The year 2016 will be known as the year of the bathroom fights. Misleading and insulting ads targeting the right of trans people to use the public restroom consistent with their gender identity was blamed by many for the defeat of the Houston civil rights law last year. The fight over which bathroom a transgender person can use will continue across the nation.
While some may think this isn’t a big issue it is major for transgender people who like everyone else simply have the need to pee on a regular basis. Can you imagine if you were told you couldn’t use any public bathrooms, or bathrooms in schools or your workplace? How would you would go about living your daily life? I can go out and use a public restroom or stop in a hotel or restaurant and no one questions which bathroom I will use. The reality is anyone who uses a stall when going to the bathroom doesn’t worry or even know who is in the stall next to them. So why does it concern so many people that the person in the next stall might be transgender? They don’t see you and you don’t see them.
Last year Houston voted on its Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have extended protections over housing, employment and other areas to gay, lesbian and transgender people. Voters rejected the ordinance by a whopping margin of 62-38 percent. The most contentious part of the bill that led to it being called the ‘bathroom bill’ would have allowed transgender people to use toilets of their choosing. Opponents of the bill raised fears it would lead to sexual predators in women’s restrooms.
Common sense says this is nonsense. If sexual predators wanted to go into women’s toilets they could do it now. Predators don’t follow the law, which is why we call them predators. Transgender people aren’t predators, in fact they are often the people preyed on. To believe a fifth grade youngster who is transgender would simply claim that status to attack someone of the opposite gender is crazy. If that person wanted to attack someone there are many ways for them to do it now. But what we are seeing today is people throwing common sense out the window and being scared away from giving others the simple right to pee when they need to.
But it clearly does bother many people and they have this irrational belief that if their child is in a bathroom that a transgender person could go into that bathroom and cause then injury. Sadly, ads on this are effective. The Houston non-discrimination ordinance ultimately became a fight nearly entirely about “men in women’s bathrooms.” Similar ads ran in 2012 in Anchorage, Alaska, where the city’s voters rejected an LGBT non-discrimination law by a wide margin, though the bathroom ads were mixed in with other anti-LGBT messages.
Today, there are bills in Florida, Kentucky and other states focusing on the bathroom rights of trans people. This appears to be the LGBT civil rights battle of 2016. The implications are great for any LGBT civil rights bill that would be introduced across the nation. Many in the LGBT community say they will not support any bill that doesn’t have bathroom rights clearly stated in it. Others will oppose any bill that doesn’t explicitly oppose the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Groups that once approved of RFRA when they believed it would be helpful to protect diverse individuals now oppose it for reasons explained in the Washington Post: “The ACLU supported the RFRA’s passage at the time because it didn’t believe the Constitution, as newly interpreted by the Supreme Court, would protect people such as Iknoor Singh, whose religious expression does not harm anyone else. But we can no longer support the law in its current form. For more than 15 years, we have been concerned about how the RFRA could be used to discriminate against others. As the events of the past couple of years amply illustrate, our fears were well-founded. While the RFRA may serve as a shield to protect Singh, it is now often used as a sword to discriminate against women, gay and transgender people and others. Efforts of this nature will likely only increase should the Supreme Court rule — as is expected — that same-sex couples have the freedom to marry.”
The fight for full civil and human rights for the LGBT community will now go through bathrooms and religious exemptions and eventually up to the Supreme Court. This makes it more important than ever that a Democrat nominate our next Supreme Court Justices.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.