Project Summary:

In 2023, a fifth of the country’s state-level bills impacting the LGBTQ+ community were filed in Texas, according to a Human Rights Campaign analysis. Equality Texas tracked a record 141 such bills this year up from just 12 in 2015. Some policies passed and several others progressed substantially in the most recent legislative session. KXAN’s team of journalists – many LGBTQ+ staff members with unique, developed and inside perspectives providing nuance to our fair, rigorous and balanced reporting standards – produced multimedia stories like this one for the “OutLaw” project, taking an in-depth look at what this trend could mean for Texas’ future.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After Chloe Wilkinson came out four years ago, she left college to focus on her gender transition. Now, she recently enrolled at Austin Community College, or ACC, to continue her education.

“I needed that time when I initially came out to get the experience and understand what I wanted out of life,” Wilkinson said. “The college I went to originally, it didn’t have an LGBT or Pride Center exclusively. The Women’s Center did a lot of that stuff, since (a LGBTQ+ center) was not there in any capacity.”

While ACC does not have a LGBTQ+ center, Wilkinson’s plan is to earn her associate’s degree there before enrolling at the University of Texas in Austin.

        Sen. Brandon Creighton (Courtesy Texas Senate)

Sen. Brandon Creighton (Courtesy Texas Senate)

“A lot of the resources (at UT Austin) are probably even more extensive than here at ACC. What I’m worried about is that a lot of those resources won’t be there in two years or whenever I decide to transfer,” she said, referring to a new Texas law, Senate Bill 17.

What’s in the law?

SB 17, introduced by Texas State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, requires Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, offices at public universities in the state to disband by 2024. This will also shut down university-run LGBTQ+ centers and groups that were organized under those offices.

SB 17 also prohibits public universities from giving preferential consideration to job candidates based on minority status, and prohibits policies requiring DEI statements or trainings for employees.

The bill’s first hearing and public testimony occurred during an April meeting of the Senate Higher Education subcommittee. Creighton spoke on the bill at that hearing.

“We all benefit from our state’s diversity and our institutions of higher education should reflect that diversity. DEI efforts do not achieve that goal. They’ve often worked against the true goal of diversity and equality, only furthering divides and creating sometimes a chilling effect on open dialogue,” Creighton said at that meeting. “We also want to make it very clear that Senate Bill 17 returns the focus of Texas colleges and universities to education and innovation with true opportunities for all who attend.”

KXAN reached out to Creighton several times for an interview on this bill, via email and phone, without response.

DEI bans part of conservative reform push

Bills like SB 17 are part of a conservative effort to reform higher education in the U.S., according to advocates like Adam Kissel.

Kissel, a visiting fellow at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, said that the legislative “hands-off” approach to higher education of prior decades no longer works with the rise of “activist” college administrations.

“They haven’t been ideologically neutral. They’ve tried to change society — many faculty members and administrators see themselves as change agents, rather than simply understanding society,” Kissel said. “So it should be no surprise that if folks are trying to change our system and trying to change democracy, that representatives of that democracy are going to start knocking on the doors, knock on the gates and say, ‘hey, what are you doing over there?'”

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, legislators in at least 22 states introduced bills to ban or restrict DEI practices and programs, as of July 14. As of November 8, bills in 17 of those states failed to pass, with only Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Tennessee joining Texas in prohibiting some DEI practices.

“In many states, they’re taking some smaller steps and other states some bigger steps; for instance, Ohio’s bill is about 95 pages. It’s not going to be the four-page result that Texas got,” Kissel said. “I think it’s a very welcome development, so long as colleges don’t go too far and interfere with the classroom. What I’m seeing in these bills, for the most part, is staying on the administrative side where the legislators have responsibility and authority.”

In regards to Ohio’s bill, Kissel called it “a grab bag of really good legislative ideas” from two conservative think tanks: The National Association of Scholars and The Manhattan Institute. Both organizations employ writers and policy experts who produce articles, policy briefs and other resources to advocate for and aid legislators in writing bills to achieve conservative goals.

These think tanks also produce “model legislative text” for legislators to build from, attach their names to and introduce in their legislative body. In January, the Manhattan Institute published “Abolish DEI Bureaucracies and Restore Colorblind Equality in Public Universities,” which included such text for bills to target DEI initiatives.

As filed in March, SB 17’s language mirrored that model text in several spots. The bill’s language expanded on what the model text proposed, tailoring it around Texas’ legal code.

