NC's HB2 reflects unfounded fear of the other

Originally published in the Chapel Hill News on June 29, 2016.

The lynchpin underlying support for House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, is the notion that transgender people ought to use bathrooms that match their biological sex, not their gender expression. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, it will be too easy for men to dress up as women and assault girls and women in public bathrooms. Although there are no reported cases of trans people manipulating public spaces to harm others, the bill passed with uncommon speed.

Bodily excretion is a phenomenon that allows us to recycle nutrients, convert fuel into energy, and cleanse our system. It is central to the maintenance of the remarkable bodies we have been given, which grow, heal, adapt and transport. Yet despite our knowledge that the process is essential to our entire species, we make laws to prevent, not assist, people relieving themselves. A lack of empathy comes not from social difference but from spiritual laziness: Every person has had moments when we desperately needed to go but could not, whether because of environmental constraints or our own bodies malfunctioning. Despite momentarily acknowledging our own suffering, we fail to see that suffering in others for whom excretory needs are not accommodated.

Power seeks to preserve a binary understanding of humanity, but the complexity of human individuality proves that system to be a house of cards. In terms of gender, many people take on a mixture of characteristics and behaviors but perform as a man or a woman, while others identify as "genderqueer" and do not identify as either a man or a woman. "Trans" is a large umbrella term open to anyone whose gender identity does not neatly align with their biological sex, while plenty of people who do not identify as trans also perform gender subversively.

In "Queering Bathrooms," sociologist Sheila Cavanagh investigates the plight of LGBTIQ individuals and the impact of not conforming to binary gender expression in the space of public restrooms. Cavanagh points to the way transphobia arises from an unfounded belief that a person's gender expression is threatening to others: "Gender non-conformity and/or trans identities are, irrationally, felt to be contagious or, at the very least, disorienting to many non-trans people."

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory defends HB2 by arguing: "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." Lieutenant Gov. Dan Forest notes in a campaign ad, "If keeping men out of women's showers and bathrooms protects just one child or one woman from being molested or assaulted, then it was worth it."

The unfounded fear of the other is manipulated to legitimize both discrimination and brutal violence against the bodies it marks as transgressive. Karen Remley, the CEO of the American Academy of Pediatrics, lambasted HB2 for "creating a hostile environment for transgender adolescents, all implying the same message: 'You're different, something is wrong with you, you need to change in order to fit in here.'"

The alienation, marginalization, and assault on trans people takes its toll: 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general public.

So what does the Christian doctrine of incarnation reveal about what is at stake in HB2? Clearly, Jesus was an ally to people on the margins, as he himself lived a life that constantly transgressed against power structures and transcended insider/outsider status. It can easily be imagined that Jesus would identify with contemporary victims of gender-based violence, not with the authorities who perpetrate and facilitate these assaults.

Nevertheless, some imagine the brutality of transphobia as "tough love." The Christian Action League of North Carolina's executive director, Baptist pastor Mark Creech, asserts that supporting HB2 is "a proper application of loving the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind."

Against this punishing vision, 19th century Anglican theologian Charles Gore asserts the human life of God's son demonstrates God's love is not only "universal in range" but "unerringly individual in application." He maintains that love is "supreme perfection" and its "range over all creatures diminishes nothing from its particular application to each individual." In other words, our need to access excretory relief is universal; our intersecting identities of race, gender, and so on, are particular and unique. God's love is with humanity in both.

House Bill 2 reveals our insistence on a binary mode of thinking that hinges on a fear of mixture. The threat of impurity is mobilized in the form of transphobia.

The institutionalization of discrimination and the legitimization of violence can never align with the radical love demonstrated through the incarnation. A Christian doctrine of injustice is what should be incomprehensible, not the reality of diversity. As a community, Jesus calls Christians to construct an "us" that avoids a "them." All people need to excrete, so marking and excluding some bodies from public restrooms creates two classes of "human" and "non-human."

Jesus' life should not be co-opted to justify hatred, but should be seen to illuminate the urgency of eradicating present-day bigotry and standing with all our fellow humans in the fullness of the love of our Creator.

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