In Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove, as bullets whiz and bombs explode around them, Gen. Jack D. Ripper calmly explains to a terrified Captain Lionel Mandrake that fluoridation is a communist plot to "sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids." He "discovered" the fluoridation conspiracy one night after sex: "a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed; luckily, I was able to interpret those feelings correctly -- loss of essence." Kubrick satirizes masculine anxiety elsewhere in sensuous scenes of rocket launches and character names like Buck Turgidson, but it is Ripper's ludicrous yet deadly theory of fluids, fluoridation, and purity (modeled on the successful campaign against rural fluoridation by the John Birch society in the 50s and 60s) that takes the cake. His conspiracy theories about commie boogeymen and contamination assuage his feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability, but they also start World War III.
"Essence," Ripper's obsession, is a bit of a paradox. It means both intrinsic nature, something fixed and, at the same time, a liquid extract, a volatile substance; it is both liquid and solid. Current debates about the "essence" of identity, especially sexual identity, turn on a similar paradox of the mutable and the inescapably manifest (kind of like race), and here we are once again talking about the potty like it's 1954. North Carolina's HB 2, which was the legislature's attempt to override the city of Charlotte's non-discrimination ordinance, mandates that people must use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. The federal government declared that HB 2 violates the Civil Rights Act, and the Obama administration has directed schools to permit transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. States are countersuing. Welcome to the potty wars.
The U.K. has gotten around the problem for ages with the "W.C.", short for "water closet," and other places, with the "toilet;" one potty, one door, no problems. You've probably used one of these "transgender" bathrooms without questioning your identity; I bet you even have one in your own home! But the trouble is the multiple-stall bathrooms, where the North Carolina potty police may soon be lurking to catch a simultaneous glimpse of your birth certificate and your genitalia. HB 2 means Jack Saddleback would have to use the women's restroom, while Dr. Lisa O'Connor would need to use the men's room. I don't know either of these folks, but both went public with their identities as part of the Twitter #WhatTransLooks2 campaign. Is this still sounding like a good idea to anyone?
Evidently, yes. The federal defense of bathroom access for transgender people (a fraction of the U.S. population who are being misrepresented as pedophiles, molesters, or "men in dresses") has conservative states dog piling on each other to sue the federal government on the grounds that it has "conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment." Note those Cold War keywords, "conspired," "laboratory," "massive," and "experiment," calculated to evoke bodily danger, fear of invasion, and a paranoid relationship to the toilet which, as it turns out, has been a political goldmine for a long time. To date there are no U.S. cases of a transgender person attacking someone in a bathroom. Zero. The track record on prominent Republicans and conservative evangelicals with bathroom sex scandals is, alas, not so good. (It's a long list, but Larry Craig, Dennis Hastert, and Ted Haggard, I'm looking at you). The fact is that it's already illegal to attack, harass, or rape someone in a bathroom, acts of violence which are committed against transgender people (53% report being harassed in the bathroom), not so much by them. So why are these states pitched in battle against the extreme, left-wing, federal government agenda to let people to pee in peace? I'll take the Legacy of Racism for $500, Alex. Bear with me, folks.
Generations of careful political manipulation has linked federal (as in, you know American) guarantees of non-discrimination with invasion of privacy, contamination, danger, and behind them all, racial purity. George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Anita Bryant, and Donald Trump have pivoted on the "ick" factor of other people's bodies (think about how much Trump uses the word "disgusting"), and bathrooms, toilets, and water generally have played a powerful political and psychological role in these associations. My mother, who grew up in the segregated south, remembers seeing black children looking longingly through the chain-link fence at the Morristown TN swimming pool on hot summer days. The white children could enjoy the pool all week but the black families had only a brief window on Sunday afternoon. The pool keepers claimed that the water was discolored by the black swimmers each Sunday when in fact they waited to add chlorine until Monday morning, after leaving the black families to swim in the dirty water of the week and the busy weekend. They also told the white families that they changed the water lest they fear contamination. Swimming pools, like public restrooms, are watery spaces where our vulnerable, embodied state is clear (in a bathing suit or a bathroom stall) and thus where political rhetorics of purity and danger can do the most damage.
Samantha Bee recently gave a short course on the "white nativism and anti-government anger" that birthed the modern religious right when the IRS revoked Bob Jones University's tax exempt status in the 70s. Bob Jones himself declared that if you are against segregation, you are "against God." BJU (poetic justice via acronym) excluded black applicants until 1971, and only admitted them after 1975 if they were married. Why? Fear of interracial marriage. Interracial dating was banned there until 1990. 1990, folks. Was that about sex, or was it about race? Yes. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum warning, "do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?" only makes sense when we realize that anti-ERA and homophobic messages came from the same racist song sung by segregationalists in the 50s and 60s. They just changed the key. Transphobia? Third verse, same as the first: save the women and children!
The religious right (#NotAllChristians) and the Republican party officially turned their attention to sex, sexuality, and gender by the late 70s. It turns out that Cold War conspiracy theories about hidden threats, "perverts," and invasions don't just work on communists and Civil Rights leaders; you can also use them against Teletubbies, LGBT people, Mexicans, women who want to "work outside the home," and any pesky "others" who challenge your worldview. But it all began with BJU's "struggle" to preserve an all-white school and get a tax break for it, just a few years after MLK Jr.'s assassination, the 1964 Civil Rights Act (the same year a young James Earl Jones appeared in Dr. Strangelove) and the end of separate lunch counters, water fountains, and, yes, toilets. Bob Jones "University" continues to thrive today, along with Jerry Falwell's Liberty "University" (esta. 1971), which also once banned interracial dating and recently tried to shut down the campus Democrats. Now, it is a mandatory campaign stop for presidential hopefuls to talk about things like two Corinthians and rail against the federal government while seeking its highest office.
Politicians and others know they can use fear to manipulate anxious people, and all of the anxieties swirling around the toilet (you know, alligators in the sewer, toilet snakes, the boogeyman) make it fertile if slippery territory for political grandstanding. The thought of some unflushable horror probably once had your childhood self crossing your legs in the hallway, afraid to go in, a feeling all too familiar to trans people. So America, home of the brave, it's time to face our potty fears together. Are you ready? I'm going to tell you what you really want to know--what transgender people do in bathrooms. They find a stall, close the door, pee, flush, and, if they were raised right, wash their hands before they leave. The only people in this picture who are threatening your privacy are the folks who want to enforce laws like HB 2, which, don't kid yourself, could be used to haul you or someone you love out of a bathroom stall mid-stream for not looking tall enough, short enough, pretty enough, or angular enough to meet someone's description of male or female. Take a moment to think about how we got into into the current potty wars, and then another moment to think about how important it is to you to be able to pee in peace.