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ACLU asks investigation of Texas school districts anti-trans policies

Frisco ISD’s new bathroom policy & Keller ISD’s ban on books referencing gender violate federal rules prohibiting sex-based discrimination

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The ACLU of Texas is calling for federal civil rights investigations into the Keller and Frisco school districts for policies they say discriminate against transgender students. (Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune)

By Brian Lopez | DALLAS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is calling for civil rights investigations into two North Texas school districts over recently implemented anti-transgender policies.

The ACLU, which filed the complaints last week, wants the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate the Frisco Independent School District for passing a policy on Nov. 14 requiring students to use bathrooms that align with their gender assigned at birth. The district said it would make accommodations for students who ask to use a private restroom.

The ACLU said Frisco’s policy would allow the district to “challenge or second-guess students’ official birth certificates.”

“It is deeply invasive and unlawful for school administrators to interrogate students’ private medical information in this way,” the ACLU said in a letter to the Department of Education. “School districts have no right to question students’ sexual characteristics such as genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy, or chromosomes.”

The ACLU also wants an investigation into the Keller Independent School District, which earlier this month passed a ban on all books that depict or reference transgender and nonbinary people.

“The policy attempts to erase the existence of transgender and non-binary individuals,” the ACLU’s letter said.

Keller ISD’s anti-transgender policy came about six months after three conservative school board members were elected onto the seven-member board. The new members, all of whom received large donations from a Christian political action committee, campaigned on issues like banning books about LGBTQ experiences from school libraries and banning critical race theory, a college-level field of study that explores the idea that racism is embedded in institutions and legal systems.

Public education advocates and Texas teachers have largely said the discipline is not part of the curriculum in Texas public schools but it has become a shorthand for conservative groups to criticize how history and current events are taught with regard to race.

The ACLU claims that Frisco and Keller’s policies violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school that receives federal funding.

Frisco and Keller are the latest North Texas school districts to have civil rights complaints lodged against them. Earlier this year, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a similar civil rights complaint against the Carroll Independent School District, based in Southlake, for failing to protect students from discrimination based on their race, sex or gender identity.

Southlake, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, came into the spotlight three years ago after a viral video of white high school students chanting a racist slur prompted community members to share stories of harassment, NBC News reported.

Neither Keller ISD nor Frisco ISD immediately responded to a request for comment.

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Brian Lopez’s staff photo

Brian Lopez is the Public Education Reporter for The Texas Tribune. He joined the Tribune in August 2021 after a covering local government at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a little over a year. The Star-Telegram was his first gig after graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington in May 2020 where he worked for the student-run newspaper The Shorthorn. When not on the job, he’s either watching or playing soccer.

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

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The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

Quality journalism doesn’t come free

Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.

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Texas High School cancels play about Matthew Shepard

“As a queer student in this show, I’m livid it’s been cancelled not once, but 2X. People in KISD should not have the right to discriminate”

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A Timber Creek High School theatre production dress rehearsal. (File Photo Credit: Timber Creek High School - Keller ISD/Facebook)

FORT WORTH, Texas – In an email sent out to students and parents last week, officials of Timber Creek High School in suburban Ft. Worth announced that student-led production of The Laramie Project — a play about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming freshman Matthew Shepard was cancelled.

According to The Dallas Morning News:

In the brief email to families, school leaders said they are “working on developing an alternative production opportunity for our students.” Keller Independent School District spokesman Bryce Nieman said in a statement that the decision was “made by many stakeholders.”

“The decision to move forward with another production at Timber Creek High School was based on the desire to provide a performance similar to the ones that have created much excitement from the community, like this year’s Keller ISD musical productions of Mary Poppins and White Christmas,” Nieman wrote in an email.

The Dallas Morning News also reported that parents were not given an explanation when they were informed the show was cancelled. “We understand that it is unusual for a production change like this to take place. Students will still have an opportunity to read, discuss, and analyze the play during the school day,” Nieman’s email read. 

Judy Shepard, told the paper she was disappointed. “My heart is broken when people still refuse to see how important this work is,” she said. Judy and her husband Dennis founded the Denver, Colorado-based Matthew Shepard Foundation in the months after their son’s murder 25 years ago.

The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman, is one of the many programs endorsed by the Foundation in its ongoing effort to advocate for LGBTQ+ youth and has been performed tens of thousands of times globally since it premiered at The Ricketson Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation provides help and resources for those wishing to produce The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The Foundation’s Laramie Project Specialist can help with media, historical context, creative consulting, and other resources and services at no charge to non-profit theatres and educational and religious institutions. The Foundation can also help those who wish to engage their communities in a conversation about how to erase hate in the world.

A Change.org petition was started to get the Keller ISD administrators to reconsider their decision. A signer and Timber High School drama and theatre student who identified himself as Danny Street commented:

“As a queer student in this show, I am absolutely livid that it has been cancelled not once, but TWICE. My freshman year we were meant to perform Laramie, and it was changed right before auditions. KISD has been continuously pushing their anti-lgbtq agenda these past few years and it’s hurtful and uncalled for. This year alone we have given teachers “the right” to not call transgender students by their preferred name, which is a problem I have to face daily. The people in our district should not have the right to discriminate against its queer students. Let us tell this story, if you don’t then you are proving you’re on the wrong side of history and you stand right with the bigots who caused the demise of Matthew Shepard. Protect queer kids and queer art in schools.”