The Manhattan Institute’s model legislative text (left) and text from SB 17 as initially filed (right).

“There is a widespread consensus among conservative academics and higher education experts,
as well as many centrist faculty, that university DEI offices are the nerve center of woke ideology on university campuses,” wrote the model text authors, in a subsection to provide rationale for a bill’s author. “DEI officers form a kind of revolutionary vanguard on campuses; their livelihood can only be justified by discovering — i.e., manufacturing — new inequities to be remedied.”

LGBTQ+ issues in modern education

DEI and LGBTQ+ issues are currently major political battlegrounds at the local and national level.

“Teach ABCs + 123s, not CRTs & LGBTs” read the slogan of a candidate during the 2022 election for Round Rock ISD school board. That candidate was not elected to the board.

At an August debate between GOP presidential candidates, several espoused anti-DEI and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric: “We need education in this country, not indoctrination,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

“DEI further drives people apart and does nothing towards creating pride in citizenship. Therefore, in my opinion should not even be brought up in a classroom,” wrote Cuero resident Chuck Howard in a public comment to the Texas House of Representatives during the body’s consideration of SB 17 in May.

But for LGBTQ+ people like Wilkinson, these topics and practices help students feel supported on campus.

“We have an equity problem in America … for a lot of people, including LGBT individuals, and (people of color), education is the only way to get out of that income inequality that exists within these communities,” Wilkinson said. “Let’s make sure that we’re getting a diverse swath of students who are LGBT, POC. Colleges really thrive when they’re a grounds for diversity, and it makes the education much more fulfilling.”

Texas Tech alumni and LubbockPRIDE president Yadriel DeHoyos said they feel fear and hate fuel the opposition to DEI and LGBTQ+ people.

“It just feels like my existence has just become so political. All I want to do is live my life,” DeHoyos said. “Part of being educated is realizing other people’s lived experiences, and that not everyone has the same kind of experience. When you remove DEI offices, you are erasing those stories and you’re erasing those voices that don’t necessarily fit your mold that you want.”

At a May House committee hearing on the bill, public comments against it greatly outnumbered the bill’s supporters.

Those comments echo the points made by DeHoyos and Wilkinson, and expand their resonance beyond the LGBTQ+ community. Some comments from other alumni speak to mentorship and community as instrumental for their academic success, and others speak to the value in respecting diversity in education.

Tricia Berry, the executive director of UT Austin’s “Women in STEM” program, submitted a comment in opposition to the bill during the May House committee meeting.

“I am the successful engineer & STEM professional I am today because of DEI programs,” wrote Berry, referencing UT’s Women in Engineering program. “We will lose amazing STEM talent without the focused, community-building & support DEI programs provide.”

Nia Franzua, a UT Austin student, wrote in her comment that coming to a primarily white school was a “culture shock” and that DEI programs helped to smooth her arrival.

“Now that I’ve completed my first year of college, I can say that DEI practices were a key component to my impeccable first year experience,” Franzua wrote. “If we lose DEI practices, we aren’t just failing those who fall under the DEI umbrella, we’re also failing those who don’t, because they won’t be able to experience and learn more about those who do.”

Texas universities to lose five-star Pride Index ranking

The Campus Pride Index, or CPI, a website operated by the non-profit group Campus Pride, evaluates universities on LGBTQ+ policies and support. Currently, three public universities in Texas have a five-star review: UT Arlington (UTA), UT Dallas (UTD), and Texas Tech. Two others are ranked at 4.5 stars: San Antonio College and the University of Houston.

“The Campus Pride Index is a vital tool for assisting campuses in learning ways to improve their LGBTQ campus life and ultimately shape the educational experience to be more inclusive, welcoming and respectful of LGBTQ and ally people,” reads a statement on the website.

The five-star ranking was celebrated by the universities in press releases and communications. Jessica Sanchez, director of UTA’s Student Advocacy Services, called the five-star ranking an “honor” in a 2022 article published by the school’s communications team.

“UTA leadership and campus partners have truly embraced the LGBTQ+ Program’s vision of ensuring all Mavericks feel heard, seen and recognized at UTA,” Sanchez said. “I am taking this moment to celebrate a major accomplishment, and then my team and I are getting back to work to create an even more inclusive Maverick community.”

