It’s Not (Only) About Transgender: Bathroom Bills and the Politics of Fear

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost a column by Finn Enke, editor of Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, that first appeared April 2 on myhusbandbetty.com, about bathroom legislation and the climate of fear these bills produce.

In 2015, 21 different anti-trans bills were put before legislatures in over 12 states. In the first 3 months of 2016, politicians have brought us another 44 bills in still more states. Most of these bills focus on public facilities that are sex segregated; most criminalize transgender and nonbinary people for using public facilities; most suggest that these bills are necessary for the “safety” and “privacy” of “the public;” most include a definition of “sex” as that determined by birth assignment and confirmed by birth certificate, and chromosomes. Many focus on public schools. In their rhetorical conflation of transgender with perversion and predation, and in their legitimation of excessive surveillance, they disproportionately impact people who are already most targeted: trans and queer people of color, trans women generally, and nonbinary people.

Whether or not they pass, these bills produce a climate of fear and suspicion, and they have already contributed to an increase in violence in and around bathrooms.

As a white transgender person who doesn’t “pass” well in either bathroom, I am more nervous than ever every time I need to use a public restroom (roughly 1,500 times a year).

These bills don’t originate from public concern or from any documented problem, and protests against them show that many people aren’t buying it. After all, trans people have been around forever, and there is no record of any trans person harassing anyone in a bathroom, ever. Plus, the bills themselves are staggering in their fantasies that sex could simply be flashed at the door with the wave of a birth certificate. Most people know that these bills don’t make bathrooms safe and only marginalize trans people, even making it impossible for us to use any bathroom.Transfeminist Perpectivessm

We know we are political fodder. The GOP made a sudden “issue” out of our access to public facilities in order to galvanize a crumbling party. It wouldn’t be the first time the GOP has created a political platform around vilifying already-marginal communities. As John Ehrlichman explained in 1994, Nixon advisors designed the war on drugs in order to derail the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam Antiwar Movement. In the midst of the Cold War, the GOP also consolidated itself around anti-abortion platforms. And from the 1990s on, the GOP turned gay marriage into the fuel behind their campaigns rather than addressing economic and environmental crises.

But even more specifically, the rhetoric surrounding these bills relies on a very old trope of white women needing protection against sinister intruders. In Wisconsin during a 9 hour public hearing about its bathroom bill, we heard from quite a few men who didn’t want their daughter or granddaughter to be vulnerable to men preying on girls in the locker room. One said, for example, “we don’t allow exhibitionists and child molesters to hang out outside of school buildings, so how can we even be talking about letting them into girl’s locker rooms?”

North Carolina State Senator David Brock shared a similar concern in response to the state paying $42,000 for an emergency session to pass SB2 which criminalizes trans people for using public facilities: “you know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there.”

Or we can look at the campaigns against Houston Proposition 1 during 2015. Prop 1 was an Equal Rights Ordinance barring discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of gender identity as well as sex, race, disability and other protected statuses. These are rights that should already be guaranteed under the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and elaborated by Title IX and the American with Disabilities Act. Refusing to affirm these rights, those who opposed the bill claimed that the bill would allow men into women’s bathrooms. They created TV ads depicting large dark men intruding on white girls in bathroom stalls. They rhetorically turned a housing and employment nondiscrimination ordinance into a “bathroom bill,” and they succeeded; Prop One failed to pass.

And let’s not forget that the North Carolina bill also contains unchallenged sections that discriminate against workers and veterans. Against the more graphic iconography of predatory men in women’s bathrooms, the rights and workers and veterans are easily lost from view.

This is not the first time that demands for equality across race, sex and gender have been resisted with the claim that public accommodations will become spaces of unregulated danger against innocence. The face of the intruder may change slightly, but across centuries, the victim is ever and always a young white girl.

It’s also not the first time we have seen white women used in the service of sexist and racist and transphobic violence. Feminist historians have conclusively shown that the 19th and 20th c. trope of protecting young white womanhood was foremost about securing white masculinity, domesticity, and white supremacy.

Though they cause real violences, these bathroom bills are not primarily about transgender people or bathrooms. Nor have lawmakers, for all their concern about young girls being molested in bathrooms, shown similar concern about the most common forms of sexual violence and assault against girls and women (across race) that take place outside of bathrooms.

As mean as these bathroom bills are, something much larger is also at stake.  The North Carolina bill is designed primarily to strip the right of local municipalities to set their own anti-discrimination and protection laws.

We have lost all semblance of constitutional, democratic process.

These anti-trans tactics work because they succeed in directing fear away from the corporate demolition of democracy; they succeed by making people believe that the reason they are struggling and vulnerable is because some other group of people is dangerous and taking away something “we” worked hard to earn.

How, then, can we best address the fact that these bills increase everyone’s vulnerability and directly make the world less safe for people of color, people who are known or perceived to be trans, nonbinary, queer, or gender non-conforming?

While politicians vie for corporate favors at the expense of their constituents, and as more and more people struggle to maintain jobs, health, and life, we can still refuse to perpetuate hatred. Our only hope may be to refuse the rhetoric that pits people against each other. As politicians and corporations dismantle democracy, it is more crucial than ever to organize across race and class and ability, across queer and feminist and trans and straight; and to be brilliant in our resistance to cooptation.

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