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Abbott: UN can ‘pound sand’ amid criticism of anti-LGBTQ policies

Letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ Texans

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Texas Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs the “Save Women’s Sports Act” on Aug. 7, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

AUSTIN, Texas – Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Sunday dismissed news coverage of a letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ people in the Lone Star State.

Signed by Equality Texas, ACLU of Texas, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the letter details how Texas legislators introduced 141 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, passing seven into law.

“The UN can go pound sand,” Abbott wrote in a post on X.

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In 2023, the governor signed a ban on gender affirming care for transgender youth, a ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at public universities, a ban on transgender athletes competing in college sports, a law allowing schools to use religious chaplains for counseling services, a ban on “sexually oriented performances” on public property accessible to minors (which targets drag shows), a law allowing schools to restrict LGBTQ books, and a ban on nondiscrimination ordinances by local governments.

The groups argued in their letter that these policies constitute a “systemic discriminatory policy” in violation of international human rights laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty whose tenets are enforced by the UN Human Rights Committee.

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One less safe space: The impact of UT-Austin’s new DEI ban

The new state law prohibits public universities from having diversity, equity & inclusion programs. Students say schools are overcorrecting

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Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

By Kate McGee and Ikram Mohamed | AUSTIN, Texas – Aaliyah Barlow needed to raise $20,000 by the end of the month.

As president of the University of Texas at Austin’s Black Student Alliance, a student group, the junior is in charge of securing funding for three dozen of her peers to attend an annual conference for Black student leaders within the Big 12 Athletic Conference. For months, she’s been asking different colleges and departments within the university to sponsor their travel, as they’ve always done before.

But this year, it’s been crickets.

President Jay Hartzell’s office — usually their largest supporter — didn’t return emails, she said. Neither did other typically supportive departments. At least one other department flatly said no.

She was told it was because of Senate Bill 17, the new state law that bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs and training in Texas public universities.

As of Friday, Barlow said she and her peers have raised about $6,000, which will cover half the students originally set on attending. Instead of renting a bus, they now plan to drive the 14-hour trip. Or they’ll meet up with another school along the way to take their bus to the conference.

“It’s been really frustrating, especially since we’ve been getting money from these places every single year,” Barlow said. “We’re just a student organization … so I assumed we’d be okay. But that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024.
Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Situations like Barlow’s are playing out on college campuses across the state. At UT-Austin in particular, feelings have been fraught with students and advocates saying the school is going above and beyond what’s required by the state’s DEI ban.

Since the law went into effect at the beginning of this year, UT-Austin has closed a beloved multicultural center that housed several student organizations sponsored by the school and ended a scholarship program for undocumented students. This month, the undergraduate college canceled a lecture on finding mentors in higher education through the lens of the LGBTQ student experience after university lawyers argued it could be construed as diversity training. Some students say university officials have gone back on their word, often with little explanation, after promising that certain programs would not be impacted by the ban.

“I don’t think people even understood for real what it was until January 1, when they came back and they noticed the [Division of Diversity and Student Engagement] is not here anymore. They noticed the Multicultural Engagement Center letters have been ripped off the wall of this room,” Barlow said. “It wasn’t taken seriously because I don’t think people really understood how severe it was until it was already in effect and it was too late.”

Critics of the law say the ban’s language is vague and universities’ legal teams are advising their clients to play it safe with their interpretation of it. They believe the tendency is to overcorrect, which is ultimately harming students and faculty.

“It’s becoming a tool to usher in a colorblind university system in a way that is evasive of the history of race discrimination, evasive of state-sanctioned exclusion, not to mention attacks on the queer community,” said Antonio Ingram II, a lawyer with the Legal Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that focuses on racial justice.

UT-Austin officials have provided little information to students and faculty who have demanded more transparency about how they are interpreting the law. They did not respond to interview requests or a list of written questions.

Amid that silence, students are scrambling to fill the financial gaps and continue traditions the university used to support.

Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024.
Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Texas’ DEI ban

Early last year, conservative think tanks started to home in on DEI offices, accusing them of indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology and forcing universities to hire people based on how much they support diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement. Republican lawmakers agreed and have introduced legislation targeting these offices across the country. Texas became the second state to ban DEI offices, programs and training at public universities, following Florida.

“DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective and they have shown to be politically charged,” state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the ban’s author, said on the Senate floor last year. “Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

Over the past few years, DEI offices have become increasingly common at universities. They are typically charged with boosting faculty diversity and helping students from all backgrounds succeed.

These offices often coordinate mentorships, tutoring and support programs to help students from underrepresented groups feel welcome and find a community on their campuses. They also provide spaces for a wide range of student groups to gather, from students of color and LGBTQ students to students with disabilities and veterans. In addition, these offices help departments cast a wide net when searching for job candidates and ensure that universities don’t violate federal discrimination laws.

Student talk, sit and read on the South Mall a the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. The UT Tower is located north of the South Mall.
Students gather at the University of Texas at Austin’s South Mall on Feb. 22, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Faculty and students have argued that banning universities’ DEI efforts would make it harder to recruit and retain top faculty and could lead some students to feel unwelcome and unsafe on campus. They also argue it walks back years of progress toward making sure that everyone, especially underrepresented students or those previously barred from entry, can succeed in school.

Texas’ DEI ban states that public colleges and universities cannot create diversity offices, hire employees to conduct DEI work, or require any DEI training as a condition for being hired by or admitted to the university. All hiring practices must be “color-blind and sex-neutral,” the law says.

The law also lists some areas that it should not affect, including course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions. It specifies that it does not apply to any “policy, practice, procedure, program, or activity to enhance student academic achievement or postgraduate outcomes that is designed and implemented without regard to race, sex, color, or ethnicity.”

In preparation for the law’s implementation, UT-Austin administrators shared with students and employees guidance from the University of Texas System, which oversees the school, about what is permitted under the ban. For instance, system guidance states that while student organizations are exempt from prohibitions, some of those groups may shut down based on the extent of institutional support they receive from the university.

“As with all new laws, I fully expect that there will be divided opinions on our campus about both the law itself and its eventual impacts on our University,” Hartzell wrote in a December letter to the campus community. “But it is the law, and with compassion and respect for all of our community members, we will comply.”

Students walk in and out of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. A sign saying 'Make it Your Texas' is on the windows above the entrance.
A sign reads “Make it Your Texas” above the entrance of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened”

The DEI ban’s exclusions led students like Guadalupe — a UT-Austin junior who is undocumented and asked to be identified only by her middle name out of fear of making her immigration status public — to believe that some of the programs she relied on throughout her time at the university would not be affected.

She mentioned the Monarch Program, which provided support and scholarships to students from undocumented families or with fluid immigration statuses. It was founded in 2016 by a UT-Austin graduate student, but the university took it over, hiring its first full-time employee in 2021 and funneling university funding for the first time just last year.

Guadalupe stumbled into the program shortly after her laptop died three years ago, a few weeks into her freshman year. She was able to borrow a laptop through Monarch’s technology lending library until she saved enough money to buy a new one. Ever since, she’s worked with the program to help other students like her stay in school and graduate.

But last month, UT-Austin eliminated the program without a public explanation. According to The Dallas Morning News, internal documents show UT-Austin believed the program violated the state’s DEI ban and federal law.

Guadalupe said she was surprised UT-Austin ended the program, especially because university officials gave students reassurances last fall that SB 17 would not affect it. She’s also frustrated the university didn’t give the program a chance to adjust to the new law.

“All these different programs were being [told], ‘This is how your program does not comply with SB 17, this is what you need to change,’” she said. “And that was just not a conversation that was had about Monarch.”

Students also argue SB 17 should not apply to the Monarch Program since it did not implement any race or gender-based programming.

“People who are undocumented come from very different backgrounds,” Guadalupe said. “You can’t just point at undocumented folks and be like, ‘oh, this is specifically like [for] the Latino community or the … Asian community,’ because it’s a very diverse group.”

In late January, a group of university department chairs sent a letter to UT administrators asking for clarity about the decision to end the Monarch Program.

“We recognize the immense challenges that SB 17 has created for your offices, but we hope that the process of compliance will not result in throwing out too many babies with the proverbial bath water,” the professors wrote.

They did not receive a response.

Since Monarch was canceled, a student-run organization called Rooted, which also provides support for undocumented students, has taken over some of the services that the program used to provide.

Victoria Uriostegui poses for a photo in the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, "You belong here."
Victoria Uriostegui at the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, “You belong here.” 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Victoria Uriostegui, a UT-Austin junior and a member of Rooted, said watching the university eliminate Monarch without warning or explanation was exactly the kind of repercussions she warned lawmakers about when she testified against SB 17 at the Texas Capitol last year.

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened,” she said. “Programs that were not supposed to be impacted are impacted. And I think that’s just what makes it more infuriating that many students continually testified about these chilling effects. Now we’re seeing them come.”

One less safe space

Aneesha Tadikonda felt seen in the university’s Multicultural Engagement Center.

Home to six student groups — Afrikan American Affairs; the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective; the Latinx Community Affairs; the Native American and Indigenous Collective; Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color Agency; and Students for Equity and Diversity — the center served as a meeting place for students of various underrepresented backgrounds and identities.

When she was a freshman, it was a place she felt comfortable asking for help as she navigated the daunting first year of college. Staffers there knew she wanted to go to medical school and would send her free study guides for the exam required to apply and discount codes for study materials. She made friends through movie screenings and book clubs. But she especially loved the opportunity to network with other Asian American students and leaders on and off campus.

“I heavily depended on [the center] for finding a community of people that had the same goals as me,” Tadikonda said. “Outside of class, that’s very difficult to find, especially as someone who’s really involved with activism and their identity.”

Students like Tadikonda were shocked when they learned early this year that the center was abruptly shut down in response to the state’s DEI ban. The university didn’t send out any formal communication to students regarding the center’s closure.

When students returned to campus from winter break, the space was still open for students to work in, but the staff was gone and the center’s name was removed. Since the ban does not apply to student organizations, the culturally specific groups once housed within the center were allowed to continue operating, but only if they disaffiliated from the university and stopped receiving financial support from the school.

Just like with the Monarch Program, students said the MEC didn’t get a chance to make changes to comply with SB 17. The center’s staff was given notice of the center’s closure about 10 days before the ban went into effect, students said.

Students are demanding that the university reestablishes the center in a way that’s compliant with SB 17. They feel that shutting down the center went beyond the requirements of the law and pointed out that other Texas universities, like the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of North Texas, kept their versions of the center open.

