The transgender “bathroom panic” is making legislative gains across the country, thanks to conservative scare tactics to vilify the transgender community as sexual predators. Recently, an anti-LGBT bill, HB 2, was introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly; within hours, it had been signed by GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. The bill was introduced in response to a bylaw that had been passed in Charlotte allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. HB2 rules against any such bylaws, and also prevents local governments from passing its own nondiscrimination policies, and requires public school students to use restrooms in accordance with their birth sex.
McCrory had warned Charlotte city council members that the state legislature would intervene if the city approved new legal protections for LGBT individuals. In an email, McCrory stated, “This shift in policy could also create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.” Translation: Sexual predators will be given carte blanche if this legislation goes through.
The same fear-mongering rhetoric around “deviant actions” was also found in Texas last November, when that state’s conservative opposition successfully swayed voters against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Voters overturned an anti-discrimination law intended to protect 15 different classes of people, including LGBT individuals, after right-wing opponents implied that HERO would enable male sexual predators to molest women and girls in bathrooms by allowing “men in drag” to enter those spaces. In a dramatic black-and-white television ad against HERO, a man is seen following a young girl inside a bathroom stall, with the words “REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER” and “ANY MAN ANYTIME” displayed in big, bold lettering.
There’s one gaping hole in this rhetoric, though: There is simply no evidence of transgender violence against women or children in public restrooms. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign and the Transgender Law Center, there have been no reported incidents to merit such legislation. A survey of law enforcement officials, government employees and advocates from 12 states also found that no such incidents have occurred. Rather, the statistics indicate that violence occurs against (and not by) transgender people in restrooms. A 2013 study by The Williams Institute reveals that 68 percent of trans people who were surveyed “experienced some sort of verbal harassment,” 18 percent were denied access to gender-segregated public restrooms and 9 percent “have experienced some sort of physical assault.”
This isn’t the first time that a marginalized group’s quest for civil rights protections has been reframed, baselessly, as a threat to the sanctity and safety of women and children. In lamenting the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, North Carolina A&M President George T. Winston wrote in 1901 that losing the war resulted in dangerous freed slaves running amok. “[The] Southern woman with her helpless children shudders with nameless horror. The Black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust.” Black males are further demonized in The Clansman, the 1905 novel that became the basis for the film The Birth of a Nation. It portrays a black villain who raped his former slavemaster’s mistress: “…the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat.” Both horror stories attempted to reinforce the racist notion that providing civil liberties to African Americans would result in the inevitable rise of sexual assault against white women. Not only was this myth unsupported by facts, it was further propagated to justify the lynchings of black men.
In time, public restrooms became a battleground in the fight to protect women against the so-called black male predator. As resistance mounted against the Equal Rights Amendment, a Floridian woman in 1973 wrote to her senator, “I do not want to share a public restroom with black or male white hippies,” while a North Carolina legislator was quoted as saying, “I ain’t going to have my wife be in the bathroom with some big, black buck!”
The same emotional, gut appeal to fears of vulnerability in public restrooms has posed a serious hurdle to the transgender movement today. But fortunately, many states are rejecting the myth of the “transgender sexual predator,” and taking a stand for transgender rights. As of December 2015, 14 states had passed laws prohibiting gender-identity and sexual-orientation discrimination in public accommodations. Spokespeople from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, the Las Vegas Police Department, the Minneapolis Police Department and the Maine Human Rights Commission, for example, have publicly debunked the claim that transgender people are a threat to public safety.
Members of the community have spoken out as well. Transgender people have posted selfies taken in restrooms of their birth-assigned sex to raise awareness and demonstrate the ridiculousness of the new law. The hashtag #WeJustNeedtoPee has gone viral on Twitter and Instagram. Trans individuals are also providing brief anecdotes of why their own safety is at risk by being forced to use restrooms that do not apply to their gender identity. A trans woman artist posted an illustration on Twitter called “The New Choices,” where a transgender girl has to make a decision between getting arrested (in the women’s restroom) and getting “raped/beaten” (in the men’s restroom). One trans-owned company in North Carolina summarized its views in a T-shirt, “Don’t Legislate Hate / I stand against HB 2”.
While several states may be experiencing political pressure to consider discriminatory restroom policies against the transgender community, legislators should remain vigilant in separating fact from fiction. Restrooms have long been a battleground for and against the provision of civil liberties in this country. Over decades, we have seen false assertions that the scapegoat of the day is the new sexual predator. We need to contest these harmful allegations and dump transphobia in the toilet once and for all.