Not in the Name of My "Protection"

Unisex restroom sign
Unisex restroom sign

The North Carolina Republican Senatorial Committee launched a new fundraiser late last week. The fundraising site features an image of a man entering a woman's bathroom and encourages donations to "thank NC Governor Pat McCrory and Legislative Leaders for fighting to keep our children safe and passing a common-sense law to stop grown men from sharing locker rooms and bathrooms with young girls."

I'll pass, thanks. Painting pure bigotry as an attempt to "protect" women from the dangers of bathrooms is an old American story, and one we have a duty to reject.
A refresher: Last week, North Carolina passed a law, known as H.B. 2, which the state claims will protect cis (or non-transgender) women like us. The bill came in backlash to a local Charlotte ordinance that extended non-discrimination protections in public accommodations to LGBT people and would have prohibited discrimination against transgender persons when accessing restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. State Senator Phil Berger, of North Carolina described H.B. 2 as an attempt to reverse Charlotte's ordinance, which, he wrongly claimed, created "a loophole that any man with nefarious motives could use to prey on women and young children."

A remarkable number of 'bathroom bills' have cropped up in state legislatures in 2016: so far 44 anti-trans bills have been introduced in 16 states. In all of these contexts, strategists rely on a bigoted myth that sexual predators pretend to be trans women to gain access to women's bathrooms to invade, harass and rape them. This myth is based on bigots' party line, which we unequivocally reject: that trans women are not "real" women but instead dangerous men.

These untruths endure in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There are no documented cases like that Senator Berger describes. Instead, trans women are the ones at tremendous risk for sexual victimization. Just this weekend, in the wake of H.B.2.'s passage, a trans woman was raped in the bathroom at New York's Stonewall Inn. Trans women forced by laws like North Carolina's to use men's bathrooms are often met with violence and harassment.

While "bathroom bills" put more women at risk, their proponents' pretend they advocate for them to protect us. Now, more than ever, women need to make sure state legislatures hear loud and clear that we refuse to be used as props to support transphobic and bigoted bills that hurt our trans sisters and deflect energy from real work to end gender violence. This is a feminist issue that requires our anger and our advocacy.

Women -- by which conservatives always mean white, cis, heterosexual women -- have been pawns in the war on equality before. And bathrooms have often been the set on which conservative anxieties have played out under the guise of our "protection." Historically, segregationists argued that white women would get venereal diseases from contact with black women in the bathrooms. Conflicts over the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High centered on bathrooms. One white student reported at the time, ""Many of the girls won't use the rest rooms at Central, simply because the 'N*****' girls use them."

Feminists lost a major battle, the campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment, in large part because of the salience of the bathroom myth. Phyllis Schafly and other opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment speciously but effectively argued that an ERA would usher in an era of gender neutral bathrooms where rapists could attack women. Racism always lurked behind these arguments: anti-ERA opponents asked, "Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?" North Carolina seems to have a particularly troubled history with the bathrooms. In the book Sex, Gender, and the Politics of the ERA, Donald Mathews and Jane Hart describe a woman legislature overhearing a male colleague state, ""I ain't going to have my wife be in the bathroom with some big, black, buck!"

We may have lost the battle for the ERA for now, but existing anti-discrimination law is enough to strike down H.B.2 and other proposed laws like it. Civil rights attorneys currently challenging the law in federal district court make clear that H.B.2. violates Title IX, which prohibits schools from discriminating against students based on sex, which includes gender identity and transgender status, as well as the Constitution. Even the Attorney General of North Carolina believes the statute is unconstitutional and has refused to defend the law against suit.

"Bathroom bill" proponents might pretend they care about some kinds of "good" women, but their broader agenda seeks to entrench male supremacy. The strategists behind the most recent bathroom wars on trans individuals are national organizations such as Family Research Council, which has been deemed a hate group, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose mission is in part to "recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries." H.B.2. proponents are up in arms about the non-existent risks of men pretending to be trans women to prey on girls in school bathrooms, but these same legislators have otherwise been noticeably absent from genuine efforts to address the very real problem of gender violence in education. These are also the same lawmakers we see stripping away the rights of women (and though usually not mentioned, transgender men and gender non-conforming people as well) to access reproductive health care.

Sexual assault and rape are terrible harms that deserve legislative attention. That makes it a particular shame that efforts like H.B.2., a "solution" in search of a problem, put trans women at greater risk while diverting energy from useful efforts to promote everyone's safety and equality. Perhaps North Carolina legislators are so used to ignoring women's voices that they assumed we would sit by silently as they used some women's bodies as an excuse to discriminate against other women. But let us be clear: we refuse to be your shield.