“I think our proximity to the Capitol is a large part of it. I think donors are a large part of it. But I would 100% say it’s an over-compliance,” said Kelly Solis, a UT-Austin senior and co-director of Latinx Community Affairs.

Kelly Solis poses for a photo in the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. Solis is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and Co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization.
Kelly Solis, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization, at the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

The MEC was originally founded in 1988 by students who felt the university lacked proper support systems for Black and Hispanic students. Ten years later, the university’s Office of Student Affairs absorbed the center and gave it two full-time staff members.

The MEC’s abrupt closure has left students with the burden of preserving programs that previously received university funding and have been essential to their college experience.

That includes one of the most anticipated events that the six student groups within the MEC helped organize each year: cultural graduation ceremonies, which are smaller celebrations hosted for Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ students, among others.

“It’s such a big accomplishment when you come to UT, and maybe as a first generation student or a child of immigrants … and be away from home for the first time,” Tadikonda said. “It breaks my heart that now we have to work 100 times harder just to give people what they deserve, to give them the recognition that they might not get in a university-wide graduation.”

Organizers said these ceremonies highlight themes, like family, that are important for the groups they represent and that aren’t always part of university-wide graduations. For instance, families are invited to participate in GraduAsian, the ceremony that commemorates the achievements of Asian students. In the past, speakers have publicly thanked them for attending and helping graduates through their college journey.

The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain.
The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

The student groups that used to be housed at the MEC now say they’re unclear if they can even reserve space on campus to host their events.

“People are scared, people who work for the university,” Solis said. “They might want to give us money or might want to provide resources in some way for our events, but don’t know if they can. So just out of fear, uncertainty and a lack of transparency, they might just say, ‘Sorry, we can’t provide anything at this time.’”

The student groups have created GoFundMe pages seeking donations to help cover the expenses of hosting celebrations for this year’s graduating class. The university’s alumni organization, Texas Exes, recently announced that they’d host cultural graduations for students, according to The Daily Texan.

Ariana Seeloff, a senior and co-director of the Afrikan American Affairs Collective, said this particular class — whose high school graduations were disrupted by COVID in 2020 — are determined to host these celebrations.

“To have this happen four years later, and not be able to have a proper send-off from college for these degrees that we’ve worked so hard to earn, it’s unimaginable,” she said. “This senior class deserves to be celebrated.”

But students say it’s unclear what will happen to culturally specific graduations after this year.

Lecture or training?

Paige Schilt, a former lecturer at UT-Austin, was thrilled when she was invited by the university’s undergraduate college to give a talk this semester about how to find a mentor as a student navigating higher education for the first time.

Schilt, a therapist, teacher and writer, planned to lean on her own personal experience as a LGBTQ student as she found ways to advocate for herself as a scholar. Staff and administrators were excited about the lecture, she said.

But in mid-January she got an email saying that UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17 because it “would fall within a prohibited training, activity, or program.”

SB 17 prohibits mandatory diversity training, which is defined as training developed in reference to race, color or gender identity. But Schilt said her lecture was not training. SB 17 does not prohibit any DEI-related scholarly research or creative work, and faculty are still allowed to share it on campus.

Schilt said she tried to work with the undergraduate college to shift the lecture’s format and instead give a reading from her memoir in progress in the hope of appeasing the university’s lawyers, but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, her talk was replaced with another lecture.

“I was really sad and discouraged to think that this law was having such a chilling effect, that basically any person from one of the marginalized communities targeted by SB 17 speaking from their own experience was now, by definition, a training,” she said.

Lecturer Paige Schilt poses for a photo outside of the the Center for Women's & Gender Studies on Feb. 19, 2024. The CWGS room is located inside of Burdine Hall.
Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Lauren Gutterman, an American Studies professor who focuses on LGBTQ issues, said she felt the university’s response to Schilt’s lecture was a misinterpretation of the law.

“This makes no sense to me as the lecture was not a training, it was not required, and it was not limited to any one group of students,” she said. “The only grounds I can see for their concern is that it had to do with LGBTQ+ issues.”

Schilt, who taught a class on LGBTQ history at UT-Austin last semester, said it was painful to watch students’ disappointment and sadness last semester when the university reorganized the Gender and Sexuality Center, which is now called the Women’s Community Center.

“As a teacher who had a strong connection with my students, it was really hard to kind of help them navigate through all the feelings that they were having about, ‘what does this mean about how welcome I am here?’” she said.

Who will carry the torch? 

In his December message to the UT-Austin community, Hartzell said he would follow up with students in January regarding the implementation of SB 17. He hasn’t done so as of late February.

While student groups are trying to fill in the gaps left by the loss of university resources, they worry about who will help incoming students feel supported and welcomed on campus next year. Many of the students leading these groups will graduate in May.

Student walk up the steps from Speedway towards the UT Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024.
Students walk up the steps toward the UT Tower on Feb. 22, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Guadalupe said entering college can be a stressful and isolating experience. She said she’s scared for underrepresented students who won’t have access to safe places to gather on campus like she did.

“Having not had their support and their resources, my college experience would be completely different,” she said. “I think about how much more they’re going to struggle.”

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Exes, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Kate McGee’s staff photo

Kate McGee covers higher education for The Texas Tribune. She joined the Tribune in October 2020 after nearly a decade as a reporter at public radio stations across the country, including in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Austin; Reno, Nevada; and New York. Kate was born in New York City and raised primarily in New Jersey. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. Her work has appeared on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Here and Now,” and “The Takeaway.” She is based in Austin.

