Everything you’ve been told about the war on women is a lie—at least, according to one Republican legislator.
Wisconsin House Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) claimed that the biggest danger facing women and girls today isn’t the right-wing attack on their reproductive rights; it’s being forced to use the restroom with transgender people. In a press release, Kremer argued that nondiscrimination laws which allow trans folks to use the restroom that correspond with their gender identity are a “safety concern.” “Progressive activists have finally blatantly, and unintentionally, unveiled their real war on women,” Kremer wrote. “In an attempt to appease a few individuals, these extremists have overplayed their hand and we, as citizens, must stand up to their intolerance and bigotry.”
That’s why Kremer plans to reintroduce a bill in the Wisconsin legislature that would force trans people to use the public facilities that match with the sex they were assigned at birth. Last year, the lawmaker drafted a proposal, known as Assembly Bill 469 (or the “Student Privacy Protection Bill”), that would have designated school bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas as specific to those assigned the same gender at birth. As Wisconsin Public Radio reports, Kremer’s prospective regulations “never made it out of a legislative committee.”
Apparently, that earlier bill didn’t go far enough — following the passage of House Bill 2 in North Carolina, Kremer believes the time is right to introduce statewide legislation, which would ban trans people from using all public bathrooms that most closely correspond with their gender identity. North Carolina's HB 2, signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory on March 23, struck down local nondiscrimination ordinances across the state, which provided equal access in all public accommodations, including restaurants, museums, and public facilities. Kremer commented that he is “proud” of North Carolina for “[taking] a stand for what they believe in” and believes that other lawmakers in Wisconsin will be emboldened by their courage. “This North Carolina law has taken the blinders off for a lot of people,” Kremer told WITI, Green Bay’s local Fox affiliate.
Such a law might seem unthinkable outside the South, where the lion’s share of anti-LGBT legislation has been passed. In addition to the Tar Heel State, Mississippi passed a “religious freedom” bill in April that gave businesses the green light to discriminate against customers based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, Oxford, Alabama passed what many believe is the “most terrifying” law targeting transgender individuals. Under the city’s new ordinance—which was approved on April 27—a transgender woman could be fined up to $500 for using the women’s facilities.
But while former Confederate states might be leading the way in hate, anti-trans bills are in no way solely a Southern phenomenon: In April, FiveThirtyEight reported that six other states—in addition to Wisconsin—were considering their own version of the North Carolina bathroom legislation. These included Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee, only two of which are in the South. On Friday, the Kansas City Star reported that protesters gathered on steps of the Capitol building to condemn the state’s legislation. If passed, Kansas' House Bill 2737 would allow students to file a $2,500 lawsuit against schools or universities if they catch a trans person using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. LGBT advocates say HB 2737 effectively places a bounty on trans students’ heads.
Kansas, where Republican Sam Brownback sits in the governor’s chair, is a Red State, but Illinois has gone Blue the previous two elections. (Its current governor, Bruce Rauner, broke the trend.) In the Prairie State, Thomas Morrison (R-Palatine) introduced a bill in January that was markedly similar to the one in Kansas—but without the threat of a fine attached. Illinois House Bill 4474, also known as the “Child Privacy Act,” would compel the state’s schools to “designate each pupil restroom, changing room, or overnight facility accessible by multiple pupils simultaneously, whether located in a public school building or located in a facility utilized by the school for a school-sponsored activity, for the exclusive use of pupils of only one sex.”
HB 4474 faces an uphill battle in the Illinois Congress, where both houses are controlled by Democrats, but Wisconsin is in a unique position to pass their anti-trans bill. Although the Badger State is solidly purple, with a 2015 Gallup poll finding Wisconsin to be one of the “most evenly balanced states politically,” its legislature is anything but balanced. Following Gov. Scott Walker’s election in 2010, the state’s Congress has become dominated by Republicans. This puts Wisconsin in a unique position to become the next North Carolina, should Kremer finally draft a bill that sneaks its way out of committee.
Another factor that separates Wisconsin from its neighbor to the south is that Illinois has nondiscrimination protections on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. The Badger State, however, is a mixed bag on that front. In 1982, the state’s Republican governor, Lee S. Dreyfus, made the landmark decision to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas like housing and employment, making Wisconsin the first state to do do. “It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party,” Dreyfus argued, “that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love.” Unfortunately, the state has yet to extend the same courtesy to its transgender residents.
Overall, Wisconsin scores very poorly on trans issues. In 2015, the website Refinery29 ranked it among the worst U.S. states for transgender individuals, despite some notable bright spots. Gypsy Vered Meltzer became the first openly trans politician to hold public office in Wisconsin, after being elected to serve on the Appleton City Council in 2014. That victory, however, masks an ugly blind spot when it comes to the state’s transgender population. In 2002, Wisconsin passed hate crime laws that designated lesbians, gays, and bisexuals as a protected class, and the year prior, the state took a stand against bullying students on the basis of sexual orientation. However, gender identity was not mentioned in either piece of legislation.
As trans writer and activist Parker Molloy explains, there’s more to the story. “In 2005, [Wisconsin] passed a statute that would deny hormone replacement therapy to transgender prisoners, titled the Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act,” Molloy wrote on her personal blog back in 2013. “This law was struck down in 2011 by the Seventh Circuit Appeals court on the grounds that denial of necessary medical treatment—as hormone replacement therapy is classified by most major medical organizations—is a violation of the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state, under Scott Walker’s control, defended the law, requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court consider the case. Their request was denied.”
Since then, Wisconsin has arguably become even more hostile to transgender protections. Although cities like Appleton, Madison, and Milwaukee have passed trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances at the local level, the Human Rights Campaign reports that there’s been a recent wave of “bad bills” targeting the LGBT community, as the state’s legislature has shifted to the right.
Walker himself has not taken a stand on the recent bathroom bill, although there are signs he wouldn’t stand in its way. According to the Associated Press, Walker “said in October that he thought there should be clarity in the law on the issue.” Meanwhile, the governor told Newsmax TV that he thought the military’s ban on allowing trans people to serve openly is a good idea, one that the Pentagon announced last year it was in the process of lifting.
In his press release, Jesse Kremer noted that the cards are stacked in his favor in Wisconsin. “With a Republican legislature and governor, there is absolutely no reason that we should not act to protect the rights of women in this state,” Kremer said. “I, for one, will continue fighting to put a stop to this madness and legally enshrine social boundaries to protect our women and girls.” He noted that the timing for action on the issue is particularly good: In April, Target announced that it would be providing affirming restroom access for trans customers and employees at all the big box chain’s locations. Since that announcement, a reported 1.1 million have signed an American Family Association petition threatening to boycott the store.
But in attempting to make Wisconsin the next North Carolina, Kremer is ignoring many of the lessons of the HB 2 debacle. The bill has been a financial disaster for the Tar Heel State: Since the passage of North Carolina’s anti-trans bill, over 160 companies have boycotted the state. PayPal famously yanked a planned $3.6 million expansion in Charlotte, which would have added 400 jobs to the state; Deutsche Bank followed suit. Meanwhile, The New Civil Rights Movement reports that a yearly conference “representing nearly 1700 companies” chose to relocate from Durham, North Carolina, causing an estimated $1 million loss in revenue. The companies, which include Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Etsy, have pledged to rethink their decision if Gov. Pat McCrory repeals HB 2 by June 30.
Republicans like Jesse Kremer might believe that trans activists are declaring a war on women, but by tempting yet another business boycott, he’s declaring war on the people of Wisconsin.