North Carolina’ recent “bathroom bill” is a classic example of legislation that creates a problem rather than solving one. Not only does it make life excruciatingly difficult for a vulnerable minority, it seems to decree general chaos. Among other stipulations about discrimination, House Bill 2 requires all transgender people to use bathroom facilities conforming to their birth gender, in contradiction to their chosen identity. It can only have explosive consequences in the real world since it gives transgenders who look and act like men no choice but to use women’s restrooms, and vice versa for women transgenders. To add insult to indignity, the bill would put police in the untenable position of having to examine people’s genitalia in order to enforce it.
The truth is that transgender people, a small minority that makes up about one-half of 1% of the population, have been using public bathrooms tied to their gender identity for years across the country with virtually no controversy or adverse effects. People in numerous communities have readily adjusted to the situation. Some 225 towns and cities in the U.S. have passed ordinances that forbid discrimination against gay and transgender people in such matters, not just in New York and California but in red states like Utah, Idaho, Indiana, and Texas. And many states have passed similar anti-discrimination laws.
Still, the swift passage of the North Carolina law indicates that transgenderism remains a volatile issue in some places, especially where big cultural divides exist. General unfamiliarity with the issue does not help. In North Carolina, polls show that a majority of the populace doesn’t even “fully understand what it means to be a transgender.”
Given the potential for confusion, the manipulators of fear have moved in to take advantage. They have framed the new law as a safety measure to protect women and children from bathroom interlopers and rapists. They portray tolerance of transexuals as a step too far, a form of catering to immoral lifestyles and capitulation to secular activists. These are the same folks who use religion to justify opposition to same-sex marriage and discrimination against gay people.
The major shaper of the North Carolina law and mentor to the Republican majority is an organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADL), a Christian Right legal group that crafts laws and lobbies for them in Republican-dominated state legislatures. Its mission statement indicates a biblical, socially conservative agenda: “To keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” The group, which comes with large financial resources and a network of paid and unpaid activists to support its efforts, has played a key role in the national anti-gay rights movement.
The North Carolina bill borrows heavily from language that ADL has specifically prepared for anti-transgender legislation. The language has served as a template for a number of states considering similar legislation, including Nevada, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Kentucky, although in each of those cases, the legislation was ultimately rejected. North Carolina has the dubious distinction of being the first state to pass a general bathroom-access law.
Along with the bill’s designers, Governor Pat McCrory must share plenty of blame for allowing it to pass. He might easily have followed the recent example of another Republican governor, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, who when faced with a similar bill (one having to do with bathrooms in public schools) met with a delegation of transgender people to hear their side. Daugaard then vetoed the legislation, stating that it “does not address any pressing issue.” Instead he encouraged local communities to find practical solutions.
McCrory, who was looking to bolster his re-election chances by catering to his party base, was not so deliberative. He signed it within hours of its passage. Even in the face of widespread outrage and opposition by the business community, McCrory roundly defended the bathroom-related part of the legislation, using the code words and rhetoric of those who wrote it.
After receiving three weeks of negative media coverage, McCrory, still unrepentant on the issue, is now calling for “dialogue.” But, as Chuck Todd pointed out in an interview on Meet the Press, where was the dialogue when the law was muscled through in the first place? Those who start wars are not in a strong position to call for disarmament.