Ikram Mohamed’s staff photo

Ikram Mohamed is a 2024 reporting fellow and a fourth-year journalism and sociology student pursuing a human rights and social justice certificate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked at her campus newspaper, The Daily Texan. A Pflugerville native, Ikram previously interned with the Austin Chronicle, Texas Observer and Texas Monthly. She speaks fluent Somali and Swahili.

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished with permission.

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Quality journalism doesn’t come free

Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.

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Texas teacher suspended after anti-LGBTQ+ Libs of TikTok attack

Student & parents defended the teacher. More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition to bring the him off of administrative leave

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Screenshot/X (formerly Twitter)

LEWISVILLE, Texas – Students and some parents of the Hebron High School community are angry and defending a teacher who was suspended after anti-LGBTQ+ Libs of TikTok’s extremist creator Chaya Raichik, posted a video of him wearing a pink dress with matching boots and hat surrounded by students in the high school’s corridors.

Raichik wrote on her X (formerly Twitter) account: “UNREAL. This is an actual teacher in @LewisvilleISD named Rachmad Tjachyadi. I’m told he also sometimes shows up to teach dressed in full drag and has a fetish for wearing women’s clothing. How is this acceptable?!”

The Dallas Morning News reported that the Lewisville Independent School District received complaints after Libs of TikTok, which has more than 2.8 million followers and is known for spreading anti-LGBTQ sentiment, posted the video on Valentine’s Day.

Student and parents defended the faculty member, Rachmad Tjachyadi. More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition to bring the teacher off of administrative leave, adding that he was dressed up for spirit day, the Dallas paper also reported.

“He does not deserve to be defamed and lose his job,” the petition reads. “He has been an inspiration to many students, and has created a space where everyone can feel valued and safe.”

“It would be natural for our families to have questions about this situation, but because this is a personnel matter currently under review, there is no additional information the district can share,” principal Amy Boughton wrote in an email distributed to staff, students, and others in the Hebron High School community.

Tjachyadi has not responded to requests for comment.

“It is our standard procedure to place a staff member on leave when we review concerns shared with the campus,” Lewisville ISD spokesperson Amanda Brim told The Dallas Morning News.

The Los Angeles Blade, along with media partner Media Matters for America- a left-leaning 501 nonprofit organization and media watchdog group, has published over thirty articles covering Raichik and her attacks on the LGBTQ+ community.

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Recently, Raichik bitterly portrayed an in-depth investigative article by NBC News technology reporter David Ingram, detailing bomb threats and violent threats inspired by Raichik’s social media posts, as a “goal is to silence me by having me investigated and thrown in prison.”

In November of 2023, in a lengthy exposé, Media Matters researchers documented 25 institutions, events, and individuals who reported threats after being targeted by Libs of TikTok, and 8 who reported harassment — a total of at least 33 instances of threats or harassment, which was then independently reported on by NBC News.

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Houston PD: Shooter NOT trans; Libs of TikTok, far right claim trans

“Our investigation to this point, talking with individuals, interviews, documents, HPD reports- she identified this entire time as female” 

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Houston Police Department homicide commander Christopher Hassig briefing reporters Monday afternoon. (Screenshot/YouTube KHOU)

HOUSTON, Texas – In the hours after Genesee Moreno, a 36 years old, Hispanic female entered the sanctuary of Joel Osteen’s mega Lakewood Church and opened fire with an assault rifle this past Sunday, there were multiple instances of confusion over her gender identity, in part fueled by unsubstantiated or false narratives from far-right extremists.

During a briefing with reporters yesterday, Houston Police Department homicide commander Christopher Hassig stated with absolute clarity that Moreno was not a transgender person.

“Our shooter is identified by a driver’s license as Genesee Moreno 36 years old, Hispanic female. There are some discrepancies. We do have reports she used multiple aliases, including Jeffrey Escalante. So she has utilized both male and female names but through all of our investigation to this point, talking with individuals, interviews, documents, Houston Police Department reports, she has identified this entire time as female,”  Hassig told the media.

KHOU-TV investigative reporter Jeremy Rogalski’s initial reporting as posted to X.

In initial coverage, local CBS affiliate KHOU and the Houston Chronicle newspaper reported Moreno, who had used the name Jeffery Escalante, had an extensive criminal history dating back to 2005 according to a Texas Department of Public Safety records search. Prior arrests include failure to stop and give information, assault of a public servant, assault causing bodily injury, forgery, possession of marijuana, theft, evading arrest unlawful carrying weapon.

Media outlets including Fox News and even NBC News who later retracted a portion of their story mistakenly framed the context as “a person who previously identified as male” which led to the incorrect framing of Moreno’s gender identity.

Far-right extremist pundits and at least one anti-trans member of the U.S. House took up the “shooter was trans” narrative.

Screenshot of Libs of TikTok far-right extremist creator Chaya Raichik’s post on the Houston shooter.

Chaya Raichik’s post had a companion extremist anti-trans X post by Georgia Republican U. S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene who republished a post by far-right media Blaze TV anchor Sara Gonzales, both falsely claiming Moreno was transgender. Gonzales’ post appeared to contain a criminal record without attribution of its source.

Libs of TikTok’s Raichik also posted the same “criminal record” on her social media accounts.

Fox News also ran misleading and false headlines regarding Moreno’s gender identity. Alejandra Caraballo a trans attorney and clinical instructor at the prestigious Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic who also writes on gender & technology issues for Wired and Slate magazines debunked the Fox News allegations and called out the far-right anti-trans extremists.

“Far right extremist accounts like Libs of Tiktok rushed to call the shooter at Joel Osteen’s church a transgender woman. The police have just confirmed that is not the case and she was the biological mother of the child who was shot. They won’t apologize or retract their lies,” Caraballo said.

Media Matters of America’s LGBTQ project executive director Ari Drennen cautioned Tuesday the falsehoods and fabrications are “adding fuel to a moral panic” on trans issues as multiple state legislators rush to pass anti-trans laws:

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Texas

Houston media: Megachurch shooter used male & female names

The shooter at the mega Lakewood Church, in southwest Houston on Sunday armed with a long rifle, previously used male name

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Alleged suspect Genesse Moreno (Screenshot/YouTube KHOU)

HOUSTON, Texas – Multiple Houston press outlets are reporting Monday morning that the woman who entered Joel and Victoria Osteen’s mega Lakewood Church, in southwest Houston on Sunday armed with a long rifle had used male and female names.

Multiple independent sources told KHOU 11’s reporter, Jeremy Rogalski, that Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, who had begun firing almost upon entering was killed by two off-duty law enforcement officers, who were working at Lakewood Church. One is a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agent who is 38 years old with four years of service. The other off-duty officer is an Houston Police Department officer who is 28 years old with two years of service.

UPDATE: The boy, who authorities described as a 7-year-old, remained in critical condition Monday with a gunshot wound to the head. He had been described as a 5-year-old on Sunday.

The shooter walked into the Houston mega-church with a 5-year-old child while wearing a trench coat and carrying a backpack that she reportedly announced had explosives inside. Law enforcement searched her and her vehicle, no explosives were found.

KHOU and the Houston Chronicle are reporting Moreno, who had used the name Jeffery Escalante, had an extensive criminal history dating back to 2005 according to a Texas Department of Public Safety records search. Prior arrests include failure to stop and give information, assault of a public servant, assault causing bodily injury, forgery, possession of marijuana, theft, evading arrest unlawful carrying weapon.

In a Sunday press conference Houston Police Chief Troy Finner told reporters in addition to Moreno who was shot to death by the off-duty officers returning her fire, the 5-year-old boy accompanying her and a 57-year-old man were both hit by gunfire. Finner said that the child was taken to a hospital in critical condition, the man was wounded in his leg.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is calling for investigators to look into whether or not the shooting was a hate-crime targeting Hispanic people, the Houston Chronicle reported. The shooter arrived at the church just minutes before a Spanish-language sermon was scheduled to begin.

“I don’t want to talk about her motivations because I don’t know. Right?” HPD Chief Finner said at the Sunday press conference.

The Houston Chronicle reported members of the FBI, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Conroe Police Department and Texas Rangers arrived at Moreno’s suburban Houston area home in Conroe, Texas, North of Houston home hours after the Sunday shooting to collect evidence. 

A motive for the shooting is unknown at this time.

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Oral Arguments before Supreme Court of Texas on trans care ban

“Every parent in Texas deserves for their child to have access to health care when they need it, but S.B. 14 takes away that assurance”

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Supreme Court of Texas listening to oral arguments in February 2023. (Photo by Diane Galik Tijerina)

AUSTIN, Texas— Legal advocates representing transgender adolescents, their parents, and medical providers argued before the Texas Supreme Court today, asking the court to affirm a lower court’s temporary injunction blocking enforcement of Senate Bill 14, a medical care ban targeting transgender youth.

Senate Bill 14, which went into effect Sept. 1, 2023, bans necessary and life-saving medical care in Texas for the treatment of gender dysphoria for transgender youth and requires the Texas Medical Board to revoke the medical licenses of physicians who provide the standard of care to their trans patients.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, ACLU, Transgender Law Center, Lambda Legal, and pro bono law firms Scott Douglass & McConnico LLP and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, LLP argued that Senate Bill 14 violates the Texas Constitution by depriving parents of their fundamental right to make medical decisions for their children, discriminating against transgender youth on the basis of sex and transgender status, and violating medical professionals’ right to practice their professions.

In July 2023, families and health professionals sued the state of Texas and other state defendants to block Senate Bill 14 from going into effect. In August, Judge Maria Cantú Hexsel of Travis County granted a temporary injunction to pause implementation and enforcement of the ban; however, the state defendants appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Texas, and the law went into effect on Sept. 1 of last year. 

The five Texas families with transgender children and teenagers challenging this law come from diverse backgrounds and live across the state. The bill’s passage has resulted in families splitting up or planning to leave Texas to continue treatment for their children. The families are suing pseudonymously to protect themselves and their children, who are transgender Texans between the ages of 9 and 16.

Plaintiff PFLAG National is the nation’s first and largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them. Plaintiff GLMA is the oldest and largest association of LGBTQ+ and allied health professionals, including those who treat LGBTQ+ patients.

