Texas House has record number of LGBTQ representatives as lawmakers face scores of bills focused on gender and sexuality

The Texas Legislature has nine lawmakers who are openly LGBTQ, all Democrats, including Reps. Ann Johnson and Jolanda Jones of Houston. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers are pushing a slate of bills aimed at drag queens, transgender children and how sexuality is discussed in schools.


State Rep. Jolanda Jones, D-Houston, in her office at the Capitol in Austin on Jan. 25, 2023.
But on the other side of the aisle, the legislation on LGBTQ issues — like limiting public school lessons on gender and sexuality, blocking transgender kids from accessing certain medically approved health care treatments and stopping trans women from participating in women's collegiate sports — have already received powerful support.
In the meantime, returning out representatives say they will continue sharing their lived experiences to educate fellow lawmakers on how certain bills will harm LGBTQ people. And with more openly LGBTQ lawmakers representing different backgrounds and parts of the state, they hope that the Legislature will be able to hear more humanizing stories about their community.

How the ranks have grown

"In my first term, I had legislators who would just yell out, ‘Don't vote for the gay guy's bill,'" he recalled.

The number of openly LGBTQ lawmakers doubled in 2015, when Austin Democrat Celia Israel, who is a lesbian, became a representative.

Jolanda Jones was "stunned" to know that she's the first Black and openly gay member of the Texas House, having won a special election in May. And while she said she doesn't often lead with this aspect of her identity, she hopes to use her milestone to raise awareness for the community, particularly the harm that Black trans women are facing.

With more out lawmakers, they now hope that they will be able to continue supporting the LGBTQ community members who come to testify and advocate at the Capitol.

State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, speaks from the podium on the House floor on May 23, 2021.

"I feel like a proud papa," Maxey said.

Legislative strategy

Phelan also named Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, who is an ally member of the LGBTQ Caucus, as the select committee's chair. The committee that oversees a bill — and who chairs the committee — can play a major role in the legislation's fate. Committee chairs can slow or kill legislative proposals by simply sitting on bills and never putting them up for a vote.

But Phelan has also assigned some bills affecting LGBTQ people to other committees, such as the House State Affairs Committee and Public Health Committee. Those assignments include bills that would limit what college sports teams trans athletes can join, classify a range of transition-related care for kids as child abuse and designate drag shows as sexually oriented performances. Notably, the House Public Health Committee that will hear those health care bills has six Republicans and five Democrats. Three of those Democratic members are LGBTQ lawmakers: Ann Johnson, Jolanda Jones and Venton Jones.

Ann Johnson said she wants to oppose the bills limiting transition-related health care because her district has a significant medical community. She calls them government overreach into how doctors practice.

"I will do everything that I can to defend our medical community to practice sound medicine, which they are doing. Pediatricians don't prescribe child abuse," she said.

But to be successful, out LGBTQ legislators said their work has to start well before bills move through the process.

Like Maxey, they stressed the importance of building connections with lawmakers across the aisle, committees and caucuses — through conversations or karaoke.

"That carries a lot with it when you're having conversations with your colleagues and you say, ‘Hey this bill is hurtful to people like me, my community,'" Jessica González said.

She also hopes that these connections and the growing number of out lawmakers will help get airtime for bills that would benefit the LGBTQ community. These legislators and their allies have so far filed over 100 such bills, including many that would ban LGBTQ discrimination broadly.

And in many ways, being out in the Texas Legislature still often means educating others about their own identity.

Julie Johnson described the experience as "a coming-out process all over again," which she said has led some legislators to soften their biases and attitudes about the LGBTQ community.

Meanwhile, Zwiener said she has had to have multiple conversations with lawmakers, lobbyists and constituents to dispel assumptions about what it means to be bisexual. She recalled distributing "get out the vote" messages during last year's primary and receiving a response from an individual who said they couldn't vote for her because she would cheat on her husband — a common myth about bisexuality.

"Oh my god, there's a lot of education that goes along with it," she said after a laugh.

As a result, out lawmakers are thankful about the growth in both number and diversity among their ranks as they look to share more humanizing stories about their community.

"Being the ones that had to answer for the entire LGBTQ community all the time, that's hard," Zwiener said. "I'm really grateful for [Glen Maxey and Mary González] pioneering, and I'm grateful that I've come in at a moment where we get to celebrate the breadth of our community in a different way, and we're expanding that breadth."

A mix of expertise, experiences and identities

For Venton Jones, tackling the health issues and discrimination facing people living with HIV — an epidemic that has touched all groups but has disproportionately affected LGBTQ and Black communities — is a major goal. So far, he has already filed a bill to expand access to HIV testing.

And he and Jolanda Jones — who similarly prioritizes improving health care access — are also looking to tackle the state's high housing costs. Housing is both a bread-and-butter issue for these lawmakers' districts and a big concern for LGBTQ people, who are more likely to face poverty and homelessness.

Ultimately, some out lawmakers would like to see the Legislature evolve to the point that they won't have to band together in a formal group focused on LGBTQ issues.

"But as long as we're discriminated against, I'm going to be a proud member of the LGBTQ Caucus," Jolanda Jones said.

Today in Houston Newsletter Signup
We're in the process of transitioning services for our Today in Houston newsletter. If you'd like to sign up now, fill out the form below and we will add you as soon as we finish the transition. **Please note** If you are already signed up for the newsletter, you do not need to sign up again. Your subscription will be migrated over.