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Transgender bathroom panic triumphs in Houston: The Duggar-level bigotry, fearmongering and lies that set Texas back

Misinformation about "men" in ladies room trumps civil rights, again


Mary Elizabeth Williams
November 4, 2015 9:27PM (UTC)

Damn, you almost made some progress there, Texas. Just last week, the Lone Star state sided with a transgender widow whose firefighter husband died in a blaze in an estate case — four years after a judge ruled she was not entitled her late husband's benefits. The state has a number of openly gay and lesbian public servants, including Houston mayor Annise Parker. But on Tuesday, the city's voters overwhelmingly rejected a gay and transgender anti-discrimination ordinance that Parker had supported by 61 percent to 39 percent. And they did it in large part thanks to a simple, idiotic, meaningless catchphrase: "No men in women’s bathrooms." 

As the Atlantic coherently explains, the bill aimed to "guarantee that Americans who just secured the right to marry would not face discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations. Many of the classes listed in the ordinance — race, sex, age, and religion, among others — are already protected under federal law, but sexual orientation and gender identity are not…. For supporters, the fall campaign featured a straightforward message about equality and inclusiveness. For opponents, it became all about bathrooms."

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Well, that sounds familiar. Remember just last year, when serial breeder Michelle Duggar successfully lobbied against a similar bill in Arkansas, warning that it "would allow men – yes, I said men – to use women’s and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping areas and other areas that are designated for females only"?

Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance was nicknamed HERO for short and officially called Proposition 1. But in the restroom panic leading up to election day, a group calling itself Campaign for Houston rolled out commercials referring to it more plainly as "Houston's Bathroom Ordinance." The spot ominously claimed that "Any man at any time could enter a woman's bathroom simply by claiming to a woman that day. No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom. And if a business tried to stop them, they could be fined."

Just to really scare you, the clip featured a little girl being followed into a restroom stall by a menacing pair of gender nonspecific sneakered feet. It cleverly ignored that Texas, like just about everyplace, already has existing disorderly conduct statutes that prohibit lewd public conduct, so if that was the true concern, you'd already be covered. And as both Mic and The Advocate reported earlier this year, "There has never been a verifiable reported instance of a trans person harassing a cisgender person, nor have there been any confirmed reports of male predators 'pretending' to be transgender to gain access to women's spaces and commit crimes against them." And Vincent Villano, the director of communications for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Mic that their organization has "not heard of a single instance of a transgender person harassing a non-transgender person in a public restroom."

That's not to say that public restrooms, transgender men and women, and sexual assault never make headlines. Three years ago, Chrissy Lee Polis, a transgender Baltimore woman, was beaten when she tried to enter a local McDonald's ladies room. In Washington, D.C., last year, a transgender woman reported being sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a Dupont Circle restaurant. In California in 2014, a trans male student reported being sexually assaulted by three boys in his high school's bathroom. And if you're super concerned about cis gender females being assaulted in public bathrooms, then please look at the real cases — like the Manhattan woman raped in a Gramercy bar last spring, by a man. Not a trans woman. A man.

Aside from the glaring and hateful ignorance of the bathroom panic trope, it blatantly ignores the fact that gender is a whole lot more than what you have between your legs, and what position you assume to pee. Transgender men and women are not eagerly vying for the fabulous toilets of an opposite gender, nor are they lurking around trying to prey on unsuspecting school children — they are just asking for equal and respectful accommodation appropriate to their authentic gender identities, across the board. That was what HERO was about. And it was shot down by what Mayor Parker calls a campaign of "fear mongering and deliberate lies."

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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