Alaina Kupec wept. She’s 46 and has worked at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals for the past 21 years. Before that, Kupec was an intelligence officer in the Navy. She’s also transgender.
The state she lives in, North Carolina, passed a bill on March 23 that legalizes discrimination against LGBT people in the state by repealing local non-discrimination protections, a decision that particularly targets trans residents. The Tar Heel State is hereby forcing trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth. Thus, trans women would, by law, have to use the men’s facilities. Otherwise they could potentially face being arrested or even put in jail. (The logistics around enforcement are fuzzy, at best.)
Kupec began transitioning three years ago, and views being transgender as a “very small part” of who she is. Those who meet her for the first time likely wouldn’t know that she was trans, unless she were to disclose that information. “Nobody mistakes me for anything other than being a woman,” she said. To use the men’s restroom would mean outing her and, thus, placing her in a potentially dangerous and deadly situation. (Recent statistics indicate that, since 2008, more than 2,000 transgender folks have been murdered worldwide.) Using the women’s room would be illegal.
Nonetheless, Kupec plans to defy the legislation—because she feels she has no other choice. “I don’t know if I could ever [use the men’s bathroom],” Ms. Kupec said, her voice breaking. “It brings tears to my eyes to even think about it.”
Rather than face what is an impossible decision, Julia Kreger, a trans woman who lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, said that many trans people may choose to get out of North Carolina altogether. “A lot of people are walking away from everything they have right now,” she said. “We have a number of friends that have already left, packed up their car with every possession not caring about their bills and just walking away.” She described houses left empty and abandoned, as if their occupants had simply vanished.
“If their goal is to remove trans people from society, they’re succeeding by spreading and selling this hate,” Kreger said. “They’re selling to people’s fears.”
In 2016, it seems that trans people are one of the very few “culture war” wedge issues that Republicans have left. A decades-long battle over same-sex marriage was decided by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote last June, thus ending the mid-2000s gravy buffet of exploiting the fear of wedded gay couples for votes.
As the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky writes, the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign was absurdly successful at “[getting] anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot.” Eleven states, many of which were “key swing states,” pushed laws that would add amendments to their state constitutions defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Every single one passed. In Ohio, the state often credited with deciding the election, the marriage ban helped drive evangelical voters to the polls—where George W. Bush, who won the state, registered significant gains among groups of voters who supported the ban.
It’s difficult to underestimate the potential impact of hate and fear. As MSNBC notes, nearly 20 million voters across the U.S. showed up to the polls to voice their opinions on the marriage issue. That traffic drove the 2004 elections to their highest turnout numbers since Nixon's victory in 1968. These so-called “values voters” comprised 22 percent of those who cast a ballot, according to a CBS News Exit Poll.
Just over a decade since that massive turnout, sentiment on gay marriage has turned. Following the landmark 2015 decision, 55 percent of Americans voiced their support for marriage equality in a Pew Research poll. Further polls have indicated that the public also widely supports gay adoptions (by a 20-point margin) and even more are in favor of workplace protections for LGBT people.
How did we come so far in such a short time? According to nearly every poll conducted on the subject, Americans become more favorable toward LGBT folks when they have a close friend, acquaintance, or relative that identifies as queer. Although we’ve widely credited the importance of media visibility in changing attitudes toward sexuality, much of that work has been done by LGBT people in their own lives—simply by coming out and being visible to those around them. Back in 2010, over three-quarters of Americans claimed to personally know a gay or lesbian person, and that number is likely much higher today. A 2014 poll in the U.K. showed that the average British person knows eight queer people.
What makes trans people more exploitable, in contrast, is that outside of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, larger numbers of Americans say that they don’t know a transgender person. As of last year, the oft-cited statistic is that just one in 10 people report knowing someone who is out as trans. That lack of familiarity with transgender people makes it easier to think of them as perverts, pedophiles or predators.
Across the United States, conservatives have been successfully peddling the idea that transgender folks pose a threat to others in public spaces—particularly restroom facilities. In 2015, a non-discrimination ordinance was voted down in Houston by right-wing opponents who claimed it would be a boon to sex criminals. Lance Berkman, a former player for the Astros and New York Yankees, condemned the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in a television spot. “My wife and I have four daughters,” Berkman said. “Proposition 1 would allow troubled men who claim to be women to enter women’s bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms.”
This conservative meme of “men in women’s restrooms” has been a staple of anti-trans bathroom legislation, and despite frequent debunking, it has stuck. In defense of his state’s decision, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory used the same logic.
Brynn Tannehill, who lives in Springfield, Virginia with her wife and three children, noted that she’s even heard these myths repeated by friends. A couple of weeks ago, a couple she knows in North Carolina sent their daughter to her home to spend Spring Break with their family. When dropping her off, the subject of HB 2 came up. Tannehill was surprised to find out that they supported it. “Well, we’re not worried about you,” the couple told her. “We know you. There are people who want to do these horrible things.” Tannehill said, “That blew my mind.”
These interactions, while painful, give trans people the power to speak back to prejudice through the power of lived experience. For transgender folks, a public restroom can be a scary and life-threatening place, and many people have a history of negative experiences.
Erica Lachowitz, who lives in Charlotte, was once cornered by a group of men while using the bathroom at a nightclub in New York. “I said, ‘Fuck, what am I going to do?’” she recalls. “This is it. You’re scared. Your palms are sweaty. Your anxiety is high. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.” The only thing that saved Lachowitz from being beaten is that one member of their group intervened, telling them that hurting her wasn’t worth it.
The incident took place over a decade ago, but that close call still haunts her. “That PTSD that happens from those memories, you relive that,” she said.
Although North Carolina’s law is the most severe anti-trans bill that has been passed, it’s far from the only U.S. state that’s attempting to police how trans people pee. Currently, 14 other anti-trans bills are under consideration by state legislatures across the country. These states include Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Massachusetts.
However, a recent bill in South Dakota that specifically targeted trans students was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor, Dennis Daugaard. The bill would have forced middle- and high-schoolers to use the restroom that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth. When the legislation initially crossed his desk, Daugaard claimed that he didn’t know a trans person, but in considering the bill, that changed. He met many of the students who would have been affected.
“I heard their personal stories,” Daugaard told South Dakota Public Radio. “And so I saw things through their eyes in that sense. I had read other personal stories. Certainly I'm getting personal stories through the emails, and through what I read in the paper.”
If there’s a silver lining in America’s wave of anti-trans hate, it’s that increasing numbers of Americans are getting the chance to do the same: having their views of trans people challenged through the simple act of getting to know them. Recent surveys from the Human Rights Campaign indicate that a record number of Americans now know a transgender person: 35 percent.
“Of those who said they personally know a transgender person, a majority knew two or more people who are transgender, and 44 percent knew at least three,” the HRC reports.
That’s a huge increase that’s paying major dividends in the fight for trans acceptance: In a separate survey from the nationwide LGBT non-profit, two-thirds of those who say that they personally know someone who is transgender report being more favorable toward trans people. There’s already widespread evidence that society is inching toward progress: After Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender last year, musicians like Snoop Dogg and Timbaland both willfully misgendered the former Olympian on Twitter. Due to enormous backlash from their followers, both issued swift apologies.
Exploiting the fears of the American public might have worked in North Carolina and Mississippi, which recently passed its own law allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT people on the basis of faith. However, as increasing numbers of trans people come out and give their friends, family members, and co-workers a chance to know them, these tactics are likely to have diminishing returns—just as they did in the mid-aughts gay marriage battle.