The United States has a long and storied history of invoking the purity and safety of (cis, white) women and children in defense of terrible things. The racial/sexual purity of white women was used to justify the murder of Black men and boys including, 14-year old Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered for saying “Bye baby” to a white woman while leaving a Mississippi store.
Similarly, the safety of children has consistently and successfully been used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. So much so that The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the depiction of gay men as a sexual threat to children as possibly “the single most potent weapon for stoking public fears about homosexuality.” The first organized opposition to the gay rights movement began as a political campaign against a city anti-discrimination ordinance in Miami (sound familiar, North Carolina?). The group, led by celebrity singer and former Florida Citrus spokeswoman Anita Bryant, called itself “Save Our Children.” Save Our Children regularly invoked fears of homosexual pedophilia in their campaigns and argued that the gay rights movement “endangers our children” and “threatens our homes.” They defeated the Miami anti-discrimination ordinance and went on to support efforts to repeal ordinances across the country. Anita Bryant went on to help lead the push for California’s Proposition 6 aka Brigg’s Initiative in 1978. The Initiative aimed to ban openly gay individuals from working in public schools, and require that any openly gay or gay-allied employees be fired. Brigg’s supporters argued that the law protected children from immorality and “perverts” implying and sometimes outright arguing that gay men were likely to sexually molest children. It was defeated, famously, with the help of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. The anti-gay junk science used to support these campaigns has long been debunked, but the claims still pop up. Their most recent iterations can be found in arguments against gay marriage and adoption.
The same kinds of fear-inducing arguments are being used to justify forbidding transgender people from accessing the public bathroom that matches their gender identity. In fact these trans-panic arguments are so powerful that they’re used even when anti-discrimination laws have nothing to do with bathrooms. A campaign to overturn a Houston anti-LGBTQ discrimination policy that didn’t address bathrooms dubbed it the “bathroom ordinance” and argued that it would allow male sexual predators to dress up like women and enter women’s bathrooms. Television ads featured black and white footage of women’s bathrooms, with voiceovers calling on viewer’s to “prevent danger” and “protect women’s privacy.” A follow-up ad, also in black and white, with foreboding music, shows a young white girl walking into a bathroom stall. She’s followed by a man dressed in a plaid dress shirt who opens the door to her stall. She looks up at him, scared, before the image cuts out. The re-framing worked. The anti-discrimination policy was overturned, and activists are attempting to harness the momentum to vote its supporters out of office.
No surprise then, that women and children’s safety were a regular feature in the statements of North Carolina Republicans pushing legislation to overturn a Charlotte ordinance ensuring bathroom access to trans people (the legislation did much more than that, Vox has the breakdown here). Governor Pat McCrory told The Charlotte Observer that the anti-discrimination policy could create “major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.”
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, praised the General Assembly for addressing the “the grave dangers of Charlotte’s harmful bathroom ordinance,” and recognizing “the harmful implications Charlotte’s bathroom ordinance would have had on North Carolina’s economy and the safety and privacy of women and children.”
Republican House Speaker Tim Moore offered his take on Charlotte’s bathroom ordinance in an interview with Raleigh’s News and Observer that’s a Sam Bee/Last Week Tonight segment waiting to happen:
“It’s a public safety issue where a person can identity or a man can identify himself as a woman even if he’s a registered sex offender, doesn’t matter, and can go inside a women’s restroom where he would be around women and children, makes no sense. It’s absolutely ludicrous. And why someone would pass that thinking that is somehow good policy. That is somebody trying to push an ultra left politically correct agenda in the face of common sense. I mean we all learned in kindergarten that guys go to the men’s room and gals go to the women’s’ room. And so why folks think they have to upend that to be politically correct makes no sense.”
And later, explaining popular support for HB2,
“North Carolinians have spoken loud and clear that they are deeply concerned about what this ordinance means for the safety and expectation of privacy for women and children.”
Like anti-LGBTQ activists before them, rather than framing their position as one of opposition to equality, proponents of HB2 frame anti-discrimination ordinances in terms of public safety. They do so in part by invoking the almighty threat of sex offenders, who face similarly oppressive laws based on similar debunked assumptions about the inherent threat they pose to women and children. As the history of gay rights suggests, this isn’t an accident, or the result of being ignorant about the consequences of bathroom access for trans people. They didn’t pass the law “because of an urban legend” as a Salon headline suggested. These accounts of anti-trans discrimination policies strategically undermine equality claims by reframing the issue at hand as one of safety. They place equality in opposition to safety, a concern that has historically had great success undermining equality (think internment camps, Save Our Children, everything Donald Trump says about Muslims).
The North Carolina law does allow trans people to use their bathroom of choice if they have gone through the arduous process of having their gender changed on their birth certificate. In North Carolina, this requires an individual to have undergone surgery and gotten a doctor’s note confirming the state of their genitals. Specifically, “a notarized statement from the physician who performed the sex reassignment surgery or from a physician licensed to practice medicine who has examined the individual and can certify that the person has undergone sex reassignment surgery.” But not all trans or gender-binary people want surgery, and many of those who do want it cannot afford it.
Of course women’s restrooms don’t need protective ordinances or birth certificate check points to become threatening places for trans women. But a formal prohibition can still further marginalize trans people and further discourage them from using public bathrooms (as if being in close-quarters with cis-people with who-knows-what level of tolerance for trans people wasn’t scary enough).
And just as in the case of gay panics, trans-panic arguments about bathroom safety have been debunked. In 2015, spokespeople for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign (admittedly pro-trans rights organizations) told Mic that there is no statistical evidence warranting protective bathroom legislation. In Texas, which considered it’s own bathroom bill, there have been no confirmed reports of trans people harassing cisgender people or of male predators “pretending” to be transgender to gain access to a women’s bathroom. Media Matters asked experts from states where pro-trans bathroom policies are on the books about the consequences of the law and were told that there were “No problems” (Las Vegas), that they had “not resulted in increase[d] sexual assault” (Hawaii), that there were “zero allegations” of bathroom sexual assault (Oregon), no increase in sex crimes associated with the law (Rhode Island), and according to a Minneapolis police spokesman, sexual assaults stemming from the law were “not even remotely” a problem.
There are significant logical flaws in HB2 proponents’ arguments. Even in the absence of anti-discrimination laws, there is nothing preventing sex offenders, who are purportedly unreformed violators of the law, from committing violent acts in women’s restrooms. Presumably someone plotting to attack a woman would be willing to violate regulations about bathroom use to do so. There is also no evidence to support the idea that self-identified men do, or would, enter women’s bathrooms, let alone do so to harm women, under Charlotte’s ordinance. The law also neglects to address the fact that some children are also trans, and that both their safety and privacy are threatened when they are forced to use the wrong bathroom. And a legislature that instituted a 24 hour waiting period and mandatory anti-abortion counseling for abortions suddenly defending women’s privacy is laughable. As is the argument that the state defends women privacy by requiring that some women have a doctor report on the state of their genitals so that they can fill out a form to change their birth certificate to enter a bathroom. But logic isn’t the point, changing the conversation to center claims and emotions that can compete with equality is.