“This case is about upholding the constitutional rights of transgender Texans and those who care for them, including the plaintiffs in this case, and stopping the immense harm that S.B. 14 is inflicting on our state,” said Ash Hall, policy and advocacy strategist for LGBTQ+ rights at the ACLU of Texas. “Transgender youth, their families, and their doctors — not politicians and the government — should be trusted to make life-saving medical decisions together. We are deeply proud of the plaintiffs, the trans community, and the thousands of Texans who continue to push for a world where all Texans can thrive. Trans youth are loved and belong in Texas.”

“Bans on medical care for trans youth like Texas’ Senate Bill 14 have real and negative consequences for transgender youth and their families. They endanger the health and wellbeing of trans youth, violate the rights of trans youth and their families, and force medical providers to disregard their oaths and well-established, evidence-based standards of care,” said Paul D. Castillo, senior counsel, Lambda Legal. “The Travis County District Court recognized both the real harm of SB 14 and the improper interference of the state in healthcare decisions properly left to parents, children, and their doctors. We welcomed the opportunity today to reinforce that message with the Supreme Court of Texas.”

“As we await the decision of the Texas Supreme Court, we take this moment to thank the courageous plaintiff families and organizational plaintiffs, PFLAG and GLMA, as well as the doctors, trans youth, and the hundreds of trans Texans and their allies who have shown up to rallies, committee hearings, and the Capitol to ensure trans youth can access life-saving and necessary medical care,” said Lynly Egyes, the legal director of Transgender Law Center. “Texans of all races, genders, and backgrounds deserve access to medical care. No matter what happens in the days ahead, we will continue the fight for trans youth and their families to have the freedom to make the medical decisions that are best for them.”

“Every parent in Texas deserves for their child to have access to health care when they need it, but S.B. 14 takes away that assurance of health and safety for children who are transgender. Our hope is that today, the Court heard this injustice and will take steps to rectify it, so every child in Texas, transgender or not, has the freedom to thrive,” said Brian K. Bond, CEO of PFLAG National.

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Texas AG requests trans youths’ patient records from Georgia clinic

This is at least the 2nd time AG has sought such records from an out-of-state provider since Texas banned transition-related care for kids

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Collin County Labor day picnic in Plano on Sept. 2, 2023. His office is seeking information on transgender patients from at least two out-of-state health care centers. (Photo Credit: Azul Sordo for the Texas Tribune)

By Madaleine Rubin | AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is requesting medical records of Texas youth who have received gender-affirming care from a Georgia telehealth clinic, marking at least the second time he’s sought such records from providers in another state.

The clinic, QueerMed, confirmed on Friday morning that they received the request. QueerMed said it stopped servicing youth in Texas after the state banned transition-related care last year. The clinic’s founder said the attorney general requested information about patients dating back to Jan. 1, 2022, before the ban took effect.

The clinic said that Paxton asked for private information about Texas residents who were provided with telehealth care in Texas before the ban, and residents provided with care outside of Texas after the ban. The request, they said, nearly mirrors one the attorney general sent to Seattle Children’s Hospital last year.

Paxton asked Seattle Children’s for a variety of patient information, including the number of Texas children they have treated, medications prescribed to children, the children’s diagnoses and the name of Texas laboratories where tests for youth are administered.

In response to that request, known as a civil investigative demand, Seattle Children’s sued the Texas Office of the Attorney General in December.

QueerMed confirmed that Paxton sent his request to them on Nov. 17, the same day that Seattle Children’s received the similar demand for documents. QueerMed received the request Dec. 7, due to mail delays. Its receipt of the letter was first reported by The Houston Chronicle on Friday morning.

The Office of the Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment on the QueerMed inquiry, and has not publicly discussed his request to Seattle Children’s.

Paxton’s requests come amidst an intensified Republican-led effort in Texas to block the state’s transgender youth from accessing transition-related care like puberty blockers and hormone therapy. Last year, the state banned doctors from prescribing such treatments to minors, even though major medical groups argue gender-affirming care is lifesaving for transgender youth who face higher rates of suicide attempts and mental health problems than their cisgender peers.

The law, Senate Bill 14, also made it illegal to perform surgeries on minors. Before the law passed, Texas Pediatric Society president Louis Appel said he was not aware of minors in Texas having bottom surgery, an umbrella term for surgery that involves genitals.

Karen Loewy, a lawyer with Lambda Legal representing organizations and Texas families of transgender youth trying to block SB 14 in court, said there is “zero authorization” in the law for Paxton’s requests to clinics outside of Texas.

“It’s hard not to see this as part and parcel of the AG’s scorched-earth approach to persecuting trans kids and their parents who are being forced to undertake travel outside of Texas to get their kids the medically necessary care they need,” Loewy said.

Texas is one of 19 states with laws restricting minors’ access to gender-affirming care passed in recent years. Republican lawmakers have also sought to restrict transgender youth from using certain public restrooms or playing on sports teams that do not align with their biological gender.

Loewy said that “a handful” of other organizations have received requests for medical records from Paxton. She declined to provide the exact amount or names of organizations the attorney general has contacted.

A QueerMed official could not immediately comment on how the clinic will respond to the attorney general.

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Madaleine Rubin is a reporting fellow and a senior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Madaleine previously interned at Northwestern Magazine and the Medill Investigative Lab. Her work has appeared in The Palm Beach Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and ProPublica. Born and raised in Boca Raton, Florida, she will graduate in June with journalism and political science degrees.

