Texan Republicans weigh in on transgender bathroom debate
Safety issues raised after retailer Target allows use of facilities based on gender identity
Pushing for change: Some parts of Texas have already introduced gender-neutral bathroom policies with little opposition. Austin has enforced this rule for all premises with single-use facilities for more than a year. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Just weeks after North Carolina signed into law a provision banning transgender people from using bathrooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificate, Republicans in Texas have indicated that the state will provide the backdrop for the next chapter in this controversial debate.
With several months to go before the 85th Texas legislative session even begins, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, backed by a number of leading Texan Republicans, has focused his early efforts on Target, the retail giant which just announced it would permit transgender customers to “use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity”.
Target was the first national retailer to make such a move but it has met with opposition in a state which the supermarket chain counts in its top three for total sales and revenue.
Patrick said recently he would boycott any business that “allows men to use women’s bathrooms”.
“If Target wants to close all their stores in the state of Texas, I will go over and help them pack and help them leave,” said Republican Representative Matt Shaheen in an interview earlier this month. “I will die on this issue politically. I am going to bat for my wife and my daughters.”
This hardline attitude, campaigners say, is grounded in concerns over the safety of other users of public bathrooms, particularly children. “This issue is about the safety and privacy of women, children and everyone else using public bathrooms,” says Jonathan Saenz, president of conservative values advocates Texas Values. “A policy that allows people to use bathrooms based on how they feel, rather than their biological make-up, is too subjective and could be abused.
“Changing these rules will create confusion in an environment where people who want to harm little girls or boys will now have greater opportunity to do so.
“This isn’t about transgender people specifically,” he adds. “They are pushing for a change in the way bathrooms are viewed. And while we understand the transgender community may be sincere in their demands, government officials have given other options – such as providing gender-neutral single stalls with a lock – which they have rejected.”
“This was a specific ordinance driven by local people addressing local concerns,” says Daniel Williams from LGBT rights group Equality Texas. “I would hope the legislature wouldn’t attack local control.”
Williams believes people’s fears over calls to extend gender-neutral bathroom policies to multi-use facilities is misguided. “In the last year, public opinion in Texas on same-sex marriage has shifted: the majority now support an individual’s freedom to marry whomever they choose,” he says. “This means, by extension, the conservative line used suggesting same-sex marriage would somehow be a threat to children’s safety is no longer credible.
“So opponents of non-discrimination policies need a new tactic and they’ve settled on transgender people as the latest risk to our children. The old line was false and so is the new one. It’s the same approach used in the past to sell anti-immigrant policies, as well as the Jim Crow segregation laws. Telling people their children are in danger is a great way to get them to agree with you.”
Others see this issue as a distraction from bigger challenges currently facing the state. “We’re bracing ourselves for an ugly few months,” says Democratic Representative Celia Israel. “When you get a stinkbomb like this becoming a Bill, it harms relationships between people who need to work together on real issues. In Texas we have a school-funding crisis and a foster care system that is also in trouble. We have transportation gridlock in all our major cities.”
In the ongoing dispute between North Carolina and the US justice department, attorney general Loretta Lynch has said that federal civil rights laws barring discrimination on the basis of sex prohibit laws such as the one in North Carolina. Yet Bills similar to North Carolina’s provision have also been introduced, albeit unsuccessfully, elsewhere.
“ It’s ridiculous,” says Israel, “not to mention ironic, that the party that wants government out of our lives is calling for the introduction of a ‘potty police’”.