Decades ago, when Americans imagined 2016, hopeful citizens visualized groovy innovations like widely available personal jetpacks, easily-accessible moon bases, and “futuristic” fashion trends that looked suspiciously like neon 1980’s clothing coated with Saran Wrap. So far, 2016 has brought us none of these delightful novelties, but it has delivered a series of depressing public bathroom wars.
Three weeks ago, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a now-infamous “bathroom bill,” a law that, among other things, restricts access to public restrooms based on the sex users were assigned at birth. The bill, which was cobbled together after 12 hours in an emergency session, came as a response to a Charlotte, N.C. ordinance that declared gender identity, not biological sex, as the standard-bearer for proper bathroom entry.
As you might have guessed, a flame war promptly ensued. PayPal, a company that happily does business in Singapore — a country that literally outlaws being gay — denounced North Carolina and loudly axed 400 new jobs in Charlotte. Deutsche Bank followed suit, killing its plans for 250 new jobs near Raleigh. According to theWall Street Journal, at least 100 other companies have expressed their disdain for the bill.
In protest, gravel-voiced “hard knocks” crabby man Bruce Springsteen, apparently trying to relive his own glory days, deep-sixed an upcoming concert in Greensboro. Meanwhile, Bryan Adams, a musician who doubles as a living 80s time capsule, righteously canceled a show in Mississippi–the state recently passed a similar law–a perhaps forgetting, due to his age, that he had recently played in gay-hostile Egypt.
The NC bill, to be fair, was something of a mess. This week, McCrory issued an executive order expanding the state’s equal employment policy to cover sexual orientation; he also asked the state legislature to amend a section dealing with citizens’ rights to sue in state court. But the controversial bathroom section — declaring that, when it came to public facilities, biological men at birth go into men’s room, biological women at birth go into the women’s — remained. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 13 other states are considering similar legislation.
Interviewed last week by the Wall Street Journal, McCrory seemed baffled at the bathroom backlash. “Who would’ve thought?” he said. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this.” Indeed, in a world where ISIS is expanding into Europe, ghost ships full of corpses are washing into Japan from North Korea, Hillary Clinton is proposing a $1 trillion tax increase, and people are still paying good money to see Bruce Springsteen, it seems ludicrous to obsess about bathrooms.
So why can’t we just live and let live? Bathroom law opponents “are crusading against a tiny minority that poses no real threat,” Jillian T. Weiss, a transgender rights lawyer and activist, wrote in Wednesday’s USA Today. In a way, she’s correct: Demonizing transgender people is unfair in any light. But Weiss also misses the bigger picture behind the bathroom brouhaha. It’s not a fight against people. It’s a fight about reality, and whether or not the government can dictate a certain version of it. Ultimately, it’s a fight about freedom of thought.
America’s burgeoning bathroom wars, so silly and banal on the surface, are actually quite deep: They fling together two conflicting, wildly incompatible streams of thought. On the transgender side, identity is everything. If gender is truly fluid, and yet truly knowable, then the denial of one’s gender identity is a hurtful denial of one’s very being or self.
This is also why the bathroom issue provides such a massive spark point: If the government agrees that trans men and women can access the bathrooms of their choice, they are officially validating the view that gender is no more than what you feel or believe it to be. They are ruling this view, in their own way, a fact — and if it’s a fact, can anyone really rightfully disagree?
Last week, novelist Ian McEwan learned the consequences of thought crime the hard way. “The self, like a consumer desirable, may be plucked from the shelves of a personal identity supermarket, a ready-to-wear little black number,” he told an audience. “Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think of people with penises as men.”
You can probably guess what happened next — and that McEwan was bullied into backtracking.
Unfortunately, the bathroom wars are likely just getting started. The Obama administration has already chosen sides.“This is a good illustration that the fight for civil rights is not over,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said of the North Carolina law. “The president, every time, is going to be on the side of equality and fairness and justice for every American.”
That sounds great, unless you’re an American with traditional views on gender, your kids are in a public school, and the girls’ locker room has just been declared a gender-fluid zone. Alas, my friend; you simply have the wrong thoughts. Sadly, in some cases, that’s when “equality and fairness and justice” don’t really apply.
Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work can be found at http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm