In the last few months several states, most notably North Carolina have enacted legislation that prevents transgender people from using the bathroom based on the gender they identify with. Instead, they must use the gender listed on their birth certificate.
North Carolina went even further, overturning an anti-discrimination ordinance passed in Charlotte a month beforehand and preventing municipalities from creating their own anti-discrimination policies. Instead the North Carolina legislature enacted a statewide anti-discrimination policy that just so happened to not mention gay or transgender people. The passage was completely partisan as Democrats walked out in protest.
More recently, President Obama directed public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom matching their gender identity. This builds on guidance issued by the Department of Education in 2014 that Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, also bars discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Allowing students to use the bathroom they identify with is a natural extension of this clarification. However, 11 states are suing the Obama administration for this directive, calling it “executive overreach”.
Opponents of the president’s actions claim that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom they identify with will be taken advantage of by sexual predators. They like to put forth the story that because of these guidelines men will be following girls into restrooms. The fact of the matter is that sexual assault and abuse is still illegal, they are in no way being sanctioned by these new rules. Those that attempt to commit these heinous acts will continue to do so regardless of whether transgender people are allowed to use the bathroom they identify with. It’s not like sexual predators are waiting for a government “green light” so that they can go into whichever bathroom they choose. The problems posed by bathrooms and sexual assault are the same with or without the transgender element and respective laws.
Besides this, these laws to a great degree have a very small practical effect on who is using which bathroom. Transgender people for the most part look like the gender they identify with, and no one is really going to stop them from using the bathroom if they look like they belong. There is no way a transgender bathroom ban can be enforced currently, unless some form of “bathroom police” are going to start checking everyone who uses a public restroom. Such an initiative really would be an invasion of privacy.
For the same reason, the president’s directive and announcements from stores like Target allowing people to use the bathroom they identify with don’t change very much. Some people are up in arms over these announcements, but by and large transgender people were using the bathrooms they identified with anyways. These actions are more symbolic than anything else, but that does not make them any less important. The president and others are really making a statement of support to the transgender community. The point of what some people are calling the latest “culture war” is to get a societal affirmation of transgender people and their identity.
This is very similar to the debate over same-sex marriage. Of course it was important that same-sex couples be afforded the same rights and benefits as other married couples. But they needed the actual word “marriage” because anything less than that would cast same-sex couples as second class citizens. Separate but equal is a doctrine that has failed time and again. The goal of the fight was to get our society to recognize the equality of worth of all relationships, not just “traditional” marriages.
Likewise, those fighting on behalf of the transgender community are simply striving to give them the acceptance in society that many take for granted and that they wholeheartedly deserve. Society always progresses. In the middle of the 20th century the fight was over the treatment of African-Americans. And now the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t believe we should have segregation or ban interracial marriages. In 50 years we likely won’t give same-sex couples a second thought; anyone still fighting against that is part of a losing battle.
There is no reason to suspect that in a generation or two we won’t be comfortable with transgender people using public restrooms. Chances are you won’t even encounter a transgender person in a bathroom, and if you do you won’t notice. This debate over transgenders and bathroom usage is the resistance that always accompanies social change. It is understandable if people are uncomfortable initially, or have concerns over how our definition of what gender is can change. However, discomfort and concern over change is present whenever there is meaningful progression in society. We didn’t let these concerns stop us with slavery, with women’s rights, with African-American rights, or any other time the dignity and equality of a section of society has been called into question. We dare not let it stop us now.
Jacob Kowalski is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.