By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Transgender activists and business leaders urged a Texas Senate panel on Friday to scrap legislation that would limit bathroom access for transgender people, saying it was a discriminatory measure that would hurt the state's economy.
More than 250 civil rights activists, executives and others registered to speak to the Republican-dominated Senate as it began consideration of the measure, the most closely watched item on the state's agenda during a 30-day special session.
So-called "bathroom bills" have become a flashpoint of U.S. culture wars, with social conservatives saying they protect public safety and civil rights activists saying the measures allow government-sanctioned bias against transgender people.
Ashley Smith, a transgender woman and San Antonio architect, said transgender women suffer more violence than the general public, and a bathroom bill would make her more fearful.
"Can’t you see how this legislation would make the very real problem of assault even worse?" she asked members of the Senate Committee on State Affairs.
Smith drew wide notice on the internet this week after posting a picture of herself with Republican Governor Greg Abbott, a supporter of the bathroom measure who she suggested had no idea she was transgender.
Talk of the bathroom bill has already led to about $66 million in lost convention business, convention officials from Texas' top cities told the committee. If the measure is enacted, the state could lose about $1.4 billion from lost conventions, sports contests and other events, they said.
The main measure under consideration is Senate Bill 3, which says certain restrooms, showers and changing facilities in places such as public schools "must be designated for and used only by persons of the same sex as stated on a person's birth certificate."
Supporters were few in number on Friday. The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Lois Kolkhorst, said SB 3 was about "about much more than bathrooms.
"(It) is about finding a balance between the right to declare your gender and the right of a parent to protect their child," she said.
During the regular session that ended in May, the Texas Senate easily passed such a measure. But it died in the state's House of Representatives under pressure from pro-business Republicans.
Political analysts expect a similar pattern for the special session.
A similar law in North Carolina, partially repealed in March, prompted the relocation of major sporting events and economic boycotts that were estimated to have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
(Reporting by Jon Herzkovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)