By Liz Massey, June 2016 Issue.
I’ve always disliked the constant struggle implied in the phrase “one step forward, two steps back,” but it’s an accurate description of the way our LGBTQ equality movement (and the movements of most other oppressed groups) makes progress.
Last year’s marriage equality ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was a watershed moment for our community. Our relationships were judged worthy of legal recognition on the national level for the first time in American history. This ruling, which removed marriage as the main goal for our movement, caused three things to happen in the second half of 2015: it highlighted the other issues (bullying, homeless queer youth) that had been on the political back burner; intra-group tensions within the queer community became more evident; and, in the wake of a stunning (but not unexpected) defeat, our opponents on the right changed tactics in order to perpetuate our legal disenfranchisement.
Instead of focusing on how icky same-sex intimate acts were, or whipping up unsubstantiated fears of how gay couples that want to be parents might damage “the children,” our opponents selected a new primary scapegoat – trans people. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Trans people have always challenged the strict gender-binary system that governs much of our social structures. And the theater the Right chose to play out this drama was one that has proven effective for conservatives throughout the 20th century: the public bathroom. By selecting a venue where people often feel vulnerable and where all people gather to attend to a common function, those on the right have been able to turn a non-problem into an oppressive set of anti-trans “bathroom laws” that are spreading like wildfire through state legislatures across the United States.
Trans people are just the latest group to face “bathroom panic” pushback from those in power. Over the past 175 years, the following groups have had to fight the “Bathroom War” with authorities:
• Women, part 1: The early feminists advocated for appropriate public facilities for women, countering those who argued it would lead to them leaving their “proper sphere” of the home.
• People of color: As racial integration efforts beganto make progress in the 1940s and 1950s, segregationists argued that having one bathroom per gender open to all races would lead to assaults on whites by blacks, and/or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Natural law was invoked many times to justify segregated facilities, and there are probably still bigots out there who would assert that that is “God’s plan.”
• Women, part 2: Nearly a century after their first potty-related clash, feminists saw the Equal Rights Amendment derailed in the late 1970s, in part because the right wing successfully exploited fears that the ERA would lead to co-ed public restrooms and shower facilities.
• Gay men: During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era in the military (1994-2011), the potty panic was expanded to include fears of gay and straight soldiers showering together.
• The disabled: Until 1990 and the passage of the Americans With Disabilities act, many people who used wheelchairs, crutches or had other mobility needs couldn’t use restrooms outside of the home, locking them out of participation in much of public life.
After reviewing this history, it makes sense that the trans-exclusionary laws are passing right now. Those who dominate the ranks of lawmakers (cisgender straight white men) are feeling challenged by yet another marginalized group asserting demands for equal treatment. They know it still works to use sexism and the meme of “protecting our women and girls” to claim that a situation that simply DOES NOT EXIST – trans women “invading” women’s bathrooms and harassing or assaulting cisgender females – is an actual or imminent risk.
While it can make one feel helpless to watch as these bills march across the legal landscape and pass with little opposition, there’s much we can do to turn the tide. We can state the facts, including the big one that there are NO recorded assaults by trans persons in public restrooms who tried to avoid prosecution by invoking a non-discrimination statute, as well as the fact that scores of trans people are murdered each year simply because their existence offends someone. We can participate in protective/allied campaigns, such as the #IllGoWithYou effort, which pairs up trans folk with allies willing to go with them into public restrooms and other gendered spaces.
We can also turn the “protection” rhetoric that our opponents are using on its head. These bathroom bills don’t protect cisgender women from predators. They protect those who need protection the least – perpetrators, anti-LGBTQ bashers, and cisgender men who feel it’s their right to determine the legitimacy of everyone else’s gender expression.
Our opponents are currently winning the bathroom battle because they are successfully selling an inverted image of power relations, in which members of dominant social groups are physically being threatened in public facilities, and marginalized groups such as trans people are powerful and threatening. Our community recognizes this as a lie. We will begin to reverse the stalled progress on this equality front when we’re able to take back the conversation from conservatives, and present a unified front that demands equal access for all in public accommodations.