State Rep. Molly White’s, R-Belton, staff told a gay rights supporter opposing legislation she had introduced to leave literature on their positions at the office, but not to expect an appointment with the representative.
White is the author of House Bill 2553, which would allow business owners to cite “sincerely held religious or personal belief” and “conscientious grounds” as grounds for denying goods or services to a person. She also authored House Bill 2555, which would prohibit the creation or recognition of same sex marriages or civil unions regardless of whether a “federal court ruling or other federal law” allows them.
White’s bills have drawn criticism from members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. On March 23, Salado resident Frank Carlson traveled to Austin to visit with legislators as part of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lobby day. Carlson, who is gay and the secretary for the Bell County Democratic Party, went to the Capitol to represent Equality Texas, the state’s largest gay rights organization.
“I was part of a group that went into Rep. White’s office without an appointment, just like we had gone into nine other offices,” Carlson said. “And we were initially greeted by her communications director.”
Carlson said he asked if White or a staff member was available. Trent Williams, White’s communications director, told Carlson that he was the only staff member not currently in a meeting and that he did not have time to talk, Carlson said.
Hannah Bell, White’s chief of staff, confirmed Carlson’s recounting of events and explained that staff members were in “back-to-back meetings” as they worked to get legislation through the committee process. She confirmed that Carlson inquired about scheduling an appointment later that day to meet with White or her staff.
“I understand that they may not be able to meet with us the second we walk in the door and I have no problem waiting or coming back later,” Carlson said. Williams then asked Carlson what group they were representing, Carlson said.
“I said, ‘Equality Texas,’ and he said, ‘Drop your literature off and leave,’” Carlson said.
Bell confirmed that Carlson and the other members of the group were asked to deposit any literature they had with them and leave.
“I mentioned that we had personal stories we wanted to share with the office and one of the women from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays started talking about her son,” Carlson said.
Bell confirmed that at that point she emerged from an inner office and once again instructed the group to deposit any literature they had in their possession and leave.
“She also said, ‘Molly White is against anything LGBT’ and not to waste our or their time talking about this,” Carlson said.
Bell confirmed that she told Carlson speaking to White or her staff about gay rights issues would have been a “waste of time.”
“I conveyed that the representative has stances on some issues and that she isn’t likely to change her mind on them,” Bell said. “We try to be a transparent office and I told them that they needed to meet with individuals that shared their viewpoint.”
Texas House of Representatives rules do not require lawmakers to meet with constituents. Additionally, it can be hard to get a meeting with lawmakers during the last two months of a session, but staff members refusing to meet with constituents simply because they disagree on subjects is not normal, said Janet Adamski, a political science professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
“It’s a little unusual for an elected representative to not be open to hearing competing viewpoints from one’s constituents,” she said. “It might be a strategy to win a primary or get elected, but there’s electoral politics and there’s governing. And when a person is governing they are governing for the entire community, not just those who voted for them.”
Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, characterized White’s decision and her staff’s actions as “rude, insensitive and inappropriate.”
“Rep. White was elected to represent all of her constituents, even those whose views she doesn’t share,” Smith said. “It may not be her job to agree with all of her constituents, but it is her job to listen to them.”