Earlier this year, much of the debate over Charlotte’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance and House Bill 2 focused on a fear of men posing as women to enter women’s bathrooms.
But in recent weeks, people opposed to Charlotte’s ordinance and supporters of HB2 have focused on a more sensitive issue: Transgender women in women’s locker rooms and showers.
In a debate last week hosted by the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican, said: “Men should not be allowed in women’s showers.”
Charlotte’s ordinance that extended legal protections to the LGBT community has been voided by HB2. But how would the city have handled the issue of locker room access had the General Assembly not intervened? And how would any compromise over HB2 deal with locker rooms and showers moving forward?
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Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance would have prohibited discrimination in places of public accommodation, which includes stores, restaurants and bars. That would likely include for-profit health clubs and gyms.
The city of Charlotte’s interpretation of its ordinance is that it would not have allowed a man to change in a women’s locker room or a woman to change in a men’s locker room.
It would have allowed a transgender woman to use a women’s locker room and transgender man to use a men’s locker room – up to a point.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann has said the state’s indecent exposure laws remain in effect, and would prevent a transgender woman who still has male genitalia from showering with women or undressing in front of them. That person would need to use some sort of private changing area and showering area.
What if the health club or gym has only open showers and no private changing areas?
If it became an issue, Hagemann said, someone would have had to file a complaint with the city, and the Community Relations Committee would have “worked through a conciliation process to achieve an acceptable compromise.”
It’s unclear whether the health club would have been required to install semi-private or private areas.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the issue has been overblown.
“This is still a red herring,” she said, comparing it with the controversy over bathrooms. “There has never been a problem in Charlotte or N.C. There has never been a problem with locker rooms or bathrooms.”
She added: “I have been using a locker room for 20 years. I have changed and showered in women’s locker rooms.”
She said there are already laws in place to prevent the behavior that people are concerned about.
“You can’t be a peeping tom,” she said. “You can’t be a flasher. You can’t be a child molester. You can’t be a rapist.”
She said there is a movement nationwide toward more privacy in locker rooms, with more partitioned shower and changing areas. She said those spaces have made it easy for transgender men and women to change without anyone noticing.
At some Charlotte YMCAs, partitions and curtains have been added to showers, even before Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance became an issue.
There are, however, men’s and women’s locker rooms without private areas. It’s possible there are transgender individuals who have avoided them or decided to shower and change at home.
Keisling said she doesn’t think a lack of a private changing area would ever be an issue.
“There is no reason to think that suddenly, because a law is in place, that any real or hypothetical trans person is going to throw off their own modesty (and accompanying safety) and be an issue,” she said. “It hasn’t happened anywhere.”
She said a recent incident in Washington state in which a man entered a women’s locker room and began undressing was a political ploy.
Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Values Coalition said the city’s position doesn’t ease her concerns.
“The whole point is that girls and women have a constitutional right to privacy in a locker room; so do men,” she said. “The privacy and safety of all our children and for everyone are violated by laws like Charlotte’s bathroom ordinance.”
There is one area, however, in which the issue has become real: Public schools.
The Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance would not have impacted Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But the Obama administration’s recent announcement that school districts receiving federal funds accommodate transgender students has sparked an intense backlash.
The accommodation would include bathrooms and locker rooms.
Earlier this week, 11 states sued the federal government. They said the Obama administration “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over common-sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights.”
The flashpoint case in transgender rights was from Palantine, Ill. Three years ago, school officials told a a transgender girl student that she could use the girl’s bathroom, but would not be allowed in the girl’s locker room.
After the federal government investigated the case as a possible Title IX violation, the school agreed to install private changing areas inside the girl’s locker room. They would be used by the transgender student and for anyone else who wanted privacy.