The Unclean In the Bathroom
Charlotte's non-discrimination ordinance is back—this time with dialogue
Eleven months ago, 117 citizens from Charlotte and beyond packed the council chambers at the Government Center to alternately plead, harangue, prod, perform, excoriate, and urge the City Council to either adopt or vote down the additions of gay and transgender people to Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance. It was a show. Some public comments were touching, heartfelt. Others were insane. The council voted 6-5 against the changes, but here’s the salient point about the speakers: They were addressing the council, not each other.
So the city, in equal measures of hope and savviness, decided to hold a public forum last night not to touch off a repeat of last year but, with the help of the Community Building Initiative, to at least get the passionate members of the public to talk among themselves. The idea was born from “a belief in people’s infinite capacity to grow and learn,” City Manager Ron Carlee told me beforehand (Mayor Jennifer Roberts and four council members attended as well).
I know what some of you are thinking; what I thought, anyway. Oh, good. We’re going to engage in civic dialogue! Let’s break into small groups and talk it over. That’ll clarify things. That is, in fact, what happened. Underlying the exercise, which drew about 250 people to the Palmer Building, was everyone’s knowledge that the revised ordinance is a fait accompli; eight of 11 council members say they’ll vote for the changes this month. So what was the point?
It was hard to tell at first. City Attorney Bob Hagemann reviewed the history and context. Four members of XOXO Performance, a contemporary theatre group, did live readings of comments mostly taken from the March 2015 meeting, reflecting both sides of the debate. Then everyone was asked to turn their chairs around, form groups of eight or 10 people, and start talking. “What did these stories stir up in you?,” was one discussion question. “In terms of the non-discrimination ordinance, what’s at stake for you?,” was another.
The discussion that followed was, well, semi-enlightening. At least no one screamed at each other. In the 10-person group I saw with, the tensest moment came when Jonathan, a straight black man with five children and self-proclaimed “ambassador for Jesus,” asked if anyone in the group had kids. Several hands went up, including that of Pam, a gay white woman raising two children.
What, Jonathan wanted to know, do you tell your kids when they walk into a public bathroom and see that “something’s not right”—meaning, specifically, someone who looks like a man dressed as a woman. “Safety-wise,” Jonathan said, “what do you tell a child when someone’s in there who’s not supposed to be in there?”
“I tell my child not to think about people who are ‘supposed to be’ or ‘not supposed to be’ anywhere,” Pam responded.
“So you’re oblivious,” Jonathan said.
“No, I’m not oblivious.”
This was a case in which, clearly, no amount of dialogue was going to change anyone’s mind. To ask what you’re supposed to tell a child when they see someone in a public bathroom “who’s not supposed to be in there” assumes the rightness of making that “supposed to” judgment in the first place and, critically, codifying that judgment into law. That’s something else people on both sides of the debate, but especially the anti-revision side, have a hard time grasping: The gap between private morality and public legality, the absence of anyone’s constitutional right to protection from unease.
So often, in the discussion last year and last night, the objections on the anti-change side boiled down to matters of “feeling safe” or “feeling comfortable”; I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing my child to use the bathroom knowing that a transgender person might also be using the bathroom because who knows what that transgender person might be capable of? “I don’t know the mentality of a transgender person!,” Jonathan exclaimed at one point, apparently not registering that a transgender person, or any other, wouldn’t know his mentality, either.
Another woman in the group, a straight white mother named Lisa, framed the issue as a competition between threatened classes. “Which part of the population is more at risk?,” she asked—people who worry about sharing bathrooms and other public spaces with gay and transgender people, or gay and transgender people who worry about denial of access or, worse, assault from others who believe, like Jonathan, that they’re “not supposed to be in there”?
It seems like a fair enough assessment until you realize that Charlotte’s, or any other city’s, laws against discrimination in access to public facilities have never been about determining who poses how much of a risk to whom. What it boils down to is whether Charlotte can legally justify prohibiting that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin while continuing to tacitly allow it on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. City officials don’t think so; the courts don’t seem to think so, either. Once you grasp that—and the established criminality of sexual predation, regardless of the site or gender of either perpetrator or victim—the opposition doesn’t have any more logical reason to resist the changes than opponents of anti-miscegenation laws had to ban interracial marriage out of a desire to protect their women.
So did last night’s forum do any good? It’s doubtful that anyone left with a changed mind. At most, people left with the sense that their counterparts in the argument came by their positions honestly. The loud chatter in the hall during the small groups forced members of each group to lean toward each other to listen—a poignant gesture, if nothing else.
The City Council will discuss the ordinance during their dinner meeting next Monday and presumably vote to adopt it two weeks after that. They’ll be met by people carrying signs and raising hell during the public comment period, and a lot of people will leave angry.
And then, I suspect, it’ll die down, and parents will find some other threat to try to protect their children from. If the forum accomplished anything, perhaps it made a few people imagine a near future in which they or their children might encounter a woman in the ladies’ room who looks like she used to be a man, or a former woman in the men’s, and that they’ll have to find a way to live with that possibility. At least, unlike last year, they can’t say they weren’t warned.