Taking Up Space

I am a born and raised Austinite, a rare breed nowadays. Due to proximity, I have been roaming around the Texas Capitol building since before I could properly walk. Drinking Slurpees on the front steps, playing tag in the lower annex, and racing my brother from one of the chambers to the grounds below, where we would climb the magnolia tree on the southwest corner of the grounds. Whenever my family would step inside I would run to the main rotunda, lay down on the star in the middle and look up. As I got older, my visits inside the capitol grew less and less frequent. The necessity of going through security just took too long in my mind to require going inside.

I first heard about the Austin Legislative Internship Program during my undergrad studies at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. A past student of one of my professors had come to speak with my class about their experience in community practice, which led me to interview her for a separate class assignment. During this interview, she asked me about my own career aspirations, and I told her I was interested in doing political LGBTQIA+ advocacy but had no idea how to go about getting involved in that realm. Luckily for me, she had participated in the Austin Legislative Internship Program through the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. I was ecstatic! A program designed to give social work students not only experience in politics, but also an opportunity to figure out if this is the line of work they want to continue in.

After the assignment, I met with my professor to let her know what my new goal was. I liked her a lot. She was one of the best educators I ever learned under and was always understanding of any accommodations I might have needed. However, when I told her I wanted to work in politics, not run, but be an advocate for change, she told me I didn’t look or act like the people who work in politics. That I should maybe look at more grassroots forms of advocacy. I know she didn’t mean it in a harsh way, that she was speaking from experience, but it still hurt regardless.

I am a queer, transgender non-binary person. I use they/them and he/him pronouns, depending on the day. I dress in masculine-styled clothes and have a short haircut. In Texas, being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community comes with increased risks. Texas is known to be a hostile state for members of the queer and transgender community and lacks any statewide non-discrimination protections. The state constitution still outlaws homosexual conduct and outlaws same-sex unions despite the Supreme Court ruling that makes this ban unconstitutional. The Human Rights Campaign in their 2020 Equality Index highlighted Texas as “High priority to achieve basic equality.” Texas does not prohibit discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment, public accommodations, or education. Texas does not address harassment and/or bullying that students in public schools may face for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Texas does not address hate crimes committed against individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Texas, most activists focus on protections at the local level, in municipal governments, because we have never seen a pro-LGBTQIA+ bill make it past the Texas House’s Calendars Committee.

During this internship, I had the privilege to write a paper addressing Texas’s long history of anti-LGBTQIA+ politics and identifying the different areas that bills are targeting this session. In Texas state politics, advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community almost always are playing defense against harmful, anti-LGBTQIA+ bills. This year is no different. Attacks on transgender youth rights, creating religious exemption laws, and circumventing municipal non-discrimination ordinances seem to be the heavy hitters of this session. Despite strong opposition from conservatives in both the House and Senate, allies of the community come back year after year proposing legislation that would establish equal rights and protections for LGBTQIA+ Texans.

Working in the Capitol building is a dream come true for my younger self, but now living out as my true self in this environment creates unique work challenges. Specifically, access to restrooms. The City of Austin is progressive enough that in most public establishments and businesses there might be a gender-neutral bathroom, or if that is not an option, no one will question why I am using a certain bathroom. The Capitol is not like these other parts of Austin, however. There are no gender-neutral bathrooms that I have access to, only family restrooms found on the ground floor. People from all over the state flock to the building for tours, meetings, and providing testimonies at hearings. These are people from various backgrounds; different beliefs, cultures, and regions mix within these halls. Which is amazing! But it also creates an environment where a simple trip to the bathroom for me can turn into a confrontation. I was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and with all the drama that went down in 2017 over the “bathroom bill,” I use the women’s room to try and reduce any chance of legal consequences.

Let me be clear, I would rather use a gender-neutral or single-person bathroom whenever I am out in public. I have no interest in using the men’s room any more than I have an interest in using the women’s room. I use the women’s room because in the event that something does go down, I can provide my ID to show that yes, in fact, I can be using the women’s room. I have only been working in person in the Capitol building for a little over two weeks, having moved back to Austin once legislative committee hearings started three weeks ago. Already the direct aggressions and indirect microaggressions have started. The bold will step up and ask me directly why I am in the women’s room. The meek will stare and whisper about it to their companions. Both are exhausting, but that is just another part of reality I have to work around.

The Legislature is also not used to having transgender persons working within its walls. The majority of interns, staff, and representatives are cisgender, white males, which is not an accurate representation of the overall state population. After so many years of learning and working in diverse schools with strong women and queer folx being the majority, it is a huge culture shock. I feel this weird tension around me when walking through the Capitol, talking with other staffers outside of my office, or sitting in committee. “I’m only a man at a glance,” to quote Hannah Gadsby. But once someone really looks at me, they realize I am not, but I am also not female normal. This makes conversing with members, staffers, and lobbyists ten times more stressful, because they are not used to a person like me in this environment. I guess in that way that makes me powerful because I am breaking up the status quo. Maybe I am forcing them to reconsider how they view transgender and queer folx by taking up this space in the Legislature.

Despite all these microaggressions and awkward moments, I could not have been placed in a better office. My fellow interns, colleagues, and supervisors have made it a point to make sure I am comfortable, that they are using the right pronouns, and that if anything happens, I know I have support from them. My work ID has my name on it. Not my legal name, because I have not taken that step yet, but the name that represents me. I was not sure if I would be able to have that piece of me in the Legislature due to legal constraints. But I do. It is on my ID, it is on my email, it is attached to the analyses that get sent out to our representatives. In the Capitol I am only known as Maddox, and that is a big freaking deal.

So yeah, I do not look or act like the other people in the Legislature. But I take up space and am not only showing staffers or representatives that a queer transgender non-binary person can work in the Texas State Capitol. I am also proving to all the queer and transgender kids that run through the halls of this building that it is possible. We will get there one day.

By Maddox Hilgers, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Originally posted from University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. This post was syndicated with permission from its authors.

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