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

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Texas drag queen honored by Country legend Dolly Parton

The Country music superstar gifted a guitar in a show of appreciation for drag performer Brigitte Bandit’s LGBTQ+ activism

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Brigitte Bandit/Instagram

AUSTIN, Texas – Known for her political activism including becoming a plaintiff in the Federal lawsuit to stop the ban on drag shows, Brigitte Bandit has a lengthy record of advocacy and activism for the state’s LGBTQ+ community including multiple appearances before Texas lawmakers at the capitol testifying.

Austin’s NBC News affiliate KXAN reported that during one of her appearances before a committee hearing Bandit was photographed holding a copy of a children’s book about Country music superstar Dolly Parton. One of Parton’s executive team saw the photo and passed it along to the singer.

Parton reacted by signing a custom made guitar which was presented to Bandit at a live performance this past weekend.

“Dolly Parton was actually the second concert I ever saw. My first one was Cher, and Dolly was my second. I like to joke that’s why I’m a drag queen now,” Bandit told KXAN. “But Dolly has always been such a huge inspiration. I do call myself the Dolly of Austin. My very first paid booking was a Dolly show. Whenever I started to get a little bit more traction in the drag community, for some reason, Dolly and Brigitte just got together, and I was booked for so many Dolly events that eventually I just ended up becoming the Dolly. Often if somebody wanted a Dolly, I was there.”

Later on her Instagram account Bandit wrote:

never did I ever imagine I’d be sent a custom rhinestoned guitar signed by Dolly herself to me after seeing the work I’ve done this year. I love you @dollyparton thank you so much for helping me find my strength in femininity and kindness 🫶🏻 and thank you to my kingdom castmates for such a special tribute moment @alexander.great.king @selma_bawdy @kinokino.lol (& @channingateem) I love y’all 😭

Reflecting on the previous year and the numerous challenges including the lawsuit, that currently has been blocked in a permanent injunction by a U.S. District Court judge, Bandit told KXAN:

“It’s a public statement to send a guitar to a drag queen in Texas right now that’s fighting this kind of anti-drag and anti-trans bills,” Bandit said, “so I love Dolly for supporting the community and making sure that the people who are doing this feel heard. Everybody’s excited to see that people notice what we’re doing here.”

She added that she plans to only perform once with the guitar before she puts it in a display case of some kind. Her intent she noted is to perform a Dolly tribute with it on the singer’s birthday on Jan. 19.

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Texas restaurant drops NYE drag show after right-wing outage

Piaf had been the target of hundreds of online complaints after ads for the $75-$150 event including “drag entertainers” were circulated

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Photo Credit: Piaf Kitchen + Wine + Bar, Grapevine, Texas.

GRAPEVINE, Texas – A popular restaurant in this city adjacent to the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, noted for its Mediterranean Coastal Cuisine and rooftop bar was forced on Friday to cancel a drag performance as part of its New Year’s Eve celebration show.

Piaf Kitchen + Wine + Bar, had been inundated with hundreds of attack comments on its social media when it announced the line-up for the evening celebration. Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy reported Sunday the restaurant promoted a “drag show” Dec. 31 as part of a circus act at a premium-priced party that also will include a fire thrower, a magician, a palm reader, dinner, music and a DJ.

The restaurant posted Friday on social media, the lineup was changed, “For the safety of our Performers, and Staff, and for a pleasurable experience for our Guests … to ensure a more universally enjoyable and safe experience for everyone.”

Piaf had been the target of hundreds of online complaints after ads for the $75-$150 event including “drag entertainers” were circulated Thursday on social media. One post came from Julie McCarty, leader of the Grapevine-based True Texas Project tea party group, Kennedy noted.

“Heads up, Grapevine,” McCarty wrote: “Who/What will be strolling our beautiful downtown, and how will they be dressed? … This is not the atmosphere we want in Grapevine.”

After the restaurant changed its show line-up, McCarty bragged on her social media page: “Victory! Victory! Let’s repeat it! I just heard from a very reliable source that Piaf has canceled their drag show in Grapevine! Way to go citizens and city council! And thank you to Piaf’s for hearing our concern.”

McCarty/Facebook

McCarty also criticized Piaf for hosting a palm reader, according to her social media posts.

The Texas Tribune reported on Oct. 23, 2023 as part of a profile on neo-Nazis and hate groups in Texas, that McCarty, the founder of True Texas Project, is also a central part of the Defend Texas Liberty network, organizing voter drives, fundraisers and other events to mobilize Tea Party activists and pressure lawmakers from the right. True Texas Project is also labeled as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in part because of statements that McCarty and her husband and co-leader, Fred McCarty, have made about immigrants.

In a Facebook post in the aftermath of the El Paso Walmart massacre, she seemed to express sympathy for shooter’s belief in the “great replacement theory,” a foundational white supremacist belief that there is an intentional, often Jewish-driven, effort to replace white people through immigration, interracial marriage and the LGBTQ+ community.

“I don’t condone the actions, but I certainly understand where they came from,” she wrote.

“You’re not going to demographically replace a once proud, strong people without getting blow-back,” responded Fred McCarty

McCarty has also attended numerous school board meetings in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area supporting anti-LGBTQ+ book bans and is vehemently opposed to support for trans students by public school districts.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s columnist also noted that U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, was among commenters defending Piaf. On Facebook, he called the event a “grown folks New Year’s Eve party.” “Just tell the easily offended to not come,” he wrote. “And why is Palm Reading offensive?”

PIAF statement from its Facebook page.

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