UTD also published articles celebrating its 2023 ranking and 2022 inclusion in the Index’s “Best of the Best” list.

Universities apply for an index evaluation, and can use the responses to adjust their policies in order to rise in the rankings, helping to promote the school to potential students.

However, UTD and Texas Tech will not make the 2023 Best of the Best list, and Texas schools will see lower rankings next year due to SB 17, according to CPI.

“Despite past high ratings by Campus Pride, both universities must abide by Texas’s SB 17, which explicitly bans campuses from operating LGBTQ+ inclusion offices or trainings,” a CPI press release states. “The organization anticipates that when colleges update their profiles on the CPI, the new restrictions will result in lower ratings for all Texas colleges and universities.”

Campus Pride founder and executive director Shane Windmeyer, who uses he/they pronouns, said he views LGBTQ+ support as a consumer issue, and DEI bans as counterproductive.

“When we launched this index (in 2007), there was nobody really talking about recruitment, much less retention of LGBTQ+ students,” Windmeyer said. “What we see today is really unprecedented on college campuses — that a state government can tell a campus that they cannot have an office or support services for LGBTQ+, or any DEI. At the end of the day, a student can’t get good grades if they don’t feel safe in the classroom.”

They noted Florida schools will also see a similar impact from anti-DEI policies laws.

“The problem we have currently is the isolation and the lack of information, the ignorance that exists around LGBTQ+ people, people of color, different faiths and cultures,” Windmeyer said. “You can’t live in a world where you just learn math and science and English, and not have interactions with people. The core of any job or any career is being able to build a team, being able to work with other people.”

What will 2024 hold for LGBTQ+ students?

On Aug. 23, University of Houston announced the closure of its LGBTQA Resource Center and Center for Diversity and Inclusion, effective Aug. 31. That announcement also revealed a new Center for Student Advocacy and Community.

“In preparation of this law going into effect, student affairs staff and administrators began working this summer in consultation with other departments and offices across campus to ensure that our programs, activities, and services satisfy the requirements of SB17,” the announcement states. “(The new center) will make available wide-ranging advocacy, a support network for both undergraduate and graduate students, comprehensive basic needs services and resources, and facilitate a variety of events and programs to foster student success, achievement, and community building.”

Eventually, all LGBTQ+ centers organized through a school’s DEI office will close.

DeHoyos, who graduated prior to the opening of Texas Tech’s DEI office, said that LGBTQ+ community will likely re-center around student organizations. The law does not forbid such groups.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of community-based organizations or efforts to fill those gaps,” DeHoyos said. “What has always been my goal is just to ensure that other people that are LGBTQ or that are questioning — I just want to make sure they have a safe space and a community where they feel welcome and accepted.”

The provisions in SB 17 go into effect at the start of 2024.

The law’s enforcement will be handled by the Texas State Auditor’s Office, which will audit Texas’ public universities to ensure state money is not being used to fund DEI initiatives. Administrations in violation of the law will see their budgets frozen. Beyond this, individual staff and students “compelled” to make DEI statements or attend trainings after 2023 will be able to sue for injunctive relief.

The law also requires the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to study the bill’s impact and provide the legislature with a report ahead of the next regular legislative session in 2025.

Cameron Samuels, an organizer with Students Engaged in Advancing Texas, said the new law will have a “chilling effect” on Texans.

“We’re already seeing this chilling effect play out at the University of Houston,” Samuels said. “It’s having a direct impact on how students interact with their identity and where they can find support, which now it’s much more difficult to find support.”

Samuels graduated from Katy ISD and currently attends Brandeis University. They still work to organize students in Texas.

“Our core values as an organization are to build inclusivity in schools, to affirm students and stand up for students’ rights,” Samuels said. “Queer students in Texas face a multitude of policies that seek to take us out of the narrative before we’re even put into it. We have historically been oppressed in this state … it’s institutional rhetoric that forms policies like these that jab us in the back and deprive us of our beauty and our well being.”

LGBTQ+ students in Texas may face a tough choice: to stay at a school with no institutional support specific to their circumstances or to uproot their lives to find a supportive campus.

“I grew up in the South. I love the South. It’s where I grew up. It’s where my family lives. It’s where all my friends live,” Wilkinson said. “If the option is leaving or staying, I want to stay, and I want to do everything I can to stay. But I also want to be realistic about the options that I have.”

Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Lead Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Digital Executive Producer Andrew Schnitker, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.