Anti-Transgender Bathroom Bills: Common Sense and Nonsense
March 25, Washington: It’s been a daunting year for transgender youth. Over the past three months, lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced bills to bar transgender students from using bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers that match their gender identity.
In state after state, fairness and common sense were prevailing. Bills targeting transgender youth have been halted or defeated in seven states since the beginning of 2016. Just this month, transgender youth, alongside many of their peers, confronted stereotypes and prejudice head-on in South Dakota and Tennessee - and won.
But yesterday, fear and prejudice won out over common sense. In North Carolina, lawmakers took only one day to introduce, pass, and sign a sweeping statewide law repealing non-discrimination ordinances protecting LGBT people and barring transgender people from shared facilities. Although the spotlight is on North Carolina this week, bills targeting transgender youth are also pending in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
Students themselves have explained why these bills are unnecessary and dangerous. In South Dakota, hundreds of students wrote to lawmakers to voice opposition to a discriminatory bill that would have limited access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers. They made clear that they did not feel threatened by inclusive spaces in their schools, and rejected the spurious arguments being made on their behalf by proponents of the bill. Governor David Daugaard ultimately vetoed the bill, expressing doubts about its necessity.
Days after the veto, advocates warned that opponents of transgender equality had set their sights on Tennessee, where a bill to restrict access to shared facilities was pending in both the House and Senate. Governor Bill Haslam voiced skepticism about the need for legislation, noting that local schools were making their own arrangements and that additional restrictions could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.
Nonetheless, in the first vote on the bill, a House subcommittee unanimously approved it for further consideration. Once again, transgender students stepped up and spoke out.
When the full committee convened this week, members explained that they’d heard from transgender students, doubted the bill addressed a real problem, and believed that local schools are best equipped to ensure that all students are able to access facilities safely and comfortably. In a surprising reversal, a member of the subcommittee who had initially approved the bill expressed doubt that it was necessary, and made a successful motion to send the bill off for further study rather than voting on it this year.
Unfortunately, opponents of transgender equality are lobbying hard to revive the bill in Tennessee. But the sensible approach that Governor Daugaard and the Tennessee House took this month is significant, and should send a clear message to other lawmakers considering similar proposals. When lawmakers look past sensationalist stereotypes and actually talk to students, it is clear that these unprecedented restrictions on shared facilities are unnecessary and would be stigmatizing and dangerous for transgender youth.
Proponents of these bills vaguely invoke privacy and safety as reasons for their draconian provisions. But the solutions being proposed do little to advance those legitimate interests, and in fact threaten to actively undermine them.
Lawmakers who invoke privacy tend to mean that some students may be uncomfortable around their transgender classmates. But restricting transgender students to facilities designated for their sex assigned at birth profoundly undermines their privacy to a far more important degree, especially when it outs them to students and staff who may not be aware that they are transgender. A more practical and rights-respecting solution would be to add stalls or curtains to shared spaces so that any student who wants that added degree of privacy could use those spaces.
As for safety, the “bathroom myth” that laws protecting transgender people facilitate assaults against women and girls is a dangerous stereotype that lacks any basis in fact. Currently, 17 states and 200 local governments prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations, without any of the problems that opponents of these protections dream up. What is well-established, however, is that transgender youth themselves are frequently harassed or even assaulted in bathrooms and locker rooms. Requiring them to use facilities where they may not be safe or comfortable doesn’t protect their peers, and only puts them in greater danger.
The rejection of discriminatory legislation in South Dakota and Tennessee demonstrates that cooler heads can prevail when baseless stereotypes are used to target transgender youth. Instead of rushing to pass needless restrictions, lawmakers should take their cue from peers who actually listened to students, put common sense first, and allowed local schools to make arrangements that advance the safety, privacy, and well-being of all our youth.
Ryan Thoreson, Bernstein Fellow