What happens when a biological male who identifies as a female uses the women’s restroom?
The question is at the core of a struggle – and a suddenly intense debate – over the rights of transgender individuals. That battle transcends what happens in bathrooms, certainly, but the issue has prompted a wave of unnecessary fears and unnecessary laws, including North Carolina’s HB 2.
This week, the Obama administration tried to get in front of the clash, first with a Department of Justice lawsuit over HB 2, then on Friday with a letter to U.S. school districts ordering them to acknowledge and accommodate transgender students. The letter doesn’t carry the weight of law, but it does carry a big stick – the implied withholding of federal dollars from school districts that don’t abide by the administration’s guidelines.
That threat is sure to bring more heat to the bathroom debate, but eventually the decree should have the opposite effect. It will bring acceptance, as these measures do, by showing that the answer to what happens in bathrooms is a lot less fearsome than the question.
Republicans in North Carolina have made the most of those fears, framing HB 2 as a law that protects the safety and privacy of women and children. Those safety issues are political fiction – non-transgender men wouldn’t have been allowed in women’s bathrooms under the Charlotte ordinance that HB 2 killed, and the 200 or so cities with similar ordinances have had no incidents involving bathroom predators.
That leaves the issue of privacy and the oft-stated notion of women and girls sharing bathrooms and locker rooms with someone who has different genitalia. It’s an image that’s uncomfortable even for some who are sympathetic to the transgender cause.
The administration’s letter addresses that uneasiness head on, at least with regards to schools. The letter includes a 25-page attachment detailing “emerging practices” at U.S. districts that already are supporting transgender students. Along with policies on issues such as dress codes and transgender student records, the document provides examples of how districts address the privacy needs of all students in bathrooms and locker rooms.
In Washington state, guidelines urge schools to provide all students access to an alternative restroom or changing area. In New York, one principal determined that students could be given more privacy by having curtains installed alongside benches in locker rooms. In Kentucky, one district offered both curtains and private changing areas, plus separate changing schedules for students wanting privacy.
The measures follow a simple premise: Offer those who are uncomfortable a chance to be comfortable, but give choice to everyone instead of taking it away from some.
That Kentucky district and others have discovered something else that’s instructive, by the way: There have been no incidents involving locker rooms and bathrooms because of transgender policies. It is, eventually, a non-issue.
This is what the Obama administration nudged the rest of the country toward Friday. Yes, the thought of male genitalia in girls’ locker rooms – and vice versa – might be distressing to some. But the battle for equality has always been in part about overcoming discomfort – with blacks sharing facilities, with gays sharing marriage – then realizing that it was not nearly so awful as some people imagined.