Tuesday, May 31, 2016
by Jeremiah Ho
According to sources at the Human Rights Campaign, there are currently more than 100 anti-LGBTQ bills filed in 29 state legislatures across the country. But the one bill that has gained the most notoriety in the national spotlight is North Carolina’s bill—HB 2—banning transgender individuals from using the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. In the shadow of last year’s marriage equality victory, the controversy of the HB 2 has sparked conversation about transgender rights—a group within the LGBTQ umbrella that previously received the least amount of attention and the group that did not benefit from the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Given that one of iconic instances of discrimination that prompted the Civil Rights Movement was the segregation of public restrooms between white and other races, it feels as if the return to the restroom as the stage for discrimination symbolizes a regression from progressive politics. The issue, however, is so much more complex than that. As with racially-segregated public restrooms, the supporters tout a negative essentialist rhetoric that is firmly grounded in the politics of disrespect. For instance, during the Civil Rights Movement, a common reason that pro-segregationists used to resist integration of public restrooms between white and other races was the protection of white women from the venereal diseases carried by African-American women. In comparison, in the contemporary debate, we have supporters of bathroom bills—who also largely denounce expansion of anti-transgender rights—use the protection of young children from child predators as one of the primary reasons for these bathroom bills. Just like venereal disease, here is now another peril that has been brought into the debate without any evidentiary basis—alas pedophilia! But even despite the lack of statistics, the possibility of child predators is enough to gather support from family groups to prevent restroom integration at the expense of the restroom rights of a particular group. Along the way, the ones left out of the stall—i.e. transgender individuals—now have either an inappropriate connotation of pedophilia attached to their image or way of life that facilitates an argument favoring their third-class citizenry. Beyond the segregation, the pro-bathroom bill rhetoric is a cleverly designed campaign that uses anti-transgender essentialism—in the form bodily functions and biological sex—to discredit the pro-transgender constructivist aspects of gender identity. All of this rhetoric and debate reveals the tension and hatred that the supporters of bathroom bills hold for transgender people.
Although in the context of schools, these bathroom bills have been legally challenged on the basis of Title IX violations, much of this debate makes me think of another legal solution to use against bills such as HB 2—that is, animus and rational basis "with bite" in Romer v. Evans. The anti-trans rhetoric here reminds me of the disrespect politics that the supporters of Colorado Amendment 2 in the early-to-mid 1990s employed to get the state voters to pass an ordinance that denied non-discriminatory protections for LGBTQ individuals. That campaign used the AIDS crisis and inaccurate statistics about gay sex to tarnish the image of sexual minorities, leaving them without any dignity in the eyes of other fellow Colorado citizens. Eventually Amendment 2 was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1996 in Romer because the Court found that Amendment 2 was promulgated by an animus against sexual minorities that rendered the law empty of rational basis.
So if we were able to resolve Colorado’s discriminatory Amendment 2 in 1996, why are we not quicker in 2016 to note the hatred and animus that ought to render HB 2 and similar laws that discriminate against transgender individuals irrational as well?