Bathrooms a new battleground in US transgender rights debate

Number of states are planning to follow Texas’s lead on Thursday with ‘bathroom Bills’

Boosted by a failed effort in North Carolina to topple an anti-transgender "bathroom Bill", conservative lawmakers in otherUS states are redoubling their efforts to make bathrooms and locker-rooms the next political and cultural battleground.

In Texas on Thursday, legislators introduced a Bill similar to North Carolina's notorious law and said they were steeling themselves for the challenge of getting it passed amid fears of the possible economic consequences.

"We know it's going to be a tough fight. The forces of fear and misinformation will pull out all the stops, both in Texas and nationally," Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said at a press conference in Austin. "You can mark today as the day that Texas is drawing a line in the sand and saying 'no'. The privacy and safety of Texans is our first priority, not political correctness."

Transgender-rights advocates reacted with outrage and contended that the Bill is likely to bring the same turmoil that hit North Carolina last year and appeared to contribute to the election defeat of the governor who signed the measure into law, Pat McCrory. The state’s legislators considered repealing House Bill 2 in a special session just before Christmas but kept it on the books.


Despite the controversy, "bathroom Bills" have become a favourite cause of conservative Christian lawmakers. Six other states have introduced or pre-filed Bills restricting access to facilities based for their 2017 legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.

Virginia’s measure, proposed on Tuesday, echoes North Carolina’s. The state’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, pledged to veto it if it reaches his desk.

“Just as HB2 has hurt North Carolina, this proposal would harm our ongoing efforts to bring jobs to Virginia,” he said in a statement. On Thursday, McAuliffe said he signed an executive order banning the state from doing business with organisations that discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

If passed by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature later this year, Senate Bill 6 would require people in public buildings such as schools to use bathroom and locker-room facilities that comport with their “biological sex” stated on a birth certificate, with a limited number of possible exemptions, such as for privately-leased venues like stadiums.

The Bill also stops local governments from passing ordinances that prevent private businesses from deciding their own bathroom policies, or from denying contracts to companies based on such policies – effectively undercutting existing laws in cities including Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. It would increase penalties for crimes committed in bathrooms and changing rooms and would take effect in September.

The Texas Association of Business, the state’s chamber of commerce, released a report last year warning that the passage of a law such as Senate Bill 6 could see the Lone Star State’s economy lose from $964 million (€912 million) to $8.5 billion and as many as 185,000 jobs.

‘Fake news’

Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, appears unconcerned by his critics. He described them at the unveiling as peddling “fake news” about the Bill’s contents and potential impact. But the backlash against North Carolina’s House Bill 2 was genuine. Some businesses shelved investment plans and major sports events such as the 2017 NBA All-Star Game went elsewhere.

“If you look at all the states in the country that have the most robust economies, they are states almost without exception that do not allow men into ladies’ rooms. But many of the states at the bottom of the pile, where their economies are suffering, have different policies,” Patrick said, adding that North Carolina is “doing just fine”.

Patrick said that the rejection of a city-wide equal rights ordinance by Houston voters in 2015 showed that measures such as the new proposal enjoy popular support. That vote saw a wide-ranging anti-discrimination effort roundly defeated after opponents mounted a fearmongering campaign peddling the spurious notion that the ordinance would lead to a rash of attacks on women in bathrooms.

There is no evidence that the existence of non-discrimination policies that accommodate transgender people in cities across the US has led to an increase in sexual assault.

The Bill is authored by Patrick's fellow Republican, Lois Kolkhorst, a state senator from Brenham, near Houston. She told reporters that it is in part a riposte to the Obama administration's attempt last May to introduce new guidance to schools to accommodate transgender students, which was blocked last August by a federal court in Texas.

Kolkhorst described the federal guidelines as an “incredible policy shift” that shocked many Texans. Now, she said, “we are codifying the common decency the general public has always expected”.

Divisive laws

Despite claims that “bathroom Bills” increase safety by deterring male sexual predators from entering women’s facilities, opponents say that the real danger is an increase in violence against transgender people spurred by divisive laws.

“This Bill is judgment and is hateful. It is putting our lives in grave danger,” said Reagan White, a transgender woman.

“A true ‘privacy act’ would not ask a Texan about their private parts before they potty,” said Kimberly Shappley, the mother of a six-year-old transgender child in the Houston area. Shappley said that her daughter, Kai, already finds going to the bathroom at school to be stressful because school district policies do not let her use the girls’ facilities so she goes to the gender-neutral toilet in the nurse’s office.

“Every time [politicians] start pushing something like this it stirs fear and stirs hatred,” Shappley said.

Guardian service