Opinion: Paranoia Strikes Deep
As City Council LGBT protection vote nears, a reminder of the risk: nothing
The Charlotte City Council is expected next week to adopt a series of changes to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance that have driven people in this town full-goose nuts for about a year. The changes would simply add marital and familial status, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression to the characteristics already protected from discrimination in city contracting, public facilities, and taxis: race, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, and age.
But the debate here, as it’s been in other states and cities that have adopted similar changes, has centered on the nightmare prospect of a transgender woman using a public ladies’ room, thereby endangering or discomforting women and children. (There’d seem to be an equivalent threat of a transgender man using the men’s, but that’s for some reason perceived to be less of an issue.)
In December, the state of Washington adopted a new regulation that explicitly allows people to use public restrooms and locker rooms according to their gender identities. The predictable backlash, and arguments, ensued. So a Seattle-based independent news site decided to check with three states that have adopted similar measures.
Officials in Nevada, Oregon and Hawaii say that similar rules in the three states haven’t been linked to any crimes. Two cases cited by a Republican lawmaker as justification for the bill took place in Toronto, under rules different from those in Washington.
Soon after the Washington commission ruling last year, an uproar arose when Kitsap and Pierce County YMCAs notified their members that they would be complying with state law by allowing transgender people to use the locker rooms and shower facilities of their choice. At the time, critics warned the change would inevitably lead to abuse of the rules by men hoping to gain access to women’s locker rooms. Critics repeated the claims at public hearings for the bills in Olympia in recent weeks, at least two of which drew crowds that packed hearing rooms to capacity, and led lawmakers to limit the time for individual remarks.
Sexual assault, voyeurism and victimization of minors and the disabled were themes brought up repeatedly in the hearings. In many of the remarks, supporters of the bills said that protections extended to transgender people would inevitably be abused by men, who would claim to identify as women to gain access to women’s restrooms and shower and locker facilities.
Officials in three nearby states with similar protections in place, however, said they hadn’t heard of the rules being abused that way.
“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” said William Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. His organization oversees the protections in the state, and has been involved with public discussions and discussions with lawmakers about the issue repeatedly since the protections were enacted. In those discussions, he said categorically, he has never heard a specific instance of such a crime.
“I’ve never heard, even from opponents, a specific example of an instance of sexual assault” where the perpetrator claimed protection under the rules, Hoshijo said.
Hawaii has had rules protecting transgender bathroom access in place for 10 years.
Oregon has had similar rules in place for nine years. Charlie Burr, a spokesman for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, said the agency would have heard of complaints or crimes related to rights protections, and that it also hasn’t received or heard of any.
A Las Vegas police department spokesman said that the department has seen no rise in sex crimes relating to protections for transgender bathroom access since rules there went into place in 2011. The most recent check on the issue was performed in 2014, said the spokesman.
I doubt any of this will change anyone’s mind, any more than it would help to point out that the transgender population is miniscule or that voyeurism and sexual assault, regardless of location or gender identity of perpetrator, are crimes. Charlotte City Councilman Ed Driggs, a Republican who opposes the changes, unintentionally got to the heart of the opposition when the council discussed the ordinance last week.
“We can have all the conversations we want,” he said. “It’s going to look like window dressing unless you see serious negotiation on exactly how this works in such a way as to lessen the discomfort of people who feel that their privacy and safety could be compromised.”
It remains unclear how, short of not adopting the changes, council members could negotiate away people’s discomfort when they’re committed to it. Plenty of people were, and remain, uncomfortable with having to interact with members of a different ethnic group, but that’s hardly an excuse to make racial discrimination legal. That’s the whole point of civil rights laws. They exist because otherwise citizens would use their discomfort as license to discriminate.
It’s impossible to debunk paranoid fantasies, one reason why using them to deny people rights is a bad idea. “Why are we intervening when there doesn't need to be an intervention?,” Dr. Gabriel Rogers, who owns a Christian counseling center and opposes the changes, asked during a Don’t Do It Charlotte news conference last week. “Why are we causing a disruption when there is no disruption?” By “we,” Rogers was referring to the city officials who proposed the ordinance changes. He might better have asked the question of himself.