The Bathroom as Battleground
The public bathroom has become a battleground that is being waged across the nation. North Carolina’s HB2 bill, stipulating that individuals are required to the use the bathroom that coincides with the gender on their birth certificate, is highly controversial and hotly debated. Similar “bathroom bills” have been introduced by social conservatives in states such as Arizona, Maryland, Kentucky and Florida. As proponents of the legislation insist that such restrictions are critical to ensure female safety from sexual predators or peeping teenage boys, opponents cite these bills as repressive invalidations of the transgender population.
The bathroom as battleground, however, is nothing new; it is a place where people feel a heightened level of vulnerability and where change is often fiercely resisted. In the Jim Crow era, bathrooms—along with water fountains and lunch counters—were differentiated with ‘white only’ signs; and public facilities were at the center of women and handicapped workers fighting for equal treatment in the workplace.
As traditional gender beliefs are increasingly challenged, so too are researchers engaged in the questions that surround this controversial issue. Do the majority of Americans oppose or support transgender bathroom restrictions? Is the transgender population more inclined to violence than other individuals? In the states that have allowed bathroom use according to gender identity (as opposed to gender birth), has there been a rise in bathroom-related violence?
Protection of LGBTQ individuals in the workplace
Surveys by PRRI, the nonpartisan research organization, have helped to further illuminate these questions. While seventy-two percent of Americans favor laws protecting individuals of the LGBTQ community from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing, an overwhelming majority (80%) also assume incorrectly that there are currently federal laws in place protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in the workplace. It is, at the present time, legal to fire or refuse to hire LGBTQ Americans because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.
Transgender Individuals: Prone to Violence?
Thirty-five percent of Americans favor restrictions requiring transgender individuals to use bathrooms according to their gender at birth rather than their current gender identity. The most frequently cited argument in support of these restrictions is that they will curtail opportunities for sexual predators and molesters who would have increased access to female bathrooms.
Transgender People More Likely to be Victims than Perpetrators of Violence
This objection necessarily associates transgender access to bathrooms of gender identity with higher incidences of bathroom-specific violence. A recent study by RTI, however, has found no evidence that suggests LGBTQ individuals pose a greater threat to non-LGBTQ persons in public or in private spaces. “Numerous studies suggest that LGBTQ persons are more likely to be victims of various forms of violence and victimization, including physical and sexual assault, harassment, bullying, and hate crimes.” In fact, “LGBTQ persons experience violence and victimization in disproportionate numbers throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood.”
A survey of LGBTQ Americans by the Pew Research Center, produces complementary evidence, with 58% recording harassment due to sexual orientation or gender identity, and thirty percent having been threatened or physically attacked. A study from UCLA’s Williams Institute, details that nearly 70% of transgender people described incidences of verbal harassment in a situation involving gender-segregated bathrooms, while nearly 10% reported being physically assaulted. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) confirms that transgender Americans experience high levels of mistreatment, harassment and violence in every aspect of life. More than half (59%) of respondents in the USTS survey avoided using a public restroom because they were afraid of physical confrontations that they might experience.
Divergent Resolutions to the “Bathroom Bill” Controversy
States seek to affirm traditional gender-segregated bathroom facilities with access via birth sex
In the 2017 legislative session, state legislators in sixteen states have introduced legislation that would restrict transgender bathroom access to the gender-segregated facility that coincides with their birth.
States that have affirmed transgender rights to use bathroom that coincides with gender identity
Several states, school districts and corporations have adopted their own policies affirming transgender people’s right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Progressive media watchdog Media Matters called up the 17 largest school districts governed by such policies and asked them if they had experienced any incidents of bathroom-related harassment or inappropriate behavior by transgender students using facilities in accordance with their gender identity; all school districts reported no incidents to date.
HB 631 and Birth Certificate Modernization
Hawai’i, with House Bill 631, has recently joined six states and the District of Columbia which have adopted modernized birth certificate policies. HB 631 ensures that people born in Hawai’i can update the gender marker on their birth certificate with a letter from their physician. Previously, the Hawai’I Department of Health required proof of surgery before they would consent to a birth certificate modification. This ability to update one’s birth certificate enables transgender people to enroll in school, obtain employment, access other identity documents, and use the bathroom that coincides with both their identity and their birth certificate.
The Bathroom Battle Wages On….research continues to provide information on this controversial topic.
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