The Growing War Over The Restroom Thing

Charlotte's non-discrimination skirmish last week was just one LGBT fight in a country battling over bathroom access
Logan Cyrus
A scene from the Don't Do It Charlotte rally outside the Government Center last week.

Something puzzled me and some other folks last week during the City Council debate over the non-discrimination ordinance: How nearly all of it centered on what I’ll refer to from here on as The Restroom Thing.

I understand some of it—the idea of a transgender woman peeing in the ladies’ room is deeply unsettling to the megachurch crowd—but if you attended or watched the March 2 meeting, you’d think that was the only change on the table. The proposed amendments were about far more than just that; they mainly involved adding gender identity to the list of protected classes in city contracting. So why was there so much pushback on The Restroom Thing, and why was so much of it so unhinged?

It wasn’t just a case of overactive imaginations. The City Council, knowingly or not, stepped into one of the American evangelical Right’s biggest causes célèbre, one that’s emerged only in the last year or so.

In that time, legislators in Texas and Florida have proposed bills that would criminalize the act of using a public restroom that doesn’t match the user’s gender at birth, thereby subjecting, say, a transgender woman who uses the ladies’ room to criminal prosecution. (“For the purpose of this section, the gender of an individual is the gender established at the individual’s birth or the gender established by the individual’s chromosomes,” in the redundant language of the Texas bill.) Another bill in Kentucky takes similar aim at school restrooms.

An Arizona-based advocacy non-profit called Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly the Alliance Defense Fund, is providing legal, financial, and other kinds of assistance to the lawmakers who’ve introduced these measures, as detailed in this Mother Jones report. The ADF has sent emails to school districts around the country encouraging them to adopt policies that prohibit students from using bathrooms that don’t match their birth genders, and advising them that ADF attorneys are prepared to take their cases pro bono if anyone challenges those policies in court.

Don’t Do It Charlotte, the coalition opposed to the Charlotte non-discrimination ordinance changes, asked for and received a legal memo from ADF. The memo advised that the proposed amendment “does not contain adequate safeguards for constitutionally protected speech and free exercise of religion” and would expose the city “to legal and fiscal liability,” presumably from the organization that produced the memo.

Reading over the ADF’s web site and documents, you get the distinct flavor of a band of believers who think their way of life—“religious freedom”—is under assault. Early this year, the organization published a free, downloadable handbook, “Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits: A Legal Guide for Churches, Christian Schools and Christian Ministries,” that outlines and frames the threat: “Those promoting these ordinances use public sympathy—gained through misleading rhetoric about ‘discrimination’—to silence dissenting voices. And no ministry will remain immune if they remain true to Scripture’s teachings about sexuality and gender.”

What’s really interesting, and troubling, is how some of the more off-the-wall perceived threats have turned into gospel everywhere the public restroom issue has arisen (from the Mother Jones piece):

Supporters have branded the bills as public safety and privacy measures, and often emphasize the hypothetical situation of men feigning a temporary gender swap to enter women's bathrooms or changing facilities. As Rep. Frank Artiles, the Miami Republican who's backing the Florida bill, told the Miami Herald, "A man such as myself can walk into the bathroom at LA Fitness while women are taking showers, changing, and simply walk in there…If I feel like a woman that day, I can be allowed to be in that locker room." Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Texas Republican, echoed that sentiment in a January Facebook post, saying her bill would protect bathroom-seeking women from "finding a man who feels like he is a woman that day."

That’s another puzzle resolved for me. Several speakers at the City Council meeting brought up this exact (and bizarre) scenario, that of a man deciding he’s a woman for just long enough to urinate in the ladies’ room, then mentally switching back to manhood. Some speakers seemed confused, too, about exactly what kind of public body they were speaking to, referring to the proposed ordinance changes as a “bill,” as if they were speaking to the Texas legislature.

And here’s a section of the ADF legal memo that was repeated nearly word for word before the City Council:

Not only are privacy concerns implicated, but the Ordinance may put women and girls at risk of voyeurism and assault. Laws allowing biological males to use facilities designated for women may be used by opportunistic, heterosexual sexual predators to gain easier access to women, teens, and girls. Sadly, this has happened in other communities that have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity. To give but two examples, a man in Los Angeles pretended to be a woman so he could secretly video-record women and girls as they used the toilet. When finally caught, he had hours of video of numerous unsuspecting women and girls. And a violent sexual predator pretended to identify as a woman so he could gain access to women’s shelters. Once accepted in the shelters, he sexually assaulted two women.

Several speakers before the Council and at the Don’t Do It Charlotte rally beforehand mentioned the involvement of the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington, D.C.-based LGBT advocacy organization that supported the ordinance changes. They neglected to mention that they had their own outside advocacy organization working on their behalf—one with assets in excess of $37 million and a brigade of 44 in-house attorneys willing to take on related cases for free.

If you were wondering about the size and nature of the wave that broke over the City Council debate last Monday, the ADF provides us with a glimpse. It’ll be back the next time this comes around, as we all know it will.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest