender athlete compete.